What really caused Europe to rise and grow?

After a while....
The Background
Based on my recent teaching of Rise of western Europe in the classroom for students of class VIII I would like to make two important surmises - what ultimately helped Europe to tower over other existing prosperous civilizations were intangibles like enterprise, cunning, deviousness, proselytising zeal and secondly the technological changes that swept Europe over the period of 300 years starting from the 15th century to 19th. While we tend to see only the industrial revolution as heralding a technological revolution and changing the world for the better (or for the worse??)the first technological revolution was seen in the realms of marine transport i.e. changes witnessed in shipping, the kinds of ships made - multimasts, multi sails, mariners compass, maps, astrolabe...the works. It was this geographical revolution that paved the way for the rise of Europe. While the latter revolution saw the rise of Europe and Spain, the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of England and France.

To put this across, more so the first change: how India despite having more tangibles of precious metals, cotton textiles, spices but yet....we know the story

It helps a student to memorise names, dates and events if a teacher helps him/her to contextualise the facts as a process and in a fashion through which a student can easily relate to. We believe in telling children about values like hardwork, enterprise, initiative etc. By putting across the merits of these'values' in a pedantic fashion, its full import is rarely grasped by the student. (Of course by no stretch of arguement can one argue for cunning, deviousness, proselytizing zeal as virtues) Here through history we can establish how in very concrete terms certain attributes among the Europeans helped them to set the process of colonization (about which there is enough harangue and on whose doorsteps undoubtedly lie the roots of much contemporary social, economic, cultural malaise) but also herald a new epoch where societies having a strong enterpreunial class, in which 'free' trade, industry and free enterprise, helps itself in providing a better quality of life (in material terms) to its people. Today every other society, the developing ones and the socialist ones included, seek to build a society in such terms.

Control group - a classroom of 15 students

The Process

Step 1

Discussion - Most of the middle school history text books (grades VIII or IX...would suggest these topics are dealt with in class IX. It would be cognitively more appropriate) do talk about or have a chapter on the so called explorers i.e. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and some reference to mariners compass and stuff. A simple interaction on all these is needed to familiarise the students. Pictures of early medeival ships, mariners compass (google it) would help children to give them some sense of concreteness. The questions and posers to kick off a discussion: why did Europeans seek new sea routes to India? Why spices were needed? How was India socially, politically, economically during the 15th century?

Step 2

Have different flash cards made in shapes and colours 15 in mumber with each card representing gold (have 5 of them), pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, hardwork, risk taking, enterprise, capital, ships with sails, (mariners compass and maps), cannons.

Shuffle these cards and have each student pick up these. Now ask the students, based on the earlier discussion to find out which of these flash cards can be clubbed into two groups of cultures/countries/regions. Thus those having flash cards of gold, ships,cannons would naturally be the European cultures where for example shipping emerged as a dominant economic activity and who used gold to trade with Indian traders.

Those having the flash cards of spices naturally would be India.

What about cards bearing values like enterprise, hardwork, quiz the students which society is likely to be more hard pressed for food, comforts? Who possesed them and importantly how these qualities came to be converted into creating political and economic dominance?

Step 3

Quiz by asking the students - Would people in a tropical society like India with greater months of cultivation, fertile river valley plains with favourable terms of trade have any incentive to change or (this is not to suggest things were honky-dory with everyone in India. The teacher will certainly have to explain the exploitation and oppression by the feudal lords of the peasants)people living in temperate climate with limited period of cultivation, unfavourable terms of trade with the Orienti.e the Sarcens and India and a nobility whose craving for spices was only bleeding them financially (and an equally oppressive heirachical order)? On hindsight the Europeans certainly risked a great deal compared to Indians where Protestant reformation and rise of nation states also provided the right context for taking initiatives such as exploring the high seas, inventions and popularising use of technologies. Hence it can be argued that the Europeans given their material, economic and social conditions displayed more of these attributes. Hence these intagibles flash cards would be attributes of Europeans .

Step 4

Now have one of the student having the gold cards to come forward as an English trader (ask this student to collect the gold flash cards from others in the group representing Europe) and ask him/her to exchange all the five gold cards with two students (representing Indian traders) having cloves and pepper cards.

