Project 500 Years: Communique #2

So yesterday, I hit the 50-year mark! Hurrah! Time for another communique (which I suppose you could describe as a sort of meta-narrative of what I’ve been doing with this project.)

I think I’ll start out by describing the purview of the project thus far. Then, I’ll list some of the main things I’ve learned about human history by doing this project, thus far. Then, I’ll attempt a quick survey of the mechanics/logistics of the project.

Purview of the project

As I’ve explained all along, the central focus of the project is to gain an understanding of how a group of European-origined nations came to dominate, and then maintain dominance of, essentially the whole world order. That focus has determined the choices I’ve been making every day in which incidents recorded in, say, English-Wikipedia’s yearly listings of events I choose to include, and which not. Thus, for example, I have generally not included developments concerning the internal affairs of European states that did not later emerge as hubs of significant empires (Sweden, Lithuania, whatever.) Nor, developments in parts of the world that would not experience significant “Western” influence for many more years to come, e.g., Japan.

I have had a great interest in the following types of development:

  1. Events internally inside what were (or would become) the European states that established significant global empires, that had bearing on the imperial/colonial processes.
  2. The affairs of countries/empires/tribes etc that come under the heel of European imperialism, more or less at the time that happens, and thereafter. (Kongo, Mayans, Incas, etc.)
  3. The affairs of non-European empires that were significant actors in world politics prior to emergence of European hegemony and then fell under its sway (Mughal Empire, Ming Empire.)
  4. Whatever records there are of the groups or leaders who mounted noticeable resistance to Western colonialism (the Mapuche, the Yucatan Mayans, “Don Luis”.)

The Ottoman empire has gotten a lot of attention in the project thus far. Judging the Ottomans to be mainly non-European, you could describe their empire as falling into Group 3 above (though it would not fall under the sway of Western hegemony for many centuries to come.) But it was a lot more than that. It was also the foil against which much of “Western” Europe came to define itself. And Russia, in this story of Western hegemony’s origins and maintenance, plays a pretty ambiguous role. You could describe it in the mid-1500’s as just starting to create its own large territorial empire in Asia. At a later point, I think, Sven Lindquist described it as having been the object of German colonization, though I think that came a lot later.


This is still a provisional list. All or most of the items here are likely to be further developed/refined, as I continue my researches and cogitations.

