Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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What Difference Did Columbus Make?

J. Bradford DeLong



I believe... that Europe had no advantage whatever, actual or potential, over other Eastern Hemisphere civilizations before the Conquest of America. The Conquest led to the looting and mining of precious metals in an amount that may have doubled the quantity in circulation in the Old World as a whole during the 16th century. This is not a monetraist argument: specie was a product, and holding such a huge quantity of this product allowed European burghers to buy out the landlord class and begin to ruin competition on the coasts of Africa and Asia. Soon came further huge profits from the slave trade and slave plantations. (As early as 1600 the value of sugar exported from Brazil was double the value of all exports from England in that year.) And generalizing: the wealth from colonialism led to the rise of capitalism, the rise of Europe, and eventually the industrial revolution. (Why did Europeans and not Asians or Africans conquer the Americas? Location, location, location.) The essence of this argument is a denial that Europe had, actually or potentially, psychologically or culturally or environmentally, any advantage over non-Europe at the close of the Middle Ages.

My Comment:

The argument that it was the conquest of the Americas that made all the difference is tempting. But I have always thought that two points count heavily against it:

First, that the Portuguese established maritime dominance over the Indian Ocean and Indonesia before the conquest of the Americas had a chance to affect anything...

Second, that the leading edge of technological advance had shifted from China to Europe well before the conquest of the Americas. Counting inventions from my very nice _Smithsonian Visual Timeline of Inventions_:

 Years  China  India  Europe Islam Indonesia America
501-1000 9 1 3 2 1 0
1001-1400 3 0 11 1 0 0
1401-1600 0 0 22 0 0 0
1601-1800 0 0 52 0 0 1

Something big and interesting in technology and innovation was already happening in Europe centuries before the conquest of the Americas. Now it is possible that without the conquest Europe's second-millennium fit of tinkering with mechanisms would have not led to anything like the industrial revolution we have seen over the past two centuries. But it is also possible that even with the conquest the industrial revolution in Europe could have been stopped before it started. (My favorite no-industrial-revolution counterfactual involves the establishment of a universal Habsburg monarchy over western Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, along with a victorious counterreformation that burns a bunch of astronomers and physicists at the stake...)


Brad DeLong


the significance which the Caribbean colonies, the slave plantations, the slave trade, and the triangular trade(s) had for the industrial revolution in Britain. Yes, a lot of counting is involved. And a number of economic and other, lesser, sorts of historians -- even a humble geographer or two -- have argued that all of this was absolutely central to the industrial revolution. Brad doubtless is funning us here.

My Comment:

No. I'm not.

The point is that Engerman and Solow are still very far away from the kind of quantitative assessment of causes and effects that I would like to see. I don't want to hear them say that the influence was "substantial"; instead, I want the kind of quantitative assessment of influence that, say, Fishlow, Fogel, and Coatsworth did for North American railroads; or that I do in my classes when asked to assess the effect of the Reagan tax cuts on American economic growth...

I am eager to believe whatever they tell me--they are good, and this is their area.

Here's a sketch of what I would like to see someone do--although much better:

Around 1850 textiles--predominantly cotton--were roughly 1/4 of a British manufacturing sector that was some 30% of total *marketed* economic production. In this textile sector, roughly 1/3 of the cost of final output was the cost of raw materials--chiefly cotton. That means that Britain was spending some 2% of GDP each year importing cotton from the U.S. south.

What if the U.S. south had not been there? Or if it had been free-soil territory with a much lower rate of exploitation, and thus a much higher cost of production of cotton?

Suppose that the absence of slavery in the U.S. south had doubled the cost of cotton to British mills, as industrializing Britain had had to draw on Indian, Egyptian, and non-slave U.S. sources of supply.

This doubling of costs would have shrunk real net economic product in Britain by some 2%. If the pattern of consumption had been maintained, this cut would have come entirely out of investment--and would have reduced the pace of growth of the pre-Civil War British economy by some 0.3% per year (cumulating to perhaps 15% over fifty years). If the cut had come proportionately out of investment and consumption, the reduction in growth would have been only 1/4 as large (cumulating to perhaps 4% over fifty years).

In an era in which British standards of living and levels of productivity are growing at roughly 1/2 a percent per year, the availability of slavery in the U.S. cotton south was thus responsible for between 15 and 60 percent of British aggregate economic growth before the Civil War.

If someone would flesh out this kind of social-surplus and dynamic-investment calculations--and narrow the bounds of the back-of-the-envelope calculation above--then I would know what to think, at least about slavery and *nineteenth* century industrial growth.

But to date, if it's out there I haven't seen it...


Brad DeLong

My Comment:

I think that David Landes's treatment of non-European Eurasia and North Africa is probably wrong in two different dimensions, but let me concentrate only on the first. The first is Landes's belief that climate near the equator somehow militates against first commercial development and second industrialization. The second is his overly-static picture of the agrarian civilizations of temperate-zone Asia.

Landes wants to argue that because tropical climates are hot and disease-ridden, that human productivity there is low, hence no civilization can ever amass the surplus above biological subsistence necessary to set out on the road that eventually leads to industrialization.

