The Evitability of History

As mentioned earlier in the week, I recently read Charles C. Mann’s 1493 (see also this interview at Razib’s place), which includes a long section about the colony at Jamestown. Like most such operations, the earliest colonists were almost comically incompetent, managing to nearly starve to death several times, despite being in an absurdly fertile region, and nearly running out of money on multiple occasions before they stumbled on the idea of tobacco as a cash crop (at which point they nearly starved again because all agricultural activity shifted to tobacco, and they needed to force people to grow food crops at gunpoint). This, while sitting on the fringes of a wealthy and powerful Indian kingdom. It’s really kind of amazing that they didn’t get wiped out completely.

That pattern recurs again and again in this book, and in 1491. The Europeans seem always to be at a huge disadvantage– including technologically, in the early days, because firearms of the 1500’s were no match for New World bows– and yet they end up running things. Disease had a lot to do with this, of course, but there’s also a fair bit of canny maneuvering. Most of the European colonies ended up taking over large swathes of land because they played one native group off against another effectively, and ended up in charge.

Reading this stuff always makes me wonder about the (in)evitability of history. That is, every story of European conquest seems to involve a large quantity of dumb luck, and yet, there’s a very clear pattern. even though it always seems like they just managed to scrape by, they always managed to just scrape by, and take the place over. Now, granted, this is partly because the many ventures that did fail have been largely forgotten, but that plays into the story a bit, too– even when they did fail, they always came back, and kept trying until sooner or later they ended up in charge.

Which makes me wonder: is there any reasonable path that could’ve led to things turning out substantially differently? That is, is there a set of actions that people in the New World could’ve taken that would’ve let them avoid eventually being subjugated by Europeans? They had lots of advantages early, but ended up losing almost every time. Is the disease effect just an unbeatable advantage for the Europeans, or could smarter leadership on the part of the Aztec or Inca have prevented the Spanish from completely taking over, leading to an alternate world where those cultures had more lasting influence. Or would a failure on the part of Cortez or Pizzaro just leave the door open for some later conqueror to bring all those areas under Spanish rule through a slightly different chain of events?

It’s hard to think of an example that turned out any differently. Even China, which Mann notes was in a very real way the greatest power of the fifteenth century, eventually got chopped up and dominated by Europeans. The only example that comes to mind of a country that managed to meet the Europeans on their own terms is Japan, which succeeded by closing the borders until they had developed the societal prerequisites to allow them to modernize very quickly– it’s fifty years from Commodore Perry and the Black Ships to Japan beating a European power straight up (admittedly, the second-rate European power that was late Tsarist Russia, but still). That probably happened in part because Japan is a smaller and less inviting target than China, though.

But I am, obviously, not a historian. People with actual knowledge of the subject (to the extent that such a thing is possible) are encouraged to leave comments and/or links to interesting scholarship on this sort of thing.

20 thoughts on “The Evitability of History

  1. Well, when you put it that way – when group A keeps trying to invade group B; meanwhile group B never once tries to invade group A; then the end result is inevitable. Group B needs to be lucky every time. Group A only needs to be lucky once.

  2. Nice post.

    The obvious companion reads to 1493 (which I haven’t read but plan to) are Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

    and the Pulitzer Prize winning classic Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

    You mentioned 1491 a little but the real insight, I believe regarding why Europeans dominate, comes from Diamond’s work. you can check out the National Geographic documentary of the same name on Netflix or here

    It does a fine job of painting picture of historic contingency and the role of environment, biodiversity and geography in the successful expansion and growth of empires.

    Fascinating stuff.

  3. I think 1 gets it basically right.

    Although I think it’s worth distinguishing between the North American and South+Central American cases. In North America, the indigenous peoples were slowly and steadily displaced over the course of several centuries.

    In South and Central America, on the other hand, the Spanish basically overturned the whole of Mesoamerican civilization in a few decades.

  4. I’ve often thought that if the Inca and Aztec empires hadn’t pissed off their neighbors quite so badly, and had taken the threat more seriously, they could have wiped out the first Spanish forces that reached them. That wouldn’t have guaranteed their continued independence, but it would have bought them time to, say, make contact with other European powers and work out some deal to buy weapons.

