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"For professional historians—and especially for those dealing with the events of the early modern and modern world and with the progress of technical advances most of the latest book by Daniel R. Headrick might seem like a comforting walk through a very familiar landscape. The road's main twists come as no surprise, but it is good to see them yet again, surveyed with a macroscopic perspective that captures all important features and, here and there, highlights interesting details."—Vaclav Smil, American Historical Review
"Daniel R. Headrick is right to think that insufficient attention has been paid to how technological change and environment shape imperialism, and his work is an excellent attempt to remedy that deficiency."—Peter Cain, The Historian
"This is an interesting, clearly-written, and well-researched book. In an era of academic specialization, it is also attractive for its willingness to tackle one of the largest and oldest questions of world history. While technology is the theme, the author carefully frames and qualifies his argument so as to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism. While this book should find a place in courses on economic history, the history of technology, and the economics of imperialism, its accessibility should also make it attractive to the reading public."—Robert E. Prasch, Journal of Economic Issues
"Headrick provides a magisterial and highly readable survey. . . . The work is perhaps most eye-opening in describing conflict in regions often left out of more sweeping accounts—colonial expansion in sub-Saharan west Africa or Algeria, or conflict in southern Latin America. . . . [T]his book will enable [historians] to understand the place of technology in broader narratives of change all the more effectively."—Paul Warde, Cultural and Social History
"[T]his is a major contribution from an important academic built on decades of experience. I am a better scholar for having read it, and chances are that you will be too."—James Daschuk, Environmental History Journal
On September 8, 1522, a small ship, the Victoria, berthed at the Spanish port of Seville. The next day, its eighteen weakened and bedraggled crew members walked barefoot, clad only in their shirts and carrying long candles, to the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria to give thanks for their safe return. Theirs was the first ship to sail around the world. Their arrival marked a milestone in the long struggle to master the seas and oceans of the world.
For centuries, ambitious and adventurous Europeans had sought ways to escape the narrow confines of their subcontinent. Rumors of mythical lands-Guinea, the land of gold, the fabled isle of Antilia, the kingdom of Prester John, and Marco Polo's empire of the Great Khan-enticed them with dreams of conquest, fame, and riches. Yet they were blocked to the south by Arabs and to the east by Turks, hostile Muslim states that barred the way to the world beyond. Earlier attempts to break out of Europe by way of the eastern Mediterranean-the Crusades-had failed. That left only one way out: the North Atlantic Ocean beyond the coastal waters of Europe. In this chapter we will recount the story of the navigators and the ships, as well as the knowledge of navigation and geography with which they mastered this vast and dangerous new environment, and leave their encounters with other peoples to later chapters.
Five Seafaring Traditions
People had navigated the oceans long before the sixteenth century. Coastal residents everywhere had built boats and devised techniques of navigation suited to the specific maritime environment on whose shores they lived, some bold mariners venturing out of sight of land for days or weeks at a time. During those centuries, five great maritime traditions evolved.
Among the great seafaring traditions, that of the Polynesians surely ranks first. Captain James Cook, the first European to thoroughly explore the Pacific Ocean in the eighteenth century, remarked of them: "It is extraordinary that the same Nation could have spread themselves over all the isles of this Vast Ocean from New Zealand to this [Easter] Island which is almost a fourth part of the circumference of the Globe." Thirty-five hundred years before Cook, the Lapita people, ancestors of the Polynesians, had sailed from the Bismarck Archipelago to Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a distance of over a thousand miles. By 1300 BCE they had reached Fiji and two hundred years later, Tonga and Samoa. In the first centuries CE they reached the Marquesas and Society Islands; by the fifth century, they were in Easter Island, six thousand miles from the Bismarcks; by the eighth century, they had settled Hawaii and New Zealand.
Pacific islanders conquered the ocean in open, double-hulled dugout canoes. Again, Captain Cook: "In these Proes or Pahee's as they call them from all accounts we can learn, these people sail in those seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night." Their craft may have been simple, but their skills were nothing short of astounding. They sailed for weeks out of sight of land without instruments, navigating by the position of the sun and stars and by the feel of long ocean swells. Long before they spotted land, they could sense its presence over the horizon by watching the flight of birds that roosted on land and flew out to sea during the day to catch fish. They could also read the color of the clouds; if the underside of a cloud appeared green, it meant there was an island below it.
Though Polynesians reached a third of the way around the world, their craft and skills were limited to the tropics. Near the equator, the stars travel directly overhead rather than at an angle to the horizon as they do in the temperate zones, making star-sighting more reliable. In the Pacific, the trade winds blow from east to west during most of the year, but unlike in the Atlantic, they reverse themselves briefly in December and January. By carefully choosing the date of their departure, mariners could rely on winds to bring them home, should they fail to find land. Their techniques would not have served them in the temperate zone, nor could their sailors have survived cold climates in open boats. Finally, their craft, though suitable for long exploration voyages, were too small to carry much cargo. Once they had discovered and settled all the inhabitable islands from New Zealand to Hawaii, they lost the motivation to continue long-distance voyages. By the fifteenth century, their travels were almost entirely local, and the outlying islands-Hawaii, Easter, New Zealand, and the Chathams-became isolated from the rest of Polynesia.
