Why Europe? Musings in the Museu de Marinha on English Exceptionalism



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).


Breech-loading gun.


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?

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al loomis

perhaps portugal didn’t have coking coal and iron at hand and easily accessible, certainly didn’t have easy internal communication, so local commerce limited. or maybe benign climate and good wine production encouraged a more relaxed national character?


“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”

But that’s now an old narrative. With the blossoming of the fiscal-military state model, Spain is now seen as a weak state, with low levels of taxation relative to England and France, and with internal fragmentation amongst autonomous states preventing a unified market. The Spanish kings solved the problem of having to constantly beg for revenue from the jealous regions by finding silver and gold in the Americas. So the development of state capacity was delayed. Or so the story goes. (See Grafe, or Hough & Grier.)

Of course, that doesn’t really account for Portugal, which also derived revenue from overseas commerce much as the English monarchy did.


Top loading cannons are cool.



Unfortunately there aren’t that many war scenes in the movie, let alone awesome artillery scenes.

The movie isn’t that informative about the Fall of the Ming. But they do show how a Chinese doctor proposed germ theory centuries before Pasteur.


Could it be that because the region was a metaethnic frontier for so long, and at that time was in the process of becoming a proper state, the efflorescence that was happening all over Europe got cristalized there ? Because for what I understand, the technical progress you mention was not just happening in Portugal or Spain, but was happening all over Europe, but was used mainly by those 2 countries in the reconquista and subsequently in their conquest of the New world.


Why were the Seahawks so good two years ago? Why were the Patriots best in the world a year ago? Why were the Broncos Super Bowl champs last year? More importantly, why are all to football teams so amazingly good at said sport in every conceivable way compared to a random selection of people off the street?

Constructive competition between teams for decades has created teams of extraordinary ability. The process selects for good coaching, personnel, playbook, equipment, management, financial support, defense, offense, special teams and team spirit. And note that “good” isn’t something known in advance. It was something which the process itself discovered or created over time.

Europe had a thousand plus independent yet closely linked states competing and cooperating for survival and power for over a thousand years. There was effectively a competition for state effectiveness. And effective states solve problems, and minimize the generation of internal secondary problems generated while solving them.

The competition, and the ability to learn from competing states, and the existential risk of failing to learn created a literal arms race not just for technology, but for institutions, tax systems, and cultural mindsets of effective within-state cooperation. The role of the leader was always short lived (See Mancur Olson or Cardwell’s Law). The northern city states of Italy were early champs. Portugal and Spain has their moments of glory. Then we see the rise of the Dutch, who were then one-upped by the British and so on.

Seahawks–Pattiots– Broncos. The focus shouldn’t be so much on which team was on top which year, but the wider competitive cooperative process which created it and the institutions, technology and mindsets which were discovered along the way. Institutional standouts or meta solutions include Liberal open-access government with increasingly more impartial rules, freer enterprise, and the scientific method. From technology we had Printing, Steam engines, Better transportation, communication and sanitation.

There was nothing inevitable in this competition. Indeed the most common outcome among competing-yet-integrated states was consolidation or empire. A process which effectively neutered the dynamic of improvement. Another common outcome was mutual assured destruction. Europe dodged both bullets.


And a great book at that! Probably my pick for the one must-read book written last year.

Note that my argument is not just centuries of competition and fragmentation. It also required integration. I believe Diamond issues the term “intermediate fragmentation” to describe this hard to measure balance between competing states, yet free flows of people, ideas, frameworks, technology, institutions and capital, it isn’t fragmentation, it is a long term cluster of competing-yet cooperating states where advances in one require and incentivize further advances in others, and mistakes are potentially deadly.

Going back to my example, the teams of the NFL are not widely fragmented. They compose a long term league, with constant movement of ideas and personnel between hyper competitive teams. My term for it is a constructive competition. I would use the term COOPETITION, but it is awkward and already used by others in a different context.

I know of only one other area in history which was similarly fragmented yet closely interconnected with hundreds of competing and cooperating states for hundreds of years. That is of course classical Greece — which is almost as amazing in terms of artistic, institutional and scientific achievement as we see in the European Great Divergence which came two millennia later.

You mention SE Asia. Are you suggesting there were hundred of well integrated but competing states operating for centuries in this area? How well integrated were they in language, religion, mobility, trade?

I can say this… Europe was the only place in history with “intermediate” fragmented states and widespread PRINTING. And nothing connected people together in time and space better than printing.

Don’t get me wrong. Even I don’t think intermediate fragmentation was sufficient. It was probably as close to necessary as we can get.