  5. The question really is whether there was anything “Group B” could have done early on to stop “Group A” coming back. Jamestown was a bit of a near miss– it took them a while to stumble on the idea of growing tobacco to sell, and even with the huge amount of money that made, they still almost folded. You might imaging that had the Native Americans made a more concerted effort to drive the English out, they never would’ve gotten established in the first place. Or that had Cortez’s invasion failed, the Aztecs would’ve been ready for the next attempt, and force the Spanish to deal with them on more equal terms. But then again, maybe not– maybe the Spanish would’ve kept on coming until they got lucky one time.

  6. Chad Orzel, thanks for the books recommend. I am reading both now.

    Copernic, yes, Jared Diamond is spot on.

  7. The only problem I had with “Guns Germs and Steel” was that he missed the better title “Guns Germs and Grain”. (The guns and steel are really the same, and he misses the triple alliteration :-)).

  8. This also raises a question about why the disease factor only seemed to work one way. Why weren’t the small colonies of Europeans wiped out by New World diseases the same way the Natives were wiped out by European diseases?

  9. What the Spanish did in the first half of the 16th century was simply an extension of what they had done in the 15th century.

    We associate 1492 with Columbus, but two other major events occurred in Spain that year: the expulsion of the Moors (who had invaded in 711 and reached the Pyrenees by 718; for the next seven centuries most of Iberia was part of the Islamic world) and the expulsion of the Jews (basically convert, emigrate, or die). Ferdinand and isabella are known to Spaniards as “los reyes católicos” (the Catholic monarchs) for bringing about the latter two events. So the Spanish were particularly eager to spread Catholicism (encouraged to do so by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially gave them all of the Americas except for Brazil and Newfoundland), and plunder a bit while they were at it.

    Pizarro had the good luck to arrive in the Inca heartland during a civil war, which is one reason the Inca were not adequately prepared for the invasion. Cortez caught a few breaks as well. We’ll never know if Spain would have made further attempts on the mainland if the initial forays were not successful, because the initial forays were successful.

    These early successes by the Spanish were a big part of what motivated the English. The latter needed outposts in North America to protect their access to fishing grounds (fishing boats had been working ever farther west in the Atlantic, and there is evidence that Portuguese fishermen had reached Newfoundland in the late 15th century). So the English were motivated to keep trying after their initial attempt (the Roanoke colony) had failed. Jamestown, as you say, was a near thing. Plymouth survived through two pieces of major luck: (1) they found the site of a native village (Squanto’s hometown), which had been abandoned a few years earlier due to a disease that wiped out 90% of the locals, where the fields had already been cleared of rocks; and (2) they were recruited by a neighboring group, also weakened by disease, to fend off a rival group.

  10. And let us not forget Japan had a fairly large chunk of China under its control going into WW II.

    It is always interesting to look at history and see where things could have been VERY different. For example, had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, would they have been able to subjugate all of China? I bet they could have.

  11. They could have invented casinos. That would have done it.

    I credit steel more than guns as a specific implement made from steel (or brass in the case of cannons). In the long run, steel beats stone age every time.

  12. No one mentioned horses! Horses let you move faster, see farther, and fight harder. Combine horses with guns, steel swords and lances, cannon and fast, wind driven ships, and a foot, spear and bow based army is at a serious disadvantage. Look at southern India which is too hot to breed horses and was repeatedly conquered. Look at the horse based shock troops that repeatedly swept out of central Asia – the Huns, the Kahns, the Turks – all horse people, and the only reason they didn’t take Europe completely was logistical.

    By the time native Americans, the plains Indians, put together a horse based empire, they were done in by the railroad, repeating weapons, and the telegraph, basically by industry. They couldn’t build their own weapons, and building 19th century weapons required blast furnaces, chemical plants, mines and machines which had to be sited, managed and defended. By the 1870s, the US had fought the first war of industrial attrition, and the more industrialized side won. The native Americans didn’t have a chance.

