The above painting is of the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), estd. 1602. The painting is from later in the 1600s.
In the earliest phases of the West Europeans’ construction of transoceanic empires, from 1415 CE through the early 1500s, well-armed Portuguese and Spanish flotillas would use the height and maneuverability of their ships and the firepower of their cannons to overcome Indigenous populations and then either outright rob them of their crops and possessions, or force them on pain of torture, death, or enslavement to trade those items on highly coercive terms.
The earliest of those contacts were, as we saw here, “hit and run” raids. But soon, the plunderers saw the advantages of maintaining more permanent garrisons to control the Indigenes and extract and exploit their resources. Those coastal garrisons then grew into the remarkably durable, trans-oceanic settler-colonial empires that plunderers from the west coast of Europe established and maintained on every continent except Antarctica between the 16th and 18th centuries CE.
The early Portuguese empire-builders had pioneered the (neo-Viking) model of organizing a multi-nodal, trans-oceanic plunder network, which they did down the coast of West Africa. Then, in the 16th century it was the Spanish who pioneered the model of a more durable settler colonialism, which they did initially in the Caribbean and the Americas. (Later, the Portuguese, seeing the profitability of this model, tried to institute something like it in Brazil.)
The Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) that the Spanish monarchs established for this purpose assigned exclusive control over vast tracts of land in the “New World”— including all the human and non-human resources therein—to conquistadores who were favorites of the king, under a system called the encomienda. That system had been perfected over some centuries within Iberia itself, as the Christian lords of Castile and Aragon seized—or, as they claimed, “reconquered”— successive tracts of land from their former Muslim rulers. It was then transferred with few changes, but on a far larger and more lucrative scale, to “New Spain” and “New Granada” in Central America…
The above image is a tilework rendering of Portugal’s Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) conquering Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 CE
Broad phalanxes of commentators, politicians, and pundits in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere speak easily about the role of “the West” in world affairs; and the contest/contrast between “the West vs. the rest” has even become a thing.
But what is this “West”? What do people mean when they use the term?
At a time when the effective hegemony that the United States and its allies in “the West” have exercised over the peoples and politics of the world is starting to crumble, it seems worth exploring the historical record of “the West” a little more systematically.
Is “the West” only a vestige of the West-vs.-East bipolarity of the Cold War? Or, is it a civilizational matter, as in the habit of many U.S. universities to offer courses in “Western Civ” that draw a straight line back from Peoria to the civilizations of Greece and Rome? Or, is “the West” best defined in contrast to an “Orient” that has all the—deeply “Orientalized”—attributes of despotism, backwardness, and so on that have been ascribed to it? (And is “the West” thus largely co-terminous with modernism itself?)
I’ve been thinking on, and writing about, this issue for a number of years (including here), and now I’m planning to present my best current understanding on the history of “the West” as we see it today, summarized into six historical episodes. Today, I present Episode 1.
(I realize I’ve left a lot out of the summary and would much welcome helpful suggestions for improvement, which can be left in the comments.)
This schematic from CSIS traces the 2018 rail links between China, Russia, and the rest of Europe.
In the United States, relations between China and “the West” are viewed as a trans-oceanic affair, with the Asia-Pacific region forming its main arena of cooperation or competition. Viewed from Europe or West Asia (the area formerly known as the Middle East), relations with China look different: in recent decades the many land routes that crisscross Eurasia in all directions have been growing fast in length, connectivity, and capacity.
This could mark a big historical turning-point—or rather, a return after a 600-year hiatus to the kind of world in which, in the late 13th century CE, Marco Polo and his uncle traveled overland to, and through, large portions of China, as shown here.
In the intervening centuries, it was the lethal naval power of a handful of small West European states and their American offspring that came to dominate the destinies of all of humankind.
Everywhere they sailed in 15th through 20th centuries, those European-origined naval empires crushed the power of the large land-based polities they encountered. The Aztecs, Incas, Mughals, Ottoman, Ming and Qing Chinese, and numerous other empires and local confederations were all wiped out.
So now, 600 years after Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator first started to build his network of heavily armed trading posts along the coasts of Africa, it looks as if land empires and the ties that bind them are about to make a comeback.
It was 1947. All around the world, Indigenous peoples living in regions long colonized and controlled by the empires of distant West-European states were rising up against their colonizers, claiming the national independence that the recently formed United Nations had promised them.
In India, the strength of the sub-continent’s two nationalist movements forced the British colonial rulers to hasten an already-promised decolonization. That handover occurred in mid-August 1947. It brought into being two separate states, India and Pakistan, and was accompanied by terrible massacres and forced migrations. But at least the British, under whose rule several millions had died of starvation as recently as 1943, were finally out.
The years that followed 1947 would see scores of other nations and peoples around the world achieve liberation and national independence. And then, there was Palestine.
1947 would bring a very different fate for that territory’s 1.8 million people, two-thirds of whom were Indigenous Palestinian Arabs and one-third residents of the Jewish colony-building project that the Zionist leaders had pursued there over preceding decades.
Palestine, like India, had been under British control for many years. During the often-brutal “Mandate” rule it exercised over Palestine after WW-1, Britain greatly aided the Zionist colonization plan. But in 1947, the British metropole was still reeling from the devastating effects of the most recent World War, and nearly bankrupt from the high costs of fighting it.
In 1947, when London wanted to get India off its hands, it handed it to the local nationalists. Palestine, it handed to the United Nations.