Civilisation Alley

Globalisation before European Imperialism, considered as a broad band of advanced cultures from North-West Europe to South India, plus the sophisticated and diverse cultures of East Asia.

By Gwydion M. Williams

This article will explain why a century is a short time in terms of world history.  The major event of the 20th century was how Europe lost direct control over the rest of the world, control which it had unexpectedly established in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Empires in the ancient worldToday’s judgements of Leninist Communism ignore the background against which Leninism developed.  The Bolsheviks were self-consciously setting out to destroy a structure of Imperialism which had just led the world into a mass slaughter in the war of 1914-1918.  And none of the Imperial powers were willing to take the modern view of the matter, that war and imperialism were inherently bad.  Between the wars, Winston Churchill was best known for blocking a wise and timely attempt to give Dominion status to India.

Churchill’s attitude to Mahatma Ghandi and the Indian National Congress was not significantly different from his attitude towards Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party.  Both were threats to the British Empire and must be treated as enemies, whereas he quite liked Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascists.

It was a series of historic accidents that led Churchill into an alliance with the Left and paved the way for the post-war Labour government that was force to strike a mortal blow to Imperialism by conceding independence to their Indian Empire.

This move – along with the Japanese demonstration that Asians could now fight Europeans on equal terms, and Mao’s Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 – created a climate in which the Dutch attempt to hang onto Indonesia and the French attempt to keep Indochina and Algeria were doomed to failure.  It was in this context that non-Communist Asia started being treated as a collection of nations with rights and dignity similar to those of Europeans

Leninism should not have been continued with after the end of the Age of Imperialism in the 1950s.  But that doesn’t mean it was wrong before then.  And British politics in the shape of New Labour is dominated by people who drastically misread the lessons from history.

This article will take a look at what had been achieved outside of Europe and before Europe used its military muscle to take over.  A future issue of Problems will explore the interesting question of why China did not anticipate Europe’s pattern of global-imperialism and industrialism, and study the Ming voyages that are often and wrongly seen as a missed opportunity by what had been the world’s leading civilisation.

Babylon Arising

Civilisation on the modern pattern started in Mesopotamia..  In the wider world, there was an independent development of agriculture in south-east Asia.  Equally sophisticated societies coexisted with Ancient Mesopotamia; the antiquity of Egypt is well known and recent archeology has found even older towns or cities in Canaan and in Anatolia.  Agriculture and townships not on the modern pattern had existed for much longer than that:

“Archaeologists in Syria have uncovered the ruins of a 6,000-year-old city that suggests the rise of cities and civilization occurred earlier than previously thought… The wall and other evidence indicated a complex government …  Until the discovery last year, the only cities uncovered by archaeologists dating back to 4000 B.C. were in Sumeria, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in an area that is now Iraq.  (May 23, 2000, CNN )

“Catal Huyuk .. in the southern part of central Anatolia (present-day Turkey), is one of the most spectacular examples of Neolithic civilisation yet discovered…  This large Neolithic town – some, including its excavator James Mellaart, have described it as a city – has been estimated to have supported a population of 7,000 people. Founded more than 8,000 years ago Catal Huyuk seems to have been a thriving community for a thousand years or more. It is the largest human settlement site yet discovered from the Neolithic era. It is a remarkable fact that the largest town known from the Stone Age should have belonged to the earlier part of the Neolithic period rather than towards its end when, if one adheres to a simple model of progress, it would be expected to have arisen.  (Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age, p 19)

“Each of the elements of civilisation has been shown to have been highly developed long before the rise of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the case of writing, we find that rather than being a unique innovation of Sumerian culture 5,000 years ago, it is an element of culture that grew out of prehistoric roots in various parts of the world. In the case of Sumeria and adjacent areas of the Near East, it has been shown that the cuneiform writing system was built on an earlier token system which has so far been traced back 10,000 years. Hieroglyphs used in the writings of Dynastic Egypt are now known to have been used in the prehistoric period on pottery and other artefacts, a thousand years before history began…. There is also now a case for the independent existence of a written script of some kind in Old Europe, perhaps as early as 8,000 years ago.  (Ibid, p 261)

