4.2 —Explorers & Empires (23 min video)
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Welcome to a new lecture. We’re going to take a look today at the rise of certain empires, especially the Portuguese and the Spanish. Now before we actually take a look at that in detail, I just want to mention a famous Dutch historian and statesman named Groen van Prinsen.
I bring him up simply because he has a great comment about modernity and what modernity was birthed by. In fact, he says modernity was really birthed by two things. One, the unbelief of the Enlightenment. I think we’ve already talked about that, how the Enlightenment elevated reason and how eventually it just ditched the scriptures altogether. But he also talks, the second thing he says that birthed modernity was the violence of the pirates. We’re actually going to talk about pirates in detail this week, but before we even can understand pirates, we need to understand the empires that arose, that really created the environment for pirates to thrive.
So we’ll go ahead and begin with the Portuguese. The story of the Portuguese really is a story of exploration initially. We have characters like Henry the Navigator, whom we’ve discussed in the American History Program, and whom I often discuss whenever I talk about the time period of Christendom. Henry the Navigator was the first to really gather together new technology, old maps, and experienced, seasoned sailors. And his whole trial was to get sailors to sail past a place in West Africa called Cape Bohador. No one wanted to sail past it because they assumed you would fall off the edge of the world or you’d be sucked into some whirlpool that would lead to Hades or some sea monster would come and swallow you alive. Anyway, he did eventually manage to send successful missions past that, and from that point forward, the Portuguese made great advancements sailing down and around the coast of Africa.
In fact, for example, we have Bartholomew Dias, who took a 16-month-long voyage in the years 1487 and 1488, just a few years before Columbus sails across the ocean blue, the Atlantic that is, took two ships and managed to actually round the Cape of Good Hope there in South Africa.
He did not call it the Cape of Good Hope because there were lots of rocks and lots of storms down there. The wind was rather strong. He called it Cape Tempestuous, but it was renamed by the Portuguese ruler Cape of Good Hope because it sounds better than Cape that basically will kill you.
Anyway, he never made it much further than the Cape of Good Hope because his men essentially threatened mutiny unless they headed back home. As for Dias, he kind of died in obscurity some years later. Actually, I’m sorry, he went into obscurity and died in a hurricane off the coast of Brazil. But still, he set up the stage for the next explorer of the Portuguese, Vasco de Gama. Vasco de Gama, who was the son of an official in the king’s household, was an excellent sailor, someone who was incredibly bold. He was also known, however, for his rather violent temper and for his rather poor diplomacy skills. Even so, he was sent by the Portuguese king, King Manuel the Fortunate, to make it all the way to India by way of going around the Cape of Good Hope on the coast of southern Africa.
It was a move that was opposed by many other nations because the whole point was to get to India and be able to secure some of the lucrative spices and other edible materials that could be sold for a high cost in Europe.
The Spanish didn’t like this because the Portuguese were essentially their rivals. The Venetians didn’t like this because they got their supplies from the Muslims, who also didn’t like it because they were the ones who brought the supplies from the Indians over to the Venetians in the first place. Even so, in the year 1497, so sometime after Columbus, he managed to actually set out with four ships from the city of Lisbon and just 170 crew members, several of whom were told were actually convicted criminals.
It was essentially kind of a work release program. Get out of jail, go on a dangerous mission that may kill you. If you survive, great, you have your freedom. If not, well, at least you got to experience freedom on the open blue sea for a little while. Anyway, he brought enough supplies for three years to get to India, But he was such an excellent sailor that his expedition arrived in India within only 10 months recognizing and opening a whole new trade route between Europe and Italy that completely- I’m sorry Europe and India that cut out the Italian Venetians and also cut out the Muslims as being trading middlemen. The very first cargo for example that was brought back from India by by Dagama more than covered the entire cost of the expedition. But we also see with Dagamas is at this time that he comes into conflict with various Muslim powers as well as the Indian powers, and Dagama being a poor diplomat often turned to cannons as being his negotiating tool and was known for actually taking over various ports simply by force.