  1. I’ve learned an enormous amount about the “pioneering” role of Portugal in creating Europe’s first “global” empire. This preceded the launching of the “Spanish” empire by 80 years or more. Both these Iberian empires flowed directly from the ultimately successful campaigns that various Christian-Iberian princes had waged against the Muselim city-states that once dotted the whole of Iberia. But the Portuguese princedom/monarchy vanquished the Muslims in the area that became Portugal far earlier than the “Spanish” (= Castilian + Aragonese) princedoms were able to vanquish the last Muslim city-state from Granada, in 1492.
  2. So Portugal had a long running start on “Spain”. Both powers, in the course of confronting and expelling Muslim rule from Iberia, had developed robust capabilities for fighting at sea, as well as on land. (And in both domains, they took a lot of technological innovation from the Muslim forces they fought against.)
  3. Once Portugal had consolidated its land area at home, it mounted its first overseas expansion, against Ceuta in today’s Morocco, in 1415 CE. Portugal had a great location on the southwestern tip of Iberia, from which it was then able to “explore”– usually in ships that combined fighting capabilities and some capacity for hauling cargoes– all the way around West Africa and down to the Cape of Good Hope, which one of its navigators rounded in 1488. Soon thereafter, Portuguese fighting/trading ships were able to connect with the very rich trading networks that already existed, all around the shores of the Indian Ocean.
  4. One key goal for the Portuguese explorers and all the other European explorers who would follow them was to find a maritime way to connect with the “riches of the Orient” that existed primarily in the products of the “Spice Islands” (the East Indies) and the gorgeous textiles and metallurgical techniques of India and China, etc — and to do so in a way that would circumvent the long-existing trade networks that had brought the “riches of the Orient” to some European markets, via Venice and the relations the Venetians had with the overland and maritime strands of the “Silk Road”, nearly all of which were controlled by Muslims.
  5. Confrontation with Muslims was baked into the emergence of “Western” imperialism(s) from the very beginning. Power centers in the Christian West were still, in the 1500s, smarting from the defeat the Crusaders had suffered at the hands of Salahaddin al-Ayyubi (and the presence of the Knights Hospitallers in Malta was an actual relic of that.) Then, there was the legacy of the Reconquista. For the two Iberian powers, their practices in the non-European land areas they came to control– primarily in the Americas, but also elsewhere– were directly in line with the practices they had developed in areas of Iberia they had been able to recapture from the Muslims. Then, there was of course the imperative, as they saw it, of developing trade-routes that circumvented (and competed with) the Muslim-controlled routes. Finally, during the 1400s and 1500s, though the various Arab-dominated Muslim principalities that had once dotted Iberia and North Africa had lost their staying power, now, instead, there was this fearsome new Ottoman Muslim power center that in 1453 had even captured Constantinople and continued thereafter to push against Christian powers by land and sea.
  6. There were some really interesting differences between the practices the Portuguese employed in places where they developed strong, lasting trading relations with capable, existing local powers (mainly all around the Indian Ocean), and the much more brutal, exploitative, and extractive practices the Spanish employed in the Americas— and which the Portuguese later came to emulate there, in Brazil. The Portuguese had, it is true, been brutal and exploitative in Sao Tome and other Atlantic islands they encountered and conquered.
  7. Key to note, too: the role that extremely strong injunctions from Christian religious leaders that the “Christian conquistadors should “convert” all non-Christians to the faith– including by brute force if necessary– played in both motivating the conquests (though sheer greed probably played a bigger role), and in leading the conquistadors and the administrators who followed them to believe that the “normal” dictates of conscience and impulses toward human empathy should be completely over-ridden when it came to the “holy” work of subduing and converting the natives. I realize that all empires that seize significant amounts of land have some similar atrocity-justifying ideology. This is not unique to “Christian” empires. But I grew up in the Christian tradition and am still affiliated with a branch of it (Quakerism.) So I am particularly interested in what I see as the abuses of Jesus’s message for empire-justifying purposes.
  8. I have also been intrigued with the question of the extent to which the project of developing (and then managing) a global empire was itself constitutive of the emergence and consolidation of “nation states” in Europe. In the 1500s, Portugal was the only European state that had cohered into something like a recognizable nation-state– and that had the exact same territory that it has today! (Recently, I walked past the residence of the Portuguese ambassador here in Washington DC. On each of the pillars that lined its entrance was engraved the same five-turret emblem they used in the 1500s. Appropriately, their residence was nestled in the crook of the massive new embassy the PRC is building here.)
  9. Portugal, remember, which was the only polity that had a well-developed global trading empire back at the beginning of the 1500s.
  10. Meanwhile, “Spain” was nothing like a nation-state. Because of all the dynastic marrying that had been going on, Spain’s King Charles V had inherited not only the princedoms of Castile and Aragon (from one set of his grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella), but also huge chunks of land spanning Europe from today’s Italy to today’s Netherlands. And Charles was much more interested in building a pan-European empire than giving thought to administering the vast territories that Castilian conquistadors were capturing, nominally in his name, in the Americas. It may be possible to say that “New Spain” (the big colony in what became Mexico) was more like a functioning stand-alone state than [Old] “Spain” in those decades?
  11. And then, England was still resolving territorial issues with Scotland and France. “France” had its wars of religion. And “Netherlands” did not even exist as an independent thing in 1570. Over the century to follow, each of these would make a serious start in building a global empire– at the same time that they consolidated the unity of their rule at home.
  12. Germany and Italy were both areas that had significant manufacturing and trading centers in the 16th century. But neither of them got into the business of consolidation of a “national” polity until very late in the day… and both were also very “late” (and fairly unsuccessful) in building global empires.

All this needs more investigating!

Mechanics of the project

This project has grown in daily output noticeably over the 50 days I’ve been doing it. It may well continue to grow. When I started, I would just quickly scan the year’s offerings at (mainly) English-WP and a couple other sources, and cut and paste items I wanted to include here. Then I started digging deeper, and also doing a few periodic Musings. Then I started being more intentional about grouping together items from any year’s offerings that seemed to belong together, etc.

All this while I’ve been doing initial composition in my Justworldnews blog, which runs on WordPress, and then doing “import” to get it into my Medium account and thence to the Project 500 Years “publication” I started on Medium. There were some inter-system glitches but not a whole lot– so long as I continues presenting the separate “news items” in a post in the form of a list on WordPress. But once I got fancy by presenting the separate items with separate headlines on WordPress, and a clickthrough list of them all at the top– not too hard to do– then that did not transition at all easily over to Medium, which has been a bit of a pain.

Meantime, I asked my web designer, Luke, to tweak the WordPress on the JWN blog so that for the “Project 500 Years” category, when you click on that category you get a forward-chronological presentation of all the items. (Unlike the default on most blogs, including JWN, which is that when you clock on a category you get a reverse-chrono listing.) I thought– and still think– that having a forward-chrono presentation would make it easier for me, or anyone, to go back and use the rapidly growing number of blog posts in this category.

I also had a discussion with Luke about ways to subdivide what will eventually be 500-plus blog posts in this category. I think I’ll use some combination of sub-categories (that are children to the P500Y category) and tags; and when I have time I’ll go back to 1520 and start systematically trying to do that.

At least in my blog, I can manipulate the content I have on this subject in this way. Medium is much clunkier to make such presentational/organizational changes in. I have to say I kinda like the way the main page for the P500Y project looks on Medium. (I did that design myself.) But they give you so few options for organizing and presenting the material! I think down the pike some, when I have more time, I’ll probably work with Luke to make either a standalone site for the project, or a designated sub-area of the JWN site for it, and give it a custom design, using all the content I’ll be producing.

Anyway, that’s Communique #2 for now. If you’ve read this far and would be interested in working with me on the project, let me know!