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A Theory About European Naval Domination

While visiting Delhi, Paul Krugman muses on the historical vastness of the Mughal Empire and how Western Europe came to dominate the world stage.

I was in Delhi recently, where I spent most of my time in rooms full of people talking economics. But I did get out a bit to see some sights, and I found myself thinking about history. And I thought I’d inflict some amateur historical speculation on my readers.

The starting point, for me, is realizing just how big the Mughal Empire was (I know, ignorant Westerner). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the empire was far more populous than any state in Europe — in fact, it was comparable to the whole of Western Europe, if not more. And this was an era when per capita incomes were fairly similar, so the Mughal economy would have dwarfed any European economy, too.

But was the Mughal state sui generis? Not really. It flourished in an era of “gunpowder empires,” large states where the strength of the central government rested on siege artillery and professional pike-and-musket infantry. The term is usually applied primarily to the three giant Islamic states — the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Mughal. But as I understand it, the whole arc from Ming/Qing China to Habsburg Spain basically fits the model.

In this era, the states of northwestern Europe that ended up looming so large in world history look trivial — and still looked trivial in population and economic weight as late as the early 18th century. What’s more, they didn’t have any visible advantage in military technology until much later.

But surely this, too, is a simplistic picture. For even in the heyday of the gunpowder empires, the far Western states of Europe dominated the world’s oceans. Not the Mediterranean, but the open ocean, where galleys never had a chance, and it was sail-and-cannon all the way. The Atlantic fringe took control very early. Why?

O.K., a weird analogy: Think about the long military dominance of steppe nomads.
The term Mughal comes, of course, from Mongol — and Genghis Khan was only one of a series of conquerors who emerged from the steppes and overran vast civilizations, even though the population of the steppes was tiny compared to the populations of the regions that the nomads conquered. Why were the nomads so formidable?

Well, they were horse archers, and for a long time these were the world’s most terrifyingly effective warriors. Everyone knew about bows and arrows, probably even compound bows, and everyone knew what skilled bowmen on horses could do. The problem for civilized lands, surely, was finding military recruits with the needed skills. To be a really good archer you had to start very young — England gave up on longbows not because muskets were better, but because archery faded out as a popular pastime, and it was much easier to train a peasant to shoot a musket. The same is true for horse riding. And the combination must have been really tough to master.

However, the conditions of nomad existence meant that there were, relatively speaking, a lot of men with the needed skills. So steppe nomads dominated in war because of the skills they developed when they were not at war.

Now think about sail-and-cannon naval warfare. The gunpowder empires knew all about cannons. But my guess — and I’m sure there are real historians out there who can correct me if I’m wrong — is that Western Europe, because of its geography and lifestyle, had a disproportionately large number of skilled open-sea sailors. Very few of them would have been engaged in warfare in normal times, or even during wars; mostly, they would have been prosaically transporting bulk items, especially herring and, later, cod. But can’t we argue that these sailors provided a base of skills that gave the Atlantic fringe a big military advantage at sea?

Obviously, I like this hypothesis for several reasons. It’s the kind of thing that satisfies my frustrated ambitions to be one of Isaac Asimov’s “psychohistorians”; I think the analogy between, say, the Dutch Republic and Genghis Khan is pretty cool, and so is the notion that European dominance ultimately rested on the herring trade.
Of course, there’s a strong possibility that this hypothesis is obviously wrong for some reason, that it’s been thoroughly discussed by some eminent historian I just happen to have missed, or both.

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