I started this on Christmas vacation but got distracted and only just finished it.  Nothing on money here, feel free to ignore.  As the blog title suggests, I may wander around a bit with this post.

Part 1.  Let’s celebrate Ringmann Day

Have you ever wondered who gave America its name?  Or who discovered America?  I have seen a variety of answers to each question, but I have never heard anyone give the same answer to both questions.  Thus I was quite surprised by this recent article in the Smithsonian, which suggested that the same person may have both discovered America, and named America.  Even more oddly, that person does not seem to have been either Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci.  Or anyone I had ever heard of.  At least that’s how I interpreted their story, I don’t know if they saw it that way.

According to the Smithsonian, in the late 1400s it wasn’t clear whether Columbus had found anything of importance.  Yes, he discovered some islands to the west of Europe, but what else is new?  Europeans had been gradually discovering islands such as the Canaries, the Azores, the Madeiras, etc, for quite some time.

In the early 1500s Amerigo Vespucci sailed down the east coast of what is now called ‘South America.’  It was clearly a sizable continent.  But what continent?  If Columbus had discovered the East Indies, then this long coast would have been roughly in the position of Australia’s long east coast.  Of course in 1500 no European knew of the existence of Australia.  So it wasn’t at all clear what had been discovered.

It now apprears that an obscure German named Matthias Ringmann, who lived near Strasbourg, was the first person to understand the implication of these voyages.  He published a book in 1511 that described a new continent which lay between Europe and Asia.  Accompanying this book was a large map produced in 1507—the first map to ever show the Americas having a west coast that bordered the Pacific Ocean (drawn by Martin Waldseemuller, but almost certainly reflecting Ringmann’s ideas.).  Of course this is 5 years before Balboa “discovered” the Pacific.  Pretty impressive for a young German scholar who never once sailed on a voyage of discovery.

So far I don’t seem to have answered either question in the opening paragraph.  Surely Ringmann didn’t “discover” America, and we all know that the name came from Amerigo Vespucci, not Ringmann.  Not so fast.  First of all; define “discover.”  Leif Erickson bumped into what is now called ‘Canada’ (actually Newfoundland), but very view people think he “discovered America.”  Ringmann seems to be the first person to discover the existence of America, discover that there were two large continents lying between Europe and Asia, and separated from both by large oceans.  That alone should give him great fame.  But that is not all.  The 1507 map in his book also named this new continent, and what name did Ringmann place on the map?  AMERICA.  So he discovered it, and he named it.  Not bad for a little known German who died before he reached the age of 30.

Was it luck?  Maybe, but the information provided by Columbus and the other early explorers was enough to deduce the existence of America as a separate continent.  The map is reasonably accurate in its portrayal of Europe and Africa, thanks to recent discoveries by Portuguese sailors who had rounded the Cape of Good Hope.  So Ringmann would have had some reason to believe Columbus’s estimate of the size of the Earth was far too low.  Recall that the distance from pole to pole is the same as half the circumference of the Earth at the equator (i.e. roughly 12,600 miles, or nearly twice Columbus’s estimate.}   The Earth shown in the map in Ringmann’s book was obviously much too big for Cuba to be in the East Indies.

But what about the name ‘America?’  Where did it come from?  Yes, it was a reference to Amerigo Vespucci, the first explorer to realize the extent of newly discovered land.  But that is not all:

The famous naming-of-America paragraph sounds a lot like Ringmann. He’s known, for example, to have spent time mulling over the use of feminine names for concepts and places. “Why are all the virtues, the intellectual qualities and the sciences always symbolized as if they belonged to the feminine sex?” he would write in a 1511 essay. “Where does this custom spring from: a usage common not only to the pagan writers but also to the scholars of the church? It originated from the belief that knowledge is destined to be fertile of good works….Even the three parts of the old world received the name of women.”

Ringmann reveals his hand in other ways. In both poetry and prose he regularly amused himself by making up words, by punning in different languages and by investing his writing with hidden meanings. The naming-of-America passage is rich in just this sort of wordplay, much of which requires a familiarity with Greek. The key to the whole passage, almost always overlooked, is the curious name Amerigen (which Ringmann quickly Latinizes and then feminizes to come up with America). To get Amerigen, Ringmann combined the name Amerigo with the Greek word gen, the accusative form of a word meaning “earth,” and by doing so coined a name that means””as he himself explains”””land of Amerigo.”

