Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. 3: A Century of Advance

Book Cover

Book Title

Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1: The Century of Discovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965


Lach, Donald F. and Edwin J. Van Kley


This series reveals the impact of Asia's high civilizations on the development of modern Western society. The authors have examined the ways in which European encounters with Asia have altered the development of Western society, art, literature, science and religion since the renaissance. In Volume Three, "A Century of Advance", the authors have researched seventeenth-century European writings on Asia in an effort to understand how contemporaries saw Asian societies and peoples. In Book One of Volume Three, the authors discuss at length the impact of Christian missions and trade and conquest in the East. It does this by a thorough examination of the various histories, reports, letterbooks and travelogues printed and widely disseminated throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. Individual chapters also cover literature from Iberia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and England.

For the present volume the date of termination of 1700 is appropriate since in both northern Europe and Asia the great nations and empires were then at the apogee of their power and influence. Most notable in the seventeenth century was the advance of European merchants and missionaries into continental states and archipelagoes of Asia. From coastal footholds won in the previous century, they were able to penetrate the interiors of Asian states and even the courts of Moghul India, Siam, Arakan, Mataram, China and Japan. Empire-building was generally confined within the archipelagoes and isolated islands, as well as separated city-states. The Europeans were most successful in working with one another and with cooperative natives in building new, or expanding old, coastal commercial cities: Manila, Nagasaki, Macao, Batavia, Colombo, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. From these strategically located entrepots they became increasingly more effective in controlling inter-Asian trade and in supplying European markets.

The seventeenth-century Europeans had the advantage of using the works of their predecessors and of having better access to the society or culture under review. The images conveyed of the greater continental states like China and India were much sharply-defined, deeper and more comprehensive than those of the previous century. Through their understanding of many of the native languages, the Europeans were now better able than previously to penetrate the high cultures of India, China and Japan. From the diverse images of the various parts of Asia it became manifestly clear that Europeans in the field were engaged in a commercial and religious struggle. While progress was recorded for most places, it could readily be seen that the Europeans were not universally successful in imposing their will upon abject Asians.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope includes the study of the Iberian Maritime Empire of the East, the Dutch Empire, British East India Company, and European-Asian economic relations at the seventeenth-century's end. Imperial breakdown in Europe and Asia of 1621-41, was studied by perusing the Iberian literature available, through which Lach extracted the information for the reasons for imperial background.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Leaders such as Prince Henry of Portugal was governor of the knightly Order of Christ, and assisted the seamen, merchants, cartographers and instrument makers; a Catholic Christian of deep and orthodox piety, and a patron of much that was contemporary in learning and science. The argument put forth is that the presence of such leaders in the beginning of European expansion by sea was a natural outcome of centuries of crusading hope and frustration. By 1660, there was a general pattern of internal colonial government, nowhere prescribed in law but everywhere recognized in practice. The English empire was the only European colonial empire at that time in which representative institutions played any significant part, since England unlike Spain and France had embarked upon the settlement of colonies in a period when the idea of representative government was gaining strength in the mother country.

In the opinion of Restoration Statesmen, the chief dangers to the empire lay in the alleged indifference of the colonists to English interests. Like most trading corporations, the Dutch East India Company had acquired territorial possessions slowly and with reluctance. A centralized monopoly was the goal since it was easier to protect. The company sought to close the eastern seas, and limit native Asiatic shipping to an auxiliary role, supplying local products without competing in the European-dominated trade in the main routes. Such a system could only be enforced by armed fleets, and maintained through a vast system of fortified posts. Treaties were struck with the local rulers to establish posts and bases, as a result these commercial treaties led to alliances, and alliances to protectorates.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, European merchants, missionaries and planters had founded permanent settlements in all the continents of the world except Australia and the Antarctic. The nature of these settlements varied greatly, but all alike depended upon the mother country. None was deemed as self- supporting; none yet aspired to independence of the founding state, though some colonies had changed hands as a result of European wars. In most parts of the East they found civilized peoples, powerful and numerous enough to resist the settlement of Europeans as a resident aristocracy. However, they were far from assuming the position of overlords, limited to forts and trading factories.

A strong argument put forth by the writer was that the imperialism of eighteenth century Europe had transformed from that during the sixteenth century. While greed and brutality had marked every stage of the expansion, in the earlier days there was still a sense of wonder, a certain humility underlying the truculence, sometimes an anxious searching of conscience. The conclusion is that the general European attitude towards non-Europeans had coarsened and hardened with successful expansion. Familiarity had bred contempt.

In 'trusteeship' Europe has at present a theory and a policy of colonial government to which all colonizing states profess at least a formal adherence. There had been conflict between an imperialism interested only in profits and an imperialism which accepts duties also. Yet, the author attributes the feeling of duty and responsibility as a product of continuous missionary tradition running back to the eighteenth century. This, however, can be refuted by the fact that there could be other factors important to the rise of feelings of responsibility to the welfare of those colonized, which the author does not address comprehensively in this book.

Annotated by Michelle Djong