We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Some global history

Last week, on Tuesday evening, Britain’s Channel 5 TV showed a fascinating documentary called “Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet”. Some readers may only know “Khubilai” Khan as the Kubla Khan of Coleridge’s poem of that name, but this man did more that decree stately pleasure-domes. The Times summarised the programme thus:

The greatest naval disaster in history took place in August 1281, when 4,000 ships carrying Khubilai Khan’s Mongol army sank with the loss of 70,000 men off the coast of Japan. This rather protracted documentary (below), describes how a marine archaeologist discovered the remains of the fleet, and explains why the vast fleet sank in such mysterious circumstances.

Khubilai used many ships which were shoddily and hurriedly constructed, by recently conquered Chinese labourers who, the archaeologist featured in the show speculated, had no particular desire for his project to succeed. Worse, Khubilai commandeered many Chinese river boats wholly unsuited to ocean travel. When a typhoon struck all these boats sank, and the invasion was a total failure.

This is not a story we often hear in Britain. Understandably, we prefer to reminisce about the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and about Trafalgar. Yet the sinking of Khubilai’s fleet was an event of worldwide significance. Quite aside from allowing Japan to remain independent, this misfortune punctured the myth of Mongol invincibility and speeded the collapse of the Mongol Empire.

The Mongols had a huge effect on world history but might have had even more. They might, for instance, have resumed the attempt to conquer Europe which they had to break off in 1241, in order to go home and elect a new leader. Even this near catastrophe for Europe is not much discussed nowadays, in Europe.

Events in one part of the world have always had big effects elsewhere. The difference is that there used to be less mileage in presenting global history in a global manner. Like the news, global history has tended to be seen through national eyes. But, now, if only so that history documentaries on TV can find more viewers, global history is going global.

19 comments to Some global history

  • Wasn’t the typhoon which sunk the fleet the Divine Wind, the Kami Kazi, which had echoes in the 20th century?

  • Jo

    It is always odd to consider history from both today’s and yesterday’s perspective.

    The Magna Carta may seem like such an important document today, but in 1215 England was the backend of nowhere (maybe a slight overstatement).

    Likewise, the Greeks are the bedrock of European civilization, but in their early years (say 750 – 500 BCE) they were little more than crazy ‘individualists’ on the edge of the civilized world.

    The Mongol invasions were the most important thing to happen to Asia at that time, but they hardly affected Europe. Today’s world is a European world and so the Mongols simply don’t figure.

  • Kurt

    Yes, triticale, the word “kamikaze” means “divine wind”, and refers to the typhoon under discussion.

  • Julian Taylor

    The Mongol invasions were the most important thing to happen to Asia at that time, but they hardly affected Europe. Today’s world is a European world and so the Mongols simply don’t figure.

    Hardly affected Europe? They CREATED modern Europe. From the displacement of the Slavic peoples and the Huns and Goths into Eastern Europe through to displacing the Turks from Central Asia into Europe as far as Austria, if there is one thing that the Mongols can claim its that between the 3rd Century and 15th Century they redefined the population of Europe.

  • Paul Marks

    In talking about the movement of the Goths into Western Europe (5th century) Julian Taylor seems to be talking about the movement of the Huns putting pressure upon them.

    I suppose that the Huns can be talked of as the same sort of race as the Mongals – but some distinction should be made.

    The Turks took over the bulk what is now Turkey after the battle of Mantzikert in 1071, can the movement of the Turks (which may have started back in the 6th century) be related to pressure from Mongals? Even if one uses the word “Mongal” very loosely, there is still the problem that in these early centuries there is no evidence (that I am aware of) that the Turks were being pushed by anyone. First the Alans and then the Turkic tribes leave the border regions of China and move west from early 6th century – but are the Turkic tribes being pushed – or are they seeking better pasture for their horses and cattle?

    Genghis Khan really does seem to have created something new in the late 12th and early 13th century. it is (I think) a mistake to think of the Mongals pushing other populations about before Genghis (it relies on treating the Huns and the Mongals as the same people or saying that the Huns were pushed by the Mongals – ethic idenity is not that stable in these centuries).

