Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

What we can learn from the Gunpowder Empires

The Gunpowder Empires were among the most fascinating regimes in history.

To elaborate, Gunpowder Empires were giant polities built with one piece of military technology: gunpowder. In a gunpowder empire, the Imperial government and its military monopolized the manufacture and use of gunpowder, firearms, explosives, and artillery.

Hence, a Gunpowder Empire was a state built with superior firepower and little else. For example, the Imperial Army could blast its way into any fortress with artillery.

Who were the Gunpowder Empires?

The classic theory describes three Gunpowder Empires: the Ottoman Empire, Iran’s Safavid dynasty, and India’s Mughal dynasty.

However, I think there were several other Gunpowder Empires including; Spain, the Hapsburg; or Holy Roman Empire in Europe, Russia, and Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate. Moreover, monarchies in several European nations, including England, Sweden, and France, took on the characteristics of the Gunpowder Empires.

To clarify, the new centralized monarchies monopolized gunpowder and military force in their domains. Nobles had to bow to the King or Queen and pay taxes or face the Royal artillery in battle. In addition, the nobles were expected to provide troops and supplies to the Royal army and attend the Royal court to grovel before the monarch.

Life in a Gunpowder Empire

European royals; such as King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, organized national military forces and centralized governments in imitation of the Gunpowder Emperors. The Spanish, British, and French monarchies were imitations of the Ottoman Sultan’s court and government.

Thus, the situation of a petty nobleman in 16th Century Wales or 16th Century Syria was the same. The nobleman had to pay taxes to the monarch; the Sultan or Queen, display fealty to the monarch, and fight in the monarch’s wars.

Additionally, the Welsh nobleman had to adopt the Queen’s religion (Anglicanism) and force his serfs to do the same. Adoption of the Sultan’s brand of Islam (Sunni), was optional in the Ottoman Empire. However, becoming a Sunni was a smart move for any nobleman seeking favor at the Sultan’s court.

Empires built on Firepower

The first and greatest of the Gunpowder Empires was the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

The Ottomans were one of the first armies to deploy heavy artillery on the battlefield. In particular, Sultan Mehmed II hired the Hungarian genius Orban,or Urban, to build gigantic canon. The Ottomans used the canon to blow holes in the gargantuan walls of Constantinople in 1453.

The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and of Medieval Times. Capturing Constantinople enabled Mehmed to found one of history’s greatest empires.

Additionally, Mehmed II began styling himself “Emperor of Rome,” or a successor to the Roman Emperor. To explain, the Byzantine Emperors regarded themselves as successors to the Roman Caesars because a Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, founded Constantinople. Mehmed became the Byzantines successor by conquering Constantinople.

Hence, canon changed history and launched an empire at Constantinople. Ironically, the technology Mehmed II used to build his empire; artillery, was a European creation powered by a Chinese invention, gunpowder.

Similarly, Babur; the founder of the Mughal Empire, conquered India’s Delhi Sultanate by pitting cannon against war elephants at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. The Delhi Sultanate’s soldiers discovered that the elephants made great targets for Babur’s guns. With canon, the Mughals were able to dominate the Indian subcontinent until the 18th Century.

Similarly, Babur; the founder of the Mughal Empire, conquered India’s Delhi Sultanate by pitting cannon against war elephants at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. The Delhi Sultanate’s soldiers discovered that the elephants made great targets for Babur’s guns. With canon, the Mughals were able to dominate the Indian subcontinent until the 18th Century.

Europe Imitates the Gunpowder Empires

One group who took notice of Orban and Mehmed II’s achievement was European monarchs. After Constantinople fell, Europe’s monarchs began rushing to buy the biggest and most destructive artillery pieces they could afford.

In addition, European monarchs began organizing professional armies in imitation of the Sultan’s Janissary Corps. Moreover, Christian European monarchs established courts in imitation of the Moslem Sultan’s court in Constantinople.

The Ottoman Empire’s most successful European imitator was the Spanish Empire. Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella created a professional military, unified their country, and destroyed the last Islamic stronghold in Spain: Grenada.

After conquering Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella began financing explorers, including Christopher Columbus. After Columbus “discovered” America, the Spanish used their superior military technology; steel swords rather than gunpowder, to create the world’s largest Gunpowder Empire across the Atlantic.

Gunpowder Chaos in Europe

Strangely, gunpowder did not lead to centralized Empire in Europe. Instead, gunpowder led to chaos in Europe.

To explain, in Europe there were many governments and leaders with the resources to buy artillery and firearms. The result was many rival leaders, each trying to create his or her own Gunpowder Empire.

Ironically, the same technology the Ottomans used to unify the Middle East prevented unity in Europe. Canon in fortresses could destroy any attacking force and make many cities and regions practically impregnable.

