One of the questions I have enjoyed asking myself is: Why Europe? Why did Europe colonize the world? Why was it countries from that region and not the equally advanced empires in other parts of the Old World? I suppose that question might trigger the response that they actually were technologically more advanced, but the European innovations that have changed the world so much actually began well after their kings started claiming land in far-off places.
I suppose you could look to the religion, the culture or the economic system of Europe for answers, and I imagine you would find plenty of material in every one. In fact, out of all the things I like to think about, this is probably the one that attracts the most speculation, because there is so much there to work with. To illustrate how broad the possibilities are, one of my favorite ideas on the subject is my own Bland Food Theory, which posits that Europeans took over the world because spices don’t grow there and they had to travel very long distances to find the necessary ingredients for good-tasting food. (Well, would they have started exploring if they hadn’t had a preference for Asian food ingredients?)
I am generally of the opinion that if you can’t think of at least three reasons that something happened, you aren’t trying very hard. In that vein, it appears that there are many reasons for the European conquest and that each of these interacts with the others in a complex web of relationships. Even so, I think there may have been one overriding factor that pushed the whole enterprise. I believe Europe took over the world because of the specific characteristics of the competition between its states.
This occurred to me when I was taking business classes in the 90’s. I learned about centers of industries, where a group of companies end up making products that are far better than the best efforts of their more distant competitors. I learned that this phenomenon was thought to happen when a number of mid-sized, evenly-matched companies competed in the same city or region: the intense competition drives companies to innovate and do things they never would have done in a less-challenging environment.
So, when you look at Europe in the colonial era, what do you see? A number of moderately-sized, evenly-matched states competing with each other for the upper hand. There was no China, which completely dominated its political landscape. There was no Mughal empire, which dominated India. There was no Caliphate like those that ruled much of the Muslim world for long periods of time. In fact, there was no large empire of any sort that could dominate the subcontinent of Europe. There were, however, several states that were large enough to defend themselves from their rivals, but not quite large enough to conquer them.
I believe that European states began to colonize the world to gain an advantage over their neighbors. This doesn’t actually seem like a particularly new idea. My only addition to it is that it was the number of states and the similarity of their strength that pushed European nations over the edge of the oceans. I think they were desperate to gain any advantage over their enemies (or even their allies).
Europe also happens to have been a very war-like place. This is something we often overlook as we claim that Palestinians and Jews have been fighting each other for millennia. We forget that between the time of Alexander the Great and the creation of Israel after World War II, Palestine was ruled by a rather small number of large, long-lasting empires. Palestine has actually known peace for most of its history. It is Europe that has seen continual warfare since long before the advent of the historians who recorded it. In fact, Indo-European languages contain hints of a prehistoric battle-oriented culture.
By comparing related modern and ancient languages (like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Old English, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), linguists can reconstruct words that existed many centuries before those languages were written down. With only one exception, those are isolated words. The exception is a short phrase meaning “everlasting fame.” It was a concept that existed throughout the Indo-European world. And how did one achieve this everlasting fame? On the battlefield. This means that Europeans’ tradition of glorifying warfare extends far back into the mists of prehistory.
The tradition of warfare and the similar strength of the major states meant that kings and their allies had very real reasons for trying to out-compete their neighbors. It was a matter of staying in power, keeping your wealth and passing it all down to your children. To say that competition between European states was intense is putting it rather mildly. And the area they competed in most intensely was war. After they had adopted all the science, technology (and weapons) that Asia had to offer, Europeans developed the most effective military practices the world could ever have imagined, and then they improved on them again and again.
They used their abilities in war to almost walk through the plague-stricken American populations. They gradually took over more and more of Asia, and when that was nearly gone they grabbed almost every inch of Africa. Indeed, no island in the world was too small to be “claimed.”
They were good at war. They were good at conquering. They took many centuries to refine their weapons and tactics. And they had the motivation to conquer. So they did. And the world will quite literally never be the same.