TL;DR: The world the West conquered had a long history of brutality. Exploitation, slavery, violence, and empire all have a long history that extends far further back than the European empires of recent memory. In this respect the West is not especially unique in its actions, it is just another step in a long line of such atrocities.
It is important to understand the negative impact that the West has had on our world. It is important in understanding why the world looks as it currently does, as well as in understanding our own heritage as Western peoples. Yet many who emphasize this do a great intellectual disservice by omitting the historical context in which Western expansion took place, and in failing to emphasize the ways in which the rise of the West was extremely positive for everyone. Indeed, many critics of the West can only do so with reference to Western values.
By the way I often hear the rise of the West described, one imagines the nations of the world in a peaceful and simple state, suddenly set upon by a Europe that ravaged and ransacked with cruelty that had never been seen before. The fact is that this is absolute nonsense. The European conquests occurred in a world that was brutal, that had always been brutal, and one that thrived off of war and cruelty. There is a reason why many of mankind’s greatest stories are about great conquerors and warring kingdoms. Any serious look at pre-modern history shows an incredibly unjust world where human rights did not exist as a concept and conflict routinely occurred from acquisitive rulers eager to expand their own gain.
Three historical examples might best demonstrate this point. First, we shall look at the Mongols. In the 12th and 13th centuries Genghis Kahn and his descendants founded an empire that spread swiftly throughout Asia. Through absolutely brutal tactics, the Mongol Hordes forged the largest contiguous land empire in all of history. The populations of cities that resisted were often slaughtered once the city was finally taken. This was a tactic used to frighten future cities into surrendering quickly and peacefully. In the Mongol conquest of China it is estimated that 35 million were killed. This may have represented up to a third of the Chinese population at the time. The Mongols conquered the richest areas on the planet and looted many of the world’s greatest cities, including the then-great city of Baghdad. They were extraordinarily wealthy, but in the end it was not some satiation that ended Mongol acquisitiveness, but internal strife and military failures which caused the empire to crumble. The Mongols consistently made efforts to expand West into Egypt, East into Japan, and South into India. The empire was fueled by greed, not necessity, and respect for human life was nonexistent.
Next we can look to the Aztec empire of modern Mexico and central America. The Aztecs were a brutal civilization based upon conquest and human sacrifice. The Aztecs, in line with their primitive beliefs in the god’s’ desire for blood, very routinely engaged in mass human sacrifice, and prestige came to those Aztec warriors who could bring back the most sacrificial objects. It is highly unlikely that the Spanish would have defeated the empire in the way that they did if it wasn’t for mass discontent with Aztec rule. As was the case in many other parts of the world, the European ranks were dramatically bolstered by Natives who fought alongside them against the oppressive Aztecs. The Aztec “civilization” contained enough internal strife to be partially torn apart from the inside. Just as in many other instances, Europeans were looked at as potentially useful allies by parts of the populace, not as evil and imperialistic invaders. The Aztecs represent just one example of a barbaric civilization whose own sins were exploited within its destruction.
Finally, we might look at the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans were just one in a long series of large Muslim empires in the Middle East that sought to claim as much territory as possible. At various points in history these empires often threatened to swallow up Europe. While one could list the many Ottoman Brutalities; by far the most extreme was the Armenian genocide. Starting in World War I, millions of Armenian Christians were slaughtered, exiled, and raped by the Ottoman government. This was among the first and most deadly of modern genocides, and it was not committed by any European power, but by an Eastern empire. The Turkish government, the modern inheritor of what remains of the Ottoman state, still fails to acknowledge the well-documented event.
The list of atrocities committed by non-Western nations is immense, and I see no reason to keep listing such examples. What I have presented here, and indeed in this entire series, is a very brief and incomplete sketch of immensely complicated histories. Nevertheless, this gives enough relevant historical examples to back a relatively simple conclusion; if we wished to tally up the sins of the world, to document all the atrocities of every people, then it is unlikely that we would be very sympathetic to anyone, and we would be relatively apathetic to those that were crushed by the West. What many do today is to view the West with a truly cruel and critical eye, overlooking any of their virtues and focusing singularly upon their faults. This critical lens is rarely extended to the world in general. This is worth restating: if we are critical enough of the West’s actions to condemn the West and its history, then in most cases we must condemn the areas the West conquered.
At the end of the day Western Nations, while historically quite cruel, were often not cruel in a way that was at all unheard of. There was nothing spectacularly unique about the West other than the fact that it was actually capable of conquering the world. Cruelty was not unknown to our species before Western imperialism. No one, no people, and no culture is free from similar abuses. To hold Western cultures to this standard, and not the cultures that they held power over is a glaring double standard, one that is just as ignorant as the view that the West was doing nothing but gloriously spreading the message of the enlightenment around the world. We cannot allow our sympathy for the context of Western atrocity to turn into an excuse for those actions. Nevertheless, context can help us to better understand what happened, and the ability of all humans to do evil.
We must understand the sins of the West if we are to understand Western history and evaluate its present merits. It is wrong to view this history in the absence of broader world history, however. If the West deserves to be condemned for its brutality, so too do any number of areas in this blood soaked world.