The Point Of No Return For These 5 Declining Empires

Before the end — there came the beginning of the end

Kesh Anand
Dec 9, 2020 · 7 min read
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History is littered with dates.

Start dates and end dates. Of people…and of Empires.

History is rarely so clean-cut though. In most cases — before the final flame on an empire was extinguished, it would have been terminally ill for a long time.

Below we consider when it was that 5 of history’s great empires crossed their Rubicon — after which point there was no way their fortunes could be turned around.

#5: Spanish Empire: 1808AD— Napoleon’s coup of the Spanish throne

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The Spanish Empire was the original global hegemon—the one on which the sun never set.

Though officially lasting nearly 500 years until 1976AD — its position as a pre-eminent geopolitical player ended one and a half centuries earlier.

While Europe was in the grip of the French Revolutionary Wars, Spain had allied itself with Napoleon.

Despite this — Spain’s Prime Minister, Manual Godoy, made overtures to Britain and Russia to indicate that should Prussia defeat France — Spain would readily switch over to their side.

Napoleon got wind of this and figured Spain to be an unreliable ally. As such, in 1808 — he effectively forced the king of Spain to abdicate in favour of Napoleon’s brother: Joseph Bonaparte.

This precipitated a series of conflicts across the Iberian peninsular amongst those loyal to the Bonaparte King and those to the Bourbon heir — Ferdinand.

Now — those folks living in Spain’s Latin American colonies, already infected with the enlightenment ideals from the recent French Revolution — had a crisis of political legitimacy on their hands.

Should they pledge fealty to the Bonapartes or the Bourbons? Until the situation was resolved — they would have to govern themselves.

Once they got the taste for self-government, however, it was too late.

While Napoleon soon fell, and Ferdinand was restored to the throne — a wave of independence movements exploded across Latin America. Within three decades — most of the continent had freed itself from the yoke of Spanish rule.

With the Spanish Empire now confined to the Iberian peninsula, Cuba and the Philippines — their glory days were well behind them.

Never again would they rule the world as they once did.

#4: Mughal Empire: 1739AD — Nadir Shah’s Sack of Delhi

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One of the three so-called Gunpowder Empires (along with the Ottomans and Safavids) — history records the Mughal Empire’s official death as 1857AD to the hands of the British.

In reality — what the British slew was a long since decrepit state on its death bed.

Following the blood-drenched reign of Emperor Aurangzeb and a series of succession struggles upon his death — the imperial crown finally settled upon the head of Muhammad Shah in 1719.

Spending his days indulging in the pleasures of palace life such as watching elephant fights, mimes, jugglers and writing poetry — he expressed little interest in the affairs of state.

This resulted in the weakening of royal authority, major provinces like Oudh and Bengal began to break away, and the weakening of the military.

Fame of the wealth of Delhi was known far and wide — but as news of the weakening state reached the ears of Nadir Shah in Persia, he realised that India was a fruit ripe for the picking.

In 1739, he launched an invasion of Mughal India. Upon capturing Delhi — 30,000 Indian men, women and children were put to death in just six hours and a further 10,000 were taken as slaves.

So great was the plunder looted from India (for other great Indian cities like Lahore, Peshawar and Kabul were also captured) — that upon returning to Persia, Nadir Shah stopped taxation for three years.

Apart from the wealth and destruction wrought by the invaders — the sack of Delhi also showed that the Mughals were now just paper tigers.

This allowed provinces to break away more fully (thereby depriving the state of further revenue), other regional players like the Marathas to grab more territory, and emboldened a group of traders from a small island in the North Sea (trading under the banner of the East India Company) to realise that maybe they could do more on the subcontinent than simply trade out of small settlements on the coast.

#3: Ottoman Empire: 1875AD — Sovereign Default on Public Debt

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Unlike some of the others on this list who were brought low due primarily to invasions from foreign powers — the Ottoman’s largely rotted from the inside out.

A multitude of revolts due to social and economic unrest as well as natural disasters; combined with the decentralisation of power away from the sultan to various factions (such as the janissary) meant that the government was forced to pursue a constant game of whack-a-mole whilst not being able to collect adequate tax revenue.

While the final curtain fell on the Ottoman Empire in 1923 — it was that government’s defaulting of its sovereign debt in 1875 that sealed its fate.

The event led directly to the Russo-Turkish war wherein the Ottoman’s lost most of their territory in the Balkans and Central Europe as well as the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration which placed control of Ottoman state revenue directly into the hands of Europeans.

Despite the sweeping reforms subsequently enacted by the long-reigning Sultan Abdul Hamid II — it was too late. The genie of nationalism was free and the vultures of neighbouring countries began circling.

#2: Byzantine Empire: 1204AD — The Fourth Crusade

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Whilst Western Europe languished in the dark ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; the Eastern half of Europe continued to flourish for another millennium.

Long before being dissolved once and for all by the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, the Byzantines were dealt a mortal blow — by their Christian brothers no less.

Two and a half centuries earlier — the Fourth Crusade, lead primarily by French nobles, was called to reclaim the holy land from the Muslims.

Due to a shortage of funds to pay their incurred debts, they joined forces with the Venetians and the dispossessed Crown Prince of the Byzantines to invade the later’s capital city of Constantinople and reclaim it from a usurper.

The crown prince, once in possession of his kingdom, however, was slow to pay what he promised the Crusaders.

Finally, in 1204, they grew tired of waiting and sick of the excuses given to them. Sacking the city, they dismembered the empire, re-named it the Latin Empire, elected a new emperor from their own number, and submitted the entity to the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome.

A few survivors from the old regime did manage to hold out and create some successor kingdoms in the region. About 60 years later — one of these managed to reclaim Constantinople and re-establish the empire.

Whilst the Byzantine Empire was brought back from the dead — it was never the same again.

#1: Roman Empire: 439AD — Vandal conquest of North Africa

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The grand-daddy of them all, the Western Roman Empire, went from one crisis to another during its long life.

It survived the crises of the 3rd century, amputated gangrenous limbs (sorry Britain) to save healthier organs in the early 400s, and did deals with barbarians to quell unrest in subsequent decades.

Whilst officially ceasing to exist in 476AD when the Germanic Odoacer deposed the last Emperor, the fate of the empire became inescapable after 439AD when the barbarian Vandals conquered North Africa — the main source of grain for the Western Roman Empire.

The Roman state, sponsored and subsidised the supply of grain to the population of Rome via a system known as the Cura Annonae.

Once the breadbasket of the empire, North Africa, was lost — not only was the grain itself gone but all the economic linkages between key participants in the supply chain also slowly unravelled.

From the merchants who bought the grain from the farmers, engineers and construction workers who maintained the roads on which the grain was transported to and from ports, the operators of the ports where produce was loaded into boats, the captains and sailors in the shipping industry who transported the grain into continental Europe, the soldiers who guarded it, the populace in Rome who consumed said grain and the taxes which were levied along the way — people from every part of the chain was severely impacted.

The flow on from this was the deindustrialisation of the corridor from North Africa to Rome, and the start of the population decline across these centres as people sought more abundant opportunities elsewhere.

Further — the loss of this region meant fewer troops could be maintained, and taxes on an already overburdened poor were increased.

What’re your thoughts?

Do you think that there were other points of no return for these or other empires?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Kesh Anand

Written by

An observer of history, human development, geopolitics, society, and the future

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Kesh Anand

Written by

An observer of history, human development, geopolitics, society, and the future

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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