History 144

World Civilizations III, the Expansion of Europe



Guns & Gunpowder Empires



• Gunpowder weapons: became effective in sieges by the mid-15th century, & that changed the balance of power, against those in fortified strongholds & in favor of those with the new weapons.  Governments that could monopolize these weapons were able to create or strengthen & expand their empires.  This happened from Russia to China & from the Ottoman Empire to India, but not in Western Europe where no single ruler was able to monopolize siege cannons.  Instead, rivalries led to improvements in the art of war that raised European armies above others & contributed to European power around the globe in the 18th & 19th centuries.


• Primitive gunpowder weapons reached Europe in the 13th century via Mongol attacks, whereafter the Europeans, having access to more metal & through advanced mining techniques, built bigger & better guns.  In around 1500 they put cannons on their ships, which added to their naval & commercial superiority.  Thus, Europeans developed better equipped & more powerful armies than those elsewhere, but divisions within Europe perpetuated a balance of power in Eurasia & enabled other empires to survive intact for some time.


Russia used siege cannons in conquering land in Siberia & to the Pacific as well as in consolidating Muscovy into a large, autocratic state.  Grand Duke Ivan III (1462-1505) used these weapons--along with Russia’s excellent river system--to extend his reach, as did Ivan the Terrible (1533-84).  Under Peter the Great (1689-1725) Russia started to modernize & catch up with the West.


• The sultans of the Ottoman Empire used cannons to capture Constantinople (in 1453), & his corps of footsoldiers, the Janissaries, were equipped with handguns.  In their conquests, the Ottomans were mostly limited only by the distance their armies & big guns had to travel from Constantinople--the distance to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna & the distance to the Safavid empire in Persia & Azerbaijan.  In the 17th century, the Janissaries became unreliable, & the Ottomans failed to keep up with European technical advances in the art of war.


• The Mughal Empire of India began in 1526 when Babar crossed the Himalayas to begin the conquest of the Indian subcontinent.  But because the Mughals didn’t control the seas, the Europeans established fortified bases along the coast.  Eventually, the English & French replaced the Portuguese as the chief European traders; they also recruited Indian soldiers (sepoys) for protection.  By the 18th century, with their skilled sepoys & with their navy, the British (represented by their East India Company) succeeded the Mughals as rulers of India.  The Mughals also lost out because their military power depended on horses & cavalry, which made them vulnerable, although their use of siege guns had helped to keep them in power for almost 2 centuries.





• The Safavid dynasty in Persia (modern Iran) & Azerbaijan was founded by Shah Ismail (1502-24).  The Ottomans kept the neighboring Safavids at bay through most of the 16th century, but then Shah Abbas I the Great (1587-1629) imported guns from Europe to make the Persian empire formidable.  His successors, however, were less able, & Safavid rule broke up by the end of the 17th century.  Still, because they established a new branch of Islam--Shiite--the Safavids have continued to affect the course of history.


• Although gunpowder & guns were invented in China, officials of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) had little use for their inventions because they protected themselves inside fortresses & walled cities.  The next dynasty, the Mongols (1279-1378), used guns & gunpowder, but shortages of metal kept their weapons small & less powerful.  The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) reacted similarly to the Sung.  And the still-influential thinking of Confucius viewed fighting as a failure of good government.  So mandarin (public) officials did not try to provide big guns or sophisticated troop formations (as the Europeans were doing).  Even the sometimes-brilliant Qing (or Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912)--especially under the rule of Kangxi--was slow to change; not until the 19th century was the obsolescence of their military system made clear to them, but then it was too late.


Japan came to use guns & gunpowder in the 1540s, after contact with the Portuguese, which their military tradition & sword-making ability took advantage of.  By late 16th century the Japanese military had 2 branches: gun-carrying infantry & sword-wielding samurai.  But the new Tokugawa shogunate (rule of great military commanders; 1603-1868) disliked guns, so the new weapons eventually disappeared from Japan, & the country became isolated until the 19th century.


• Thus, the new gunpowder weapons had some impact in most parts of the inhabited world, but each place reacted differently.  In China & Japan, for example, guns were allowed minimal influence; those countries kept themselves isolated, but then paid a high price, in the 19th century, by being vulnerable to the West.  But while the West’s exploitation of gunpowder weapons enabled them to become rich & to dominate much of the globe, the effort cost countless lives & helped to keep Europe embroiled in war for much of modern history.