Trading with Asia was a lucrative business but also a risky one. It was a long journey to India and back and any number of things could happen on the way. In order to pool the risks, merchants would at first only invest in a portion of a ship. Their portions came to be known as “shares.” Later they invested not in individual ships but in the businesses which organized the shipping. This is how the first “joint stock companies” came to be established. This is the origin of the first business corporations.

Another way to deal with risk was to ask for a monopoly on the trade with a particular part of the world. European kings were happy to sell such monopolies as a way to raise revenue. This is how “East India companies” came to be established in one country after another – of which the English East India Company, 1600, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagni, VOC, 1602, were the most famous. The rulers were also quick to borrow money from the companies once they had begun making their profits.

Yet it was more than anything the VOC that ruled the waves. The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagni was buying tea and porcelain in China, established trading ports all over Asia and a full-fledged colony in today’s Indonesia. At the Beurs, the stock exchange, in Amsterdam not only VOC shares could be bought but all kinds of other shares too. The Amsterdam Beurs was a veritable one-stop-shop for financial services. You could buy maritime insurance, organize bank transfers, cash checks and trade currencies. “Dutch finance” is the origin of today’s financial service industry.

Dutch traders are also the ones who came up with many of the place names we today find on a world map. Zeeland is a Dutch province and that is why two islands west of Australia came to be known as “New Zealand.” Australia itself was for a long time known as “New Holland” and New York called “New Amsterdam.” In fact, Harlem is a Dutch city and not only a part of Manhattan – although the Dutch spelled it “Haarlem.” In the nineteenth-century, Chinese laborers came to work in “the Dutch West Indies.” That is why there to this day are people in the Carribean who speak both Chinese and Dutch.

External links:

In Our Time, “The East India Company”

History of the World in 100 Objects: “The Mechanical Galleon”

“The Columbian exchange” is the name given to the transfer of plants, animals, peoples and microbes which took place between the Americas and the rest of the world after the year 1492. The Columbian exchange had a profound impact on nutrition, population growth, food culture and the prevalence of diseases. For example: today chilies are essential to the food of India and Southeast Asia, yet prior to 1492 they were unknown in these parts of the world. Before Columbus, Indian curries where made with black pepper, not chilies. [Read more:Chocolate and chilies“] It is equally difficult to imagine that Italian food was made without tomatoes, that there was no coffee in Brazil, no bananas in Central America and no sugarcane in Cuba. Or that the native peoples of North America had no horses.

Species that did not exist outside of the Americas before 1492 include: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, cassava, sweet potatoes, turkey, peanut, manioc, chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, avocado, cashew, squash, rubber and strawberry. Species that did not exist in the Americas include: coffee, wheat and barley, sugarcane, banana, rice, horse, donkey, mule, pig, cow, sheep, goat, chicken, large dogs, cat and honey bees.

Diseases were also exchanged, and with devastating effect. Some 80 percent of the native population of the Americas died as a result of measles and smallpox epidemics. In some places, like the island of Hispaniola where Columbus first landed, all of the natives died. In return the Europeans got syphilis. The first known European case of the venereal disease dates from 1493. The first great outbreak occurred in Italy the following year.

The potato had a crucial impact on the level of nutrition in Europe, yet it was slow to be adopted. Often the production had to be officially promoted. In Sweden, the potato only caught on once it was discovered that it could be used to make brännvin, or vodka. In 1748, the person responsible for the discovery, Eva de la Gardie, became the first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The nutritional content of the potato was one reason for Europe’s rapid population growth between the years 1700 and 1900.

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G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936 CE, was a British journalist and author, still known today for the Father Brown series of detective stories. But Chesterton was also a philosopher of sorts and a devout Catholic. On September 18, 1909, he wrote an article in the Illustrated London News in which he discussed Indian nationalism. He did not like it, but not for the reasons one might expect. Indian nationalists, he declared, are “not very Indian and not very national.” What they want for their country are all the trappings of our government – they want our parliament, our judiciary, our newspapers, our science. The fact that Indian nationalists want all these things is evidence that they really want to be English. As a result, “[w]e cannot feel certain that the Indian Nationalist is national.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, who was visiting London at the time, read Chesterton’s article when it first appeared and, according to his biographer, “he was thunderstruck.” On the boat back to South Africa two months later he wrote the first draft of Hind Swaraj, the only book in which he addressed the problem of “home rule.” Clearly Chesterton’s thoughts were still with him. In order to obtain home rule, Gandhi insisted, we must first make sure that we have a home which is truly ours. If we only copy English institutions, our country will not be “Hindustan,” but instead “Englistan.” For a country to be independent, it must be defined in independent terms. India must be herself, not a version of Britain. Starting from this premise, the rest of the book is an elaboration on what home rule really means.

