The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road to Northern Europe

The world was transformed by the discoveries of the 1490s. No longer on the sidelines of global affairs, Europe was becoming the world’s engine. Decisions made in Madrid and Lisbon now echoed and reverberated thousands of miles away, as once they had done from imageAbbāsid Baghdad, from Luoyang in Tang dynasty China, from the Mongol capital at Karakorum or from Timur’s Samarkand. All roads now led to Europe.

This left some deeply frustrated. None were more bitter than the English. It was bad enough that the treasuries of England’s rivals multiplied overnight; what made it worse was the triumphal and tiring story that the gold and silver raining down on the Spanish crown was part of God’s design. This was particularly painful following England’s break with Rome. ‘How great is the power that the Divine Majesty has placed in the hands of the kings of Spain,’ wrote one Jesuit priest in the sixteenth century; Spain’s wealth has been ‘ordained by the Lord on high, who both gives and takes away kingdoms from whomever and in whatsoever way he wishes’.1

The message was that Protestant rulers should expect punishment for abandoning the true faith. With the Reformation in full swing, violence and oppression erupted across Europe between Catholics and Protestants. Rumours swirled of imminent military action against England, especially after the false dawn had passed following the death of Mary I, under whom it had seemed that the country would revert to adherence to Rome and accept papal authority. When her half-sister, Elizabeth I, took the throne in 1558, she had to walk a precarious tightrope between the competing religious demands of a vocal and powerful lobby group on the one hand and insurrection by those who were disaffected, sidelined or victimised in the atmosphere of intolerance on the other. Being all things to all men was made no easier by England’s relative isolation on the fringes of Europe. By the time that Pope Pius V issued a bull in 1570 entitled Regnans in Excelsis, declaring Elizabeth to be ‘the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime’ and threatening to excommunicate any of her subjects who obeyed her laws, thoughts were turning to how to fight off an expected invasion when – rather than if – it came.2

Heavy investment was made in the Royal Navy to create a formidable and effective first line of defence. State-of-the-art dockyards were built, such as at Deptford and Woolwich on the Thames, where warships were designed and maintained with ever increasing efficiency, which in turn helped revolutionise the construction of commercial vessels. Ships that could hold more cargo, travel faster, stay out at sea longer and carry more crew and more powerful cannon began to be built.3

The doyen of shipwrights was Matthew Baker, himself the son of a master builder. He adopted mathematical and geometric principles – set out in a seminal text entitled ‘Fragments of Ancient English Shipwrightry’ – to create a new generation of ships for Queen Elizabeth.4 These designs were quickly adopted for commercial use, with the result that the number of English ships weighing a hundred tons or more almost tripled in the two decades after 1560. The new generation of vessels quickly gained a reputation for their speed, for handling well and for the formidable threat they presented when encountered at sea.5

The fruits of the build-up of England’s naval forces became apparent when Spain attempted to send a huge fleet to pick up troops from the Netherlands in the summer of 1588 for a full-blown invasion of England. Outmanoeuvred and outduelled by the English, the surviving members of the Spanish Armada returned home in shame. Although most of the ships that were lost foundered on reefs and in unusually severe storms rather than at the hands of the English, few doubted that the naval investment had paid off handsomely.6

The capture four years later of the Madre de Deus, a Portuguese caravel, off the Azores as it returned from the East Indies laden with pepper, cloves, nutmeg, ebony, tapestries, silks, textiles, pearls and precious metal, made the point about seapower even more emphatically. The haul from this single ship, which was towed into Dartmouth harbour on the south coast, was reckoned to be worth half of England’s regular annual imports. Its seizure prompted agonised discussions about how the booty should be shared out between the crown and those responsible for the success – something that was not made easier when high-value portable items quickly went missing.7

Successes like these were good for confidence and encouraged increasingly disruptive behaviour in the Atlantic and elsewhere. England began to build ties with anyone who was an enemy of Catholic rulers in Europe. In the 1590s, for example, Queen Elizabeth made a point of releasing Muslims from North Africa who had been serving as ‘gally-slaves’ on captured Spanish ships, providing them with clothes, money ‘and other necessities’, before sending them home safely.8 The English, moreover, had support from the Muslims of North Africa in an attack on Cádiz in 1596 – an incident that is referred to at the very start of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Such was the alignment of interests in this period that one modern commentator talks of the English and the Moors participating in a ‘jihad’ against Catholic Spain.9

As a result of England’s attempt to challenge the new Spanish and Portuguese routes to the Americas and to Asia, considerable effort was devoted to forging close relations with the Ottoman Turks. At a time when most of Europe looked on with horror as Turkish forces were all but knocking on the gates of Vienna, the English backed a different horse. They were conspicuous by their absence when other Christian states assembled to form a ‘Holy League’, a coalition that gathered to attack the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth in 1571. The victory of the Holy League prompted scenes of jubilation across Europe, where poetry, music, art and monuments were created to commemorate the triumph. In England, it was met with silence.10

