A Journal for Western Man




An Analysis of the Factors Affecting

Early Western Expansion

G. Stolyarov II

Issue VIII- November 6, 2002


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a series of backwater feudal states began to emerge as the leading territorial, military, political, and technological powers of the Earth. What are the factors of this transition, and what intent did the civilizations undertaking it hope to realize? Herein shall be explored the technological, economic, and ideological motives influencing the progress and colonization of an increasingly globalizing West.

During the Crusades, rag-tag Medieval militia led by an elite of aristocratic horsemen came upon a culture in full bloom within the Holy Land. Fighting the then flourishing  Muslim empires and intermittently establishing outpost kingdoms along the Palestinian coast, the Westerners obtained a detailed exposure to the ingenious accomplishments originating from Arabia and the Orient further eastward. These included a wide array of navigational technology, including the compass and the astrolabe, Chinese and Arabic inventions respectively, which allowed for tracking of one’s direction and latitude position on the globe. These had permitted Chinese fleets, most notably those of Admiral Zheng He in the fourteenth century, to traverse the Indian Ocean through numerous routes and even conduct journeys to destinations as distant as the Cape of Good Hope. The techniques of the Chinese, in terms of the magnitude of their nautical craft, gargantuan in relation to the European caravel, and a set of innovations, including the stern rudder, which enabled greater maneuverability of the vessels and swifter, smoother turning, and triangular sails, which permitted an adjustment of the directional impact of the winds, possessed immense value and generated a leap in progress for Western navigation. This was coupled with a developing body of knowledge in astronomy and the detection of patterns and distinctions in trade winds, which could be followed to achieve swifter passage between locations than a linear route. The fundamental transportation technology for goods from abroad was established along with the durability and efficiency of machinery that would carry men large distances. Moreover, fears of antagonism in lands afar were allayed in explorers due to a gradual but widespread extrapolation upon the crude rocketry and gunpowder technologies of the Chinese. The Europeans’ advances in the development of firearms can be explained also by their prior exposure to and extensive utility of Roman siege technology, hence a consideration of heavy projectile mechanisms as a potent means of victory on the battlefield. This cunning ability to synthesize the accomplishments of a multitude of cultures and employ the best of men’s rational efforts enabled the pioneering technology advocates of Europe, such as Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, to coordinate unprecedented exploration schemes. Henry founded an academy of navigation on the coast of Portugal, where new sailing methods were refined and perfected to first allow Portuguese mariners to attain the Azores and the Canaries, then the coast of West Africa, then the Eastern African trading ports, then India and the Spice Islands. Simultaneously, the development of another vital utensil, the printing press in 1450, cannot be ignored. A culture of writing such as that of the West was able to build up vast stores of knowledge to pass on to present and future collaborators in the march of progress to fortify and enhance it instead of lapsing into, as numerous ignorant and illiterate pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, namely the Incas, had, a perpetual reset of the cultural advancement level to zero with every subsequent generation. With the printing press, this information could be transmitted to a substantially greater number of individuals at universally affordable costs nonetheless immensely profitable for publishers. A developed, forward-striding, literate Western culture had created a group of finely equipped, learned, and rational explorers and merchants who would secure European contacts with the remainder of the planet.