But the word yields other meanings. Gen can also mean “born” in Greek, and the word ameros can mean “new,” making it possible to read Amerigen as not only “land of Amerigo” but also “born new”””a double-entendre that would have delighted Ringmann, and one that very nicely complements the idea of fertility that he associated with female names. The name may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word sometimes translated as “place.” Here Amerigen becomes A-meri-gen, or “No-place-land”””not a bad way to describe a previously unnamed continent whose geography is still uncertain.

Copies of the Waldseemüller map began to appear at German universities in the decade after 1507; sketches of it and copies made by students and professors in Cologne, Tübingen, Leipzig and Vienna survive. The map clearly was getting around, as was the Introduction to Cosmography itself. The little book was reprinted several times and attracted acclaim across Europe, largely because of the long Vespucci letter.

So Vespucci gets all the credit, despite the fact that he shared Columbus’ belief that they had reached Asia.  The only thing Vespucci added was the information that “Asia” extended much further south than had been heretofore known.

Part 2.  Deirdre McCloskey and the Big Question

If you are an economist, you have had the unpleasant experience on sitting through 75 minute talks by job candidates, who rush through their paper so that they are able to “cover” all 17 regressions.  Even worse, you are given the paper beforehand and told to come prepared.  Which makes me wonder what the point of the seminar is.  McCloskey is not like that; she seems to think that a talk (or article?) should focus on one key idea.  When I visited GMU I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk by McCloskey on the same day.  She started off very slowly, spending a lot of time on the “hockey stick” graph of world income per head, which turns sharply higher after 1800.  Then she gradually dismissed all the previous explanations of this turning point.  This talk was related to a book she is working on, the second of a series of 6 books.  The first was 600 pages long, so she doesn’t think small.  Indeed she hopes to explain the origin of the modern world.  I would not be able to do justice to such a grand project, but I do recall her emphasizing the role of cultural change:

1.  The increasing dignity of the bourgeois.

2.  The increased respect shown to commercial, technical and scientific innovation.

She starts with the 17th century Dutch, but perhaps the key break occurred earlier.  In 1415 Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal set up an institute on the far southwestern tip of Europe (a very symbolic location.)  Recall than in the 1400s Europeans (and perhaps even Asians) knew as much about the Southern Hemisphere as they did about the far side of the moon.  Unlike the far side of the moon, however, our Southern Hemisphere is much more dominated by “seas” than the heavily populated northern half of the planet.  It’s also further away than you think; Nigeria, indeed most of Africa, lies in the Northern hemisphere.  So does Venezuela.

[In the original post I referred to King Henry; I thank Luis Fonseca for the correction.]

Within just a few years the tiny nation of Portugal discovered and explored most of the Southern Hemisphere, allowing “world maps” for the first time.  (I’m counting Magellan as Portuguese, although he sailed under a Spanish flag.)  I don’t recall being taught about the importance of Portugal in school, but everyone should learn about these amazing feats.  If you ever go to Lisbon, don’t miss the wonderful maritime museum in Belem.

Why did this happen?  I suppose the politically correct answer is “greed.”  But does that really explain things?  Every country is greedy, why did the Portuguese make these discoveries?  We know the Chinese had the capability; they had voyaged to East Africa a few years earlier.  And other European powers surely had more resources than Portugal.

Here’s another problem with the “greed” explanation.  This project took many decades to implement.  Not only did Prince Henry die before they reached India in 1497, but so did his son and (I’d guess) his grandson.  Life expectancies were short in those days.  This is the sort of project you’d expect from Ming-era China, with its stable bureaucracy capable of far-sighted planning, not a tiny European kingdom.

Here is another view.  Consider the Prince to have been like a modern entrepreneur.  How often have you read a management article that says entrepreneurs are not driven by the desire to earn money, but rather by the drive to create something important.  Or that the odds of success are so low that a simple expected utility model can’t explain high risk ventures, unless you assume the entrepreneur gets “utility” out of the project itself, that entrepreneurship is a sort of grand adventure.  Maybe this was also true of Henry the Navigator.

Part 3.  How did Europeans come to dominate the world?

