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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce


Updated: May 15, 2022

"As Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion; so History without Geography wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation."

John Smith, “Generall Historie of Virginia Vol 1: New England & the Summer Isles”, 1629

In Why the West Rules- For Now, archaeologist Ian Morris explores the vexing question of why the West came to dominate world history. Morris makes the case that for much of history between the Neolithic period and the Industrial Revolution, the regions of the world we consider as East and West developed nearly the same. The East generally lagged except for the time period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the 15th century when the East held an advantage. The crucial moment was when Europeans harnessed the power of steam and launched the Industrial Revolution. Social development in the West grew exponentially, thereby widening the gap between the two core regions. Morris stresses throughout his work the idea that the West's rise to predominance was not guaranteed, nor is it predestined to continue as such. He makes the argument that there was nothing inherent in the West that provided them with an advantage. Many underlying factors influenced the trajectories of both East and West, and at any point in time, the results could have been different. For Morris, one of these factors was the role of geography in the shaping of social development across the globe.

Similarly, Peter Watson, in The Great Divide, tackles the differences in how the Old and New World's developed. His primary focus is on how the environment contributed to the divergent development of the two hemispheres. He emphasizes the limited options of plants and animals available to New World societies for domestication. Added to this are the extreme and destructive natural events - earthquakes and volcanoes - that occur with more frequency throughout the Western Hemisphere. Like Morris, geography plays an essential role in Watson's analysis.

The Yongle Emperor

At the start of the 15th century, China was recovering from years of conflict between the heirs of the founder of the Ming Dynasty. When the Yongle Emperor, also known as Zhu Di, established himself as the true emperor, he consolidated his power and strengthened China's economy. He initiated several projects to revitalize urban centers, reclaim productive areas of the country, and rebuilding the Grand Canal, the transportation lifeline of interior China. The emperor wished to rekindle the tribute system with China's neighbors. He commissioned Zheng He, a commander of the imperial navy, to make several voyages throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Indian Ocean.

Gavin Menzies, a former submarine commander with the Royal Navy, claimed that one of Zheng He's voyages reached the New World in 1421, long before Columbus. (1421:The Year China Discovered America). Because later xenophobic bureaucrats of later emperors destroyed many of the records of the voyages, Menzies can't produce hard evidence for his claim, and he relies mainly on piecing together circumstantial evidence. Most historians have questioned his methods and are skeptical of his conclusions. Yet even if one accepts the hypothesis that Zheng He "discovered" the New World, the question remains why China did not exploit the discovery like the Europeans would eventually do. Part of the answer to this question, according to Ian Morris, lies with geography.

It is the story of two oceans: the Pacific and the Atlantic. Look at a world map, and you will see that the Atlantic Ocean is smaller than the Pacific. European explorers had a smaller distance to travel. Major trade winds and currents also favored the Europeans. Iceland and Greenland provided early fleets with convenient stopping points to refresh and resupply. Unlike the Atlantic, there are vast distances between such stops, and there is a greater amount of open ocean. Sustained voyages would have been too difficult for the Chinese at the time. Confronted with the obstacles of traveling across the Pacific Ocean, China had no motivation to attempt it. They had a thriving, profitable trade with their neighbors in Southeast Asia, the Korean peninsula, and Japan. They also were preoccupied with the threats of the various tribes of the Central Asian steppes. Europe, on the other hand, saw older trade routes blocked with the fall of Constantinople and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. There was a high degree of motivation to find new sources of trade, and due to the fortune of geography, both Spain and Portugal were well situated to explore and exploit the Atlantic sea routes. This spurred innovation in shipbuilding and marine technology, thereby making the Atlantic crossing that much easier.

The Eurasian continent is home to a wide range of wild grasses, some of which have been domesticated: wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet, and rice. The East-West orientation of the continent provided a relatively uniform environment. This allowed for the rapid dispersal of these domesticated grains, as well as domesticated large mammals such as the horse and cattle. Early farmers found it easy to transplant and grow grains transported from elsewhere. This East-West orientation also provided for highly mobile nomadic people. This assisted in the exchange of cultures and ideas across the vast landmass.

In contrast, the North-South orientation of the New World made things more difficult. Unlike Eurasia, the New World lacked a variety of grasses and large mammals to domesticate. Only one grain was domesticated, and that was maize. Other plants were cultivated in particular regions of the Western Hemisphere, such as the potato in the Andes. But none of these could be widely distributed throughout the Americas. North and South America stretch from pole to pole and over successive latitudes contain several different environments. This allowed for greater biodiversity, look at the number of species in the Amazon rainforest alone, but it made it more difficult to transplant flora and fauna into new areas. These species were less adaptable than their Eurasian counterparts. Much of the environment, in the tropics particularly, impeded the easy movement of people and cultures. These factors, according to Peter Watson, influenced how Pre-Columbian societies developed in relation to their environment. It was a much different development than what occurred on the Eurasian landmass.

Mayan Corn God

Fernand Braudel and others of the Annales School of French historians speak of the longue duree, loosely translated as the "long term." (See also my previous blog post "History From the Bottom Up" for more on the Annales School.) The longue duree does not focus upon individuals or singular events ("histoire evenenmentielle"). It examines the structures of social development that evolve over long periods of time. In the first volume of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World of Philip II, Braudel highlights the tensions between mountain dwellers and plains dwellers and how these cultural differences are embedded into the region's history. Geography is an important factor in the tradition of the longue duree. Both Ian Morris and Peter Watson demonstrate the subtle influences of geography on the broad landscape of history.


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The Great Divide: Peter Watson

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