“Jericho had a very long history before the biblical period, and the site’s great importance is that it gives evidence of the first development of permanent settlements and thus of the first steps toward civilization. Traces have been found of visits of Mesolithic hunters, dated by carbon-14 to about 9000 BC, and of a long period of settlement by their descendants. By about 8000 BC the inhabitants had grown into an organized community capable of building a massive stone wall around the settlement, strengthened at one point at least by a massive stone tower. The size of this settlement justifies the use of the term town and suggests a population of some 2,000-3,000 persons. Thus, this 1,000 years had seen movement from a hunting way of life to full settlement. The development of agriculture can be inferred from this, and grains of cultivated types of wheat and barley have been found. Jericho is thus one of the places providing evidence of the development of agriculture. It is highly probable that, to provide enough land for cultivation, irrigation had been invented. This first Neolithic culture of Palestine was a purely indigenous development.  These occupants were succeeded about 7000 BC by a second group, bringing a culture that was still Neolithic and still not manufacturing pottery, though it was not indigenous. This occupation probably indicates the arrival of newcomers from one of the other centres, possibly in northern Syria, in which the Neolithic way of life based on agriculture had developed.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The sack of Jericho by Joshua and the invading Israelites would have occurred in the 13th century BC, two-thirds of the way through the site’s long history.  Assuming it even happened: some scholars reckon Jericho was already in ruins before the arrival of historic invaders who did sack other Canaanite cities and were presumably the original Israelites.

After Jericho’s destruction by the Israelites it was, according to the biblical account, abandoned until Hiel the Bethelite established himself there in the 9th century BC (1 Kings 16:34) This itself was a repetition of a much older pattern:

“About 2300 BC there was once more a break in urban life. The nomadic newcomers, consisting of a number of different groups, were probably the Amorites. Their successors, about 1900 BC, were the Canaanites, sharing a culture found the whole length of the Mediterranean littoral. The Canaanites reintroduced town life  the culture that the Israelites found when they infiltrated into Canaan and which they largely adopted.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Element that had been around for a long time were first put together in a modern package of cities and advanced agricultural civilisations by the enigmatic Sumerians.  They called themselves the ‘black-haired people’, suggesting they had been neighbours with people whose hair was otherwise.  Definitely, they emerged in an area where sophisticated cultures had been developing for millennia. There’s a likelihood that the first elements of civilisation were built by people in the Semitic-Hamitic range.  The Sumerians created the first definite forms with written language, but in an old and complex social environment that others had built.

It is wrong to suppose that the Sumerians built and then Semites moved in on, as some accounts imply.  There were undoubtedly waves of desert peoples, with the Arabs organised by Islam as the last and greatest wave.  But the desert peoples were also at all times moving in on broadly similar peoples.  Likewise the Sumerians may have been a tribe of invaders moving in on an existing complex agricultural society and then raising it to a more sophisticated level.

“In the deserts … of Syria and Arabia, tribes of a dark-white or brownish people, the Semitic tribes, were driving flocks of sheep and goats and asses from pasture to pasture. It was these Semitic shepherds and certain more negroid people from southern Persia, the Elamites, who were the first nomads to come into close contact with the early civilizations. They came as traders and as raiders. Finally there arose leaders among them with bolder imaginations, and they became conquerors.

“About 2750 B.C. a great Semitic leader, Sargon, had conquered the whole Sumerian land and was master of all the world from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. He was an illiterate barbarian and his people, the Akkadians, learned the Sumerian writing and adopted the Sumerian language as the speech of the officials and the learned. The empire he founded decayed after two centuries, and after one inundation of Elamites a fresh Semitic people, the Amorites, by degrees established their rule over Sumeria. They made their capital in what had hitherto been a small up-river town, Babylon, and their empire is called the first Babylonian Empire. It was consolidated by a great king called Hammurabi (circa 2100 B.C.), who made the earliest code of laws yet known to history.”  (H. G. Wells, A Short History Of The World, page 56)

Older law codes than Hammurabi have since been found, and there were probably Semitic elements in the pre-Sumerian civilised world.  Still, Wells’s effort from the 1920s had liberated itself from Victorian Eurocentric ways in a way that many chronologically more recent writers have not.  Not for him the standard view of civilisation as Greece and Rome, with Egypt and Mesopotamia as vague background.