I used to have a lazy view of European dominance that was based on technological superiority.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell my readers (many of whom know much more about these things than I do) how silly that view is.  Our modern technological world did not really get underway until about 1800, but the Europeans had already been spreading all over the world for nearly 350 years.  Technology doesn’t explain how a handful of men were able to conquer Mexico and Peru, or how a few thousand European men in wooden sailboats (smaller than Chinese ships of the 1400s) were able to increasingly dominate trade with sophisticated Asian countries containing hundreds of millions of people.

Is it possible that the Europeans simply had more wanderlust?  I’m sure that explanation doesn’t appeal to economic historians, but I’m not the only one who thinks this way.   Here is Richard Bernstein:

Chiefly, Westerners went to Asia in pursuit of personal wealth and national glory.  They also went to convert the heathen to Christianity.  Yet one of the most ordinary and important of the further motivations was plain and simple curiosity.  The West was driven by the desire to know the East, while the East had very little interest in knowing the West.  Anthropology, archeology, comparative linguistics, and other disciplines were Western, not Eastern, inclinations.  The Chinese, the Indians, and the Malays showed no interest in, say, finding the source of the Danube, while to Englishmen of the nineteenth century, finding the source of the Nile was an obsession, the cause of fantastic expeditions and epic rivalries, comparable to the rivalry over being the first to send a man to the South Pole or, for that matter, to the moon.

The European urge to discover and innovate that became apparent in the early Renaissance seems to have affected almost every area of society:

1.  Obviously science and technology

2.  New governmental structures

3.  New commercial structures

4.  An explosion in artistic innovation

5.   A rapid increase in the number of Christian sects

6.  Voyages of discovery

The European expansion that began in 1415 wasn’t aimed at world domination.  Rather world domination, along with repugnant institutions like the slave trade, were by-products of a surge in innovation that increased the power of Europeans even faster than it increased their moral sensitivities. But even those changed fast.  Innovations in literature and religion probably helped trigger the British anti-slavery movement.

I once took one of those History of Philosophy courses on tape.  When they got to Francis Bacon I suddenly woke up.  Here was someone who went beyond stale theories of a timeless world deduced from even more sterile first principles.  He seemed to understand how we were rushing headlong into the modern world.  He understood how no single person was directing the enterprise.  I recall he used the example of the modern sailing ship to show how decentralized decisions of many unknown tinkerers created something that no central planner could conceive of.  Who does that sound like?

Where did this wanderlust come from?  I always like the evolutionary psych explanations.  Maybe ancient tribes that had wanderlust were more likely to move to new lands and greatly increase their numbers.  Or more likely to build better tools and weapons.  But why did it hit Europe so strongly after 1400?  I am skeptical of genetic explanations.  Note that the Bernstein quotation above starts by talking about “the West” but then switches over to Englishmen.  Albania and Moldova are a part of Europe, but not the Europe Bernstein has in mind.

Culture, not genetics, is the most likely reason for this wanderlust.  But of course saying “culture ” in history or poly sci is like saying “shifts in tastes and technology” in economics, or “bubbles” in macroeconomics and finance.  It’s just a fancy way of saying; “I haven’t a clue.”  But somehow in the period after 1400, and even more so after 1800, lots of crazy Europeans (“mad dogs and Englishmen”) developed a wanderlust that led to great feats of discovery in all sorts of areas.

Part 4.  World population trends.

Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?  (Or should I say why did we when it was still PC?)  Because 99% of Americans wouldn’t be here if America hadn’t been discovered.  And I don’t mean we’d be somewhere else, we wouldn’t exist at all.  But if that is the case, then shouldn’t Bangladesh have a “Portuguese Day?”  How many Bangladeshis would be alive if Prince Henry hadn’t set up that sailing institute, and set Europe on a course for world domination?

Evolutionary psych can explain one deep-seated human characteristic that relentlessly pushes us toward a larger population—lust.  But before European wanderlust that trait continually pushed against an equally implacable obstacle—the Malthusian limits to growth.

You might argue that the other continents would have developed on their own.  After all, the Polynesians were also engaging in voyages as impressive as the Portuguese, and at roughly the same time.  Furthermore, even if the Europeans hadn’t voyaged outward, their ideas and tools (such as guns) would have gradually dispersed across the Eurasian and North African regions, shaking up cultures.