    By the time of Kublai Khan Mongal unity was already breaking down – like so many invaders Kublai was becomming Chinese (although this did not save his Yuan dynasty from being overthrown by the Ming within a century).

    To Kublai Europe was a faraway place and the Mongals who (for example) dominated the Russians at the time were not under his government in any firm sense.

    Still if Kublia had managed to take over Japan, perhaps he would not have turned to drink – and perhaps the Yuan dynasty would have been more firmly established.

    Of course, in 1640’s another Mongal type people (the Manchu) managed to replace the Ming and sit on the Imperial throne till 1911.

    However, it is hard to see how these developments effect Europe.

    Chinese history contains many times when the inventiveness of the Chinese has shoved their civilization into first place in the world – and then a Emperor comes along and (to give an example for a couple of thousand years ago) nationalizes the iron industry, or (to take an example from the Ming) bans ships with more than two masts.

    It is not the racial origin of the Emperor that is the important matter – it is the problem of having one govenment dominating the civililization (than have been multiple state periods lasting centuries – but idelogically the Chinese are addicted to unity).

    At the moment the Chinese seem to be taking over the manufacturing of the world and set to become the greatest power on Earth – but tomorrow the government may decide to take over all the enterprises (after all it has “interests” in them anyway) and use all the owners for dog food.

    It is not possible to predict what will happen with any certainty.

  • Jacob

    It is not possible to predict what will happen with any certainty.

    How very true !!!

    Even telling what hapened in the past is not possible “with any certainty”, let alone predicting the future !

    But most people predict anyway, maybe because it’s fun.

  • Jacob

    At the moment the Chinese seem to be taking over the manufacturing of the world and set to become the greatest power on Earth .

    Is that good or bad ? Let them become, I don’t mind. Seems they are not an aggressive or beligerent people. As to innundating the world with high quality cheap goods – that’s ok with me.

    By the way: a destructive foreign invasion can come from many directions and in many forms, not only in the form of a barbarian (Mongol) invasion. They had in China in the last century an invasion of a destructive European Ideology – and the results were as bad, or even worse than those caused by Mongolian invasions.

  • htjyang

    I respectfully disagree with Brian Micklethwait about the impact of the sinking of the Mongolian fleet.

    I suspect that the program he saw, like many such programs, tried to puff up its subject. While it is true that this natural disaster preserved Japanese independence, the impact of “punctur[ing] the myth of Mongol invincibility” is not so clear to me. The Mongolian dynasty continued for many decades afterward. Historians tend to attribute corruption and the race-based hierarchy established by the Mongolians as the causes for its downfall.

  • David

    No impact on Europe? What do people learn in government run schools today?

    Regarding the impact of the Mongols on Europe. The Mongols created the first pan-Asian Empire. This Empire stretched from China, obviously, west into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This brutally ruled empire created a pathway for Chinese innovations (rudder, paper money, pasta – everyone who likes Italian food should thank the Mongols, etc.) to move into Europe. Marco Polo, his father, uncle and other Italian merchants travelled between Europe and China via the Mongolian Empire. Part of the success of this trade came from the Mongolian suppression of Islam in Persia and northern India. Another significant factor was the exportation of Chinese silver by the Mongolians. As the Chinese used silver as their monetary basis, this had major future, global repurcussions.

    This small, but significant, trade also introduced luxury items to Europe (silk, spices, tea). When the Mongolian Empire collapsed, it led to the collapse of the easy importation of these items into Europe. From this time on various Europeans would attempt to recreate the secure trade paths between Europe and the far East which would avoid the hostile Islamic groups which now had a resurgance. This ultimately led to Portugal’s pioneering of a route around Africa, later exploited by the Dutch and British.

    The Europeans soon discovered the Chinese had no interest in European goods, but they craved European silver – remember the Mongols’ despoiling of Chinese silver reserves? Therefore much of the New World’s silver deposits ended up in China. This eventually led to a silver crisis in Europe. In an attempt to find products to trade to the Chinese, the British hit on Indian opium, leading to the British drug trade and Opium Wars.