Chesterton and Gandhi were romantics and they were quick to denounce the evils of modern society. “It is machinery that has impoverished India,” Gandhi argued, and in particular the factories of Manchester that had wiped out India’s indigenous cotton industry. Gandhi’s famous response was to learn how to spin his own yarn using a hand-loom, and to make his own clothes. This, he argued, was the way to make India self-sufficient. Only a self-sufficient India would be able to rule itself.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Inside the Indian independence movement”

G.K. Chesterton, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”

Not all non-European countries were colonized by the Europeans, not even at the height of Europe’s power. Which countries were these and why did they manage to preserve their independence? First of all we have the ancient empires of Asia – Persia, China and Japan. They were far too big and far too far away for the Europeans to control them. But this does not mean that the Europeans did not meddle in their affairs. China was something of a “semi-colony” and Japan was forced to accept humiliating terms in the treaties they were forced to sign. India could of course have been included in this group, but the country, under the Mughals, was not strong and unified enough to defend itself against the British.

In addition we have countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan which best are described as “buffer states.” That is, they were left as cushions between empires – or, to be precise, between British and Russia. The Afghans defended themselves ferociously in no fewer than three Anglo-Afghan wars and in the end Britain decided it was easier to leave them alone. A third group includes Ethiopia and Thailand. Both were established monarchies and the kings in question were very skillful in appealing to the international community for support. In addition, they were good at organizing their own bureaucracies. Basically, they colonized their own countries using administrative methods which were very close to those employed by the Europeans themselves. Ethiopia, however, was militarily occupied by Italy between 1935 and 1941.

Then there is Liberia in West Africa which was established by the American Colonization Society, an American charity, as a place to which former slaves could be repatriated. It was not a colony, but not really an independent country either. In addition there were states which now are independent – such as Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia – which were colonized, but not by the Europeans. The final case is the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were not colonized by the Europeans, indeed they were themselves a part of the European system of state. They were also a large and ancient empire, although in the nineteenth-century it was shrinking precipitously.

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The Incas, much like the Maya, had a system of writing. At least if we by writing mean “a medium of human communication by means of signs.” Yet the Incas did not write their signs down, instead they used ropes with knots. They called it quipu, meaning “knot” in Quechua, the Inca language. A quipu consisted of a set of colored strings, perhaps as many as 2,000, usually made of cotton. On each string were knots tied at various distances from each other. The color of the string, its length, the number of knots on it and their distance from each other, all conveyed information. The Incas had quipu experts, trained to read the messages.

Economic relations in Inca society were organized by the state. For this reason a lot of statistical information was needed. State officials needed to know how much food that was produced, how much taxes they received, which products the government-run warehouses contained, and they needed data on births and deaths. All this information was conveyed by the quipu which easily could be dispatched by a courier from a provincial governor to the bureaucrats in Cusco.

Since the quipu were made of cotton, many have perished. Many were also destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. There are today some thousand quipus in existence. In contrast to the hieroglyphs of the Maya, the quipu have not been deciphered. [Read more:Cracking the Mayan code“] Code-breakers and historians are still working on it. An international database project is responsible for collecting data and coordinating the research.

The knots seem to correspond to numbers, not letters or sounds. They would consequently be similar to a musical notation. A professor at Harvard believes he has deciphered a combination of knots which correspond to “Puruchuco,” the name of a village. The knots would thus function like a zip code. In Tupicocha, Peru, local officials still use quipu for record keeping, but there is no direct connection to the Inca usage. If scholars one day manage to read the quipus, chances are we will obtain far better data for example on how many people who lived in the Inca empire.

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In 1999 a horrible discovery was made by a team of researchers near the summit of Llullaillaco, a 6,700 meter high volcano on the border between Argentina and Chile. Three small children were found dead in a pit. Yet the researchers knew right away that these were not recent casualties. The children of the mountain were the sacrificial victims of an Inca ceremony conducted some five hundred years ago. Subsequent analysis showed that the three – two girls, 15 and 6 years old, and a boy of 7 – had been fattened up and drugged with alcohol and coca before they died. They had most likely fallen asleep in their tomb and then frozen to death. Their mummified bodies have been extraordinarily well preserved in the cold and very dry environment. The internal organs are intact, individual hairs are preserved, and they look more or less as they must have looked when they died. In fact, they could almost be alive.

Child sacrifice was an important part of the religion of the Incas. It was a way to commemorate important events, such as the death of a Sapa Inca, or they were offerings to the gods in times of famine or war. It was considered a great honor to die as a sacrifice, and only the most physically perfect children were selected, often of noble families or local rulers. First they were taken to Cusco where they underwent various purification rituals, and from there they were dispatched to mountaintops throughout the empire. The 15 year old girl was most likely a “Sun Virgin,” chosen at the age of ten to live with other girls and women who would become royal wives, priestesses and sacrifices. According to Inca beliefs, children who are sacrificed do not actually die but watch instead over the land from their mountaintop perches.

Today a museum has been built for the children. At the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, Argentina, they have recreated the exact conditions of the mountain where they were found. Yet some indigenous groups object to what they regard as “their children” being put on display in this fashion. Other indigenous groups strongly approve of any research that can help spread knowledge of their ancestors. It is estimated that there are some 40 similar burial sites in the region, but for now at least no more mummies will be removed from the mountains.