But even the most optimistic Asiaphile would have to admit that change would have come more slowly without European contact.  Thailand and Japan were never colonized, but Japan’s industrial revolution occurred 100 years after the British, and Thailand’s occurred 200 years later.  Even if development had been delayed only 100 years, Asia and Africa would look much different today.  How many people did Bangladesh have 100 years ago?  I’d guess maybe a quarter as many as right now.  If Americans can say we are “here” (alive) because of Columbus, then most Bangladeshis are equally entitled to say they are “here” because of the Portuguese.  (Thank God Edward Said didn’t live to see this disgraceful paean to dead Portuguese white males.)

In an essay that mentions lust, wanderlust, America, and Newfoundland, how can I resist concluding with John Donne’s ode to his mistress’s body:

License my roving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My mine of precious stones: my emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.

Is it that far-fetched to assume that utility is derived from the discovery process itself?

PS.  Attention PC cops:  I am not trying to argue European superiority here.  I find the Polynesian societies described by Melville to be far more appealing than anything Portugal had to offer at the time.  I don’t think the Europeans were superior, but rather different.  And different in a way that quintupled the world’s population.  That’s pretty important.



29 Responses to “Wanderlust”

  1. Gravatar of Luís Fonseca Luís Fonseca
    10. January 2010 at 16:10

    Hi, it’s very nice to see you mention my country’s history in this post. 🙂

    Just a little correction, Henry was not a king, “just” a prince. Still, an outstanding man.

  2. Gravatar of Marcus Nunes Marcus Nunes
    10. January 2010 at 16:12

    “This is the sort of project you’d expect from Ming-era China, with its stable bureaucracy capable of far-sighted planning, not a tiny European kingdom”.
    The Ming dinasty cut off the explorer adventures of the chinese. They prohibited ships with more than one mast in practice constraining “adventures” to coastal trips! They did all sorts of other things to close china to the world as they were afraid to lose power. 500 years later Mao came along…

  3. Gravatar of William William
    10. January 2010 at 16:30

    Part 3 – Have you ever read any Jared Diamond(Guns, Germs, and Steel in particular)?

  4. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    10. January 2010 at 16:39

    What’s all this about Columbus, Erickson, Ringmann, etc.?

    When I was growing up we learned it was Jan z Kowno that discovered America. 😉

  5. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    10. January 2010 at 17:00

    “This is the sort of project you’d expect from Ming-era China, with its stable bureaucracy capable of far-sighted planning, not a tiny European kingdom.”

    No, no, no!
    Bureaucracies don’t do far-sighted planning, they fulfill internal political motivations. Look at NASA for an example, everyone thought that NASA would give us a eventual lunar colonization. It didn’t it made designs capable of quick sprints into space to fulfill political objectives.

    Oh, also, I really liked your comparison of princes to entrepreneurs. It fits my thought that the reason that Europe succeeded was competition among states and principalities.

  6. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    10. January 2010 at 17:21

    Oh, also, I’d like to add that stable is often a synonym for stagnant.

  7. Gravatar of rob rob
    10. January 2010 at 17:24

    “Look at NASA for an example, everyone thought that NASA would give us a eventual lunar colonization.”

    Exactly! But what have they done? Point is: round Earth, big universe = big government programs. The space race started with Sputnik. Do you think the Soviets were telling the truth about anything? Remember how when after the Soviet Union “fell” internal documents revealed that much of the Soviet weaponry was fake? They would pretend to transport missiles around that weren’t real just so the US would THINK they were better armed than they really were. Well, guess whaaaaaaat? You think both sides weren’t bluffing? The US lost the cold war. Yes, lost! But they have to perpetuate the fiction that they won it. Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of less government and instead gave us more via massive spending on fictional technology. But it was good for the economy. Now we have global warming idiots telling us what to do. So everything went as planned. But um, how can you have global warming if there ISN’T A GLOBE?

    If people knew there was a flat earth then so much government spending — of all governments — that is ostensibly going toward military spending (which is mainly fictional) couldn’t end up in the pockets of Wall Street investment bankers.

    Is this far-fetched? If you think so, go back to thinking Wall Street exists for the purposes of making the economy more efficient.

    Oh. Wait. Sorry. Wrong website.