    Then of course their was the Mongol destruction of the (relatively) liberal, maritime, market economy Southern Sung Dynasty and its replacement with an agriculturally based, centralized government. The patterns set by the Mongol’s and the Chinese reactions to them (focus on small scale agriculture, reforestation – the Mongols deforested China to create pastures for their horses, and small scale industry) have their modern equivelants in the Communist conquest of China, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

    The Mongolian Empire had a huge impact on Europe. A really suitable response would fill a book, but I hit the highlights.

    By the way, if you believe Polybius, the Romans lost 95,000 men in 255 B.C. when their inexperienced naval commanders blundered into a storm returning from Africa. I don’t think most historians accept his numbers which probably leads to the conclusion that the Mongolian’s suffered the greatest naval disaster.

  • Jo


    Firstly, you are wrong on a few facts concerning Chinese innovations in Europe:

    The rudder, money and paper were all used in Europe long before any meaningful contact with China.

    The rudder you refer to is an ‘advanced’ type mounted at the lower stern of a ship – and it may not have come from China, especially considering most routes were overland and so Chinese ships were not seen in ports.

    The money you refer to is paper money, which did not appear in Europe till long after the fall of the Mongol dynasty.

    The paper you refer to is pulp formed paper which was already on its way to Europe before the Mongol invasion.

    Pasta is irrelevant.

    Next, your claim that the drain and counter-drain of silver had an important impact on Europe is overstated. Things like the voyages of discovery, new world empires and the East India Companie(s) would not have been possible without the intellectual, philosophical and technological growth in Europe. The Mongols did not contribute to that.

    Note that the two examples of important European events that I gave were both about political and legal freedoms of the kind that entered the general European consciousness in the middle ages. Such things are far more important than silver.

    Did the Mongols develop Protestant theology? individualism? mercantilism? civil society? No to all. In the view of Europe Genghis Khan means almost nothing, but someone like Thomas a Kempis or Martin Luther is king.

    No my school was not government run; man-in-sky devotees ran it instead.

  • Paul Marks

    I should have mentioned Marco Polo. Yes contacts were made less difficult for awhile by the empire of the Mongols – although there had long been contacts.

    For a liberal period in Chinese history (apart from multiple “warring state” periods), well the early Tang springs to mind (a rather Taoist view of government).

    And then there is the great first Emperor of the Han – most of the laws and taxes of the legalists swept away.

    After all this crafty peasant was led to rebel by being being made late (by bad weather) in taking labourers to a forced labour project – by the laws of the time he would have been executed. So it was rebel or be executed.

    The Ch’in dynasty were vile, and Liu Pang of the Han shows that it is possible to reform matters (although not as much I would like) without a long period of chaos. Law as a matter of punishing violations of the bodies and goods of people – not law as endless commands telling people exactly what to do.

    Hope for the future or a middle aged man (me) taken in by the stories of the Han?

    For Liu Pang kept the administrative structure of the Ch’in and the state expanded again.

  • David

    For those who care, this is a pretty good summary of silver, the Southern Song, Mongols, paper money, market economies, government induced inflation, etc. in Chinese history. It’s an easy read.

    This is a quick summary of innovations which came from China to Europe. It doesn’t make it clear, but many of the innovations came into Europe in force through the Mongol Empire trade routes. These routes had been in existence prior to the Mongol Empire, but they were dangerous and carried a limited trade. The Mongols maximized their profits from taxing trade in their empire. In order to increase that trade, they provided a high level of security for these traditional trade routes. This led to a vast increase in the flow of goods from east to west.

    I’ll leave it at that. Just google “Mongol trade europe” and you’ll all the articles you want on the relevance of the Mongol Empire to European History.

    By the way, it wasn’t technically a Mongolian fleet which sank. It was a Southern Sung fleet. The Southern Sung were a maritime, liberal, market-economy dynasty. They were reisisting the Mongols, but – in a simplified account – a Sung merchant/businessman sold out the fleet to the Mongols on the idea that war was bad for business. It would be like a British banker selling out the British Fleet to Napoleon. The loss of the fleet spelled the end to effective Sung resistence.

