Because they were poor.
Sounds counterintuitive? Hear me out.
Ask yourself these questions:
What is wealth? How is wealth created?
Wealth, before the capitalist revolution, was largely a measure of:
- Arable Land/Exploitable Labor
- Precious Metals (gold, silver, etc)
- Tradable Commodities (porcelain, spice, silk, etc)
Wealth was defined as real objects, things one could hold, could smell, could eat. Spice made regions of India rich and powerful. Porcelain made regions of China rich and powerful.
… What did Europe have? Not much.
Europe had nothing that the rest of the world wanted… it hardly had any significant native sources of gold or silver.. and those natural sources were often used to purchase things like silk and spice and thus left Europe for places like India and China.
This was a tough spot for Europe to be in. A really tough spot. All of its precious metals, one of the original metrics of wealth, was going abroad to pay for luxury items. So what did Europe do? Europe industrialized.
It made wealth by taking primary products of things which were in abundance (wood, iron, wool) and created secondary products for trade abroad. Products that were worth much more than their original inputs. Europeans created wool textiles, wooden furniture, and guns.. lots and lots of guns.
This was a revolution as significant as either the American or French Revolution. It was the Capitalist Revolution. Wealth did not have to be grown from the ground, or mined from the Earth. It could be made, almost out of thin air, by improving production methods and selling those products. This was not an instantaneous process, nor was it widespread over all of Europe. But the areas where it first was seeded (England, the Low Countries, Northern Italy) would spread these methods outward to neighboring areas.
Europe’s initial poverty was the spark which led to Europe’s main source of power: Industrialization and Capitalism.
Europe’s poverty led it to be innovative and find new creative methods for the creation of Wealth. Yes, Europe colonized and conquered and eventually spread its grasp all over the globe. But why did it do those things? Because it was poor and it needed to innovate to become rich.
Europe did not want to become powerful. It wanted to become filthy stinking rich.
Most answers to this question seemed to answer the how but not the why.
Geography. Europe was mountainous and wooded. Difficult terrain to march armies through (as the Romans frequently discovered). Merchants were loathe to use roads (bandits) and the preferred transport routes were rivers and the sea. European seas are stormy, dangerous waters and to survive them, the ships need to be heavy and strong – which meant they were always strong enough to carry canons. These heavy, strong, canon-wielding ships were far superior in clout than anything the other powers could come up with. Thus Europeans ended up with superior, more powerful navies.
Mountains and Forests made holding a united Empire together more difficult and Europe tenses to break naturally into linguistic and geographic kingdoms. The Pyrenees, for example, provided a natural frontier between the kingdoms of Spain and those of France. These accidental kingdoms rarely united (although alliances by marriage were formed) resulting in competition and suspicion.
An invading army from England would attack, rape, burn and pillage French coastal towns. To protect themselves, the French would develop castles. The returning English would find themselves confronted by new technology and be defeated. having returned home empty-handed, they would then have to address the problem of castles and would come up with a new-fangled advance in technology: the catapult, which would put paid to the French defences. Defeated by this technology, the French would have to address the problem of how to overcome catapults. And so it went – each nation/kingdom vying for the upper hand and constantly looking for military improvement – they couldn’t afford not to, because it they didn’t keep up, their rivals would. Geography, therefore, encouraged European fragmentation, which, in turn, encouraged military and technological advances.
Other Empires at the time, Ottoman, Moghul, Chinese etc, were vast geographic areas under the rule of one political power (the Emperor). Often, these regions were relatively flat, which meant it was far easier to march and empire from one menaced zone to another, so there was less need for sturdy ships. An empire, ruled by and absolute power, was totally dependent on the whims of that ruler.
The Chinese, for example, were set to subjugate the world with their enormous fleet of ships, more powerful than anything the Europeans had, until the emperor died and his successor decided to close China to the world, had the ships destroyed and the shipyards burnt. An emperor could therefore push his empire into conquest or, on a whim, do the opposite. This could not have happened in Europe, because there was no unity; if one ruler had decided to close their shipyards, a rival ruler would have used this to their advantage.
Paradoxically, thus, the Europeans strength was their lack of unity, which forced competition. And this was due to Geography.
Source: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy – who does the subject far more justice.