‘Civilisation Alley’ – a huge swathe of advanced cultures from Western Europe down to South India – grew out of the Mesopotamian model. Babylon came from middle period of this ancient society, not all that old by Mesopotamian standards.  Just as Rome outshone many Italian cities that were there long before Rome was, so Babylon took over and incorporated much older urban traditions.  The Sumerians are the best-known of these, mainly because they were the first to use writing.  And Babylon is the best know place, because its importance lasted into the days of Alexander the Great.

Babylon, incidentally, never did fall in the sense of its power suddenly coming to an end.  Ancient Semitic Babylon slowly dwindled in importance, and was replaced by the Greek Seleucia, itself succeeded by the Parthian Ctesiphon, retained by the Persian Sasanids.  Later still, Ctesiphon with its Zoroastrian heritage was replaced by Arab-Muslim Baghdad.

Writing was there long before Babylon.  We nowadays think of writing in connection with literature, yet writing seems to have grown out of accountancy.  Later, perhaps, rulers realised that they could have their words written down by a scribe, and sent to another scribe who would read it to a recipient.  Later still the rulers may have learned to read and write themselves, and people also began writing down the traditional stories and religious legends.

“A highly effective system of accounting had existed since the early Neolithic period of the Near East (8000 BC)…. This accounting system was also the prehistoric forerunner of both the archaic texts of Uruk and the development of a written numerical system…. the developmental stages from the first Neolithic tokens to the inception of writing.”  (Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age, page 50)

The first civilisations we know about were state-bureaucracies centring round absolute monarchies.  Other social systems must have existed – we find evidence of tribal democracies across the millennia, and probably a complex network of aristocracies before the first cities were built.  But the big step forward was the bureaucratic state, the most complex human institution that existed up until at least the late 18th century of our own era.

Elements of the New Right find it very bothersome that their familiar categories of thought should not to relevant to all space and time.  They therefore argue that wicked state-bureaucracies stifled a dynamic ‘neolithic revolution’ – a ‘revolution’ that in fact occurred over several tens of centuries.

At the time that Sumerian Mesopotamia emerged, 99% of the world was quite free to pursue some other line of development.  No one in practice found any better way to run a large sophisticated society.  The Greeks and Romans had limited aristocratic democracies when they were city-states, but went over to standard monarchies when they grew to be Empires.  No other pattern showed itself viable in the days before the Industrial Revolution.  And Adam Smith in Moral Sentiments is an admirer of the early Roman Empire and not the oligarchic Republicans whom Caesar replaced.

The most ancient city-states of Babylon had trade and a form of merchant capitalism.  This capitalism led on to nothing in particular. Egypt did just as well with its state-centred system, and in fact lasted rather better. Egypt is still one of the world’s larger and more populous nations.  The remnant of Mesopotamia would count for little if the British Empire had not attached it to oil-rich territories when it invented Iraq out of three Turkish provinces.

China is an even more interesting example.  Emerging on the Mesopotamian pattern at much the same time as advanced regions in India and in Europe, it eventually formed itself into a sophisticated agricultural state that normally contained between a quarter and a third of the world’s entire population.  It had paper money for many centuries before such an idea was dreamt of in Europe. China developed a vast range of useful inventions – the crucial triad of printing, / magnetic compass / gunpowder that Francis Bacon Lord Verulam cited as the key developments since antiquity, as well as wheelbarrows, windmills etc.

What was lacking in China – and what thinkers like Bacon helped to develop and justify in Europe – was modern science.  A systematic understanding of the world based on theories tested by experiment.  And an understanding built by a system of non-commercial private enterprise, in which large numbers of separate scientific bodies engage in a veritable ‘anarchy of production’, wastefully going up many blind alleys but also fruitfully exploring some things conventional wisdom has missed.