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    Was it also not against the Mongol overlords that Ivan I carved out the Russian Empire in the 15th century? Through complicity at first with the Mongols, Ivan built up his power in Moscow, conspiring against his neighbours in Tver, establishing the Orthodox Church, until finally taking advantage of internal rivalries within the Mongols to claim independence.

    The Muslim world was also significantly changed due to Mongol invasion. The invasion resulted in the destruction of Islamic power, the destruction of agriculture, especially in present day Iraq, and commerce. It also established and reinforced the Turks as vassals of the Mongols, eventually leading to the Ottomon Empire. The Mongol invaders themselves were converted to Islam within a couple of generations.

    I don’t think you can discount the influence of the Mongols on world history.

  • Jeffrey Wendt

    We’re all forgetting the really important question about the Mongols: what were the root causes of their agression towards the rest of the world?

    The Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Turks, Persians, et al were just asking for it!

  • Paul Marks

    The free marketism of the Sung can be overstated (but then that is known).

    As for China and the Silver coins – it was a long (and misguided) American policy to get the Chinese away from a commitment to commodity coins. Sadly for China (and for the world) the Chinese did eventually give up – and hyperinflation was the result (helping the Communist victory).

    I can remember a Hollywood film (with George Raft I believe) that blammed the Chinese hyperinflation on nasty black market types.

    Knowledge of economics has never been strong in Hollywood.

    Of course General Marshall with his famous demands to end the offensive in Manchuria (how dare you kill the Communists, we must make friends with them) was not exactly helpful either.

    On trade:

    Well Roman merchants had long contact with Chinese merchants in India. Although (I admit) I can remember only reading of one group of Roman merchants who made it all the way to China (and back).

    As for the overland route – whether via Persia or north of it.

    Even after the Islamic conquest the trade continued. It was not till a Mamluk ruler in Egypt nationalized trade in the 1400’s (oddly enough it have been the Mamluk’s who had first defeated the Mongals in open battle – using early firearms) that Europeans were forced to seek routes round Africa (or strike west due to a mistake in calculating the size of the world).

    Egyption rulers have a habit of nationalizing trade, it had been done before and would be done again.

  • Tatyana

    Brendan: not exactly, or rather exactly not. At least where Russian history is concerned.

    Christianity was established by Great Kiev Prince Vladimir in 988, not in 15 century.
    Mongol hordes (Batu-Khan) envaded Kievan Rus’ in 1233 and were collecting tributes till Ivan III (not I) lead joint Russian army to the shores of the Ugra-river in 1480.

    Some historians consider Mongol invasion the main factor of development of Russia as a state (under unifying power of Moscow), so – as always – opinions differ.

    (Note I give you only easy-to-read Wiki articles as links; you can explore the subject indefinitely, the sources are endless)

  • For a fanciiful take on what might have been had the Mongol invasion of Japan been successful, give Thomas Harlan’s two recent books, Wasteland of Flint and House of Reeds, a gander. Hint: Aztecs in space!

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    Tatyana: Thanks for the references – I wasn’t meaning that he established the Church, only that Ivan I moved the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to Moscow in 1326 after Kiev was sacked by the Mongols, I was out by a decade. It was Ivan I’s successors, and ultimately Ivan III, that overwhelmed their neighbours, eventually growing strong enough to throw off the shackles of Mongol vassalage.

    A truth half told is a fallacy, but from what I read many moons ago I was headed in the right direction. No Mongols, perhaps no powerful Moscow, perhaps no Russia. Russia itself might have ended up being dominated by the Lithuanians.

  • Ursus Maritimus

    Trying to mount an amphibious invasion using river barges reminds me of something called “Sealion”. It seems to be a common failing among Continentalist military leaders to underestimate how different naval ops really are.

    “A barge floats on water, we are crossing water, ergo a barge is enough. It is just silly sailor prejudice to require a much more expensive thing called ‘ship’!”

    Ursus Maritimus