Monday, June 15, 2020

Guest Post: Zheng He Rescues Byzantium

This article first appeared at Today in Alternate History.

"The voyages of the great Chinese fleet were missions of exploration and commerce. They were not enterprises of conquest. No yearning for domination obliged Zheng to scorn or condemn what he found. What was not admirable was at least worthy of curiosity. And from trip to trip, the imperial library in Beijing continued growing until it held four thousand books that collected the wisdom of the world. At the time, the king of Portugal had six books." ~ Eduardo Galeano

In 1433, after an epic journey around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Strait of Gibraltar, the huge expeditionary fleet of Admiral Zheng He finally reached the continental boundary between Europe and Asia. Safe passage through the Mediterranean Sea was guaranteed by the Venetian Navy on the basis of a long-standing peaceful invitation to the Chinese Emperor made centuries before by Marco Polo. Exhausted by the Ottoman onslaught that had led to the military disaster at the Siege of Thessalonica, Venice did not have much choice.

To prevent the navy bottle-necking the Bosporus, the Admiral was forced to send ahead some smaller Fuchuan warships to complete the journey to Byzantium. Zheng He had spent three decades commanding seven expeditions through Indonesia, India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. Nevertheless his voyage to Byzantium, at the climax of his career, would be truly historic. This was largely because of good timing - his arrival was warmly welcomed by John VIII Palaiologos. Facing an existential crisis, the Byzantine Emperor was desperately in need of aid from any source in order to continue a losing fight against the resurgent Ottomans. The Chinese were potential saviors, even though their influence would lead to yet another major religion, Buddhism, becoming a part of the already complicated Byzantine social dynamic.

Zheng He was himself born of a Muslim family, and his voyage was one of exploration rather than conquest, but even so his arrival was hugely consequential. With a military alliance affirmed, Zheng He's fleet, featuring numerous ships larger and more heavily armed than any Europe or the Middle East had ever seen, made short work of the Ottoman fleet that had dominated the Bosporus. Suddenly cut off from supply, sultan Murad II's tremendous advance through the Balkans came to a halt. In a series of battles behind enemy lines that would have impressed Hannibal himself, Murad held onto his position until his death in a decisive defeat at the hands of an army of the Serbian-Hungarian alliance. Murad's son Ahmed was placed on the throne, followed by Alaeddin, and ultimately Mehmed II as a series of early deaths plagued the household. Mehmed would cut his leadership teeth battling the Timurid Empire in the east, expanding the Ottoman Empire far into the Middle East as he gained the epithet "Conqueror."

In addition to tipping the balance in the favor of Byzantium, Zheng He brought with him applied science and technology that would transform the fortunes of the vulnerable Byzantine Empire at its weakest moment. Most significant of all the fortifications of the capital city would be dramatically improved by the time of the succession to Constantine XI in 1448. The Ottomans had missed their chance and decided never to return in another siege attempt. Instead, their conquests stretched from Persia all the way down the eastern coast of Africa to the Great Zimbabwe.

The wealth and power of Zheng He's fleet would have a massive effect on Byzantium, which would become the industrial center of the world by the dawn of the eighteenth century. Steam-driven ships brought in textiles and other raw materials, then exported manufactured goods back to ports as far away as China and the Americas. The Byzantine Empire dominated the region, serving as a perfect balance between Christian and Muslim influences with a booming multi-faith population.

Author's note: In reality Zheng He died in 1433 in Calicut, India. By then, China's expeditions had started to go out of fashion with the emperor as policies turned back toward isolationist Confucian ideals. Soon the size of ships was legally restricted to prevent reckless gambling on oversea ventures.

Provine's coda:
With the Balkan states coming into their own, Byzantium found itself in a new world.The city, now a shadow of its former empire that once spread across the Mediterranean world, was precariously balanced between Orthodox Christians to the west, Catholic Christians in the north, and Muslims to the east. Papal influence in the region waned since the promised rescue by the Holy Roman Empire was delivered instead by non-Christian Zheng He. Fortunately, the Byzantine emperors knew something everyone could believe in: money.

Word soon spread about the development in Germany of a printing press that could produce 3,600 pages in the same day a scribe could write 40, which the inventor Guttenberg planned to use to sell mass-produced Bibles. Religious implications aside, the Byzantines were far undermanned and an increase in production like that was much needed. The city was already a center of engineering: even hundreds of years before, ambassadors were greeted by mechanical birds singing artificial songs and a throne that could rise thirty feet in the air on hydraulic pumps. If engineers could make machines to sing, why not to do practical things? Encouraged by an imperial bounty, designers from all over the world, including the Chinese on the lengthy route around Africa, flooded the city with machines that could automatically spin, weave, and sew textiles into completed garments. The same happened with pottery, furniture, paper, practically anything that could be manufactured. Factories powered by pneumatic and hydraulic engines lined the landscape, and Byzantium earned a new nickname as "the World's Factory" as raw materials flowed in and goods flowed out.