Even after this, the Sultan in Constantinople was assiduously courted with warm letters of friendship and the dispatch of gifts from the court of Queen Elizabeth – with the result that ‘sincere greetings and abundant salutations, rose perfumed, which emanate from pure mutual confidence and the abundance of amity’ were sent back to London.11 Among the presents dispatched from England was an organ, designed by Thomas Dallam and shipped to Constantinople in 1599. Dallam was horrified when, due to heat and humidity, ‘all glewinge failed’, and the pipes were damaged in transit. The English ambassador took one look ‘and sayde that it was not worthe iid [tuppence]’. The organ was resurrected after Dallam had battled round the clock to mend the damage – and impressed the Sultan, Mehmed II, so much when he played it for him that he was showered with gold and offered ‘tow wyfes, either tow of his Concubines or els tow virgins of the beste I could Chuse’.12

Elizabeth’s approaches to the Sultan were underpinned by the prospect of opportunities that had opened up following the Turkish advance into Europe. The Pope had long been urging Christian rulers to rally to prevent further losses, warning gravely that ‘if Hungary is conquered, Germany will be next, and if Dalmatia and Illyria are overrun, Italy will be invaded’.13 With England resolutely ploughing its own furrow, developing good relations with Constantinople seemed sensible foreign policy – as well as offering the prospect of developing commercial links.

In this respect, it is striking that a formal trade agreement was made which gave English merchants in the Ottoman Empire privileges more generous than those accorded to any other nation.14 No less striking was the common language that was used in communication between Protestants and Muslims. It was no coincidence, for example, that Queen Elizabeth wrote to the Ottoman Sultan that she herself was ‘by the grace of the most mightie God . . . the most invincible and most mightie defender of the Christian faith against all kinde of idolatries, of all that live among the Christians, and falslie professe the name of Christ’.15 Ottoman rulers were equally alert to the opportunities to reach out to those who had split from the Catholic church, underlining similarities in how they too interpreted their faith – especially when it came to visual images: among the many errors of ‘the faithless one they call the Pope’, wrote Sultan Murad to ‘members of the Lutheran sect in Flanders and Spain’, was that he encouraged the worship of idols. It was much to their credit that the followers of Martin Luther, one of the architects of the Reformation, had ‘banished the idols and portraits and bells from churches’.16 Against all the odds, England’s Protestantism looked as if it could help open doors rather than close them.17

Positive views of the Ottomans and of the Muslim world spread into mainstream culture in England. ‘Mislike me not for my complexion,’ says the King of Morocco to Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when attempting to win her hand in marriage. The king was a man, the audience was informed, who had fought bravely for the Sultan on many occasions and was a fine match for the heiress (who stands as a cipher for Queen Elizabeth herself) – and a man who was shrewd enough to realise that ‘all that glisters is not gold’. Or there is Othello, where the tragic nobility of the protagonist, a Muslim in Venetian service, contrasts sharply with the double standards, hypocrisy and deceit of the Christians around him. ‘These Moors are unchangeable in their wills,’ the audience is told at one point – a reference to the belief that Muslims were trustworthy and resolute when it came to making promises and agreeing treaties, and were therefore reliable allies.18 Indeed, the Elizabethan era saw the emergence of Persia too as a common, and positive, cultural reference point in English literature.19

Coupled with positive portrayals of Muslims and their realms in England were scathing attitudes towards the Spanish. The publication of Bartolomé de las Casas’s account of the conquest of the New World was therefore a godsend, especially in the context of the revolution pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg a hundred years earlier which had enabled texts to be printed in quantities that would previously have been considered unimaginable.20 This allowed accounts like that of de las Casas, a Dominican friar, to be disseminated quickly and relatively cheaply. As with the technological advances in the early twenty-first century, it was the sudden increase in speed in the sharing of information that made the difference.

The account of de las Casas was important because the priest had grown increasingly disillusioned by the suffering of the native populations in the Americas, which he witnessed at first hand. The text, setting out the atrocities in gruesome detail, was seized upon in England, where it was translated as A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias). Widely circulated in the 1580s either in full or abridged to include the most damning passages, it presented an unequivocal portrait of the Spanish as mass murderers and of Spain as a cruel, bloodthirsty realm. The translator of the text, James Aligrodo, wrote in his introduction that ‘12. 15. or 20. millions of poore reasonable creatures’ had been slaughtered.21

Stories spread quickly through Protestant Europe, noting the Spaniards’ grisly treatment of those whom they believed to be their inferiors. The analogy was obvious: the Spanish were natural-born oppressors who behaved towards others with ominous cruelty; given the chance, they would persecute those closer to home in just the same way.22 It was a conclusion that struck fear into the people of the Low Countries, which were locked in an increasingly vicious struggle with Spain in the late sixteenth century as the latter sought to assert its authority in regions where the Reformation had attracted strong support. Richard Hakluyt, the famous chronicler and advocate of British settlement in the Americas, described how Spain ‘governs in the Indies with all pride and tyranny’, and casts innocents into slavery, who mournfully ‘cry with one voice’, begging for freedom.23 This was the Spanish model of empire, in other words, one of intolerance, violence and persecution. England, of course, would never behave in so shameful a manner.24

