Most of you have never heard of Zheng He. Between 1405 and 1433, this Chinese admiral of the Ming Dynasty led seven major explorations into the western reaches of the Indian Ocean. The largest of these explorations included almost 300 ships and carried close to 30,000 people. They visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East Africa. Compared to the size and number of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 fleet of 3 ships and 125 sailors, the Spaniards “were like a trio of mosquitoes compared to Zheng He’s drove of dragons” (Harari, Yuval Noah. “Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind”). When a new Chinese emperor took charge in 1433, the expeditions ended, the fleet was dismantled, and the technological and geographic information gained was lost.
So why are Columbus’ voyages world famous, and Zheng He’s voyages virtually unknown to most westerners?
Europeans came to dominate the world beginning in the late 15th century, according to Harari, because they held a different perspective from the rest of the world.
When the Europeans began to explore, they knew they were ignorant of what was out in the world. In contrast, the leaders of the great empires of Asia Minor, Persia, India, and China held the attitude that they already knew what was worth knowing and needed to learn nothing more. The European attitude of curiosity and adventure drove them to explore and to harness science, technology, and history to dominate the globe by the end of the 19th century.
Europeans decided that if they wanted to conquer the world, they needed to send out scientists with the conquerors to gain as much knowledge of the cultures and societies as they could. Knowledge was power. According to Harari, this approach had never occurred in the history of the world. Conquering faraway lands and empires was unheard of. Most empires only attacked what was adjacent, not an ocean and half a world away. Their concern was security, while the European perspective was learning and knowledge, based on their realization of their ignorance.
When Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez landed his ships in the western Caribbean port of what would be called Veracruz in 1519, he set out to conquer the great Aztec Empire with no more that 550 Spanish soldiers—an audacious act of boldness. The Aztecs had no idea at all about who these Spanish were. They did not know about the violent destruction that had taken place on the islands of the Caribbean to the west of them from the time of Columbus’ voyages in 1492.
The Aztec Emperor, Montezuma II, thinking these white, bearded, and stinking strangers might be gods, invited them into their capital of Tenochitlan (now Mexico City). As soon as Cortez and his army got there, they proceeded to take Montezuma captive. They questioned the emperor and his attendants, and sent out small Spanish expeditions in all directions to find out as much as they could about the empire, training translators to help them understand the culture.
Eventually, the Aztec elites rebelled against the Spanish, who had to fight their way out of the city and back to Veracruz. There they gathered thousands of Indian allies who hated the oppressive rule of the Aztecs. Little did they know Spanish rule would be far worse.
By 1521, Tenochitlan was a smoldering ruin. Within a few short years 85 percent of the native population was dead, due to Spanish brutality, and European diseases.
In 1532, Pizarro mimicked Cortez’ conquest by first declaring that he came in peace to the Inca Empire in South America. With only 168 men, he took the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, captive. Then Pizarro and his small band of Spaniards, with the aid of uninformed Indian allies, dismantled the empire and subjugated its people. Ignorance doomed both empires.
This European pattern of conquest succeeded due to native parochial thinking which would be repeated with the Ottoman (Middle East), Safavid (Persia), Mughal (India), and Chinese empires over the next four hundred years. The Europeans used their insatiable quest for knowledge of other cultures and the development of scientific/technological discoveries to conquer the world. European attitudes, languages, religions, clothing styles, and forms of government still dominate 500 years later.
It wasn’t until the end of World War II that the native peoples of these European empires learned their lessons and adopted a global vision about how to overthrow and kick out their British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portugese rulers by using the international media to further their cause. According to Harari, had Montezuma II been able to harness the media to change public opinion in Spain, the history of the world would be very different today.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.