Science has always operated in a most un-capitalist manner.  Ideas are neither sold nor hoarded.  Instead science flourishes on a much older and nobler system, gift-exchange, where you gain prestige by the value and amount of what you give away.

Gift-exchange systems appeal to something very deep in human nature.  So much so that I do not thing anyone has ever bothered writing a book to justify it.  Markets have their ideologists, as do state control and mixed economies.  But gift-exchange seems so natural that no one questions it.  Indeed the supporters of private wealth look to the very archaic pattern of public works from private fortunes.  In a flourishing society, social norms encouraged the newly rich to create libraries or scholarship and other items for the public benefit.

Right-wingers cite prestige gift-giving by rich people as a benefit of capitalism.  But it is nothing of the sort, it existed long before there was either industrialism or extensive capitalism.  Rich people remain human and subject to the normal craving for admiration.  Some also retain a desire to do good, despite an economic doctrine that says that they are perfect when perfectly selfish.

It is probably the love of display that led to the notable monuments from the ancient world.  Egyptians had traditionally built in mud-brick, which doesn’t last.  Suddenly the 4th dynasty shifted to stone, perhaps influenced by the rather older masonry monuments of the island of Malta.

A pyramid is rather a crude way of building something impressively large.  It is estimated it took 100,000 workers over 20 years to assemble the 2,300,000 colossal blocks of granite and limestone weighing an average of 2,300 kilograms.  (Encyclopaedia Britannica).  The first people to manage to organise labour on such a scale back in 2500 BC must have seemed god-like to their neighbours.

An interestingly different view of what was God-like came from the Israeli-Jewish tradition.  Hebrew origin tradition – history behind stories of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph – comes about half-way through the history of the Semites as a civilised people.  And for a long time the Hebrews were outside or on the fringes.   But theirs is the only tradition that has come down in some coherent form from the dawn of advanced agricultural civilisations.

The Sumerians themselves have never been convincingly linked with any other peoples and seem to have been fairly peacefully absorbed into their Semitic neighbours.  Sumerians were not the inventors of civilisation, but probably the first to apply it to a river valley, which needed large scale organisation but was also hugely productive.  And this allowed a vastly richer and more sophisticated civilisation to be developed.

Meanwhile in Egypt, a similar pattern was consolidated slightly later, but as a cul-de-sac, a fertile river valley in an uninhabitable desert.  A spread south was impractical and Africa suffered from the lack of the direct cultural flows that Europe benefited from..

Over the next few thousand years, similar things happened in Indus Valley (mostly now Pakistan) and in Yellow River (Huang Ho ) in North China.  Each had its own independent script, with Yellow-River ideograms evolving into the modern and highly successful Chinese script.  The Indus Valley system was different and unknown, and continuity was lost with the invasion of the Aryan tribes-people.  The lost culture may be related to Dravidians of the south, also maybe not.

From these river valleys, the example of civilisation was to spread much further.

Kings & Generals

Civilisation Alley is my name for the outgrowth of Mesopotamia, a long band between mountains and sea.  For the last few millenia of human history, there has been a chain of empires with interacting politics stretching from Europe through the Middle East and Persia down into India.

I had the concept before I had the term, a belt of advanced cultures that strongly interacted through warfare, migration and trade.  But ‘alley’ seemed just the right description, suggesting something dirty and dangerous as well as perhaps interesting.

In geographical terms, it runs along the line of the former Tethys Sea, of which the Mediterranean is in geographic terms a vanishing –  it has not changed much over the last few million years.  Elsewhere, the gap has closed, with India having slammed into the rest of Asia and raising Tibet and the Himalayas as a consequence.

