Before starting propounding specific ideas and citing specific examples let us define exactly what the “Old World” and the “New World” is. This is especially important as there are different approaches to what these definitions mean. So for the purposes of this paper the Old World is not the part of the world that has had civilization and political entities in its territory chronologically earlier than other parts of the world, but the part of the world that in which concentrated political and social processes we as Europeans know them from history. That being said, the notion of the Old World in this paper includes Europe, Middle East and North Africa – meaning the territories that had been known to Europeans by the age of Great Discoveries. Everything discovered starting from the beginning of the sixteenth century – including North and South America, Australia and New Zealand as well as Southern Asia and Far East – I designate in this paper as the New World (to the contrary of the most generally accepted notion where the New World is only Americas).
Why was the “New World” separated from the “Old World” for so long? In my opinion, there are several specific reasons for that. The first among them consists in the fact that the existence of a large part of the world was not known to Europeans. For instance, suffice it to invoke the famous story about Columbus who thought he was searching for – and found – India. Therefore I may assume that looking westwards from the western coast of Europe nobody thought for a long time that there was anything there they did not already know how to reach going east. There was no incentive to invent the wheel (and the ancient and medieval people saw the situation exactly this way).
The second reason why it took the Old World so long is that for quite a long time – not before the second millennium was at dawn – European states just did not have any facilities, any good boats to rich the New World. In this respect there can be several examples cited. It is embodied in numerous chronicles, including The Tale of Bygone Years (and the Kievan Rus was at that time the mightiest and biggest country in Europe) that naval facilities back in 9th and 10th century let the seamen to only go under sail along the shore, not across the sea. Even the Greek fleet, famous for its battle capabilities did not undertake distant voyages. Moreover, in those circumstances it was no safer to go to India or China eastwards in virtue of tribal assaults and their horrific violence than to go to the West in boats. But seamanship was of a too new thing to master for Europeans. Another proof that technical impediment was on the way of the Old World’s discovering the New World is that it was no earlier than after the middle of the 13th century that we finally learned about distant territories like India, Mongolia and china, from the works of Marco Polo. He was the first known to undertake such a large scale marine voyage. The invention of compass and astrolabe just like many others made sea voyages safer and therefore more affordable, in every sense of this word (Parry).
Necessity is the mother of invention, says the famous saying. Given that boats eventually became the invention, what was the necessity?..
Economic reasons are, in my opinion, the most prominent among those that made European states seek for the new land and new opportunities there. Europeans became active in discovering the New World when they began to need more land, more markets (let’s remember that the world was on the verge of the manufacturing revolution) and more resources (Lynn).
Europe experienced the crisis of excessive production because of the start of the Industrial revolution. First manufactures appeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century. A need emerged to sell those products. At the same time, increased scale of economy demanded farming new land, working on new facilities. Further economic impetus, once much gold was discovered in the Americas, consisted in acquiring the precious metals, primarily gold, by different European states. For instance, Pizarro is notorious for his violence in his pursuit of gold of the Incas and Azteks rulers. Many European counties launched special entities, called West-Indian companies, including England and the Netherlands as well as Spain and Portugal (Lynn).
Why did the “Old World” conquer the “New World” and not the other way round?
First of all, I would like to appeal to the statement of this question, because I do not think that it is so unequivocal that the Ming Empire or the Ottomans Empire was richer or, especially, stronger than Europeans. And here is my analysis why.
Of course, we know that Asian countries – like the mentioned Ming Empire, Ottomans or Mongolians – managed to build huge countries. However, the scope of the territory these empires possessed can be explained with the fact that those territories were not so very densely inhabited. For instance the Mongol Empire at the peak of its might, in 1279, under Kublai Khan who even managed to incorporate the entire territory of China into his empire, had the total area of 33 million square kilometers, whereas this area’s population was not even proportionally close. The main reason of this is the climate and flora and fauna conditions – steppes and inhabitable territories constituted the majority of the Mongolian Empire. Also, Asians (just like American native inhabitants, by the way) were very fractioned, for a long time they did not even manage to become one state in virtue of being comprised of a great number of tribes. That is namely the reason why Mongolian empire and Chinese dynastical empires were so much susceptible to ushering – every now and then a tribe would revolt and push towards the creation of a new country, of a new empire, ruled by a different ethnic or tribal identity. For instance, dynasty Yuan in China established by Kublai Khan was overthrown by the Ming dynasty, because for the south of China the rule of the Khan was imposed, not welcomed. The same goes for Mongolia – it was mighty before it fell apart to several parts called uluses (khanates).
Also, the quantity of Asian military power can lead us to the erroneous notion that this very fact, the quantity, could make Ottomans or the Ming Empire stronger. However, let us remember – Mongolians managed to reach only the Eastern outskirts of Europe. After that they had to stop because not so densely populated areas, therefore easy to conquer, ended there, more or less where Western Ukraine now is situated. But they did not manage to go further westbound – the united Europe managed to stop Mongolians. Europeans already knew guns, artillery and other firearms which gave them a great advantage over Mongolians, who only knew archery and other not so competitive arms. Many argue, against this assumption, that powder is the invention that was incepted in China and therefore must have helped Asian nations in their battles. But though powder was really invented in China, Asians only used it for fireworks. They simply did not know how to put this knowledge down to the needs of the military. Otherwise we would have known from history that Asians or Native Americans possessed or at least knew how to use these arms. The very same thing can be said about Ottomans. Yes, they conquered many peoples inhabiting Middle East, but one of the reasons of this success was that these peoples were weaker than the Ottomans and fractioned. However, once the Ottomans endeavored to encroach on Europe they were brutally stopped near Vienna in the same manner it had earlier happened to Mongolians.
China is the special case. It did not even try to conquer the Old World. China seems to always have had a specific boundary, the inner territory of which it considered to be its land by predetermined right. But the Ming dynasty just like any other Chinese rulers never encroached far beyond. But even if they would have done so, they would have hardly managed to succeed in that endeavor. Suffice it to remember the Opium wars that happened even later than the time we are talking about. China failed in two Opium wars, falling to the Old World.
The New World may have been very well civilizationally developed. It had culture, inventions, religion, that had probably existed way before analogical attributes of the Old World. But the New World also lacked several things. The first among these is the actual potential – military power before anything else – to withstand or to offence the Old World. The second reason is that the New World did not have an actual need to conquer the Old World. The level of development of the latter was either too low to need new markets and resources for its economy or too reclusive, self-sufficient, autharchy, which was okay in virtue of China, Ottomans, Mongolians and native Americans possessing enough land and not being overpopulated. At the same time, developing economically, the countries of the Old World badly needed expansion and discoveries (Parry).
Lynn, Henry Nelson. The Discovery of the New World and the End of the Old. The University of Kansas. N.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016
Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450-1650. 1982. PDF