That was the theory. In fact, attitudes to slavery and violence were more ambiguous than such high-minded promises suggest. In the 1560s, English sailors repeatedly tried to take a share of the lucrative slave trade in West Africa, with Sir John Hawkins using investment from Queen Elizabeth herself to help generate healthy profits shipping men across the Atlantic. Having concluded that ‘Negroes were very good merchandise in Hispaniola and that store of Negroes might easily be had upon the coast of Guinea’, Hawkins and his backers were more than willing to get in on the action. Far from refusing to deal with Spanish ‘tyrants’ in the New World, those at the highest levels of English society did rather well out of them.25

Ultimately, England’s posturing was framed by a keen awareness that it was in a weak position to exploit the astonishing opportunities that had been created by the great changes of the early sixteenth century. Religious dispute and unfortunate timing had turned the country into the sworn enemy of the rising global power that Spain had become, leaving it poorly placed to benefit from the flood of riches coming from the Americas or from the trade flowing into Venice through the Red Sea and the land routes from the east. Criticism of the Spanish was all very well, but it did little to hide the fact that the English were scavengers, grateful for whatever crumbs came their way. England was ‘swarminge at this day with valiant youths’, noted the writer Richard Hakluyt, and thanks to a chronic ‘lack of employment’ was suffering from a woeful economic position. Would it not be wonderful, he asked, to put young men to work to create a navy capable of making ‘this realm . . . lords of all those seas [of the world]’?26 Talk of ruling the waves was ambitious; but there was nothing wrong with dreaming.

The English did not sit still while southern Europe boomed. Expeditions were dispatched in all directions to try to open up trade routes and build new networks of trade, transportation and communication. Few delivered encouraging results. Missions led by Martin Frobisher to explore the North-West Passage in the 1570s returned home without finding a hoped-for route to Asia – which was bad enough; what made them positively embarrassing was that the large quantities of gold brought back from what is now Canada and trumpeted as discoveries to rival those made elsewhere in the Americas turned out to be nothing of the sort. The glittering metal was marcasite, or white iron pyrite – fool’s gold.27

There were other disasters. Attempts to reach China through the Barents Sea ended in tragedy. Sir Hugh Willoughby and his men found their vessel trapped by ice near Murmansk as winter set in. All froze to death, their bodies discovered the following year. According to the Venetian ambassador to London, they were frozen solid ‘in various postures, like statues’, some ‘seated in the act of writing, pen still in hand and spoon in mouth; others opening a locker’.28

Further efforts to establish trade links with Russia in order to access goods from the east were hampered first by the fact that the English arrived at the moment that Ivan IV was at his most terrible, and second by the limitations of Russian commerce in Asia in the sixteenth century. Although this was about to expand dramatically, routes through to the Caspian and beyond were still too insecure for merchants to pass safely; even heavily guarded caravans were liable to be picked off by bandits.29

Merchants were also sent to Persia on several occasions in the 1560s, in a rather desperate bid to establish commercial links there. Usually carrying documents from Queen Elizabeth promising friendship and alliance, the envoys requested privileges from the Shah ‘upon an honest intent, to establish trade of merchandise with your subjects, and with other strangers trafficking in your realms’.30 So anxious were the English to gain concessions that traders were under strict instructions not to talk about religion after being wrongfooted in their responses when challenged about the relative virtues of Islam and Christianity by their devout Muslim hosts. If anyone asks about the state of faith at home in future, travellers were advised, it was better ‘to passe over it in silence, without any declaration of it’.31 In Europe, religious posturing counted for everything as Catholics and Protestants fought ferociously with each other; beyond, it could be conveniently left to one side.

By the start of the seventeenth century, there was little to show for the attempts to emulate the success of the Spanish and the Portuguese. New trading entities had been set up to try to raise money from private funds, starting with the Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown, founded in 1551. A cluster of new and separate companies with different geographic ambitions mushroomed around it. The Spanish Company, the Eastland Company, the Levant Company, the Russia Company, the Turkey Company and the East India Company were founded with royal charters that granted monopolies on commerce within a designated region or country on the basis that business overseas was risky and required substantial investment. As such, incentivising merchants by protecting future success was an innovative way of trying to build up England’s trade – and with it, extending the country’s political tentacles.