“The presence of a former Mesozoic marine realm in the place of the present Alpine-Himalayan chain of mountain systems was recognized late in the 19th century… With the rise of the theory of plate tectonics and its application to historical geology, it was recognized that… the Tethys must have been an ocean rather than a trough…

“Studies in the late 20th century revealed that at least two Tethyan oceans may have successively occupied the area between Laurasia and Gondwana during the Mesozoic Era…

“The Neo (“Younger”) Tethys Sea, or simply the Tethys Sea, began forming in the wake of the rotating Cimmerian continent in the earliest part of the Mesozoic Era. … Tethys was finally closed in the Cenozoic Era (66.4 million years ago to the present) when India, Arabia, and Apulia (consisting of parts of Italy, the Balkan states, Greece, and Turkey) finally collided with the rest of Eurasia to erect the modern Alpine-Himalayan ranges, which extend from Spain (the Pyrenees) and northwest Africa (the Atlas) along the northern margin of the Mediterranean Sea (the Alps, Carpathians) into southern Asia (the Himalayas) and reach Indonesia. The eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea is a remnant of the Tethys Sea.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

But politics counts for more than geography.  Though South-East Asia and Indonesia look like a continuation of ‘Civilisation Alley’ beyond India, the region actually always been a number of detached and distinct cultures.  No outside power has been able to organise it, save briefly the European colonial powers.

In the days of the Roman Empire, say 200 AD, the broad outlines of ‘Civilisation Alley’ could be diagramatically displayed as follows:

Britain Germanic & Slavonic people Nomads of Eastern Europe and ofWest-Cental Asia, including the Huns
North-West Europe
South-West Europe South-East Europe Black Sea
Mediterranean Asia Minor Caucasus Persia Bactria Tibet
North Africa Egypt Syria & Caanan Mesopotamia North-West India North-East India
Saharah (few people) Red Sea Arabian nomads Indian Ocean South India

India at this time had no large empire, though from 300 AD the Guptas were to restore past glories and to promote a revived Hinduism.  While further to the east, the gigantic Chinese Empire under the Han was at least the equal of Rome, and civilisation was also well advanced in Korea, Japan and South-East Asia.  [But it was geographically isolated from Civilisation Alley and there were few interactions.  Luxury goods were exchanged and both ideas and new technologies spread.  Armies mostly saw the barriers as too formidable.]

Even ‘Civilisation Alley’ in the narrow sense never has had any one ruler:  But though no one ‘great man’ ever shaped it, there has a been a consistent pattern of interaction and waves of conquest.  Alexander came closest to domination, ruling from the Balkans through Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan and parts of India that are now in Pakistan.  But he also held nothing west of the Balkans and did not get far into India, which barely noticed him at the time.

Two thousand years later, Catholic Spain and the Muslim Ottoman Empire made a brief peace which allowed the Ottomans could try to conquer Persia while the Spanish launched their famous Armada against England.

A couple of centuries before that, Timur had conquered Persia from West-Central Asia and raided as far as Damascus, Delhi and Moscow, before dying quite suddenly on an expedition against the Chinese.  His main long-term effect was to delay the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire by defeating and humiliating the Ottoman Turks.  His raids on the Muslim-Mongol Golden Hoard may also have unintentionally aided the rise of Christian Russia at their expense.  But in purely military terms, his influence along a considerable stretch of Civilisation Alley had not been matched since Alexander and was not to be equalled again.

Chinese, East Asian and South-East Asian civilisations have generally been a set of advanced but disconnected ‘civilised allotments’. South-East Asia is generally reckoned a second major centre of agriculture, along with West Asia, and is widely credited with the all-important discovery of how to grow rice.  And although the various states and empires of Civilisation Alley had trade links with the world beyond India, geography imposed a pattern of generally peaceful coexistence.

South-East Asia had a pattern of separate indigenous developments, all of them influenced by China and India but all of them with local roots. China, Korea, Japan and South-East Asia pursued a set of similar but separate developments.  This contrasts with the continuous ebb and flow of military power through the main span of Civilisation Alley, Europe and Middle East and India, with Egypt and North Africa as an accessible offshoot.  Moving armies from China into any part of Civilisation Alley was not really feasible, though the Mongols briefly managed it

There’s also been an ancient pattern of direct contact from China to Persia and Mesopotamia via the Silk Road, skipping India.  Even much of the contact between China and India went that way.