Other nations hurried to catch up, such as the popes working to modernize Rome, the states of Germany building an iron-based trade network, and the Ottomans rebuilding the Pharaoh's Canal to shorten the travel time by boat to the Far East. China, too, felt the effects of closer east-west relations. Rather than following Confucian ideals toward closing off the nation, new models of Confucian thought drove the emperor to expand Chinese influence into "untamed" regions that they felt could benefit from their teaching. In an impressive feat of international agreement build a railway linking Byzantium with Beijing.

While the proximity meant potential for wealth, Byzantium long knew the significance of industrial espionage. A millennium before, Nestorian monks had smuggled silkworms in hollowed-out walking staffs and ended China's monopoly on silk production. The Byzantines greedily guarded their industrial secrets and built up a city guard that kept a careful eye on anyone who knew even parts of how machines worked. Witch hunts routinely broke out, leading to executions of engineers, such as that of famed designer Leonardo da Vinci when he refused to give up the codes embedded in his sketchbooks.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

458 - Biological Warfare Counters the Huna

The expansive Gupta Empire ruled for hundreds of years over northern India, stretching from the mouth of the Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal to the Indus River pouring into the Arabian Sea. Successive generations of rulers such as Chandragupta and Samudragupta added substantial territory to their influence as well as securing important trade routes that funded the flourishing empire. In the middle fifth century, however, invasion from the north seemed it would break apart imperial rule.

Skandagupta, who came to the throne as the lesser son of Kumaragupta after a forceful seizure of power in about 455, sought to defend his lands from the Huna, also known as Alchon Huns or White Huns, whose migratory conquests marched south from Central Asia. The Huna had gained political recognition by the Sassanid Empire to the west, guarding each other’s flanks while the Sassanids fought Byzantines in the Middle East and the Huna sought to expand. Skandagupta used the heavy cavalry, supported by war elephants and infantry, that had brought together the Gupta Empire to drive away the Huna incursion. It was obvious, however, that Skandagupta’s victory would only be temporary as the Huna were a quickly growing power.

Pondering the issue, Skandagupta looked out over his empire, which was often presented as the most advanced in the world. Analytical texts such as Kama Sutra had studied aspects of the human experience that many considered beyond understanding, Jainist mathematicians had defined principles of infinity, and creators had synthesized the logic of warfare into the game that the world would come to know as chess. No problem should be beyond their collective minds, so Skandagupta put out an edict that whoever discovered the best solution would be given a great reward. Numerous designs for innovative weapons and techniques flooded the palace at Pataliputra. Skandagupta’s choice was one that had been a part of human strategy for centuries: biological warfare.

The strength of the Huna rested in their herds, particularly their warhorses. Gathering sick horses from outbreaks in corners of the empire of diseases such as equine influenza and glanders, the imperial guard smuggled them into the northwest to be sold, allowed to be stolen, or simply let go to blend in with the Huna’s own. One strategy even had horses the guise of an Ashvamedha sacrifice in which soldiers would protect a horse as it wandered freely through the empire for one year, proving the stability of the imperial rule. Proving to be much less expensive than keeping up a large army to deter Huna invasion, Skandagupta and his descendants repeatedly introduced waves of plagues among the horsemen, devastating their herds and base of their economy.

In generations to come, however, the Guptas felt the consequences of the plagues as they often spread back into the empire from the west. Horse populations dropped, and the empire found itself with a dire shortage of beasts of burden. Attempts were made to expand the use of elephants and even camels, but elephants took a long time to propagate and camels did not do well in more humid climates. In about 500, Skandagupta’s great-grandson Budhagupta followed his ancestor’s example to appeal for ideas to resolve the burden issue.

By then, the Gupta Empire had grown by leaps in its science. Aryabhata had summarized Indian knowledge of mathematics and astronomy into one great work and clarified the place-value system that implied the existence of a “zero.” While he supported a geocentric model of the universe, he did show the Earth was round and rotated on an axis with the moon using reflected sunlight. Art and architecture had thrived with the imperial households increasingly supporting Buddhism with new temples. Numerous scholars focused their attention on contagions to better understand how to protect local horse herds. After reviewing complex schemes for mass canal systems and improved designs for carts, Budhagupta approved an engine that mimicked the power of a horse by steam from a boiler. Steadily steam engines came into use with iron soon replacing early brass models.

While the first steam engines were used to pull carts, soon the devices were being used in stationary form at mills. Religious objection to using forests for fuel were met with increased mining of the empire’s extensive coal resources. Demand for iron drove Gupta conquests southward into the kingdoms of the Vakatakas, beginning a new era of expansion for the empire. As the economic middle classes grew throughout the caste system, the newly rich patronized engineers and scholars, especially when their discoveries in chemistry or physics could make money. Varahamihira furthered geometry and trigonometry and define reflection and refraction in optics, leading to the development of lenses that soon allowed for telescopy, microscopy, and photography.