  8. Gravatar of rob rob
    10. January 2010 at 18:45

    seriously, your theory makes sense to me. i work with Brits whose idea of a great time is to go on a business trip to Nigeria. maybe i have lost my wanderlust because that is no longer fun for me. but it was the first time.

  9. Gravatar of MrTuttle MrTuttle
    10. January 2010 at 19:12


    Jared Diamond’s very interesting book, Guns, Germs, And Steel, surveys why Eurasian civilizations came to dominate the rest of the world. A slightly different topic than that which Scott looks at here.

  10. Gravatar of JeffreyY JeffreyY
    10. January 2010 at 20:39

    I had a history professor in college who answered “why did it hit Europe so strongly after 1400?” with “because the black death hit Europe around 1348 and proved that Things Can Change.”

  11. Gravatar of happyjuggler0 happyjuggler0
    10. January 2010 at 22:13


    Interesting notion. My history timetables suck, but if your professor was/is right, then escaping the plague seems to me to be a powerful motivator for getting the hell out of Europe.

  12. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    10. January 2010 at 22:20

    Leif Erikson is not said to have “discovered” America because after the natives smartly kicked out the Vikings, the Vikings gave up on the area and everyone forgot about it. If Leif’s ship had washed up on land and the sailors promptly massacred without anyone knowing what had happened to them, no one would have claimed he discovered anything.

    A long time ago I criticized McCloskey’s review of “A Farewell to Alms”, despite not having read the book myself. She responded, but had very little to say about the book and focused on Alice Dreger. I have read the book now though, and give it a thumbs-up.

    Europeans were more technologically advanced than the people they conquered. The only civilization to rival them were the Chinese, who once had a great naval exploration program but deliberately shut it down. Your “wanderlust” explanation can cover that, but no more. Madagascar is right off the coast of Africa, but it was never settled by Africans. Instead, South Asians colonized it! The main advantage Europeans had was their long history of agriculture, which resulted in many diseases which they carried and also had some immunities for. The reason that North America and the antipodes are still full of the descendants of Europe while Africa decolonized is that Africans had a disease advantage over Europeans, particularly before quinine was invented.

    Melville was wrong about Polynesians. Numerous exploders of the “noble savage” myth have explained.

  13. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    11. January 2010 at 01:51

    I thought that the late middle ages where the time of the plague, alongside hunger and war. People didn’t stand a chance to grow old (and conservative!) and tell the youngsters to stay home. Also, the risks of going on a sea trip around the world would have seem small compared to the risks of simply living in Europe.

    What about the Crusades? Are they not an even earlier example of European wanderlust?

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. January 2010 at 05:54

    Thanks Luis.

    Marcus, Yes, I knew that. I was trying to show how counterintuitive Portugal’s success was. I don’t actually believe big bureaucracies are good things. If they were, I’d be writing this reply in Chinese.

    William, I have read some articles by Diamond, but not the book you mention.

    Mark, I give up. Explain the joke to me.

    Doc Merlin, I agree.

    rob, Have you been off you medication again?

    Yes, there does seem to be less desire to travel these days. The romance is gone.

    JeffreyY. Interesting, but something tells me that that idea won’t have much explanatory power. It is usually overpopulation that pushes people out toward new lands. And there have been lots of plagues, one big one preceded the Middle Ages, if I am not mistaken.

    HappyJuggler0, The plagues would have been long forgotten by the time Europe began exploring in the 1400s. In the US the great flu pandemic that killed 500,000 people was almost totally forgotten within a year. Yes, the Black Death was much worse, but life expectancies were so short in those days that it was probably forgotten within a few generations.

    TGGP, I stand by view that to “discover” something, one must know that one has discovered something.

    Europeans were more technologically advanced, but that cannot explain their success in the 1400-1800 period. Their technology did not allow them to conquer Mexico and Peru with a handful of men, it was their cultural sophistication. If the Indians had been as culturally sophisticated they could have overwhelmed them with sheer numbers.

    My second point is that my essay also asks why European ships were better than most others. It wasn’t because people in Asia were incapable of building such ships, it was that they lacked the desire to explore the world. It isn’t just the Chinese, India was certainly technologically advanced enough to build such ships, but they didn’t. Of course after 1800 European technology did advance far beyond the third world, so much so that an enlighted Asian potentate would not have been able to do what Prince Henry did.

