It happened today - June 22, 2016

On June 22 the Dutch attacked the Portuguese in Macau in 1622. Wikipedia says “To date, the battle remains the only major engagement that was fought between two European powers on the Chinese mainland.” And frankly I’m not sure what that “to date” is about. Do they know something we don’t but should? Meanwhile, can I just focus on how odd that there should have been even one such battle?

I mean, how many battles have been fought in Europe between Chinese forces, or Asian powers generally? Or in Africa, or the Americas? Does that sort of thing happen a lot? But of course it does, provided you’re talking about Europeans. They have fought in all kinds of places definitely including Africa; Britain and France nearly came to blows there as recently as 1898 before realizing they were both far more scared of Germany than of each other.

Now various explanations have been offered for the imbalance, some unreasonably flattering to Europeans and others unreasonably insulting. But it comes back, once again, to the arguments in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel about how the unequal distribution of geographical blessings and of domesticable plants and animals at the end of the last glaciation. The greater prosperity and more vigorous exchange of ideas in and near the “fertile crescent” around the eastern end of the Mediterranean gave rise to civilizations astoundingly more dynamic than elsewhere without any inherent difference in the people.

By 1500 its impact was still small enough that the rest of the world didn’t see it coming. But the European “Voyages of Discovery” would make worlds collide in ways whose aftershocks are still with us today and resulted in Europeans fighting over other parts of the world as though nobody who lived there got to have an opinion.

In this case, the outnumbered and outgunned Portuguese fought off the Dutch in rather a desperate engagement lasting three days. And kept Macau in one form or another until 1999. Arguably it’s not better off under China even though the Portuguese Empire was not exactly a distinguished venture in any meaningful regard. But note how the Dutch, rather a small country and only briefly a major power, could sail all the way around the world and come pretty close to snatching it from the Portuguese whereas the Chinese just had to sit there steaming at the indignity of it all for nearly four centuries.

It’s an imbalance so pervasive we rather take it for granted, or devise fatuous explanations. I urge you to read Diamond, and also but secondarily Thomas Sowell’s Conquests and Cultures, to get to the root of the matter.