I think that one of the purposes of this class and Abu-Lughod’s book –– and sociology in general –– is to unearth history. The history that needs to be unearthed seems to have become a theme for our class: the question of why Europe emerged as the dominant power in the world system during and after the sixteenth century. (A lame introduction, but I won't delete it).
Abu-Lughod highlights some possible reasons why Europe emerged hegemonic in her (i.e. Abu-Lughod's) first chapter in Before European Hegemony, more specifically in the section titled Differences, which begins on page eighteen. In this section, she identifies “geographic, political, and demographic” reasons as being “far more significant and determining than any internal psychological or institutional factors. Europe pulled ahead because the ‘Orient’ was temporarily in disarray” (18). One of these geographic-political-demographic reasons she cites is the introduction of Portuguese ‘men-of-war’ into the Indian Ocean in the early 1500s (19). It is this idea that I would like to advance.
The germinal Portuguese fleet reached India by the 1490s, and while they did not annihilate the societies they encountered as the Spanish did in the New World, they did help undermine the Indian Ocean’s economic system, a world-system that, since the seventh century C.E., had been growing and thriving (Pomeranz & Topik 1999). The amount of trade was enormous, and it can be said that no one power – be it military or political – ruled the sea. Within twenty years of sailing into the Indo-Asian waters the Portuguese built forts at most of the locations where westbound trade routes could be blocked (Pomeranz & Topik 1999). The Portuguese clearly had intentions on monopolizing the system. Monopolize is just what the Portuguese did. They taxed vessels and would destroy those who did not pay.
Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean began to decline in the middle 1500s, but it was too late for the Asian commercial system to remain unhindered. Soon, more powerful Europeans arrived: the Dutch and the English. European hegemony was beginning.
This is not the only “reason” why Europe gained dominance on a global scale, but it is most definitely a piece of the puzzle. Perhaps Abu-Lughod will expound more on this issue in Part III of her book.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. World that trade created society, culture, and the world economy, 1400-the present. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.