Today the order has been reversed. Europe and its overseas offshoot, the United States, lead the rest in wealth, knowledge, and power. China, after centuries of backsliding, is far behind but making gains. The Muslim Middle East, however, is a disaster area: poor, badly governed, badly educated, incapable of competing in the market for manufactures.
Both China and the Muslim world have been sending students to the West to learn the secrets of modernity. Whether they will return home to help their native lands remains to be seen. Many choose to stay where wages are higher, social and cultural institutions are welcoming, political and civil life is freer.
The gap between rich and poor has been growing. This rightly worries advanced industrial nations. It promotes jealousy and encourages poorer societies, or extremists therein, to look to violence as a way of redressing (revenging) inequality. Besides, catch-up economic development yields gains to all. Rich and poor are both better off as poverty is eliminated.
The rich countries want to help but do not want to embarrass or humiliate the beneficiaries of their assistance. Hence the promotion of multicultural attitudes, and the care to avoid "eurocentrism".
The problem is that third-worlders are not prepared to recognise their own contributions to their poverty. They prefer to put the blame on others, particularly western states, citing imperialism and its victimisation of subject peoples.
There lies self-defeating denial. The history of Asian relative economic decline goes back almost a thousand years. Much of it was the consequence of a position of advantage that seemed to excuse the Chinese and Muslim civilisations from the need to compete, change, and progress. By contrast, the political fragmentation of western Europe stimulated competition in trade and industry and promoted the use of new technologies. So while Asian societies enjoyed the fruits of dominion and earlier gains, Europeans were both learning from them and inventing their own ways of doing things. So great were the rewards of creating new technology that many in the West engaged in its systematic pursuit. It was a process transcending chance: the invention of invention.
As a result of these advances, Europe passed its predecessors, long before they knew what was happening. Then, from the 16th century on, they encountered a new Europe. (No accident - it was Europe that rounded Africa and opened the eastern seas.) The Asians met what history has come to define as modernity.
How did they respond? That's the heart of the matter. One can see and learn as Europe did, or dismiss its ways as barbarian nonsense and novelty. Both China and the Muslim world took the latter course. They had long taken pride in their superiority; now they found it hard to recognise their failure.
The Chinese are doing their best to catch up but the Muslims have done much less well. Arab Middle East countries in particular, have used Islam to reinforce custom and resist innovation. Nothing shows this better than gender relations: the inequality of men and women has drastically reduced women's potential contribution and hurt men's productivity.
The contrast in historical achievement may cause pain and embarrassment to the laggards. However, one's first duty is to the truth, if only to respond effectively. History teachers, in the West and the third world, have an important role here. By emphasising past achievement and future opportunity, they can raise expectations and stimulate performance. The Chinese have been doing this with success; the Muslim world, less well. The worst we can do now is condescend to false pride. They have to learn to live with competition and to welcome and master modernity.
David S Landes is emeritus professor of economics at Harvard University and author of "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations". He will give a public lecture on technological development and its impact on societies and economics at the Royal Society of Arts, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2 on Monday, February 11, 6pm