The Spanish; for example, easily conquered the Aztec and Inca empires, but could not overwhelm a few Dutch city states in the 16th Century. Unlike the Incas and the Aztecs, the Dutch had lots of canon and plenty of gunpowder.

Likewise, the Spanish could conquer the New World, but they could not sail across the English Channel and conquer Britain. In 1588, English ships equipped with canon easily sank most of the powerful Spanish Armada. Ending Spanish King Philip II’s effort extend his Gunpowder Empire to the British aisles.

The ultimate Gunpowder Chaos came in Germany and Italy where centralized governments never appeared. Instead, both nations became patchworks of petty states that were constantly at war with each other. The Gunpowder Chaos delayed German and Italian unification until the 19th Century, with tragic results for both countries.

Gunpowder Empires at War

The greatest death and destruction came when Gunpowder Empires and would-be Gunpowder Empires went to war.

For instance, 37,500 men died in the Battle of Lepanto; a naval clash between the Spanish and Ottoman empires, in 1571. A few decades later, the Thirty Years War devastated Germany.

The Thirty Years War was essentially a conflict between an established Gunpowder Empire; Hapsburg Austria, and two would-be Gunpowder Empires; Sweden and France. As at Lepanto, faith fueled the carnage in the Thirty Years War, the Austrians and the French were Catholic and the Swedes Lutheran. Historians estimate the Thirty Years War killed up to eight million people.

Other notable Gunpowder Empire wars included the never ending conflict between the Safavid Empire and the Ottomans. One of the main reasons the Ottomans never conquered Europe was that their army was too busy defending the Empire from the Safavid forces. Thus, Shia Iran possibly saved Christian Europe from Sunni conquest.

The Greatest Lesson from the Gunpowder Empires

The Gunpowder Empires have one great lesson to teach today’s leaders and commanders. That lesson is superior firepower, and military technology does not lead to lasting peace or stability.

In Europe, the Gunpowder Empires triggered an arms race that led to more and bloodier wars. Meanwhile, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires faced constant invasions and rebellions. The Ottomans; in particular, engaged in constant warfare with the Safavid, the Russians, the Austrians, the Spanish, and others.

The Spanish Empire found itself under constant attack from the British, the French, and the Ottomans. Not even Spain’s New World Empire was safe. By the late 16th Century, British privateers; such as Sir Francis Drake, were regularly sailing to the Caribbean and even the Pacific to pillage Spanish ships and colonies.

Gunpowder Bankruptcy

Moreover, the Spanish Empire bankrupted itself by borrowing more and more money to pay for a bigger and bigger military and better weapons. The gold and silver the Conquistadors took from Mexico and South America ended up in the hands of German and Italian bankers.

Instead of replenishing the Treasury, Philip II used the New World’s treasure to pay off the loans he took out to finance his wars of conquest. By the 18th Century, Spain was a bankrupt second-rate power.

Father afield, the Mughals were bankrupt and in debt to European trading companies by the early 18th Century. In addition, by the 19th Century, the once mighty Ottoman Empire was “the sick man of Europe,” begging the British for help against the Russians and French.

Thus, another lesson from the Gunpowder Empires is that finance trumps firepower. No government that cannot pay for its military will survive for long.

One reason for this is that weapons and military expertise cost money. Governments built on firepower have to spend all their money paying for bigger and better technology. When the money runs out, governments built on firepower have to borrow and they end up in thrall to the moneylenders.

Empires Built on Debt

A big problem was that the Gunpowder Empires did not invent modern finance, a British creation. Thus, the Gunpowder Empires could not print money or issue debt to pay for military expansion. Instead, they had to pay hard currency (gold) or borrow cash to finance expansion and defense.

In contrast, after 1694, the Bank of England could pay for all the weapons the British needed, by printing money and issuing debt. By 1800, Britain had become the most powerful nation on Earth. By 1900, the British had conquered the Mughal Empire, and large tracts of the Spanish and Ottoman Empires. In addition, Iran (the former Safavid Empire) was a British puppet state by 1900.

Predictably, French, Russian, Japanese, American, German, and Chinese empires using the British model arose in the 19th and 20th Centuries and dominated the world. The British model being a central bank that issued debt to pay for government activities such as war and military expansion.

They founded they formed the Bank of Japan on 10 October 1882, shortly afterwards, the Japanese Empire arose in the 1890s. Likewise, the great American Empire began after they founded the U.S. Federal Reserve System; the Fed, on 23 December 1913. Meanwhile, the basis of the rising Chinese Empire is the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), founded on 1 December 1948.

Hence, Empires built on Finance or Debt; conquered the Gunpowder Empires. Thus paper money and modern monetary policy doomed the Gunpowder Empires.