Despite their impressive-sounding names, royal endorsements and high hopes, the results were meagre to start with. England remained firmly on the periphery of world affairs, while Spain’s position seemed to grow stronger and stronger. Precious metals gathered over centuries by the Aztecs, the Incas and others were gathered up and dispatched to Spain over the course of a few decades, along with the riches of mines that had either not previously been discovered or had been poorly exploited – such as at Potosí, which was said to produce a million pesos per year for the Spanish crown alone.32

Huge though Spain’s finds were, however, there was only so much treasure that could be squeezed from the New World. Resources were, after all, finite – as were those oyster beds off the coast of Venezuela that were devastated following the fishing of tens of billions of oysters in just thirty years in the early sixteenth century.33 Nevertheless, the Spanish treated the windfall as a bottomless pit, using the new-found wealth to fund a litany of grandiose schemes such as the building of the enormous palace at El Escorial, as well as financing never-ending military action against rivals all over Europe. There was a strong sense within the Spanish court that it was necessary to act as the Almighty’s policeman, delivering his will on earth – by force if necessary. Spain found it all but impossible to resist military confrontation with Protestants and Muslims alike. It was a new chapter for holy war.

As the earlier Crusades had shown, holy warfare’s appetite for men and money could be ruinously expensive for royal treasuries. The situation was not helped by the willingness of the Spanish crown to use debt to finance its projects, which encouraged short-term and ambitious decisions while hiding consequences that would only become clear later – especially when things went wrong. Fiscal mismanagement and incompetence were part of the picture; but ultimately Spain’s inability to control military spending proved catastrophic. Incredibly, it became a serial defaulter on its debts in the second half of the sixteenth century, failing to meet its obligations no fewer than four times.34It was like a lottery winner that had gone from rags to riches – only to squander the prize money on luxuries that were unaffordable.

The effects of the flood of riches were felt elsewhere. As it was, there had been a price revolution across Europe as inflation took hold thanks to the money flow from the Americas, which naturally led to more and more consumers chasing a finite quantity of goods. Growing urbanisation exacerbated the problem, driving prices higher still. In Spain, the price of grain alone quintupled in the century after Columbus’ discoveries.35

Things eventually snapped in the provinces and towns of the Low Countries, which formed part of the Spanish demesne, where anger was fanned by the way that Spain sought to solve its financial woes through heavy taxation. Northern Europe was a hive of productive urban centres, with Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Amsterdam emerging in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as important emporia for goods to and from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, the Baltics and Russia, as well as the British Isles. Naturally, they blossomed further still following the opening up of trade from India and the Americas.36

These cities became magnets for merchants from far and wide, which in turn made for vibrant social and economic life and for strong civic identities. The growing populations required surrounding land to be used efficiently, prompting rapid advances not only in yield management of crops in the surrounding territory but also in irrigation techniques, such as the construction of dykes and sea walls to allow every piece of available land to be used profitably. The burgeoning size and productivity of the cities of the Low Countries and their hinterlands made them lucrative honey pots – centres which generated tax revenues, something not lost on the Spanish rulers who by luck of dynastic marriage and inheritance controlled most of this region.37

It was not long before individual provinces and cities were howling in dismay at the introduction of punitively high levels of taxation, coupled with brutally heavy-handed attitudes on matters of faith. The ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin and others who emphasised the institutional corruption of distant political rulers and the spiritual importance of the individual fell on fertile ground in these heavily urbanised areas and helped Protestantism embed deep roots in the region. Economic and religious persecution proved a powerful cocktail for fomenting revolt and eventually led to the Union of Utrecht of 1581 – a declaration of independence by what became the Union of Seven Provinces, effectively the Dutch Republic. The Spanish responded with a show of force, together with an embargo on trade across the Low Countries that began in 1585. The aim was to starve the rebel provinces and cities of oxygen and force them into submission. As is so often the case when sanctions are put in place, the result was the opposite: faced with little alternative, the separatists went on the offensive. The only way to survive was to use every ounce of knowledge, skill and expertise they had to their advantage; it was time to turn the tables.38

In the last years of the sixteenth century, circumstances came together to provide the context for a miracle in the Low Countries. Spain’s attempt to suppress the region caused large-scale emigration, as the population migrated north from the southern provinces, causing cities like Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp to suffer what one scholar has called ‘a catastrophic haemorrhage of inhabitants’. The timing was fortuitous. The trade ban ensured that there were huge stockpiles of grain and herring, which meant that food supplies were both plentiful and cheap. Although rents rose quickly, the swelling of the population also produced a boom in house construction, and brought together an effective group of experienced merchants and other professionals who were trying to escape the pressure exerted by the Spanish.39

When the blockade was finally lifted in 1590, the Dutch moved quickly to clear out Spanish troops who had been sent to maintain order, taking advantage of the fact that Philip II of Spain had become embroiled in military conflict elsewhere in Europe. Suddenly free from military pressure and with a window of opportunity presenting itself, the Dutch threw themselves into international trade, seeking to build connections with the Americas, Africa and Asia.