    You said;

    “Madagascar is right off the coast of Africa, but it was never settled by Africans. Instead, South Asians colonized it!”

    True, but the east coast of Australia is lovely, fertile land. Northern Australia is very close to Asia (maybe 100 miles.) And the Asians never settled Queensland or NSW.

    I am not convinced Melville was wrong. If you are arguing that Polynesians fought lots of wars, I agree. But I don’t recall Melville portraying the Polynesians as non-violent. Can you be specific about what exactly Melville was wrong about?

    Woupiestek, Those are both good points. I had forgotten about the Crusades.

  15. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    11. January 2010 at 06:03

    According to legend, in 1475 (17 years before Columbus) Jan z Kowno (Jan of Kowno), a Polish sefarer and explorer in the service of the king of Denmark bumped into Labrador and sailed as far south as the mouth of the Delaware.

    I suspect if one tries hard enough you will find such legends for nearly every immigrant stock in America.

  16. Gravatar of Mrs. Davis Mrs. Davis
    11. January 2010 at 07:07

    Why England? Alan Macfarlane puts the answer in the mists of ancient forests out of memory in The Origins of English Individualism, also translated into Portuguese.

  17. Gravatar of William William
    11. January 2010 at 08:35

    William, I have read some articles by Diamond, but not the book you mention.

    The book is basically a discussion of proximate and ultimate causes of “European dominance”. Some parts are more convincing than others, but there are a number of factoids that I think are relevant to Part 3 of your post.

    For example, he paints a believable picture of how a handful of men were able to conquer Mexico and Peru via “…Spanish germs, horses, literacy, political organization, and technology (especially ships and weapons)” (The telling of how 168 Spanish men were able to capture the Mayan emperor “in the middle of his own empire of millions of subjects and immediately surrounded by his army of 80,000 soldiers” is especially good.) Or how “Far more Native Americans and other non-Eurasian peoples were killed by Eurasian germs than by Eurasian guns or steel weapons.” – I guess you don’t need either technology OR wanderlust if your body is full of diseases that have been evolving for thousands of years longer than the native’s immune systems can deal with…

    It also speculates how China lost its sway…

    “The end of China’s treasure fleets gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between A.D. 1405 and 1433. They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions at the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents). The former faction had been identified with sending and captaining the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public electric lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries, all motivated by local political issues. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards.
    Now contrast those events in China with what happened when fleets of exploration began to sail from politically fragmented Europe. Christopher Columbus, an Italian by birth, switched his allegiance to the duke of Anjou in France, then to the king of Portugal. When the latter refused his request for ships in which to explore westward, Columbus turned to the duke of Medina-Sedonia, who also refused, then to the count of Medina-Celi, who did likewise, and finally to the king and queen of Spain, who denied Columbus’s first request but eventually granted his renewed appeal. Had Europe been united under any one of the first three rulers, its colonization of the Americas might have been stillborn.
    These consequences of Europe’s disunity stand in sharp contrast to those of China’s unity. From time to time the Chinese court decided to halt other activities besides overseas navigation: it abandoned development of an elaborate water-driven spinning machine, stepped back from the verge of an industrial revolution in the 14th century, demolished or virtually abolished mechanical clocks after leading the world in clock construction, and retreated from mechanical devices and technology in general after the late 15th century. Those potentially harmful effects of unity have flared up again in modern China, notably during the madness of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when a decision by one or a few leaders closed the whole country’s school systems for five years.” (Anti-Big-Gov’t implications from Jared Diamond, who would have thought!)

    I could quote more of this book but this comment is long enough already. Perhaps check the book out when you have some spare time (which I’m sure you have little of.) It sounds like something you’d find thought provoking, at least.

  18. Gravatar of Don the libertarian Democrat Don the libertarian Democrat
    11. January 2010 at 10:21

    The Europeans sailed around Africa and to America because they couldn’t get through the Levant. The problem was the Ottoman Empire. By the way, it was Southern Europe that had to deal with the Ottomans, which proved incredibly expensive.