The problem is that Landes is also a follower of the tradition of M.M. Postan (as am I) --that before the industrial revolution it is probably informative and insightful to try to analyze human civilizations from the perspective of ecologico-cultural equilibrium. When living standards are relatively high, birth rates are high and death rates are low; when living standards are relatively low birth rates are low and death rates are high (or, rather, variable). This means that if technological progress is sufficiently slow (and before the industrial revolution it was "sufficiently slow" always and everywhere), then a civilization's population density will within several generations adjust itself to resources and technologies in such a way that keeps living standards oscillating around the civilization's set-point of rough population balance.

Thus in the long-run of a century or so, a civilization's living standards are determined not by its summer temperature or by the prevalence of pinworms, but by its ecological and cultural practices that determine its set-point. A civilization like northwest Europe can have a relatively high set-point if culture delays marriage until the male member of the couple has a farm or a secure place. A civilization like that of the Yangtse delta as described by Ken Pomeranz can have a relatively high set-point if heads of lineage restrict their younger siblings fertility . A civilization like that of Poland can have a relatively low set-point if the second serfdom turns large proportions of the population into landless laborers with no incentive to delay nuptuality or diminish fertility. A civilization like that of the Yellow River valley can have a relatively low set-point if senior members' control over lineage juniors breaks down.

As a result, I think that Landes's argument that regions near the equator were always extremely unlikely places for commercial and industrial revolutions is deeply flawed. Hot summers and the consequent difficulty of hard summer work might keep Ceylon from having the pre-industrial population density of the Rhine delta (or the Yangtse delta), but I don't think that they have any implications for pre-industrial average living standards. If you wanted to rescue Landes's argument about climate, I think you would have to identify a line of causation running from location near the equator to some particular set of ecologico-cultural practices that leads to a relatively low living-standard set-point...


Brad DeLong

I thought The Colonizer's Model of the World provocative--lots to agree with, and lots to disagree with. (I thought, for example, that it was very unfair to the demographers: at least when I listened to J.A. Hall and listen to Jan de Vries talk about the European marriage pattern, the point is most emphatically *not* that Europeans are more "rational," but that in Europe the social-homeostatic mechanisms of population regulation just happened to wind up with a lower average population density and a higher median income than elsewhere; my judgment was that the evidence for western Europe having a different marriage pattern than eastern Europe was there, albeit weak; but that we knew next to nothing about median ages of marriage elsewhere: not a subject that Chinese or Indian literati were interested in.)

I was, however, brought up short on page 77 because the balance of the evidence seems to me to strongly support the belief that AIDS originated in (or spread rapidly to) Africa, and that the Black Death reached Europe through the Mediterranean. And it seemed to me extremely... odd that anyone denouncing "diffusionism" would do so by noting cases in which diffusion had in fact occurred...

But there is in the first 77 pages lots to agree with: I've never been convinced that Africa and Asia were "disease-ridden," that the tropics were "unhealthy," for anyone except Europeans who lacked the requisite antibodies in your blood. Back before the industrial revolution life expectancies were astonishingly short in nearly all human communities...

Moreover, I have never understood claims that Asia lacked "development" prior to 1500. Before 1000, certainly, the flow of ideas, goods, interesting technologies, and so forth is almost exclusively to Europe. Very little comes from Europe--which absorbs things like alphabets and monotheism (from Israel-Lebanon-Palestine), a useful number system (from India), the compass, gunpowder, and printing (from China--not to mention spaghetti). Almost nothing comes from northwestern Europe--I remember a perhaps apocryphal story that Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed that Britons were too stupid to even make good slaves. Lots of good things diffuse to Europe. I didn't know that McNeill or anyone else ever claimed otherwise--that "Arabic" numbers were invented in Glasgow, or that "algebra" was a Norwegian and not an Arabic word.

In 3000 B.C., 2000 B.C., 1000 B.C., 0, 500 A.D., 1000 A.D.--and maybe even in 1500 A.D.--if you had asked someone looking down on the earth where you were likely to find a breakthrough to modern science and technology and to industrial civilization, northwest Europe would have ranked very low on the list. China would probably have ranked highest--as the most progressive civilization. India would probably have ranked second, and if not India, Islam. For most of history since the neolithic revolution, the leading edge of human technological knowledge and of complexity of social organization has been in Asia. My high school history teacher used to claim that Islam did not expand to the English Channel not because of Charles Martel's knights, but because the scouting parties returned to Al-Andalus and reported that there was nothing north that was worth conquering: no cities, no high culture, no loot, nothing to rule over, just a lot of cold forests, a few poor peasants, and some thugs with swords and horses.

So the claim that environments in India, Iraq, China, Indonesia are more hostile to human progress than in Europe has always seemed to me to be incredibly unlikely. The issue has always seemed to me to be that something very odd--unrelated to climates (which didn't change)--occurred sometime between 1300 and 1700. All of a sudden lots of Europeans with guns showed up in lots of non-European places. They began trying to order people around. And they made it stick.

Brad De Long

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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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