There was a clear commercial logic to the plan of establishing their own trade routes. Bringing goods direct to the Dutch Republic would avoid two rounds of taxation: first, goods would arrive without having had duties creamed off in ports in Portugal and Spain where cargoes were typically taxed before being sent north. Second, the fact that the Dutch authorities would now collect the revenues themselves, rather than pass them back to the Iberian masters, meant that the money produced from the thriving commerce in the Low Countries would not leech out to fund imperial ambitions and reckless spending elsewhere. This would bring immediate benefits and create a virtuous circle as greater profits could be reinvested, generating even stronger cash flows – both for individual merchants and for the fledgling republic.40

The ambitious programme paid dividends from the outset. An expedition that set out for the east in 1597 returned home the following year in triumph, carrying cargoes that produced profits of 400 per cent. Fleets now began to fan out in all directions, funded by investors emboldened by such strong returns on their capital.41 In 1601 alone, fourteen separate expeditions set sail for Asia, while as many as a hundred vessels a year were soon crossing the Atlantic to acquire salt from the Araya peninsula, which was vital for the domestic herring trade.42

The Spanish were outraged; they renewed their military action and imposed another blockade. According to the brilliant philosopher and lawyer Hugo Grotius, this simply reinforced the point that the Dutch had to take their destiny into their own hands. Rather than step back in the face of threats and pressure, the only choice was to invest yet more in commercial ventures and build a trade network as quickly as possible to help build up firepower and reinforce independence. It was a question of all or nothing.43

Key to Dutch success was superb shipbuilding, and above all innovations in the classic designs that had long enabled herring fleets to operate successfully in the North Sea and in shallow harbours thanks to their low draughts. From the 1550s, as the English built quicker and stronger warships, the Dutch focused their efforts on developing vessels that handled even better, could carry more cargo, required fewer crew to operate – and were therefore cheaper to run. These ships, called fluyts, set a new benchmark for commercial shipping.44

The Dutch did their homework and were well prepared when they set sail. While their European predecessors who had crossed the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope were journeying into the unknown, the Dutch were not. They knew what they were looking for and where to find it. Authors like Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, secretary to the archbishop of Goa, who spent his time thoroughly researching trade routes, harbours, markets and local conditions across Asia, produced texts such as the Itinerario, which provided comprehensive blueprints that served almost as instruction manuals for those setting out for the east.45

Other works were also useful in preparing traders for their travels. The Dutch were world leaders when it came to cartography. Maps and sea charts prepared by the engraver Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer in the 1580s were considered indispensable throughout Europe thanks to their detail and accuracy. Attention was paid to collecting precise information and producing updated, detailed atlases of the East Indies as well as of the Caribbean; these set the standard for modern navigational aids in the early seventeenth century.46

Then there were texts that helped explain the vocabulary and grammar of the strange languages that Dutch traders could expect to encounter on their travels. One of the earliest of these new linguists was Fredrik de Houtman, whose Dutch–Malay dictionary and grammar was published in 1603 following his release from prison in Aceh by the Sultan of Sumatra, where he had diligently learnt the language of his captors.47 Such vocabulary lists were avidly studied by merchants heading to Asia in the sixteenth century; they set out useful words and phrases translated from Dutch into Malayalam, Malay, Bisayan, Tagalog, Tamil and other languages.48

The underlying secret to Dutch success in the seventeenth century was common sense and hard work. The Dutch reckoned that the way to work was not to follow the example of England, where the chartered companies used sharp practices to limit beneficiaries to a small circle of intimates, all looking after each other’s interests and using monopoly positions to protect their positions. Instead, capital was pooled and risks shared among as wide a body of investors as possible. In due course, the conclusion was reached that despite competing ambitions and rivalries between provinces, cities and indeed individual merchants, the most efficient and powerful way to build up trade was by combining resources.49

In 1602, therefore, the government of the United Provinces created a single entity to conduct trade with Asia on the principle that this would be stronger and more powerful than the sum of its parts. It was a bold move, not least since it involved soothing local rivalries and convincing all involved that interests would not only be aligned but be better served this way. The creation of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) – the East Indies Company – and not long afterwards the sister corporation for the Americas, the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) – the West Indies Company – was a textbook example of how to set up a world-class multinational corporation.50

The Dutch model proved astonishingly successful. Although some, like the merchant and founder of the WIC, Willem Usselincx, argued that the best idea was to colonise parts of the Americas that were yet to be settled, a clear plan took shape.51 The aim was not to try to compete with other European merchants such as in Goa where Portuguese, Venetian and German traders lived side by side; it was to displace them.52

The aggressive approach paid off immediately. Attention turned first to the Spice Islands, where the isolated Portuguese community was expelled in 1605 as part of a systematic programme to establish control over the East Indies. Over the following decades, the Dutch kept consolidating their position, establishing a permanent headquarters in Batavia – the name a nod to the appellation given to the inhabitants of the Low Countries during the time of the Roman Empire – in what is now Jakarta.