  19. Gravatar of Don the libertarian Democrat Don the libertarian Democrat
    11. January 2010 at 10:51

    “Events of 1492

    * January 2 – Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada, surrenders his city to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella after a lengthy siege, ending the 10-year Granada War and the almost 800-year Reconquista. Christopher Columbus is in Alhambra, and sees the Moorish king come out of the city gates and kiss the hands of the Spanish king, queen and prince.”


    One thing Spain had an excess of were soldiers who had been fighting a superior enemy for a very long time. Their experience in warfare was conditioned by fighting that enemy.

  20. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    11. January 2010 at 19:38

    Scott, you compare cultural sophistication to technology, but not to disease. Disease was a huge factor. I recommend “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. For a book arguing against Diamond, check out Michael H. Hart’s “Understanding Human History”, which you can download for free.

    The “Austronesians” who settled Australia/New Zealand originally came from Asia. I have also read claims that the Chinese discovered Australia (long after the aboriginals had settled there), but apparently didn’t bother much with it. Australian dingoes appear to have descended from wild dogs of Thailand, so contact with Asia continued after Australia had been settled.

  21. Gravatar of edel calvar edel calvar
    12. January 2010 at 05:58

    Don the libertarian Democrat, nailed it, there was an excess of army men in war torn Spain.

    But I even would go further explained why the Reconquista became in first place:
    In Spain it was customary that the older son will inherit the land, the second will join the army and the third the monastery.
    Many second sons and a few priests were simple too much starving of the success and fortune of the older sibling. They used horses to move quickly and the land conquests began in Iberia and then moved worldwide.

    As an interesting anecdote in Galicia, a small region within Spain, the land however had always been partitioned equally between all sons. This created equality but also discouraged that mentioned “wanderlust” and ultimately led to poverty. Horses were never found for any practical use there either.

  22. Gravatar of OGT OGT
    12. January 2010 at 07:54

    I concur with the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ recommendations. I’d also add a couple of others. ‘1491,’ which sets the stage in the pre-Columbian Americas, heavily stresses the disease element. ‘The Dogs of God’ set the stage in Spain at the time of Columbus, the Reconquesta, and the Inquisition (interesting times indeed). That books highlights the political competition angle of the age of discovery.

    And finally, ‘Power and Plenty,’ which is a survey of trade and conflict over the last thousand years. I can’t recommend that one highly enough. Finley and O’Rourke focus on the Crusades and Plague (with the attendant captial replacement of labor) as spurs to Europe’s growth.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. January 2010 at 11:30

    Mark, Thanks, it’s a legend Google has never heard of.

    Mrs. Davis, Thanks, that book looks interesting.

    William, Yes, I knew that about 40 million native people died of disease from contact with Europeans. Some of the other items you mention (like political organization) obviously fit in with my theory that the conquistadors were not as powerful as the large empires they conquered, but were more sophisticated.

    Of course Europe also gradually dominated Asia and Africa. Disease did not aid the European cause in Asia, and massively inhibited it in Africa.

    You said;

    “It also speculates how China lost its sway…

    “The end of China’s treasure fleets gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between A.D. 1405 and 1433.”

    A few months back I posted on the problem of a unified China–I completely agree with you there. But it wasn’t just China. As far as I know Japan also had little interest in Europe. Ditto for Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, India, etc. Things were different in all of Asia.

    Don the Libertarian Democrat. I agree with the theory of an end run around the Ottoman Empire. But there is much more. The British sent settlers to N. America. Why didn’t the Chinese, Japanese or Koreans send settlers to eastern Australia? It would have been easy.

    I agree with your second point about the Spanish soldiers. That’s part of what I meant about greater cultural sophistication. They had a better understanding of the art of warfare.

    I believe that this shows that an army led by Julius Caesar of say 40,000 men could have defeated an Egyptian army of 200,000 men from 3000 BC. More developed parts of the world get increasing sophisticated militaries. The Romans were 3000 years more sophisticated than the ancient Egyptians. (BTW, It’s not because people from that region aren’t good fighters, look how the Arabs took Spain around 800.)