Part of this, or partly because of that, or partly because the Muslims and the Venetians did not want to actually see the disappearance of their trade, they actually organized a combined fleet to attack the Portuguese but the Portuguese were able to soundly defeat it in the year 1509.
This is key because it shows you several things. It shows you Christian Venetians allying with the Muslim Arabs for the sake of profit. kind of completely ignoring the sacred realm for exclusively the secular realm. That’s her whole main idea this week. Even so, the Portuguese were eventually led by a very capable governor named Albuquerque. You’ll recognize that, of course, from the great city of New Mexico, who oversaw some 52 different Portuguese settlements. The Portuguese were all about trade, all about kind of expanding upon coastlines, especially in Africa and India and along the Persian Gulf, in fact.
In fact, they occupied some 15,000 miles of coastline, and they held this by a mere 20,000 men, which in itself is an astonishing idea. But the Portuguese were primarily there for trade. They were there for trade because you could make a lot of money upon the spices, upon things like, that would usually come from America, like potatoes that nobody had ever had before, or tomatoes, or squash, or beans, or avocados, or pineapple.
These were all things that came from either the New World came from parts of Asia that were not traditionally found in the area around the Mediterranean or in Europe itself.
Also things like tea and coffee and chocolate, sugar and then also pepper which did actually come from over this part of Asia. All of these things were incredibly expensive in Europe because they had to come through Muslim traders and then through Venetian traders and then into the markets of Europe.
So the further they traveled and the more times they changed hands the more expensive they became. The Portuguese, by being able to go to these places without having to go through those traders, made all of these goods cost a whole lot less, but they still cost enough to make everything incredibly lucrative for them.
The other curious thing about the Portuguese that I want to point out, and this is something you’ll see especially in the Spanish, and unfortunately you’ll see it in many of the European powers. By this point, we don’t see a general respect, at least among certain groups of these traders and these merchants for the natives of Asia, or for that matter, the natives of the rest of the world.
In fact, one of the curious things that we see is that the church, prior to this, had authorized crusaders in the later Crusades to actually capture Saracen Muslims and make them slaves because they were not Christians.
So the idea was, if you’re dealing with a man, or you’re dealing with a woman or a child for that matter, who comes from another nation that is not Christian, then you essentially have the authority to imprison them.
They don’t have the same rights as you do. It tends to belittle the fact that we’re all equally made in God’s image and that we’re also all equally fallen. Again, it’s division between a sacred understanding of who man is and what rights he has from a secular practice of how you actually treat other people.
But this became the hallmark of these empires. The second empire that I’ll mention is of course the Spanish Empire, which really begins with the work of Christopher Columbus, who was made the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, having discovered the Americas.
But all the same, Columbus began the great push towards the New World, and that ultimately saw a push towards other islands and other lands as well.
Part of the reason he did this, as I talk about at length in the American History series, is that he was responding to a call from the Grand Khan of the Mongol forces for missionaries to come to his empire and tell them the gospel message.
Columbus wanted to make good on that. He also, of course, had a vision for continuing the Crusades and liberating lands that had been taken by the Muslims years and centuries before by somehow going around them and allying with perhaps the Mongols or the Chinese or the Indians against them.
Those were the motivations of Columbus. But as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, he was given authority to claim whatever lands he discovered, whatever lands he cited for the Spanish kingdoms, which as I mentioned to you, were essentially ruled by Habsburg families.
That’s why the Habsburgs were so incredibly powerful, because of all of these discoveries and all these lands claimed by their explorers. Now one other explorer we should mention besides Columbus is of course Fernand Magellan. I did actually mention him in the American but he is worth actually looking at again. He initially wanted to sail for the Portuguese but he fell out of favor with them over a a court scandal that kind of implicated his part in it.
So he turned to the Spanish who sent him to go and find a route to the East Indies in the year 1520. And this of course meant that he would have to find a way around the world. And in fact he did. He sailed west of Spain, down the coast of eastern South America, and through the straits at the bottom of South America that now bear his name, the Straits of Magellan.
He actually sailed through there in just 12 days, which is remarkable because When Francis Drake came through, the first Englishman to sail around the world, it took him 17 days.