Military force was used to take and secure a chain of points linking back to the motherland. Although the Dutch were frustrated in a few locations, such as Macau and Goa, the gains that were made in the seventeenth century were impressive indeed. Soon, it was not just the Europeans abroad who were beleaguered by the Dutch, but local rulers too whose realms were strategically sensitive or economically important. Control was established over Malacca, Colombo, Ceylon and Cochin, before the sultanate of Macassar (in modern Indonesia) was targeted in 1669. Macassar was the missing piece necessary in establishing a monopoly over the spice trade with Asia. Renamed New Rotterdam, its capture was followed by the construction of a major fort, as had been the case elsewhere – a statement of intent that such gains were not going to be surrendered lightly.53 A map held in the state archives in The Hague depicts the veritable spider’s web that was spun as the Dutch built up their position in the East Indies.54

The same pattern was followed elsewhere. Rivals were pushed out of West Africa as the Dutch succeeded in dominating the gold trade, and in due course became heavily involved in slave trafficking to the Americas. New strongholds were founded, such as Fort Nassau in modern Ghana. The Portuguese were pushed out of other bases, such as Elmina, on the Ghanaian coast, which passed into Dutch hands in the middle of the seventeenth century. There was considerable success in the Caribbean and the Americas too, to the point that by the 1640s the Dutch had gained a major share of trans-Atlantic shipping, and controlled the sugar trade outright.55

The Low Countries were transformed. Fortunes were made for those who had invested in long-distance trade early on, while those who were beneficiaries of the new rich did well too. Universities were founded at Leiden and Groningen where scholars could push the boundaries of academic disciplines thanks to the funding of generous patrons. Artists and architects flourished, revelling in the sudden interest and wealth of a freshly minted bourgeoisie. In times of extraordinary affluence, magnificent buildings started to go up in Amsterdam, which rose from the water as Venice had done centuries earlier. Areas like the Jordaan were reclaimed from the sea as canal houses went up on the Keizersgracht and near by that were feats of engineering as well as architectural wonders.

The influence of the Silk Roads began to be felt in the arts. A thriving ceramics industry blossomed in Haarlem, Amsterdam and above all in Delft, heavily influenced by the look, feel and design of items imported from the east. Chinese visual themes dominated, while the characteristic blue and white wares developed centuries earlier by potters in the Persian Gulf, which had become popular in China and in the Ottoman Empire, were adopted so widely that they became the distinctive feature of Dutch ceramics as well. Imitation was not only the sincerest form of flattery; in this case, it was also part of joining a global system of material culture that now linked the North Sea with the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.56

With demand increasing for objects that helped show status, the arts in general in the Netherlands flourished. Some have suggested that 3 million paintings were produced in the seventeenth century alone.57 It was inevitable that this would stimulate new ideas and also raise standards, providing a context for painters like Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer to create works of breathtaking beauty. Given the remarkable way that the Dutch had worked together to enjoy success, it was entirely appropriate that some of the most beautiful works recorded groups, such as The Banquet of the Guard of St Adrian (the Civic Guard of Haarlem) by Frans Hals, or Rembrandt’s famous work The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out – more usually referred to as The Night Watch, which was commissioned for the Banqueting Hall of the Civic Guard of Amsterdam.

Individuals were eager patrons too, with the merchant Andries Bicker for example hiring Bartholomeus van der Heist to commemorate his success and newly elevated social status, or the shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen asking Rembrandt to paint a portrait of him and his wife working together on nautical designs. It was the turn of the Dutch – and of Dutch art – to experience a golden age.58

The Dutch were keen to show off their homeware, as in the case of Vermeer’s Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, where a blue and white bowl feautres prominently in the foreground.59 An English visitor to Amsterdam in 1640 could not hide how impressed he was by what he saw. In the Low Countries, wrote Peter Mundy, even houses of ‘indifferent quality’ were filled with furniture and ornaments ‘very Costly and Curious, Full of pleasure and home contentment, as Ritche Cupboards, Cabinetts . . . Imagery, porcelain, Costly Fine cages with birds’ and more besides. Even butchers and bakers, blacksmiths and cobblers had paintings and luxury trinkets in their homes.60 ‘I was amazed,’ wrote the English diarist John Evelyn about the annual fair in Rotterdam at around the same time; it was flooded with paintings, especially with ‘landscapes and drolleries, as they call those clownish representations’. Even common farmers had become avid art collectors.61 These attitudes were typical of the growing numbers of English visitors to the Low Countries in this period.62

The Dutch Golden Age was the result of a finely executed plan. It also had the benefit of being well timed, coming at a time when much of Europe was in disarray, engaged in endless rounds of costly and inconclusive military hostility which engulfed the continent during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48. This volatility presented opportunities, for the attention and resources that were diverted into arenas closer to home allowed the Dutch to pick off their targets on different continents one by one without facing retribution. The bloody fighting in the seventeenth century enabled the Dutch to establish a dominant position in the east at the expense of their rivals in Europe.

European warfare, however, had an even more important role: it prompted the rise of the west. Discussions about Europe in this period emphasise that the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason saw a coming of age where ideas of absolutism were replaced by notions of freedom, rights and liberty. But it was Europe’s entrenched relationship with violence and militarism that allowed it to place itself at the centre of the world after the great expeditions of the 1490s.