  13. Guns Germs and Steel outlines some of the physical factors involved. There were also social and cultural factors. China at the time, could easily have become the dominant world power. The Chinese view was that the outside wold was populated by barbarians with nothing of value. If the book “1421 The year China discovered America” is to be believed. the Chinese circumnavigated the globe in the early 1400’s but a regime change led to China withdrawing from the world stage. The major European powers had god and greed as motivating factors. There were souls to be saved, lands to be conquered, treasures to be plundered. They also had a political and financial systems that allowed for the building and supplying of ships and expeditions with no promise of immediate payback. Building an international trade and supply network was a huge undertaking with huge costs and huge risks. Ships were lost and lives were lost but the expansionist drive continued. The rewards were seen as higher than the risks. Guns Germs and Steel makes the European conquest of the new world seem like a geographical inevitability. It could have easily played out very differently

  14. Besides Gun, Germs and Steel you also have the first chapter of Zinn’s very popular book ( and you can take a look at de las Casas contemporary account (available for free at Project Guttenberg: of why the Spanish conquerors were able to to wipe native resistance and existence. The Spanish method was pretty much used by Portuguese, British, French, Belgian, Dutch etc.

    As a little appetizer I can say that world wide the notion of all peoples that met the European invaders (because that’s what they were) fear their battle techniques. And everywhere the europeans went they boasted of how puny the “primitive” populations were because they didn0t fight hard enough.

    As a side note I also recommend this book:

    PS: Zinn’x excellent book can also be checked out here: and the first chapter should be mandatory reading:

  15. Some of the stuff in Mann’s books tends to undercut parts of the Guns, Germs, and Steel argument. He points out in 1491, for example, that people in the Americas actually had better nutrition than the first Europeans they encountered, and the stories in 1493 about the revolutionary impact of New World plants on agriculture in Europe and China tend to go in the same direction. Eurasian agriculture wasn’t all that much better than New World agriculture. And the population of the Americas seems to have been a lot higher than previously believed, and involved more large-scale engineering and so forth.

    The domestication of animals is a significant difference, to be sure, but hardly a decisive one, particularly in the early days, when the only horses Europeans had were shipped in from Europe at great expense. Had the Aztec and Inca not been wracked by plagues and civil war, cavalry wouldn’t’ve given the Spanish enough of an advantage to matter. And Mann argues that the firearms brought by the early colonists were generally inferior to the bows used by the Indians, in both accuracy and rate of fire.

    Technology is the really interesting factor, but then I would say that. One thing that strikes me about the difference between Japan in the 1800’s and the New World in the 1500’s is that late Tokugawa Japan was similar enough to early modern Europe (in terms of things like metallurgy and a middle class of merchants and tradesmen who could take advantage of new technology) that once they were forcibly made away of the benefits of 19th-century technology, they could rapidly modernize to the point where they could make local versions of European weaponry and other products. Fifty years after Commodore Perry, they beat Tsarist Russia in a war, and less than a century later, WWII Japanese planes and ships were at least as good as their American and European counterparts.

    The Aztec and Inca didn’t have that sort of infrastructure, which made things harder for them. Learning of the existence of steel weapons didn’t do them much good, because they didn’t have the resources needed to make them. This is in contrast to things like domestic animals, which were relatively easy for local cultures to adopt (once a few horses slipped away from the Spaniards, it didn’t take all that long for Indian tribes to completely incorporate them into their way of life). So, while technology wasn’t immediately decisive, it would’ve remained an advantage for the Europeans for a long time, even if internal strife and disease hadn’t toppled the American empires quickly.

  16. I’d recommend The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie for a fascinating look at how a very few Europeans were able to take over the Inca empire. There was very little that was inevitable about how that turned out and the interplay of technology and context is worth reading. It was more nuanced than just showing up during a civil war, although that was part of it.

  17. Chad, what you’re asking is pretty close to, “Could the Native Americans have chosen to be more wealthy, more populated, more organized, and/or more technologically advanced.”

    I get the same sense as you do when I read history: A bunch of misses and near-misses that are largely forgotten and a bunch of narrow and ample successes that are widely remembered. (Everyone remembers Cortez. Every few years, there’s yet another book or History Channel special reminding people that the Norse tried and largely failed to settle Vinland.) But the reason why the Europeans were able to make so many large and small attempts was a greater pool of wealth and technology, so that failed attempts cost less in relative terms.

    Yeah, there’s a choice-driven aspect to history, because humans make choices. Sometimes spectacular leaders make spectacularly redefining choices for their people and somehow manage to make them stick– look at, say, Kemal Ataturk. Sometimes spectacular generals win spectacular victories where they should be crushed. But not often. And there’s a statistical aspect to it, too, and demographic factors load the dice. And geography loads the demographic dice, yet.