And often, some explorers and some sailors got stuck in the Straits of Magellan because the winds were so terrible, kind of like the winds of the southern part of South Africa, that sometimes they were stranded there for months, or sometimes they had no wind at all and couldn’t move forward whatsoever. So Magellan was actually given a great, a great blessing to be able to sail through there so quickly. Of course, when he made it on the other side into the Pacific Ocean, which his crew named because it was so calm and peaceful, it took some two months for them to actually find new land, which was actually the island of Guam.
So during this time, his men almost starved and probably considered putting Magellan on a boat to go sail his own direction and they would all go home.
However, he eventually made it to the Philippines, which he claimed for Spain. Again, we see this whole idea of Spain taking territories and countries simply by the right of discovering them first. In this case, one that’s all the way on the other side of the world. Part of what made them such a global empire. Anyway, it was there in the Philippines that he was killed fighting amongst the natives. And of his expedition that had five different ships, only one would actually make it back to Spain, led by his first mate Delcano and just 12 other straggly sailors who actually made it back to Spain and on the parade route it was said that they had bare feet and clothes that looked more like rags.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that when they made it back in 1521 they found something very mysterious. They had somehow lost a day and in fact that meant that they had celebrated all of the the great holy feast days and holidays such as Christmas and Easter for example on the wrong day.
This is of course because they had crossed the international date line but back then nobody understood that concept. It’s really an interesting way that it was actually discovered. All the same though it’s at this point that Spain becomes known as the Spanish Maine. It’s when they become the first true global empire, something that had never before been in existence. We can look at the Roman Empire, we can look at the Persian or the Greek or even the Mongol Empire, none of them had the global scale or the global power that was based upon sea power that the Spanish actually had.
The other incredible thing is the Romans, for example, took centuries to gather their empire together. So did the Persians. The Greeks, of course, it in a short amount of time but they also lost it a short amount of time under Alexander the Great and his successors.
What’s incredible about the Spanish Empire is they amassed this massive place or this massive groupings of lands all around the world in a single generation.
A generation that happens just after they had reconquered Spain from the Muslims who had invaded it 700 years before. This is an incredible change in their fortunes. It also shows you a massive change in the whole situation that we see in Christendom because no longer do we have a country that’s made up of several smaller states like we saw in the Holy Roman Empire, instead we have a massive power that is being ruled in this case by one very powerful family.
It makes it much more like the great empires of antiquity and also means there’s much greater chances for the abuse of power. And we specifically see the abuse of power in the use of slaves. It was the Portuguese and the Spanish who heavily used native populations in the lands that they conquered as servants, or really I should say as slaves.
Especially in the New World, many of these slaves, or many of these actual natives, they were forced into the various silver and gold mines, places that were known for killing you because of their very poor safety habits and because of the fact that they were very dangerous health-wise to work in.
That’s why there are entire native villages under Spanish domain, for example, that chose suicide over working for the Spanish. It’s also why the Spanish eventually brought in African slaves to replace them. According to some of the men of the day who dealt with this issue, such as the Dominican friar Bartolomeu de la Casas. The Spanish so abused the population of the natives that they often completely wiped them out and they had to be replaced by somebody else.
The monk Antonio de Montesino, another Spanish voice who spoke out against the use of the natives and even African slaves in this way, in the year 1511, he spoke to the people, Spanish people that is, of the new world and he said quote “I am the voice of Christ and I’m saying to you that you are all in a state of mortal sin for your cruelty and your oppression and your treatment of this innocent people.
Are these Indians not human beings? Have they not a soul and the use of reason?” Now it has been argued and I do argue this in terms of peoples like the Aztecs and the Inca for example that they weren’t necessarily innocent but the sense that they were used as not as human beings as Montesino points out and they were used instead as people who seem to have no soul or no reason that itself is indefensible and especially it was done in very cruel ways.
It was curious too is that many of the monarchs back in Spain such as Queen Isabella and later the powerful ruler the Habsburg ruler Charles V that is they both tried to use law and edicts to actually protect the natives and even declared the abuse of natives or the enslavement of natives in certain cases to be criminal, something actually punishable by fines, imprisonment, or even death.