Along with an increased exposure to Oriental technical accomplishments, European explorers and expansionists eagerly sought luxury commodities such as spices, silk, and sugar from Africa and the East Indies. The Silk Route overland from China had been a trading avenue for over two thousand years prior, however transportation was immensely inconveniencing to Western traders whose wares would have to pass through the hands of multiple overcharging intermediaries before reaching their realms. Moreover, the Ottoman Empire, upon having established itself firmly as a Mediterranean power during the fifteenth century, charged financially burdensome fees for passage through its territory. A direct sea route was by far more desirable, and numerous nations, especially previously minor players in the luxury goods trade, such as Spain and Portugal, vied for a cheap and swift passage to the Indies, sailing west, east, and south during a relatively brief time period but one packed with events that would dramatically ameliorate the face of the planet. In order to finance the voyages abroad, advanced economic concepts developed that would gradually come to form the basis of the flourishing Western capitalist system. The joint partnership, a splitting of investment fees but also of profit, became an appealing option to entrepreneurs. Corporations, such as the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company, were formed to enable swifter cultivation of previously inhospitable lands for the creation of European outposts in close proximity to the hotspots of commerce. Insurance for often risky (but still worthwhile in a vast majority of cases) voyages across the Atlantic and Indian oceans began to become an alluring business prospect which boosted the homeland economies of the European powers. The development of the check and superior accounting methods, such as double-entry bookkeeping (both enabled by the Indian numeral system that had diffused into the West through trade with the Arab world), facilitated greater convenience in investment and spending, amplifying the consumer market for goods. The stimulus for individuals previously impoverished under feudal servitude in Medieval Europe, or as disinherited younger sons of aristocrats, to procure a plethora of wealth by tapping into a new source of goods and resources, must have been enormous. “Gold and Glory” are frequently described as two motives for Western Expansion, and, doubtless, mutual reinforcers. The profit motive, that fundamental human aspiration for prosperity, for material enhancement and an assurance of survival, was fortified by the desire to make something of oneself, to establish a reputation in the New World as a discoverer, a pioneer, a tamer of the land, and a spreader of civilization. A wealthy man could gain much repute for the colossal effort and keenness of insight it required to select a functional scheme of transportation, trade, and industry for his enrichment. He would become one of the first global capitalists in a new age where wealth would be generated and not stolen, where resource exploitation, not confiscation, would yield previously unthinkable comforts for men worldwide. Hence we may reflect upon such radiant figures as Hernan Cortes and Vasco da Gama at the forefront of the exploration/colonization endeavor.

A third vital characteristic and stimulus of Western culture impelled and guided it to new worlds. It was a moral motive, which common catch phrases would characterize merely as “God”. While Judeo-Christian religious motives played an immense role in the missionaries’ quest to bring education and humane living conditions to the natives of the Americas, the spirit embodied by Western expansionism is a broader one of Classical humanism. It is the culture of the West that is almost unique among those of the world in acknowledging competition (governed by a set of objective principles, ranging from a code of chivalry to the immutability of the contract) between aspiring entities to be mutually fruitful and an incentive for further development. Powers such as England, Spain, France, and Holland competed for commercial markets and territories within the New World, as did individual merchants and settlers on a more local scale. The result was a rapid industrialization and cultivation of previously savage wilderness. Moreover, an early humanistic accomplishment was the rejection of tribal and clan genetics as determining factors of one’s interactions and the development of the next rung on the ladder of social progress, that of a nation-state, a people united by historical and cultural factors, i.e. those subject to volition, rather than biological ones. Not merely did this quell what otherwise would have been inherent and never ceasing carnage between the great powers (now reduced to mere sporadic warfare), but it also fostered an attitude of assimilation instead of extermination toward the natives of the Americas, who were seen as possessing mere attitudinal and developmental inferiorities to Europeans, not racial or circumstantial ones. Spanish missionaries and encomienderos in their majority perceived the Indians to be not beasts of burden but children requiring instruction in the scientific facts of this world and the diligent habits of industry. Bartolome de las Casas, a renowned defender of Indian rights suggested for example that the Natives, given humane treatment and exposure to the doctrines of religious humanism present in Christianity (as opposed to the pre-Columbian death cults of the Aztecs and Incas) could come to harbor a radically new attitude which regarded individual human life as infinitely valuable and a systematic study of objective data of reality through reason to be the path to progress, profit, and prosperity. Indeed, Spain was virtually triumphant in extinguishing the sacrificial rites of the Natives while establishing missions throughout Central and South America along with encomiendas on which Natives were fed, clothed, sheltered, and paid substantive wages for their exertions. Humanism was a potent incentive for interaction with the Natives, as their education was thought to contribute to the overall order and amelioration of society at large, that a group of civil, skilled, learned professionals would be far more willing to engage in peaceful trade of goods and knowledge than would a rabble of hollering, self-deforming primitives. A larger amount of laborers and producers would also imply an ever increasing amount of available comforts and commodities, which, from a humanistic perspective, identified self-interest with the welfare of all and did not place the two in conflict.

It was thus, through a combination of technological advancement, economic aspiration, and moral humanism, that the West attained a global presence, initiating an era of enlightenment and progress for centuries to come.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.