    (That’s a long-winded way of saying, “I don’t know, either, man, it’s complicated,” to my paraphrase of your question.)

    On my current reading list is, “Before European Hegemony,” by Janet Abu-Lughod. I don’t think it directly addresses your question (especially since it covers the time from 1250-1350, decisively before the Age of Exploration) but in the introduction she does at least touch on the question of how Europe went from a comparative backwater to the driver of global economics in only a few centuries.

    (Warning: It’s at a low enough level that I can understand it, but it’s not a “popular” book like 1491 or 1493. It’s a little dry.)

  18. Dear Prof. Orzel:

    While ego-surfing I came across your thoughtful review. I thought I’d take a stab at answering your question:

    “Which makes me wonder: is there any reasonable path that could’ve led to things turning out substantially differently? That is, is there a set of actions that people in the New World could’ve taken that would’ve let them avoid eventually being subjugated by Europeans?”

    Ultimately, my guess would be that if you ran the Monte Carlo simulation of this encounter a zillion times the vast majority of times the outcome would be favorable for Europeans. The reason is less superior European technology than the epidemiological imbalance between the eastern and western hemispheres. The list of diseases that came to the Americas between 1500 and 1650 is staggering: smallpox, measles, malaria, influenza, yellow fever, plague, typhus, rabies, cholera, strep, brucellosis, viral encephalitis, leptospirosis… I don’t see how those diseases could have been stopped, especially given the state of scientific knowledge at the time, and I don’t see how the societies of the Americas could have withstood them.

    History provides a natural experiment to test this hypothesis. Europeans from various nations tried to establish many colonies before the wave of disease struck. To the best of my knowledge, all but two failed: Jamestown and San Agustin (St. Augustine). And both of those were catastrophes by any normal measure — Jamestown lost ~80% of its colonists to disease and war, and went bankrupt; San Agustin was abandoned for years at at a time and kept going only because it was regarded as a vital frontier outpost.

    In North America, as I said, all colonial endeavors (except Jamestown and San Agustin) collapsed and were forgotten. An incomplete list of pre-disease failures would include Charlesbourg-Royal, Port-Royal, St. Croix (twice), St. Sauveur, Matinicus, Sagadahoc, Winter Harbor, Sable Island, Ajacan, Roanoke (twice), San Miguel de Gualdape, Santa Elena, Charlesfort, Fort Caroline and Santa Rosa. In 1617, disease comes in and wipes out most of the indigenous societies on the Atlantic coast north of New York; sixteen years later a second epidemic hits the rest. And suddenly the Europeans that couldn’t establish colonies have an uninterrupted string of successes. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course. But when you see this pattern repeating itself in North, Central and South America, it gets harder and harder to find alternative explanations.

    In the rest of the world, it was a different story. Africa, which had an epidemiological advantage (malaria and yellow fever, primarily) repelled Europeans for four centuries — from the mid-15th to the mid-19th. Europeans did maintain some trading outposts and made grandiose claims about conquest, but they were entirely empty. Only after about 1850 European technology was able to overcome Africa’s microbiological defenses. As the historian Philip Curtin has shown, even this triumph was not unmixed — English garrisons lost 50% or more of their troops every year, a loss rate most Americans today would consider unacceptable.

    In my opinion, China could have held off Europe forever if the Chinese government (the Qing dynasty) had not sunk into lassitude. But even as it events transpired there is nothing permanent about European domination there. If you go to China now, it is not hard to meet people who believe that China will soon hold sway over the West in the way that a century ago the West held sway over China. It may be that in the 22nd century some of our opinions about European superiority will seem as dated and foolish as Chinese assumptions about their superiority did in the 19th century.

    Again, my thanks for the review, and thanks to your commenters for their sharp and interesting remarks.


  19. You’re underestimating the huge advantage available to the colonists as a result of the industrial base of their home countries. Even in the 1500s, the resources available to the colonists were substantial (think about who was buying all that tobacco).

    It’s useful to take such a situation to the extreme. Imagine, by some warp of history, that an unknown continent about the size of Australia, with a temperate climate, was discovered somewhere in the pacific. How successful would modern colonists be?

