Chinese Trade, Constantinople, Compass, Stirrup, Gunpowder, Cannon, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Gunboat Diplomacy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 18th, 2012

Technology 101

The Ottoman Turks used the new Cannon to Breach the Great Stone Walls of Constantinople

China was a mysterious and distant place.  It was about as far away from Europe you could get.  But the things that came from there were intoxicating.  Caravans working the Silk Road brought things west.  To Constantinople.  And to northern Europe.  Silk.  Porcelain.  And those eastern spices.  If you were interested in having the finer things in life you bought them from China.

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  The eastern part of the Roman Empire that survived through the Middle Ages.  Constantinople sat on the Bosporus.  The trade crossroads of the world.  Where Europe met Asia.  Where the Black Sea (and the rivers of Eastern Europe and Russia) met the Mediterranean Sea.  Where Christianity met Islam.  Where Catholicism met Christian Orthodoxy.  Not only a city of great wealth but of strategic importance.  And coveted by everyone who didn’t have it.

China also invented paper, the compass, the stirrup, the ship rudder and moveable-type printing.  And they were pretty good at map making, too.  Things that Europeans used to great success.  Including another Chinese invention.  Gunpowder.  But the Europeans weren’t the only ones using these inventions.  The Seljuk Turks made good use of the stirrup.  Riding out of central Asia.  Whose archers were able to stand in their stirrups while at full gallop and bring down a withering and accurate fire upon their enemies.  Who went on to conquer much of the Byzantine lands.  Except Constantinople.  Whose thick stone walls were impervious to the archer’s arrow.  But the Ottoman Turks were able to break down those thick walls with another Chinese invention.  Gunpowder.  Used in cannons to hurl great projectiles into the stone walls of Constantinople.  Breaching them.  Allowing them to finally conquer the great city in 1453.  When Constantinople became Istanbul.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment bloomed in Italy

When the Western Roman Empire fell the Byzantine Empire retained some portions of it.  Including what grew into the Italian city-states.  Tied into the Byzantine economy they grew wealthy from that Asian trade.  Many of those coveted Chinese goods that made it to Europe went through them.  It was their wealth that led them out of the Dark Ages.  Kicked off the Italian Renaissance.  And rekindled an interest in the ancient Greek texts and the knowledge they contained.  The chancellor of Florence invited a scholar from Constantinople to Florence to teach their students Greek.  To help these students read the old Greek texts.  More scholars followed after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople.

The flourishing trade helped to create the banking industry.  Aided by their development of double-entry bookkeeping that the Italians invented.  The Italian city-states were making money.  Which made good use of that Chinese paper.  To account for all the money they were making from those Chinese luxuries.  Made a lot of rich men.  Who indulged in the arts.  Renaissance art bloomed in Italy.  As did the Enlightenment.  From all that Greek learning the Italians gained from those Greek texts.  And it flowered from Italy throughout Europe.

But all was not good.  As these city-states grew great and wealthy they became targets for their rivals.  And plunged them into a series of wars that consumed more wealth than the city-states created.  Wars they fought with hired mercenaries.  Which Venice and Florence financed with some of the first government bonds.  But their days were numbered.  Because others wanted that wealth.  And they wanted to find a way to get to those Chinese goods without going through the Ottoman Turks.  And they soon found it.

It was the Europeans’ Turn to Build Empires Thanks to their Taste for Chinese Luxuries and Technology

With the Turks in Istanbul and the Italians in the Mediterranean, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch looked for a direct sea route to China.  With the English close behind.  With modern ocean-going ships.  Employing a lot of that Chinese technology.  Including the compass.  And that gunpowder.  Taking them to the source of those Chinese goods.  Soon the Europeans moved in.  And began to dictate their own terms.  Cutting out the Italians.  And the Turks.  It was the end of the great Italian city-states.  The days of the great warships had arrived.  Ships bristling with decks of cannon.  Introducing the era of gunboat diplomacy.

It was the Europeans’ turn to build empires.  Thanks to their taste for Chinese luxuries.  And an insatiable appetite to use the latest in technology to help them get what they wanted.  Their dominance would last centuries.  Until the latest in technology took warfare to such heights that it plunged continents into war.  The Great War was so devastating that it wiped out a generation of people.  Bankrupted those European empires.  Destroyed the Ottoman Empire.  And left the European nations impoverished.  But they would recover.  And then do it all over again.  Only worse.  For World War II demoted the Great War to World War I.  Which turned out not to be the war to end all wars after all.

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