The Gupta Empire lasted approximately three hundred years before its satellite provinces in Southeast Asia broke into smaller states and revolution changed the imperial structure for more representation. By then, the technology and culture of India had spread widely, and, even in a different political form, northern India remained the scientific and economic center of the world. Indian steamships circumnavigated Africa to Europe and reached as far as Japan and New Zealand, establishing colonies for trade all along their paths. Buddhism, the imperially supported religion above others, spread along with the economic wealth, creating a complex mixture of versions of related religions throughout the world. Buddhism grew further under the Indian-influenced Song dynasty in China, where scholar-bureaucrats continued the Guptan practice of encouraging technological development and launched expeditions to map the western hemisphere.


In reality, the Huna continued generational invasions of northern India going as far as Eran midway through the subcontinent. Conquerors such as Toramana and Mihirakula were seen as bitterly cruel, especially as Mihirakula’s beliefs in Shiva drove him to destroy temples and any recorded knowledge. Eventually the Guptas and their allies defeated the Huna, but by then the trade routes had been wrecked and the empire had been worn down.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Guest Post: Black Hand Overthrows Serbia, sowing seeds of July Crisis

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

"You have made a mistake. We were all over the countryside and, without exception among the Serbian population, greeted in such a friendly manner, with such sincerity and unrestrained warmth that we are really happy about it," Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg playfully reprimanded a leading Croat politician who had begged them not to go to Sarajevo the following morning, June 27, 1914.

On May 30, 1914, Serbian army officers in the Black Hand organization overthrew the government of Prime Minister Nikola Pašič to push forward their agenda of uniting all Serbian-majority territories. Pašič had long been affiliated with the group, but his relationship had faltered due to bickering with the military about administration of new territories gained in the First and Second Balkan Wars. Pašič argued for democratic elections and ultimately dismissed the military administrator ahead of planned elections later in 1914. The Black Hand struck back, seizing all administrative power with the nod of of the king. This ill-fated coup was brought about by the rising tensions that were spreading across the Balkans region. Far from being an isolated event in Belgrade, it would have huge consequences and ultimately lead to the "July Crisis" of increasingly desperate diplomacy in Eastern Europe.

It was another step in the rising nationalism that had brought a new anti-Austrian king, Peter I, to the throne of Serbia a decade earlier. The Serbian emerging desire to expand their South Slav state of Serbs, Croats and Muslims had then been frustrated by the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina during 1908. The Russian Empire put intense pressure on the Serbs to accept this imposed outcome to the Bosnian Crisis since Austria had supported Russia annexation of Bessarabia. Bulgaria and then Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. Serbian army officers had been ready to make a positive move when the Balkan Wars of 1912-3 began, further weakening the Ottomans' centuries-long grip on the region. Serbia's strong military performance worked against them and kept Pašič in office with the support of powerful Russian sponsors even though Austria still led influence in the Balkans.

At the end of the conflict, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, was appointed Inspector-General of Imperial Forces. This meant that any subsequent action he took could be seen as an official act on behalf of the military. Worse still, it implied that his programme of change would be led (or even reinforced) by the military. Certainly, the Austrian Commander-in-Chief Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf believed that military intervention was necessary to prevent Serbia getting access to the ports on the Adriatic Sea.

As the Ottoman Empire declined, Russian-Austrian relations continued to deteriorate, and Serbians grew bolder. Given the impressive size of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, even the new government in Belgrade could not dare an aggressive move to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina. Instead, they opted to win more public support broadcasting that Franz Ferdinand wanted to form a South Slav province of the empire and deny self-rule.

This identity-grab was his first move in an overarching plan to breathe new life into the empire and permit Habsburg domination of the southern Slavs to continue indefinitely. The archduke was a single-minded and determined individual who had married his Czech wife against the wishes of the emperor on the condition she could never become empress and their children could not ascend to the Habsburg throne. It might have been much wiser to wait until his succession to the eighty-four year old Emperor, his uncle Franz Josef, but Franz Ferdinand was not one to wait. For his southern aims, he unwisely planned a provocative state visit to Sarajevo on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, a historic date in the Serbian calendar. The Habsburg Governor Oskar Potiorek needed the visit to be a success in order to demonstrate control over the new imperial province.

The Serbian government appealed to Nicholas Hartwig, the powerful Russian ambassador to Belgrade. He was reluctantly convinced that Franz Ferdinand's visit to Sarajevo was essentially an overstep that could soon lead to the proclamation of a South Slav province, a subjugation wholly unacceptable to the Russians. Their ambassador to Vienna Nikolay Nikolayevich Shebeko demanded that the visit be cancelled. The Archduke and his Czech wife ignored the demand, which was interpreted as over-lordship. Division arose among the South Slavs, some welcoming the tour while others spoke of rebellion.

This diplomatic dispute dominated the whole of July as Russia and Austria headed toward a Third Balkan War that Franz Ferdinand soon realized could be the end of both empires. It was tragic, since he had seen himself only proposing an imaginative solution to the restless struggle in the whole region. The rest of Europe watched on as the Balkans once again became embroiled in war, curious but unwilling to be any part of it.

Author's Note:

In reality, the Black Hand Society backed the Young Bosnians, a revolutionary movement that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

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