Though south-eastern expansion was limited, north-westwards was another story. Europe was gradually pulled into Civilisation Alley, and copied its existing forms.  The Romans did little that the earlier Greeks, Persians and Babylonians had not already done, but did push the same system into new lands such as Spain, Gaul and Britain.

“Why did the same plant package launch food production throughout western Eurasia? Was it because the same set of plants occurred in the wild in many areas, were found useful there just as in the Fertile Crescent, and were independently domesticated? No, that’s not the reason. First, many of the Fertile Crescent’s founder crops don’t even occur in the wild outside Southwest Asia. For instance, none of the eight main founder crops except barley grows wild in Egypt. Egypt’s Nile Valley provides an environment similar to the Fertile Crescent’s Tigris and Euphrates Valleys. Hence the package that worked well in the latter valleys also worked well enough in the Nile Valley to trigger the spectacular rise of indigenous Egyptian civilization. But the foods to fuel that spectacular rise were originally absent in Egypt. The sphinx and pyramids were built by people fed on crops originally native to the Fertile Crescent, not to Egypt.”  (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs And Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, Page 182)

Egypt, though fine and rich, was to prove a dead end. Africa offered no real path beyond Egypt, a river valley in a desert.

Civilisation began in the Fertile Crescent, among peoples who would not look out of place if suddenly placed among the modern inhabitants of those regions, culturally now Arabs and Muslims but substantially the descendants of those first civilisers.  For the greater portion of the Fertile Crescent, Western Asia up to but not including Iran, the dominant culture and language has also always been Semitic.

There was a gradual spread into both Europe and the Indian subcontinent.  In India you did however have a new river-valley civilisation growing up, the Indus Valley civilisation with a distinct and mysterious culture.  Similar much smaller centres existed in Europe, where geography always encouraged much more of the local and particular.

Civilisation Ally had generally had the sea to the south and a mix of mountains and steppe to the north.   This ‘northern exposure’ was its main vulnerability, open to lighter skinned nomads who needed military skills to stay alive and could occasionally conquer.  The same logic applied to the darker-skinned peoples of Arabia and of ‘Punt’ to the south of Egypt.  Early Mesopotamia was shaped by waves of Semitic tribes (though some Semitic speakers probably already involved along with the Sumerians). Egypt had various black rulers from the people of Punt.  While in East Asia, main invaders were Step peoples, distinct in the local view, but not notably different to Western eyes.   Also occasionally Tibetans.

South Europe and the long corridor of Iran and the Indian sub-continent received a steady flow of ideas from West Asia and Egypt. India was also more original, producing several key innovations and one world religion.  Chess is not provably Indian, Persian and China both claim it, but the mix of units make India much the most likely.  And positional numbering including the zero are unquestionably Indian, even though it like chess came to Europe via the Muslim world.

Likewise Buddhism spread east and shaped the culture of more than half of Asia, while also and inexplicably failing to move west to any significant degree, and eventually fading out in India itself.  I think that Pagan Europe might have been much happier with Buddhism than with the distorted version of Christianity that the Roman Empire took up, but that’s how history goes.

Europe before 1500 was not really innovatory.  Its languages were written in an alphabet that various Semitic peoples had devised for themselves.  Even the pattern of trading cities and limited democracy that we associate with the Greeks was borrowed by them from the Phoenicians.

Alexander and his successors copied the Persians, the Romans copied Alexander. Rome was no larger than the Han Empire in China, and later competed on equal terms with the Persians and Parthians.  Han China was separated by thousands of miles from them, but they did defeat and drive out nomadic tribes generally identified with the Huns who played such a large part in the decline of Rome.

