Early Modern Maritime Empires: The Decisive Role of Politics

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The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries constituted an age of exploration. Explorers from many different societies, European and non-European alike, were traversing the globe in search of the fabulous wealth and luxuries that had only proliferated since the Black Death dealt its sharpest blow just a century before. Imperial expansion was the order of the day. In Europe, one of the earliest empires – perhaps the leading European empire of the period – was that of Spain. The country’s monarchy initially funded such voyages as Christopher Columbus’s (1492-1502) in order to find a safe maritime route to Chinese and other Asian trading posts, but later became interested in brute-force methods of extracting resources from and permanently settling large swaths of the Americas. By contrast, the Chinese maritime empire under the Ming Dynasty also funded maritime voyages, but theirs were far more massive and not primarily geared toward conquest or even opening transcontinental trade routes. Instead, they were more interested in extending China’s existing tributary system to other parts of Asia. On balance, while both the Spanish Empire and the Ming Dynasty both used maritime policy to increase their wealth, the two empires had far different political motives that manifested themselves in different behavior overseas and eclipsed whatever surface similarities between their respective forays across the ocean.

The political context that established the contours for Spain’s overseas ventures was one in which absolutist monarchies were performing something of a balancing act. Set one side by landed aristocrats who had acquired significant power through the collection of rent from tenants and the wielding of warriors capable of defending their domain, the European monarchies of this period also had to grapple with the rise of a market economy in the villages that grew throughout the Middle Ages. Moreover, these monarchies were jostling for power on the European continent itself, with Portugal, Spain, France, and England all seeking to acquire the vast amounts of wealth that could be acquired through trading missions to Asia. Yet the Mongol conquests of large swaths of central Asia resulted in the blocking of the arduous and increasingly dangerous overseas trade routes. As a result, these empires – particularly Spain and Portugal – turned toward the sea, seeking routes to Asia first around Africa than later westward over the vast Atlantic Ocean (Fernández-Armesto, chs. 5-6). Because of the highly competitive nature of this race for resources, the monarchies sought to establish trading monopolies or – in the case of outright forcible extraction – direct conquest of the lands from which they were receiving resources. This process of expansion took place in Europe in concert with a missionary ethic that sought to spread a particular sect of Christianity to non-believers or members of other Christian sects.

This context decisively shaped how Spain went about carrying out its maritime policies. Because European empires like Spain were only beginning to coalesce in competition, the size of their voyages was relatively small – Spain’s usually containing no more than a handful of shits and several hundred men. And since sailors under the Spanish flag encountered civilizations that were not firmly embedded in trade networks, it was all too easy to extort the natives through “trade” and ultimately through other forms of coercion. Columbus, upon arriving in the Americans noted on his first voyage that “they [the natives] bartered, like idiots, cotton, and gold for fragments of bows, glasses, bottles, and jars” (Columbus 10). Nevertheless, religion was also key, and explorers generally tried to carry Christianity with them every bit as much as they sought to carry back gold and spices to Europe. Columbus refused to take advantage of the natives of which he wrote, giving them various articles in his possession “in order that I might the more easily conciliate them, that they might be led to become Christians” (Columbus 10). Before long, though, the process resulted in outright conquest – the most memorable of which was the Spanish destruction of the Aztec capital, a process that one observer tellingly described as pitting the Aztecs versus the Christians: “The Christians wounded some of the Indians, and great numbers of Indians were killed in the assaults on horseback and by the guns, harquebuses and crossbows” (de Aguilar 23). The process expanded to such an extent because the logic of political competition forced such expansion and continuation.

By contrast, the maritime empire of the Ming Dynasty faced no such heightened competition. And unlike Europe, which was just emerging from the decentralized and fragmented political system of the feudal Middle Ages, the Chinese rulers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were well organized and exerted a strong bureaucratic control throughout lands under their authority (Strayer and Nelson). Whatever expeditions were undertaken by the Chinese occurred in a political context where they were not integral to the state-building process but rather were intended to enhance the prestige (and wealth) of the existing state and dynasty.

On a practical level, the different political context for Chinese maritime policy yielded numerous differences from Spain’s policies and actions – differences that eclipsed whatever similarities the two empires might have had. The first difference was that the ships that set sail under Ming authority were significantly larger, often with hundreds of vessels containing thousands of seafarers. Another difference was that these expeditions were to areas with established trade maritime trade routes and industries borne of population areas that could not easily be subdued through direct force. Owing to that and the fact that the Chinese government undertook these expeditions primarily to enhance its regional influence, it did not seek conquest of the territories to which its sailors traveled. Rather, consistent with paintings of the period like Tribute Giraffe with Attendant, the Chinese sought to expand its tribute system. Finally, in contrast to the Spanish Empire, the Ming Empire was centralized and could (and did) end its expeditions rapidly – which occurred in 1433. The reason Chinese maritime policy yielded these dramatically different results in terms of size and coordination (with all expeditions ending at once) was that policies were not motivated by Spain’s desire to centralize fragmented political power in the face of rival countries.

Works Cited

Columbus, Christopher. "Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella." Thinking through Sources for Ways of the World: A Brief Global History, edited by Robert W. Strayer and Eric Nelson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 10-11.

de Aguilar, Francisco. "Brief Record of the Conquest of New Spain." Thinking through Sources for Ways of the World: A Brief Global History, edited by Robert W. Strayer and Eric Nelson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 23-24.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. Norton, 2007.

Strayer, Robert W., and Eric Nelson. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.