On my return trip from Europe I had a long layover in Lisbon, which I decided to spend in the Museu de Marinha in Belém. I have been lately thinking a lot about a bunch of topics that can be summarized under the rubric of Why Europe? – why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe? why did Europe conquer the world? and so on. So I decided to visit Museu de Marinha, because I was told it had a good exhibition on the Portugal’s role in the Age of Discovery. And it does.
What struck me in the Museum was just how rapid was the technological development in Portugal during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When we think about the rise of modernity, and the Industrial Revolution specifically, we naturally focus on the developments in England. Probably the most influential theory about why the Industrial Revolution happened is that England acquired the right institutions. The most important breaking point was supposedly the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Some—many—institutionalists even point to the Magna Carta as the pivotal social invention that set the English on their remarkable path to liberty, Capitalism, and world domination.
Meanwhile benighted Iberian countries, like Spain, fell by the wayside, because they had despotic kings, didn’t respect property rights, and had offered no protection to inventors.
There are many problems with this story of “English Exceptionalism”, which I am not going to go into at this time. But it is particularly difficult to sustain when touring Museu de Marinha.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when England was a technological and cultural backwater (first the English were too busy exterminating each other in the Wars of the Roses, then they had the Tudors, who were busy exterminating the nobility, usually on trumped up charges), Portugal experienced a remarkable period of technological innovation and world exploration—and world conquest. What is particularly remarkable is the rate of technoglocial evolution.
The Museum has dozens of ship models, so you can vividly see how ship sizes and complexity increased, decade by decade.
From a two-mast caravel to a three-master, lateen-rigged, to a square-rigger. Ship models in the Museu de Marinha (all photographs by the author)
Galleon, a warship developed in the early 16th century
Nau Taforeia, a ship used to transport troops and horses
Gunpowder technology also developed rapidly, keeping up pace with naval technology. One surprise for me was to realize that breech-loading guns are very ancient.
This is a breech-loading swivel gun. The mug-shaped things on the right are essentially cartridges.
These metal chambers were pre-loaded with powder and shot. During battle, they were inserted into the breech of the gun, discharged, and then replaced with another one, yielding a rapid rate of fire. According to Wikipedia, breech-loading guns were invented in the 14th century (!) in Burgundy (note: not England).
This is how it worked
Finally, the Portuguese played an important role in developing the navigation technology. The Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes invented a “nonius” which allowed taking very fine measures on the astrolabe.
Quadrant with Nonius by Pedro Nunes (replica)
And now I come back to the question with which I started this post. If the Industrial Revolution in England was due to the institutions installed by the Glorious Revolution, what was the cause of the remarkable efflorescence of Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?