    The answer is that their colonisation, even in the face of native resistance, would almost certainly succeed. Our society and industry would supply 1000 colonists with food and water for a year with just one shipment. We could supply vast quantities of timber, concrete, metal, gravel, and glass for construction.

    The natives wouldn’t stand a chance. They could never match the resources that modern industry could bring to bare.

    The difference in the 1500s was only one of scale, not of type. European economys in those days could produce all the goods above, just not in modern scales or speeds. But they could produce them, and ship them to the colonies.

    A better example is the colonisation of the American west in the late 1800s. The massive industries of the American east could and did supply every manner of supply, tool, material, materiel, and manpower to the budding towns of what is now California. In only a few short decades, the local nations were completely overwhelmed by the flood of colonists, and the firehose torrent of supplies that came with them.

    In fact, the most interesting example of colonisation is probably the city of Chicago. From a state of untouched wilderness in the 1820s, Chicago became a major metropolis and the site of the world’s first skyscrapers in the 1880s. Perhaps American’s are used to such tales, but coming from an old world country, I find this tale almost terrifying.

    For an entire city to simply appear, almost out of nowhere like that is an experience that my society would have absolutely no experience or history of(I’m from Ireland, but the same would hold most European countries). Many people here would probably regard it as impossible. Cities here are 1000+ year old institutions, not things that sprout up in a single generation. I doubt the native American nations thought differently, and when they actually saw it happening I doubt that they could form any cohesive response, no more than we can form a cohesive response to our banking crisis today.

    (There’s a term to describe these “huge canoe arriving one morning in the bay” events, which cause the collapse of societies which cannot respond to them. But the term escapes me.)

  20. @ ObsessiveMathsFreak:

    I must respectfully disagree. Remember, I am talking about the technological advantage of 16th-century and 17th-century Europeans — not those of the 19th-century colonists of Chicago or California, which you cite, and which are irrelevant here. At the time I am talking about, Europe had little industrial base, certainly not enough to overcome the grave problems of long supply chains and limited numbers. “Entire cities” didn’t “appear out of nowhere”, as in your Chicago example, when the first Europeans came. Small groups of famished people appeared on the shore. Often, they had to be fed by Indians.

    Two actual examples, as opposed to hypothetical examples, to give an idea of what I mean.

    1) The colonists at Jamestown staged a competition with the Powhatan to show off the prowess of their guns — and were mighty disgruntled when expert native archers were able to drive arrows deeper into distant pieces of wood than the colonists were able to penetrate with their guns. Similarly, John Smith, when captured, hurled his pistol into the swamp rather than reveal its limitations. (This is all in any standard scholarly history of Jamestown; it’s not controversial.)

    2) Cortes and his men, in steel armor, wielding steel weapons, had a big technological advantage over the Mesoamerican armies they faced. No question about it. Still, they effectively lost twice. First, Cortes repeatedly battled Tlaxcala, an independent kingdom en route to Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards won every battle, but the numerically superior forces of the Tlaxcalans slowly picked them off, one by one. Just when Cortes was facing extinction, the Tlaxcalans proposed joining forces against the Triple Alliance. Realizing it was his only chance, Cortes took up the offer, and as proof of his intent married off his lieutenants to Tlaxcalan noblewomen. Then, in the “noche triste,” the Triple Alliance (Aztec empire) drove the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan, killing more than half of the invaders. Faced with the ruin of his hopes, Cortes supposedly wept. The Triple Alliance then made a huge mistake — they didn’t slaughter all the remaining Spaniards. Cortes, a remarkably tenacious man, regrouped. Meanwhile, smallpox came in and killed a huge number of Indians, including the entire upper leadership of the Triple Alliance. Cortes then launched a successful attack at the head of a native army that historian Ross Hassig, one of the leading scholars in the field, has estimated at 200,000. The empire fell because of a combination of disease, native manpower and superior generalship from Cortes. European industry or technology had little to do with it.

    In all this kind of discussion, the trick is to remember what Europeans actually had in, say, 1520 — a time when sending over 1500 men, as Spain did in Columbus’s 2nd voyage, was an enormously expensive measure, one that could not readily be repeated quickly.


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