I never bought the argument of Fragmentation between multiple polities was the MAIN reason(Jared Diamonds theory if I am not Wrong) for the Rise of European societies after ca.1750.I think the question of the rise of Europe was multifactorial but given what i’ve noticed from being a history reader it seems mainly due to geopolitical reasons.Also I dont buy that europe was more militarily capable than other areas of eurasia. If one notices, much of the conquests of europeans where in peripheral areas of the world at the expense of relatively sparsely populated and isolated, and technologically underdeveloped populations in The Americas, Southeast Asia, Australia and Siberia etc (As Jeremy Black Points Out).Compared to the dramatic conquests and military enterprises of Manchus ,Mughals,Ottomans ,Nader Shah in Persia(Very under appreciated figure) and Hideyoshi in Japan,Europe’s military accomplishments in the early Modern period and up to 1750-1800 seemed very unimpressive.Also It seems that Up until around the mid 1700s europe had a rather peripheral or semi peripheral place in the world especially when it comes to Eurasia(and even in Africa btw) .It seems that until the 1700’s the major areas of the world where NE Asia, with China as the regional hegemon, and Dar al Islam composed of three empires(Ottomans Mughals and Safavids) ,Also there was a rising Russia.Around the 18th Century the Islamic empires begin to break down(as all polities eventually do, as Nothing lasts forever) and that created a vacuum of power that the british eventually filled(especially in India).The conquest of India transformed Britain into the hegemon of South Asia and a great power and with Indian resources(Manpower for their Armies,Taxes, Markets, Opium etc) it was able to take on a declining china.So It seems that a wave of Political decline in Eurasia allowed previously Peripheral players to fill vacuums of Power(As it always happens in world history) rather than europe leapfroging Others,it took advantage of the decline of The Centers of Power of The world at the time.Now, Technology is important but I dont think that europes Military technology was far more advanced than in other places of eurasia.Other areas had also their own Military technologies to match, as Tipu Sultan of Mysore fired Relatively advanced Rocket technology against the british and defeated them in some battles, and for example Jean-BaptisteTavernier, who visited the subcontinent in the seventeenth century,reported from Golconda that “the barrels of their muskets are stronger than ours, and the iron is better and purer; this makes them not liable to burst. Also According to Randolf Cooper,“British military men in South Asia historically had a healthy respect for South Asian matchlocks, which were often judged to have superior range and velocity over European muskets.Nader Shah’s Army According to Michael Axworthy and Others Could have been the Most Powerful Army in the World between the 1730’s and the 1740s. The Ottomans defeated decisively The Austrians in their wars between 1737-1739.Industrialization Matters,but to be a great power you need more than that(Resources, land , More population etc) fr who is More Powerful,Highly Advanced Sweden or China? The British Industrial revolution would in My opinion have happened whether or not the vacuums in eurasia had appear but without that opportunity Britain would have ended up as South korea,a wealthy Technologically advanced but rather not that globally relevant power that it was in the 19th and early-to-Mid 20th Centuries, and britain was the most relevant western european country.Russia is Other story.To me good bookson the subject are Military Transition in early Modern Asia by Kaushik Roy and After Tamerlane By John Darwin.One CANNOT explain the rise of europe without explaining the geopolitics of the world at the time and what was going on elsewhere.


It doesnt have to be one or the other in any case. A very large number of inter-connected changes was sweeping through Europe, starting in the South, but rapidly spreading to the North, with later Northern domination. No single factor was responsible, but many factors were important. Including one a friend recently brought up on Twitter: proper universities and sustained knowledge growth. Again the origins can be elsewhere (in this case, in Central Asia and then in some Muslim cities) but none of THOSE places sustained and grew like Oxford or Paris did. There can be reasons found for this sustained development, and then explanations for those explanations… And so on.
As the Buddha pointed out, its all connected.


A quantitative approach already exists ! There are already existing theories supported by data that purport to account for the divergence between northwest and southern Europe, as well as why England, as opposed to France or the Netherlands, industrialised first. You keep saying there are hundreds of theories but things have been narrowed down considerably now.


Well, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern cities of learning were destroyed. The Paris and Oxbridge had the good fortune of not encountering the Mongol horde or Tamerlane.

steven johnson

The differences between “Europe” and China seem to me to lie in the difficulties of internal communication and the ease with which external forces can enter. Doesn’t it make more sense to talk about the Mediterranean, an area where sea travel was not just easier than land routes, but easier there than in the Atlantic and North Sea and Baltic Sea? There was early on a powerful tendency to imperial unification of the west, and the east. France, Spain and Italy were constantly starting to unify. You could think it was largely the rise of England, Holland and Austria/Germany that finally put an end to efforts along that line in the war of the Spanish Succession.

