Why did Europeans develop the curiosity to explore the world and/or colonise, but not Indians, Chinese or Muslims in the early modern period (after 15th century) even though they were quite advanced in science?

By Sunil Kumar

Wholly dependent on the political situation in all these nations vis-a-vis the Europeans. For India; practically all of the subcontinent was overrun by barbaric Muslim hordes coming from West and Central Asia. How could Indians(or Indic kingdoms) remember their ancient scientific heritage when they were not free with practically all libraries and places of learning destroyed.

Of all the invaders of the subcontinent; only Alberuni was somewhat intellectual and wrote a big book about the intrinsic knowledge of the subcontinent(largely about the Hindu Brahmins; and other mathematical knowledge and the philosophies of India)

The Arabs who were fond of astronomy when Baghdad was at its zenith took the system of Hindu numbers; preserved it and transmitted it to classical libraries in the West which were imposing out of the self-imposed ignorance of religious theology in the Dark Ages.

Most of the scientists and scholars who emerged in the Renaissance West were from religious backgrounds themselves; however they broke free from the iron grip of irrational priests and the stranglehold of the Catholic Church.

Now for the Chinese. They had a long history of polymaths and noted intellectuals who survived even after very barbaric Mongol invasions. After the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and the power of Kublai etc; the Ming dynasty heralded a new era of stability in China.

Admiral Zheng He; a Muslim eunuch and a favourite of the Yongle emperor led one of the biggest fleets in ancient history to many of the lands in the West; Java, Brunei, South India, Arabia and Africa.

Most of Southeast Asia was even then under the control of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms; and indirectly under Indian cultural influence. The Chinese resented this and encouraged conversions to Islam; which was already being spread by traders from Arab lands as well as South India. Strangely after Zheng He; the Chinese again become inward looking while the West or the Europeans began their rediscovery of the world. The Manchus overpowered the Han Chinese in the early 1600s and began an empire which lasted till 1910.

Trade and religious glory were two motivating factors for Europeans to begin their exploration and later colonisation of the world. Apart from Marco Polo; there were other stories depicting in wildly exaggerated terms the wealth of the Orient; including India, China and South East Asia. There were tales of a Prester John; ruler of a big Christian kingdom in India who would come to the aid of Christendom in its struggle against the followers of Mahound(Arabs, Turks etc).

The religious imagination of Christian Europe had been fired by the Crusades; and shorter trade routes via Egypt etc which were open in Greek and Roman times between India and the West had been closed after the rise of Islam and Arab power which culminated in the Turk capture of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire or Byzantium(Constantinople or Istanbul).

Centuries of stagnation had given rise to a new zest and youthful vigour in European civilization compared to the now ancient and old nations in the East.

Keenly aware of new horizons in every field; the liberation of Spain from the Moors also gave them more capital and enthusiasm to chart newer frontiers. With the backing of the then Pope(active political figure of the time) who arrogantly gave all lands in the West of the then known world to Spain; and the East to Portugal; European mercenaries and conquistadores began their “Age of Exploration” and colonisation.

Realising the vast surplus of wealth flowing to Spain; other European countries like England joined the fray; with the last entrant being Germany which became a unified country only after the 1850s; and therefore had been deprived of the plunder party.

So; there are complex historical, national, religious and sociological factors behind European colonisation and the Age of Imperialism.

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