Once this exchange has been done, ask the two groups to recheck the economic equation. One will find that the group which represents India apart from the flash cards of spices, now also have flash cards of gold. In other words people in India apart from the bounty of spices, also had gold to boot. But despite the fact that India had more tangibles to measure wealth at that point of time, in the long run India was overrun by Europe, which had more of intangibles i.e. values like enterprise, hardwork etc along with tangibles like shipping and cannons which in itself did not connote wealth, not even power. (for cannons, pikes were things which the Mughals used in equal measure and competence as the Portuguese, Spaniards or even the British)

How did these happen? Here the teacher should bring in the idea of political economy. These value flash cards, attributes of Europeans, were both socially and importantly politically valued and converted into an economic value. It was not as if Indians were and are not hardworking or lacked enterprise (one thought of the Marwari, Nadar and Punjabi Khatri would put to rest any such ideas) but perhaps these attributes could not be converted into a productive component thanks to a polity which privileged only values of obseiance to lords and gods, a largely feudal attribute. In other words Indian polity, its ruling class, at that point of time failed to see merits in acquring wealth through the means of commerce. (I'm basing these arguements based on my understanding of the great debates on 18th century India where scholars like David Washbrook, Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subramaniam, C A Bayly among others have contributed. Please refer to Sekhar Bandopadhyaya's India - From Plassey to Partition, Orient Longmans for a summation of the main contours of the debate)

Step 5

Continuing from where the teacher left the previous discussion, it has to be explained, that the European monarchs/polity particularly England, Netherlands and to begin with Portugal, Spain and later even France supported attributes like enterprise, commerce, in whose success they saw monetary benefit and hence supported ventures on the sea and other economic activities as enterprise. Helped by the new concept of Joint Stock companies which helped investors to hedge their bets, these states began to issue charters to such companies giving them exclusive rights to trade with the east or elsewhere as the new world unfolded. In such joint stock companies, the state could also have a stake and importantly it was another means of revenue for the state. Hence the charter grantd by Queen Elizabeth to merchants of East India Company in 1600.
Thus attributes geared towards profits, then spurred other values like hardwork, discipline, perseverance, punctuality etc.

On the other hand the teacher can even explain how in contrast Mughal rulers including Akbar, did not see much value in technology like Printing (Akbar was introduced to this idea by the Jesuits) and Shahjehan brought down the clock in the church in Agra, for its chiming 'disturbed' him. (See A Qaisar's Indian response to technology, OUP)

Thus one can hazard to say that Indian commercial class lost out in converting their entreprenuial skill and spirit into creating inroads elsewhere in the world. This was again due to political indifference and perhaps interference. And even by the time the decided to do anything of this sort, it was perhaps too late.

Thus it becomes possible for a teacher to put across how western Europe by circumstantial and propitious social, economic and political condition took advantage and often created advantages for themselves when not there, charted a trajectory of growth and prosperity for itself which of course was splattered with blood,of millions of Asians and Africans.

The basic idea for a teacher to understand and to convey to the child to the extent possible is how policy decisions by the powers that be (i.e. government) can promote industry and enterprise which by the way things are going now in India (in the context of globalisation), certainly helps economy to grow and help people to move out of the grips of poverty (though very haltingly, slowly through the process of trickle down effect). So then is globalisation good? or is globalisation fine but the way in which it is been carried out without making adequate provisions for infrastructure like schools, basic health, road, water, the problem? Or do we see globalisation and attributes of commerce, trade, industry itself as a problem i.e. Capitalism?


LBKB said...

I really liked the post, however I personally would not describe "cunning and deviousness" as characteristics of a specific culture/country. The same with "hardworking". I would may be stress on the quest for taking control of resources as an aspect observed throughout history. It was spices in the past, but oil today! May be that can tie into colonialization, neo-coloniolization, and globalism. The directions for the activities are clear, but it might be better if you can present the concepts related to the game/activity first and then state the rules, instead of going back and forth. You could also keep what you have and then have a short bulleted list of what the activity/game entails.
Sorry if it sounds too critical. They are all just suggestions, keep up the good work!

lalitha said...

all changes (The only permanent thing is change )happen with their own inherent contradictions...of was it desirable or not...at the most certain groups have the previlege of cashing on the merits of that change (through cleverness and wisdom .. Do our politicians have them??) by adapting it to their cultures.When capitalist societies have given rise to problems of their own, aping them( disproportionately in different areas) would not only be disastrous but foolish!!