Even before the near-simultaneous discoveries of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, competition between kingdoms in Europe had been intense. For centuries, the continent had been characterised by fierce rivalry between states that frequently erupted into open hostility and war. This in turn prompted advancements in military technology. New weapons were developed, introduced and then refined after being tested on the battlefield. Tactics evolved as commanders learnt from experience. The concept of violence was institutionalised too: European art and literature had long celebrated the life of the chivalrous knight and his capacity to use force judiciously – as an act of love and of faith, but also as an expression of justice. Stories about the Crusades, which praised nobility and heroism and hid treachery, betrayal and the breaking of sworn oaths, became intoxicatingly powerful.

Fighting, violence and bloodshed were glorified, as long as they could be considered just. This was one reason, perhaps, why religion became so important: there could be no better justification of war than its being in defence of the Almighty. From the outset, the fusion of religion and expansion were closely bound together: even the sails of Columbus’ ships were marked by large crosses. As contemporary commentators constantly stressed, in regard to the Americas, but also as Europeans began to fan out over Africa, India and other parts of Asia, and then Australia as well, it was all part of God’s plan for the west to inherit the earth.

In fact, Europe’s distinctive character as more aggressive, more unstable and less peace-minded than other parts of the world now paid off. After all, this was why the great vessels of the Spanish and the Portuguese had proved successful in crossing the oceans and connecting continents together. The traditionally built craft that had sailed across the Indian and Arabian seas for centuries with little change to their design were no match for western vessels that could outmanoeuvre and outgun them at will. Continuous improvements in ship design that made them faster, stronger and more deadly widened the gulf ever further.63

The same was true of military technology. Such was the reliability and accuracy of arms used in the Americas that small numbers of conquistadors were able to dominate populations that were vastly superior numerically – and populations that were advanced and highly sophisticated, except when it came to weapons. In the Inca lands, wrote Pedro de Cieza de Léon, law and order were carefully maintained, with great care taken ‘to see that justice was meted out and that nobody ventured to commit a felony or theft’.64 Data was collected annually across the Inca Empire to make sure taxes were calculated correctly and fairly paid, with births and deaths recorded centrally and kept up to date. The elite had to work the land themselves for a set number of days each year and did so ‘to set an example, for everybody was to know that there should be nobody so rich that . . . he might disdain or affront the poor’.65

These were not the savages described by triumphalists in Europe; in fact they seemed positively enlightened in comparison to the highly stratified societies that had emerged throughout most of the continent, where the gap between the powerful and the weak was cemented in an aristocratic patrimony that protected the social position of the powerful. Although Europeans might have thought they were discovering primitive civilisations and that this was why they could dominate them, the truth was that it was the relentless advances in weapons, warfare and tactics that laid the basis for the success of the west.

One reason why the domination of Africa, Asia and the Americas was possible was the centuries of European practice in building fortifications that were all but impregnable. Castle-building had been the staple of European society since the Middle Ages, with thousands of spectacular strongholds springing up across the continent. Their purpose, of course, was to withstand heavy and determined attack; their extraordinary number was testimony to the fear and regularity of assault. Europeans were world leaders in building fortresses and in storming them. It was striking how the European insistence on constructing imposing sites that could be secured from the inside was a source of bemusement to locals. No other traders had built forts in the past, noted the Nawab of Bengal in the 1700s, so why on earth did the Europeans insist on doing so now?66

The great irony, then, was that although Europe experienced a glorious Golden Age, producing flourishing art and literature and leaps of scientific endeavour, it was forged by violence. Not only that, but the discovery of new worlds served to make European society more unstable. With more to fight over and ever greater resources available, stakes were raised, sharpening tensions as the battle for supremacy intensified.

The centuries that followed the emergence of Europe as a global power were accompanied by relentless consolidation and covetousness. In 1500, there were around 500 political units in Europe; in 1900, there were twenty-five. The strong devoured the weak.67 Competition and military conflict were endemic to Europe. In this sense, later horrors in the twentieth century had their roots in the deep past. The struggle to dominate neighbours and rivals spurred improvements in weapons technology, mechanisation and logistics, which ultimately allowed arenas of warfare to be expanded substantially and enabled the numbers killed to rise from the hundreds to the millions. In time, persecution could be perpetrated on a massive scale. It was not for nothing that world war and the worst genocide in history had their origins and execution in Europe; these were the latest chapters in a long-running story of brutality and violence.

Thus, while focus normally falls on the investment in art and the impact of new wealth on culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is perhaps more instructive to look to the parallel advances in weapon-making in this period. Just as paintings were produced in enormous quantities for a hungry audience, so too were guns. By the 1690s, some 600,000 flintlocks were being sold by the entrepreneur Maximilien Titon in central France alone; some contemporaries thought it was impossible even to estimate how many workers were employed in the handgun industry in Saint-Etienne because they were so numerous. Between 1600 and 1750, the rate of successful fire of handguns multiplied by a factor of ten. Technological advances – including the inventions of ramrods, paper cartridges and bayonets – made guns cheaper, better, quicker and more deadly.68

Similarly, although the names of scientists like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler have become famous to generations of schoolchildren, it can be all too easy to forget that some of their most important work was on the trajectory of projectiles and understanding the causes of deviation to enable artillery to be more accurate.69 These distinguished scientists helped make weapons more powerful and ever more reliable; military and technological advances went hand in hand with the Age of Enlightenment.

