In 1500, the Chinese and Ottoman Empires were more advanced than Western nations and South America was more advanced than North America.

The Great Divergence Begins

In 1500, the Chinese and Ottoman Empires were more advanced than Western nations and South America was more advanced than North America.

By 1731, an Ottoman writer asked, “Why do Christian nations, which were so weak in the past compared with Muslim nations, begin to dominate so many lands in modern times and even defeat the once victorious Ottoman armies?” [1]

Had they not been closed to and uninterested in the West then, Chinese scholars would have asked the same question. One answer is sea exploration.


The Age of Discovery began in 1415 when young Prince Henry (aka The Navigator) of Portugal, full of religious zeal, decided to wage war against Cueta, a Moor (Muslim) city close by in North Africa.

One of Henry’s officers captured a prominent Moor which he held for ransom, receiving in exchange 10 blacks and some gold dust.

The easy victory and treasures available from conquest excited the cupidity of his fellow countrymen. [2] They built several forts and settlements on the West coast of Africa from which many slaves were brought into Spain.

Henry justified his actions claiming his purpose was to convert slaves to Christianity. “In Henryspeak, conversion and enslavement were interchangeable terms.” [3]


Born into a prominent family in Genoa, Italy, loss of the family’s fortune motivated young Christopher Columbus to seek his fortune at sea.

At 25, he sailed from Genoa only to be shipwrecked near the Portuguese city of Lagos from which Henry had launched his expeditions.

He made voyages in the Portuguese merchant marines and in the process became a self-educated master mariner.

Chris presented his plan to Portuguese King John in 1484 who, being familiar with the most current maps of the time, rejected the voyage as being too far.

Chris moved his family to Spain and in 1485 began a six-year courtship of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Preoccupied in 1491 with the “reconquista” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, expelling Jews and Christian heretics in the Spanish Inquisition, they said “no.”

Ironically, it was a converted Jewish banker who convinced the royals to reconsider Columbus’s “Enterprise of the Indies” — probably sealing the deal by offering to help finance it.

Exalting from the fall of the Alhambra castle in Granada, seat of Moorish rule in January, 1492, and relieved of the expense, they approved of Chris “sailing until I reach the Indies.”

Columbus departed Palos, Spain, Aug. 3, 1492, in three ships crewed largely by Spanish seamen trained on Portuguese voyages.

He sailed for God, country, and personal profit and honor e.g., titles for himself and his boys.

Thirty-three days later, they sighted land in the Bahamas.

He sailed for China and Japan and to his death did not realize he had found a New World, an entirely separate continent between Europe and Asia.

His greatest achievement was not that but pioneering four new transatlantic routes.

Expecting to meet the Chinese Khan of which Marco Polo wrote, he found naked savages who thought he and his ships had come from heaven.

Protected by his delusion that he had reached the outskirts of China, he made three subsequent voyages, each around Cuba, convinced that he had reached Asia.


Columbus thought the natives “ought to be good servants” and “would easily be made Christians.” [4]

On his second voyage with 17 ships, he sent home above 500 Indian prisoners who he suggested might be sold as slaves in Seville.

He said his decision was based on his experiences with the Portuguese taking men from Guinea with the intention of converting them then sending them home as missionaries.

He always felt called of God to his task.

Columbus introduced slavery to Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti, Dominican Republic).

By 1792, Cuba had 84,000 slaves.

The Taino Indians were literally worked to death in the mines and fields and ultimately replaced by African slaves.

By 1873, 500,000, or one-third, of Cuba’s population was slaves on lands owned by a few plantation owners favored by the Crown.

War, slavery and western diseases like smallpox eradicated the Taino culture and people.

Slavery endured to some extent almost to the 20th century in Cuba.

Neither indigenous nor imported inhabitants ever had any chance of creating their own culture or developing representative government.

War and revolution interrupted by corrupt dictators governed captive peoples throughout their history.

I don’t think God was in on this.

`O Maker of the Mighty Deep,

Wheron our vessels fare,

Above our life’s adventure keep

Thy faithful watch and care.

In Thee we trust, whate’er befall’

Thy sea is great, our boats are small.

Henry van Dyke, 1822

[1] Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, NY: Touchstone, 1996.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.20, p779.

[3]Sandler, Martin W., Atlantic Ocean, NY: Sterling Pub., 2008, p34.

[4] Bergreen, Laurence, Columbus:The Four Voyages [1492-1504], NY: Penguin, 2012,p14.