    TGGP, Yes, I knew about the disease issue. But as I said above, that doesn’t explain at all how the Europeans came to dominate Asia, and Africa (where disease was a disadvantage.) I also knew that the Aborigines came from Asia. But that was so long ago that they aren’t really “Asian” in a modern cultural sense (and indeed even look somewhat different.) I know that Asians were aware that Australia existed, and I attribute their ignoring it to a lack of wanderlust. Eastern Australia has far better land than Western China (much of which ss a wasteland.)

    edel calvar, You said;

    “As an interesting anecdote in Galicia, a small region within Spain, the land however had always been partitioned equally between all sons. This created equality but also discouraged that mentioned “wanderlust” and ultimately led to poverty. Horses were never found for any practical use there either.”

    I recall hearing about this, and I agree it is a very relevant point. I wonder, however, how land is partitioned in China.

    OGT, These are good suggestions. I have read enough essays by Diamond that I have some ideas of his views. But I should read GG&S. Time? That is a big problem as long as I keep answering comments.

    Everyone. Lot’s of good comments. But I have a question. I wasn’t able to tell whether you thought these other perspectives conflicted with of complemented my ideas. I think they complement then. Nothing in GG&S or anything else can tell us why the Europeans spread out and conquered the world, as opposed to the Asians. The Asians certainly were powerful enough to settle America and Australia. They could have almost reached America without losing sight of land. So I still think wanderlust was the key. But I agree with the powerful role of things like disease in making the conquest of the America’s easier. The other points are also valid.

    Where did the wanderlust come from? That’s probably where ideas about land rights in Spain, or English cultural history, can help us out.

  24. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    12. January 2010 at 12:38

    “Where did the wanderlust come from? That’s probably where ideas about land rights in Spain, or English cultural history, can help us out.”

    A lot of it was banking structure actually. The governments didn’t have their own fiat currency ability so had to have actual gold or land to fund state activities Banking in Europe at the time was private and very strong. This meant that virgin territory was extremely highly valued by european sovereigns.

    Another contributing factor to the wanderlust was high birth rates coupled with restrictive inheritance polities. The new land was a great opportunity for younger sons of nobles to distinguish themselves.

  25. Gravatar of OGT OGT
    12. January 2010 at 13:25

    Given the scarcity of time, I’d prioritize ‘Power and Plenty’ and ‘Dogs of God’ over GG&S, just because the basic idea is pretty well disseminated by now. P&P is a very good explicitly economic world history. While ‘Dogs of God’ gets to some of the cultural motivational issues in Spain and Europe that you’re interested in.

    In general, I think the ideas complement yours, especially in regards to Europe contrasted with Asia, who were at rough economic parity. Less so with Africa and America at the time.

    One thing to keep in mind is that Europeans at the beiginning of the Age of Discovery were trying to get to Asia. The list of exports at this time by region in Power and Plenty makes it pretty clear that Asians had much less incentive to make the reverse commute.

  26. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    12. January 2010 at 16:47

    The neolithic culture (and its farming, domestication of fauna, stone tools and pottery) displaced the Mesolithic populations in Europe. No one knows why they came from the middle east to Europe, but come they did. Professor Barry Cunliff calls it a Neolithic pioneering spirit instead of wanderlust. Maybe the pioneering spirit never left.

    I also think the crusades was admirably crazy– “Hey, those Turks have conquered Jerusalem, lets walk 4,000 miles over land and get it back.” Reading Joinveille’s chronicle is like being transported to a world of pioneering spirit.

    Last, I think the idea of digging up and learning about early inhabitants, preserving & putting their relics on display in museums for pedagogical reasons, and giving money and respect to those who do this, is a western invention born of pioneering spirit.

  27. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    13. January 2010 at 17:48

    Doc Merlin. OK, but what about my claim that wanderlust couldn’t be explained in pure materialistic terms. It took almost 100 years for Portugal to reach India. That suggests a drive to explore for its own sake. And why the obsession with the source of the Nile? Was there supposed to be a pot of gold there?

    OGT, That’s right about the exports, we wanted their spices more than they wanted our stuff. But there is also the settlement issue to explain. Both continents were up against the Malthusian limits. Why did we rather than the Asians settle the Americas and Australia. They also had a large population–indeed even larger.

    bababooey, Just reading your comment (and the others) makes me wish I had more time for reading history.

  28. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    14. January 2010 at 07:50

    I didn’t mean that the individuals did or didn’t have materialistic incentives. I mean that the governments had materialistic incentives to NOT restrict exploration, unlike China.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. January 2010 at 14:21

    Doc Merlin, Ok, I can agree with that.

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