It was not that aggression did not exist in other societies. As numerous examples across other continents would show, any conquest could bring death and suffering on a large scale. But periods of explosive expansion across Asia and North Africa, such as in the extraordinary first decades of the spread of Islam or during the time of the Mongol conquests, were followed by long periods of stability, peace and prosperity. The frequency and rhythm of warfare was different in Europe to other parts of the world: no sooner would one conflict be resolved than another would flare up. Competition was brutal and relentless. In that sense, seminal works like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan were quintessential texts that explained the rise of the west. Only a European author could have concluded that the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence; and only a European author would have been right.70

Moreover, the thirst for military confrontation lay behind other developments that were closely related to warfare, such as those in finance. Governments in Europe were hungry for capital to fund armies, leading to the establishment of debt markets where money could be raised against future tax revenues. Betting on success could produce handsome profits and unlock titles and other social benefits for canny investors whose investment in government debts could naturally be presented as patriotism: investing in state finances was a way of getting ahead, as well as becoming rich. London and Amsterdam became global centres of finance, specialising in sovereign debt, but also in increasingly complex stock-market listings.71

One reason for the rise to prominence of London and Amsterdam was the socio-economic acceleration of northern Europe. The latest research suggests that the population almost doubled in England and the Low Countries between 1500 and 1800. Most of this growth was felt in densely populated areas where the number of large towns rose by nearly three times.72 The process was particularly acute in the Low Countries: in the middle of the seventeenth century, as many as half the residents of Amsterdam are thought to have moved to the city from elsewhere.73 States with more urban centres had a considerable advantage over those with large rural populations. It was less time-consuming, easier and more efficient to gather taxes from cities, not least since the velocity of commercial exchange was so much greater than in the countryside. Densely populated areas also produced more reliable income streams and were less risky to lend to. England and the Dutch Republic could borrow more at better rates than their commercial and political competitors.74 Then, as now, to make money in finance it was not enough to be smart; you had to be in the right place. And increasingly, that meant London or Amsterdam.

This marked the start of the death-knell for Italy and the Adriatic. Already on the back foot thanks to new routes to market which brought goods directly to the richest consumers, the city-states with their deeply entrenched rivalries stood no chance against clusters of towns able and willing to combine their resources. Such large sums were raised to fund expansion that it became standard to spend more than half of state revenues simply servicing national debts.75 It was expensive to be locked in a constant fight against neighbours and constantly striving to gain a political, commercial and cultural edge over them. Europe became a continent running at two speeds: Old Europe in the east and the south which had dominated for centuries and which now sagged and stagnated; and New Europe, in the north-west, which boomed.76

Some saw the writing on the wall before others. As early as 1600, the British ambassador to Venice was able to write that ‘in the matter of trade, the decay is so manifest that all men conclude within twenty yeares space’ the city would all but collapse. Venice had once dominated trade with the east, but was no longer able to compete. Scores of mighty ships ‘of above 1000 tun apeece’ used to bring goods back home or head out to reload; now ‘not one is to be seene’.77 It was not long before the city began to reinvent itself, transforming from a commercial powerhouse to a centre of lascivious living, a hedonist’s delight. Although the authorities tried to put an end to the wearing of bigger and better jewels, to increasingly ostentatious parties and pleasure-seeking thrills, the city’s reinvention was in many ways understandable: what other choices did it have?78

In the place of international commerce and high politics, Venice, Florence and Rome became stops on a tourist trail for the new rich. Although first referred to as the Grand Tour in 1670, such expeditions began a century earlier, when a trip to Italy was first recognised as presenting an opportunity to buy high-quality antiquities as well as more voguish art, whose prices leapt as the numbers of visitors rose.79 It was a rite of passage, not just for the individuals who took part but for culture as a whole: the fruits of southern Europe were being devoured by the north. As the continent’s centre of gravity shifted, so did the jewels of ancient and contemporary culture. Three of the finest collections of ancient sculptures in the world, held at the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, were gathered by culturally curious travellers who were blessed with deep pockets.80

They brought back ideas about architecture, monumental tomb design and sculpture; it was not long before the poetry, art, music, garden design, medicine and science of classical antiquity were being extensively borrowed from, as England and the Low Countries set about modelling the glory of the present on that of the past.81 Roman citizens would have stood agape at the idea that small landowners and petty officials from what had once been a leafy if out-of-the-way province of the empire were commissioning busts portraying themselves not just as the heirs to the Romans but as emperors.82 Soon they would be doing more: Britannia was about to rule.