And the tendency of the eastern Mediterranean to undergo imperial consolidation didn’t end even with the Ottomans being driven back from Vienna in the seventeenth century. Perhaps the career of Eugene of Savoy should be seen as an expression of an attempt by the Austrians to take over the Ottoman empire in the eastern Mediterranean. And an imperial project in that area wasn’t really finished until a modernish national state formed in Greec in the early nineteenth century?

As to why the north of Europe was less advanced, the greater difficulties of sea transport on open oceans, separation by significant extensive line of mountain ranges in the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathians and, of course, the rugged mass of the Balkans which fostered lower development where cheap, easy sea communications weren’t available. France’s central massif wasn’t such a bar. Which is why France was a player in the Mediterranean, and Mediterranean civilization spread to France, unlike central and eastern Europe.

In the south of course the Sahara was a huge barrier, producing a bottlenck on land transport, especially at Cyrenaica (near the Qattara depression.) Central Europe and Eastern Europe were less able to develop until the military technology to deal with the threat of horse nomad empires. This threat was greatest in the east, which appears to be why the Black Sea communications didn’t stimulate an urban civilization in the different ecology?

Perhaps this explains why Britain retrogressed so totally when Rome declined, it was always at the physical/environmental limit of the essentially Mediterrranean civilization? And why new industries in mining appeared first in south Germany in the days of the Fuggers? And why textiles, at least woolens favored in grasslands, developed more on the lowlands’ navigable rivers with their relatively greater accessibility to southern knowledge and the well established markets there, as well as northern resources and new rising markets in the north? The ecological conditions of Scandinavia compelled further economic development to await the technological innovations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Sea communications had of course already given this area a strong tendency to its own imperial unification, largely under Denmark, as I recall.

From what I know of Africa, geographical obstacles to communications, especially the limited number of east/west routes, were very important. India unfortunately I know very little about. Maybe its history suggests all this is based on too selective reasoning. As is, China had rather fewer internal barriers to the growth of empires, with greater stimulus from its relative closeness to the threat of horse nomads. The forests and mountains of the south, though also tended to divide China into north and south. While the interventions of horse nomad were like the interventions of Germans/Austrians into Italy, tending to lead to division? Which is why China has also had a powerful tendency to division fighting the tendency to unification. Even with technological advancement making these barriers less significant, China was last divided almost within living memory.

As to institutions, the usual trend is to talk up pluralism, etc. But isn’t technological progress and growth and cultural innovation strongly associated with empire in Central Asia? At least, until the Mongol conquest? But then, the Mongol destruction of irrigation seems to have had seemingly permanent consequence for the ecology of central Asia and the middle east.



“As to institutions, the usual trend is to talk up pluralism, etc. But isn’t technological progress and growth and cultural innovation strongly associated with empire in Central Asia? At least, until the Mongol conquest? But then, the Mongol destruction of irrigation seems to have had seemingly permanent consequence for the ecology of central Asia and the middle east.”

It seems that empires often emerge as brief institutional and technological innovators until Cardwell’s law takes its toll. Sclerosis and rent seeking and internal exploitation gets any large organization over time absent constant external competition.

Looking at Murray’s Human Accomplishment index, China certainly had its time of ascendency. But some time after the advent of the printing press in Europe, the technological and scientific achievements in Europe dwarfed anything else by at least an order of magnitude. China was on an extended era of decline as the competing European states entered a literal and figurative arms race.

Gene Anderson

Welll, part of it was codfish. Portugal never had enough land to feed itself, so it was an early leader in the North Atlantic fishery. Then they got into world trade, which gave them access to Chinese maritime technology (compass, fore-and-aft rigging, watertight compartments, sternpost rudder, etc.) very early. Then they had to fight off the Turks to keep trade going, which forced huge military technological development. Call it the codfish theory of history. The Portuguese North Atlantic sailing-boat cod fishery survived into the 20th century, to be ethnographically described in a great book, THE QUEST OF THE SCHOONER ARGUS. Harrowing reading. Don’t be a medieval Portuguese cod fisherman. No wonder they were so tough.


Thanks for the info on “The Quest of the Schooner Argus”.

I think your comments about the English are misplaced. There are two scenarios at issue about European exceptionalism. The English one is important because it is claimed that without the industrial revolution, the Europeans would have simply fallen back into the Malthusian trap; albeit at a higher level of technology/population.