But the reality is is that those laws had very little impact on the New World which was so far away and so cut off from the old and where many people were there unfortunately for actual fortune and profit.
However, we will see in a later lecture that the work of people such as the Jesuit order and also the Dominican friars really brought the gospel to the natives and really had an incredible impact upon them.
Now the Habsburg Empire, which was fueled by slavery, ultimately divided up the world between Portugal. In fact, in the years 1493 and 1494, right after Columbus discovers the New World, those two great powers essentially split up the world’s oceans and split up the world’s continents between themselves, seeing their two fortunes having risen to such an estate that they essentially could take the place of world leaders. It’s an incredible change that we see. Now, while all of this is going on, we actually have another interesting thing occurring, particularly in the nation of England or Great Britain, as well as amongst the Dutch in Holland.
And we might call this mercantilism, where essentially the state governments actually became heavily involved in major business, not in the sense of regulating business or even taxing business, but in the sense that it was at this time that various state governments, especially the British and the Dutch, actually gave charters to companies to have exclusive trading rights in some of these new places that were being discovered.
Not only did they do this, but these new companies, such as the British East India Company, were actually given the authority to raise their own private navies, their own private armies, and negotiate with other powers, with kings and monarchs and chiefs, from wherever they actually went.
The idea was that they would sell the goods of their country in these new markets and they would bring back, hopefully, lots of gold and silver.
So in 1553, for example, in England, the Russia Company was formed, designed to go and make incredible profit in that region of the world.
A few years later, the Turkey Company was founded to go to the Turks and actually have incredible resources brought back from there. The British East India Company, probably the most famous of these, was created in the year 1600. Just two years later, the Dutch East India Company was created by that country. That would ultimately have ports and have great trading posts in everywhere from Japan to Siam and Southeast Asia to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch themselves were said to have sent more vessels, that is more ships, various cargo trips and various missions that the English, the Spanish, and the French combined during the first part of the 17th century.
All of this was done not only to fill the pocketbooks of the various people of Great Britain and Holland, which itself could have very noble endeavors, but it was also done primarily to somehow minimize the power of Spain and Portugal.
Those places had incredible navies, they had incredible military power, they had incredible political power, so the Dutch and the English turned to profit. They turned to business to be a solution. It would ultimately help them triumph. What’s interesting about the British East India Company is that early on, it was known primarily for being a very corrupt, very greedy organization that deliberately kept to the various natives in places like India, for example, where it largely was set up as ignorant as possible and as devoid from any kind of Western language, Western education, or especially Christianity as they possibly could.
Which is why the British East India Company often saw its greatest rivals not as the Dutch, who were trying to do the same thing as they were, or even the Spanish and the Portuguese, who were often enemies, or even the native populations who sometimes rebelled against Sometimes, the British East India Company saw its greatest rivals as the missionaries, who argued that the natives should be educated, who translated the Bible into the languages of places like India, who established schools and universities wherever they want to actually preach the liberal arts, the freeing arts, the ability for the natives to think for themselves and to understand the glories of Western Christendom, which is essentially understanding the biblical worldview.
This push, curiously enough, ultimately drove the East India Company, by the 18th century, to set up a fund to pay for schooling of the natives in India on a yearly basis.
This was done by missionaries. It was also done by the work of a famous character we’ll talk about later, William Wilberforce and his great ally and friend, both of whom were committed believers, Charles Grant. Charles Grant, curiously enough, was only a believer and only the one who helped make the British East India Company be a great place that actually established schools for the natives and also began to encourage missions in India.
He was able to do this because he was also the chairman of the British East India Company. It’s really interesting, something actually that you should read the works of Vishal Mangalwadi, who I mentioned in an earlier lesson, because he talks about how the work of these leaders of the British East India Company, who had a biblical worldview, who had a Christian conviction to help others in need, they really created modern India, is Mangalwadi’s whole argument. But we’ll talk more about missions in the next lecture.