As a highway of trade, the Indian Ocean was far more important than the Pacific. North of the equator, the monsoon winds follow a regular pattern. From November through April, when the Asian landmass is cold, cool, dry air flows south and west toward the Indian Ocean. Between June and November, the continent warms up, causing air to rise, sucking in winds from the ocean that bring "monsoon" rains. This alternation made sailing predictable and relatively safe. South of the equator, the situation is very different. In this region, the trade winds blow from east to west, but with many storms, and sailing ships avoided it.
Seafaring between Arabia and India dates back thousands of years. Before the fifteenth century, mariners from Persia, Arabia, and Gujarat in northwestern India regularly sailed throughout the Indian Ocean and as far as China and Korea. Their ships, called dhows, were of a construction unique to the Indian Ocean. Their planks, made of teak from southern India, were laid edge to edge and sewn together with coconut fibers, with ribs inserted into the finished hull to strengthen it. There was no deck, so cargo was protected with palm-leaf thatch or leather. This form of construction was light, inexpensive, and flexible and could be repaired at sea. It served well, and still serves, for small ships up to two hundred tons, but was not strong enough for larger ships.
Dhows were equipped with triangular lateen sails. These sails, held up by a long boom attached to a mast with a pronounced forward rake, could be trimmed to suit different winds and could sail much closer to the wind than square sails. Because the boom was longer than the mast that supported it, however, it had to be taken down in order to be shifted from one side to the other. Hence sailing against the wind by tacking, or zigzagging, was difficult and dangerous. It was also unnecessary, for Indian, Persian, and Arabian mariners, well acquainted with this seasonal pattern since ancient times, knew to wait patiently for a favorable wind. Once at sea, they navigated by the stars like the Polynesians; as the Qu'ran says: "He it is who hath appointed for you the stars, that ye guide yourself thereby in the darkness of land and sea. We have made the signs distinct for the people that have knowledge." Versatile as dhows were north of the equator, they were ill equipped to sail south of Zanzibar on the East African coast, where winds were much stronger and more erratic than in the monsoon region, and where the North Star was no longer visible above the horizon. Sailing beyond Mozambique (fifteen degrees south) was both dangerous and commercially unattractive.
In the early thirteenth century, mariners adopted the magnetic compass. They also used an instrument called kamal, a string tied to the middle of a piece of wood. The navigator held the stick in such a way that one end seemed to touch the horizon and the other the North Star, while gripping the other end of the string with his teeth. By the length of string between the stick and his face, he could estimate the angle of the star above the horizon, hence his latitude. Sailing manuals helped captains and pilots navigate safely; among the best known were the Greek Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in the first century CE, and the Kitab al-Fawa'id fi Usul 'llm al-Bahr wa'l-Qawa'id (Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation) of Ahmad ibn Majid, written in 1489-90, which served sailors well into the nineteenth century.
In the age of sailing ships, the winds largely determined the patterns of trade. Ships arriving from China and Southeast Asia, on the one hand, or from East Africa and the Middle East, on the other, unloaded their merchandise in South Indian ports, loaded up with Indian goods, and sailed home when the monsoon changed. Rather than keeping ships at anchor for months awaiting a change in the wind, merchants shipping pepper and spices between Southeast Asia and the Middle East preferred to store their goods in warehouses. As goods traveled in stages in different bottoms rather than all the way in the same ship, the ports of the Malabar coast of South India, especially Calicut, became the great entrepôts of the Indian Ocean.
The same was true of the trade between China and India. Since the early fifteenth century, the main entrepôt on the Malay coast was Melaka, where Chinese junks exchanged cargoes with Indian or Arab dhows. At the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Hormuz served the same function. Hormuz, Calicut, Malacca, and several lesser ports were the nodes of the great Indian Ocean trading network. From the eighth century on, trade was largely in the hands of Muslims, for most Hindus shunned ocean travel. It is through largely peaceful trade and the persuasive efforts of traders that Islam spread throughout the lands bordering the Indian Ocean. Land warfare was common throughout the region, but warships and naval battles were rare in the Indian Ocean before 1497, though piracy was endemic in Malay waters.
The third great seafaring tradition was that of China. For several thousand years the Chinese had navigated their coastal waters and nearby seas, but until the Song dynasty (960-1279), trade with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean was carried in foreign bottoms. After 1127, when northern China was conquered by warriors from Central Asia, Chinese merchants living south of the Yangzi turned to long-distance trade, regularly sending ships to Southeast Asia, the East Indies, and India; some may have ventured as far as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Once the Chinese had entered long-distance trade, even foreign merchants preferred to travel in Chinese ships.