The Portuguese are important to the argument of more general Western exceptionalism. I think it is the stronger overall argument, because even though the English started the Industrial Revolution, the rest of Europe caught up pretty quickly. Whereas it is a whole lot less clear that anyone, other than the Europeans, was evenly slightly interested in global voyages of exploration and then expansion.
To my mind, the big mental breakaway came when the Europeans realized that the “ancient knowledge” that they had recovered from Classical Rome/Greece was not particularly accurate and that they would have to go their own way to find answers. As with the English, the getting there was somewhat accidental, its not where they were trying to go. But why they would even get there, in both cases, is what made the Europeans very different.


The Chinese were interested in exploring and did (even reached Africa) but those were killed off.

Arab traders had traversed most of the known world.

It’s ignorant to say that no one else was interested in exploration (and exploration really meant trade; the Europeans didn’t go exploring for the sake of scientific advancement).

We know what happened in China.
The key question is why the Arab world didn’t produce the industrial revolution.


Key question? Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I would have put more money behind the Hawaiians producing the industrial revolution than the Arabs. The latter had few factors in their favor and almost every imaginable factor working against it. The Arabs had their day early on, but as with most empires, they quickly reverted to a system of rent seeking and repression.

Why are you suggesting the Arabs were close to the IR?


More rent-seeking and oppression than in Europe? And if so, why so? Did the Arabs also not have a bunch of competing/cooperating states?

In any case, I was pushing back against the idea that Europeans were the only ones interested in exploration and that that is the big difference. The Europeans were seeking trade routes, and the Arabs traded as well/


Yeah, I agree others were interested in trade routes.

The Islamic Caliphate ruled the area until some time before turn of the millennium. There was a golden age of rationalism, learning and technology around the millennium, but by the 12th C the Sunni religious leaders gained control as and stifled skepticism, open thought and questioning of elite (religious) authority throughout the region. After that we have the rise of the repressive Ottoman Empire.

My argument, and that of a significant portion of historians trying to understand and explain the Great Divergence, is not that Europeans elites and incumbents wanted to be less oppressive and repressive, it is that they were unable to be because of competition between a thousand plus alternative states or independently run cities. People had exit opportunities. Ideas could be suppressed in one locality, but, like the Pillsbury dough boy that just pushed the idea into a competing state across the channel or in the next valley. Censorship was thus constantly attempted but in actuality comically ineffective (what better way to guarantee a best seller in England than ban it in France?).

In the Muslim world, the elites and incumbents wanted to privilege themselves and repress and oppress others and they were greatly successful. In the European world, centuries of competition led to the opposite. An enlightenment philosophy of rationalism, skepticism, questioning authority, natural rights, Liberty, rule egalitarianism and divided government. These emerged not because they were destined to, but because the states that adopted these institutions and mindsets thrived compared to their more succesful-at-repressing-and-exploiting neighbors.

I agree with the historians that there was nothing inevitable about this process. Extended competition among otherwise reasonably well integrated states usually leads to consolidation, and even when it continues it is more necessary than sufficient. There was nothing inevitable that centuries of integrated competition would lead to the scientific method, open access political institutions, freer enterprise and enlightenment philosophy. But it is infinitely more likely than that a consolidated empire would do so. The elites had too much to lose, and institutions of growth and prosperity are too counterintuitive to people. Competition was the discovery mechanism. It supplied the variety, the incentives, the penalties for failure and the rewards for stumbling upon or copying success.

Paul Gowan

How about a socio-economic model of trade and sea power with the factors listed by A.T. Mahan Can you make the model predict movement of power out of the Mediterranean and along the west coast of Europe from Portugal to Spain, France, the Netherlands and Britain? What factor makes the power move north? Volume of trade? Population? Attitude? National Unity?
One factor might be access to trading posts. Portugal had the Islands in the Atlantic and along the west coast of Africa. The no longer in the Indian Ocean but it’s technology may have been disseminated through the Moors/Muslim traders/Venetians/Genoese.
Did the Arab/Muslim Civilization manufacture goods or just trade?
Create a schematic model of Song Dynasty trade and technology. What stopped an industrial revolution there and then?


Well, the Song dynasty was destroyed by an outside force.

Note that the cradle of the Industrial Revolution (Britain) was intact for many centuries with many of its institutions intact for centuries. This is true of many of the European countries, in fact. Look at early modern Europe. None of France, Spain, or Portugal in its heyday were ever occupied or taken over by a foreign force.

Paul Gowan

There might be part of a quantitative model in:
Global Power Struggles 1490-1990


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