Entitlement and Ethnocentricity: Religion's Effect on European Expansionism

Hadley Roach

         In his Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, Carlo Cippola concludes that religious zeal served only as a justification for the behavior of European conquistadors.  The real motive behind their imperialism, he contends, was gold: “When the Europeans undertook their perilous journeys, they were dreaming more about Mammon than about lost souls to enlighten” (133).  Cippola’s argument supposes a distinction between business and religion; it operates on the assumption that the two cultural constructions worked separately to satisfy human greed and human spirituality.

         While I recognize the important presence of both religion and business in rationalizing European expansion, I do not agree with Cippola that they served different, compartmentalized purposes.  Rather, I believe that the European religious culture uniquely encompassed business culture--or, in other words, that the business mentality so evident in European conquistadors was the direct result of a preexisting religious culture.  Religion not only justified imperialism and industrialism; it created a culture that believed deeply in its own superiority and its entitlement to the world.  The cultural entitlement that stemmed from Western religious beliefs did more than justify imperialist tendencies; it inculcated them.

         Paul Ehrlich, in “Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect,” outlines the ways that “religion helped to sacralize--connect to the supernatural--codes of conduct that legitimated differences between classes of people (i.e., elites and commoners)” (256).  On the whole, he contends, “organized religion seems to have evolved to help stabilize hierarchical social structure” (256).  In no cultural practice are religion’s “hierarchical” repercussions more decisively felt than in colonial expansion efforts. Both in the attitudes of the conquistadors and of the countries that supported imperialist efforts, religiously indoctrinated entitlement is clearly visible.  It manifests itself most clearly in the European’s belief that their technological prowess--especially in navigation--is a God-given privilege that justifies their control of the world.

         European ships, compasses, and other maritime technologies were very advanced by the 1400s.  When Columbus sailed off in search of the West Indies, he borrowed “Atlantic vessels, Biscayan sailors and Portuguese nautical techniques” (Cippola, 137), amalgamating all of Europe’s best technological innovations.  In particular, the gunned Atlantic vessels he used were unparalleled; they gave Europe a veritable reign over the seas.  As Michael Adas describes in his “Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance,” this technological mastery was viewed as Europe’s God-given superiority.  When English explorer William Smith arrived in Gambia, “He delighted in dazzling and terrifying the townspeople with his strange machines and continued his activities despite their obvious hostility towards his intrusion.  When threatened, he relied on the African’s fear of technology to drive them off” (2).  Smith and his European contemporaries saw these useful “superior technologies--the surveying instruments and firearms” (Adas, 3) as manifest proof of their superior cultures. Smith used his technological prowess to “dazzle” and “terrify” those whom he saw as savages, but he saw it as the secondary benefit of the same hierarchical creed that Ehrlich outlines.  Says Adas, “European travelers in this era viewed their Christian faith, rather than their mastery of the natural world, as they key source of their distinctiveness from and superiority to non-Western peoples” (22).  The use of their technology for imperialistic purposes, in other words, flowed from their belief in their preordained Christian rights.

         Returning to Christopher Columbus, the man now widely celebrated as an intrepid American forefather, it is apparent that both his reasons for seeking India and his behavior upon reaching “American” shores were dictated by a combination of religious compulsion and religious entitlement.  In a letter that prefaces his journal, Columbus writes to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella,

“Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians… took thought to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said parts of India, to see those princes and peoples and lands… and the manner which should be used to bring about their conversion to our holy faith, and ordained that I should not go by land to the eastward, by which way it was the custom to go, but by way of the west, by which down to this day we do not know certainly that anyone has passed.”

The Christian rhetoric in this letter proclaims Columbus’s mission “ordained”.  While I do not argue that there is no business motivation inherent in his proposal, his confidence in the righteousness of imperialism is clearly drawn from feelings of religious superiority.  His reasons for wishing to conquer India likely include personal gain; however, his right to such a gain--which parallels Spain’s right to such a gain--is emboldened by his belief in religious hierarchies.

         The extent of this belief is made even clearer in a study of Columbus’s attitude upon reaching “the New World.”  Obviously, Columbus never got to India.  However, he viewed the people he did meet no differently from those he had planned to conquer, even referring to them “Indians.”  It made no difference what culture he found; his religiosity informed a binary perspective on Christian and heathen.  The deadly spread of disease between the Europeans and the indigenous tribes reflects the level of religious ascendency felt by Columbus and his men.  Not only in their devastating “gift” of the smallpox epidemic, but also in their own contraction of syphilis, the European explorers demonstrated their comfort with exploiting the natives.

         In his Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism, Sheldon Watts argues that whether or not the explorers “intentionally inoculated” the native populations with the deadly smallpox virus, “the impact of the epidemic disease is inseparable from the causes and distribution of power.” The conquistadors’ hierarchical belief system deemed the veritable extinction of tribal peoples no great loss.  Conversely, Watts argues, the European contraction of the syphilis epidemic--ironically caused principally by the conquistadors’ widespread rape of native women--led to “a scapegoating mentality that identified the origin of the disease in ‘the other’” (5).  Cultural bias based on religion, argues Watts, is clearly revealed in studies of European reaction to illness.

         In many more ways than it is possible to fathom, ethnocentric religious culture influenced European expansion efforts.  It justified, informed and defined the technological and business entrepreneurship of Western society, and in many ways, its influence still lingers in today’s society.  Because history is inevitably written and defined by the winners of physical and social conflict, ideals of entitlement still dominate policy and popular perspective.



Works Cited:
Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Man: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilogue from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700." Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Columbus, Christopher. Extracts From Journal: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columbus1.html

Ehrlich, Paul R., Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000.

Watts, Sheldon.  Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism. Bath, Great Britain: The Bath Press, 1999. 

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