Under the Song, seafaring was left to private enterprise, for the rulers were more concerned with their northern land frontiers than with the sea. This changed with the Mongols, who defeated the Song and founded the Yuan dynasty in 1266. The emperor Kublai Khan is said to have built 4,400 ships with which he hoped to conquer Japan. The Ming, who overthrew the Mongols in 1368, built several thousand warships and merchant vessels. In the early fifteenth century the shipyards of Longjiang, near Nanjing, employed between twenty and thirty thousand workers. Throughout this period, China had by far the largest navy and merchant marine in the world.
Oceangoing Chinese ships, called junks, were not only numerous, they were also much bigger and more stoutly constructed than the modest vessels of the Indian Ocean. They were built with a flat bottom for shallow waters, a keel that could be lowered at sea, and a stern-post rudder. Planks were attached with iron nails to watertight bulkheads and caulked with resin and vegetable fibers to form a watertight hull. Their three to twelve masts carried sails made of canvas or bamboo matting able to withstand gale-force winds. They could carry up to one thousand crew members and passengers and over a thousand tons of cargo.
Until the late fifteenth century, Chinese navigation was far ahead of the rest of the world. Chinese ships, like those of the Indian Ocean, sailed with the monsoons, south in the winter and north in the summer. Their captains had maps and star charts and could calculate their latitude from the angle of the stars above the horizon. They used the magnetic compass as early as the late eleventh century, a century before it reached the Middle East or Europe. As a Chinese text written in the early twelfth century explained: "The ship's pilots are acquainted with the configuration of the coasts; at night they steer by the stars, and in the daytime by the sun. In dark weather they look at the south-pointing needle."
In 1405 Zhu Di, the Yongle emperor, sent a fleet of 317 ships carrying twenty-seven thousand men under the command of Admiral Zheng He to Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. The largest ships in the fleet were approximately four hundred feet long, almost five times the length of Christopher Columbus's Santa María. These "treasure ships" carried silk, porcelain, and ceremonial and household goods as trade items and as gifts to foreign rulers. They were accompanied by warships, troop transports, horse transports, supply ships, and water tankers.
This was only the first of seven great fleets that China sent out in the early fifteenth century. These expeditions visited Vietnam and Indonesia, India and Ceylon, southern Arabia, and several ports in East Africa. They concluded treaties of trade and tribute with the places they visited and, in some cases, overthrew or captured recalcitrant rulers. Along with the usual trade goods, they brought back objects previously unknown in China, such as magnifying glasses and a giraffe. After Zhu Di's death in 1424, the expeditions ceased for several years, but his successor, Zhu Zhanji, the Xuande emperor, ordered a seventh and last voyage in 1432-33 to repatriate foreign dignitaries who had been brought to China by earlier expeditions. Thereafter, foreign trade was severely limited, and Chinese ships were destroyed or allowed to rot.
Why these extraordinary expeditions? When Zhu Di reached the throne, China clearly had the means, both technical and economic, to build the largest and most seaworthy fleet in the world. But the motivation was personal; it was Zhu Di's decision to use that fleet to enhance his prestige by establishing trade and tribute relations with the rulers of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, not to acquire new lands. In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese could have sailed to America and around the world, had they wanted to. This has led some writers of historical fiction to imagine that they did so. But uncharted oceans and undiscovered lands were of little interest to an emperor who wanted, more than anything, the respect of the known world. The Chinese, therefore, never left the western Pacific and Indian oceans.
Why then did the expeditions end so abruptly? Although the personal decision by Zhu Zhanji was the most important factor, there were political, economic, and strategic reasons for it. At the imperial court, Confucian scholars replaced the coalition of eunuchs, merchants, Buddhists, and Muslims who had been prominent under Zhu Di. Furthermore, the Grand Canal that linked the Yangzi Valley to the Yellow River and to Beijing was finally completed in 1411. Thereafter, thousands of riverboats transported grain from central China to the capital and bound China into a single trade zone. No longer was it necessary to use seagoing transports, always vulnerable to storms and pirates. At the same time, China was once again threatened by nomadic warriors from the northern steppe, and the government of Zhu Zhanji devoted its resources to rebuilding the Great Wall and defending its northern frontier. The Treasure Fleets, which were extraordinarily costly, must have seemed an extravagance that could never produce enough benefits to justify their continuation.
The fourth seafaring tradition was that of the Mediterranean, a sea that had been sailed upon since very ancient times. In the Middle Ages, two distinct kinds of ships sailed its waters. The first kind was the galley, descendant of the trireme and quadrireme of Greco-Roman times. Galleys were built for speed and maneuverability. Long and narrow, they were propelled by rows of oarsmen with the assistance, in a following wind, of a square sail. Some were warships designed for ramming and boarding enemy ships; others carried passengers and costly freight such as spices. They needed a crew of 75 to 150 rowers and could only carry provisions for a few days. Because their light construction made them poorly suited to heavy seas, they generally sailed only during the summer months.
Excerpted from POWER OVER PEOPLES by DANIEL R. HEADRICK Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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