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Huaca is the Quechua word for a “revered object.” In Inca society it referred to a monument or a feature of nature where an energy of some kind had gathered, perhaps a cosmic force or an emanation of the divine. In order to harness that energy, and placate the gods, people would conduct ceremonies at the huacas, making offerings and saying prayers. Members of a particular family would often have the task of looking after a particular location. Huacas existed already in pre-Incan societies and they exist all over Peru to this day. Indeed, down-town Lima has been built around them.

Different huacas were joined together in pathways known as ceques. The ceques would run throughout the landscape conducting spiritual energy from one place to another. Together they formed a pattern which radiated out from the capital of Cusco to every part of the empire. When children were dispatched to various places of sacrifice, they were located according to the ceque system. [Read more:Children of the mountain“] Together these lines formed a spiritual grid in which all imperial subjects could find their place and through which they all were connected. By conducting the required rituals at a huaca each conquered people could show that they accepted the power of the Inca rulers. In this way the ceque brought a sense of unity to a geographically very dispersed set of subjects.

Nazca lines are enormous geoglyphs, “earth engravings,” created by the Nazca people some time between 500 BCE and 500 CE. [Read more:Kingdoms of Peru“] They consist of trenches, 10 to 15 centimeters deep, which create a line-drawing in the landscape. And they are enormous – up to one kilometer tall. Popular motifs are animals or humanoid forms. Why the Nazca lines were created is unclear. Perhaps they were a part of an irrigation system or perhaps they played some role in an astronomical calendar. Curiously many of them are best viewed from the sky, leading to speculations that they were a way for the Nazca people to communicate with extra-terrestrials. Nazca lines are a favorite subject of late-night documentaries on less reputable TV channels.

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Túpac Amaru, 1545-1572 CE, was the last Sapa Inca and the ruler of the Inca state which survived in Vilcabamba, in a remote part of Peru, once Cusco itself had fallen to the Spanish invaders. In 1572, the Spaniards attacked the new capital too but Túpac Amaru fled into the jungle where he eventually, after a month-long pursuit, was arrested and then executed.

In 1780, a peasant uprising started against Spanish rule, led by a certain José Gabriel Condorcanqui who called himself “Túpac Amaru II” and claimed to be a direct descendant of the last Sapa Inca. Túpac Amaru II gathered many indigenous people behind him and organized an army which comprised some 60,000 followers. However, after a failure to take Cusco he was captured and killed. After his death Túpac Amaru II became a mythical figure in the struggle for indigenous rights, as well as an inspiration to various left-wing causes in Spanish America and beyond.

In Uruguay, in the 1960s and 70s, an urban guerrilla movement – the Tupamaros, named after Túpac Amaru II – committed a number of bank robberies and kidnappings. They also stole food which they distributed to the poor. The military junta which ruled Uruguay at the time began an unofficial war against them and against other left-wing organizations. The Tupamaros collapsed in 1972 when the leading members were assassinated by paramilitaries working for the government. Democracy was reestablished in Uruguay in 1984, and in 2010 a former member of the Tupamaros, José Mujica, was elected president of the country.

In Peru a Marxist guerrilla group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was founded in the early 1980s. They wanted to turn Peru into a socialist state and to fight against imperialism. They too robbed banks and organized kidnappings. In December 1996, fourteen members of the movement occupied the Japanese embassy in Lima and held 72 people hostage for more than four months. The hostages were eventually freed and the hostage-takers summarily executed.

The American rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, 1971–1996 CE, was he too named after Túpac Amaru II. His parents were both members of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary organization in the United States fighting for the rights of black people. Tupac Shakur was killed in a gang related shooting in Las Vegas.

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The consensus among scholars used to be that the Maya had no script. The images that decorate their artifacts are wonderfully creative but they are works of art, not ways to communicate information. In the 1940s, a linguist called Yuri Knorozov began to question this conclusion. The only problem was that he lived in the Soviet Union, had little access to books and no chance to travel to Mexico. During the Second World War, Knorozov was among the soldiers in the Soviet Army who captured Berlin. Here, as luck would have it, he managed to get his hands on copies of Maya manuscripts as well as a book, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written by a Spanish conquistador, Diego de Landa, in 1566. There are 27 letters in the Maya alphabet, de Landa had insisted. Although it was easy to prove that he was wrong, Knorozov was now able to pursue his research. He published an article on the subject in 1952. The writing system of the Maya, he explained, is not an alphabet; it has characters for sounds but also for entire words.

The only problem was that Knorozov’s article was published in the Soviet Union and in Russian. It took a long time for scholars elsewhere in the world to find out about it, and even once they did, Knorozov’s argument was summarily dismissed. It was only in 1973, at a conference in the old Maya city of Palenque, that the consensus shifted. “That evening,” a scholar who were present recalled, “we were able to decipher the names of seven Maya rulers.” The writing system of the Maya, it turns out, has around 800 characters and today we can read some 75 percent of their texts. The Maya wrote about history, astronomy and mathematics, but also about the histories of their rulers. Unfortunately many Mayan texts were destroyed by the Spanish. Since the books only contained “lies of the devil,” Diego de Landa recalled, “we burned them all.” The Maya people, he added, “regretted this to an amazing degree.”

External links:

In Our Time, “Maya civilization”