Our parochial West-European view of Alexander is as the ultimate world conqueror.  The notion of him weeping at having no more worlds to conquer is taken seriously by many people – though even as a school child I found this suspicious, checking and finding that early Republican Rome coexisted and was definitely never conquered.  I have since learned that Rome may have paid him some sort of tribute, but that was more politeness than serious submission.  Nor did Alexander’s supposed conquest of India amount to anything special:

“Indian sources remain silent about Alexander’s campaign.  To the Indians he was only one of the nameless conquerors of the northwest who touched this part of India in an endless sequence of raids.  The memory of Alexander the Great returned to India only much later with the Islamic conquerors who saw him as a great ruler worth emulating.”  (A History Of India, Kulke & Rothernmund, p 57)

But if Civilisation Alley never came close to being united in a single Empire, it did end up with a common writing system, the Semitic alphabet in all of its derivative, Arabic and numerous Hindu scripts, as well as Greek and Cyrillic letters and the Latin alphabet we write English in.  Before Europeans began spreading the culture round the world, the descendants of this one writing system were almost universal from Ireland down to Ceylon, but much less known in other civilised territories.

Early writing was probably more like computer processing is today.  A specialist task using symbols and concepts that most people did not understand and did not need to know about.  And writing as magic would have been based on a muddled understanding of the actual power of the written word.  But being a tool for scribes, it need not be simple and might indeed be more useful and secure if it was incomprehensible to any outsider.

“A related limitation is that few people ever learned to write these early scripts. Knowledge of writing was confined to professional scribes in the employ of the king or temple. For instance, there is no hint that Linear B was used or understood by any Mycenaean Greek beyond small cadres of palace bureaucrats. Since individual Linear B scribes can be distinguished by their handwriting on preserved documents, we can say that all preserved Linear B documents from the palaces of Knossos and Pylos are the work of a mere 75 and 40 scribes, respectively.

“The uses of these telegraphic, clumsy, ambiguous early scripts were as restricted as the number of their users. Anyone hoping to discover how Sumerians of 3000 B.C. thought and felt is in for a disappointment. Instead, the first Sumerian texts are emotionless accounts of palace and temple bureaucrats. About 90 percent of the tablets in the earliest known Sumerian archives, from the city of Uruk, are clerical records of goods paid in, workers given rations, and agricultural products distributed. Only later, as Sumerians progressed beyond logograms to phonetic writing, did they begin to write prose narratives, such as propaganda and myths.

“Mycenaean Greeks never even reached that propaganda-and-myths stage. One-third of all Linear B tablets from the palace of Knossos are accountants’ records of sheep and wool, while an inordinate proportion of writing at the palace of Pylos consists of records of flax. Linear B was inherently so ambiguous that it remained restricted to palace accounts, whose context and limited word choices made the interpretation clear. Not a trace of its use for literature has survived. The Iliad and Odyssey were composed and transmitted by nonliterate bards for nonliterate listeners, and not committed to writing until the development of the Greek alphabet hundreds of years later.”  (Guns, Germs And Steel, Page 235)

Cuneiform, and then various syllabaries and alphabets, were much more user-friendly than the first writing systems.  And a system originally intended for business use was adapted for other purposes.  Whatever could be spoken could now also be written, and literary techniques were found to give flat text something of the vividness of the living word.

The Bamboo Zone

There are a number of ‘civilised allotments’ outside of Civalisation Alley.  And interesting though the civalisations of Africa or of pre-Columbus America might be, comparable power and sophistication existed only in South-East Asia and East Asia.  For better or worse, the world consists mainly of these regions and of Civalisation Alley with all of its overseas extensions created during Europe’s brief period of military dominance.

The region was always diverse.  If you want something simpler than ‘East & South-East Asia’, you could call it the ‘Bamboo Zone’ since that is one common factor, with most of the economically important varieties of this tree-like grass growing there.  The presence of bamboo is a fortuitous accident, it is useful but hardly a determinant in what is anyway a much more heterogeneous area than Civilisation Alley.

“Temperate areas of China were isolated from western Eurasian areas with similar climates by the combination of the Central Asian desert, Tibetan plateau, and Himalayas. The initial development of food production in China was therefore independent of that at the same latitude in the Fertile Crescent, and gave rise to entirely different crops. However, even those barriers between China and western Eurasia were at least partly overcome during the second millennium B.C., when West Asian wheat, barley, and horses reached China.”  (Guns, Germs & Steel, page 189)

The Bamboo Zone is a set of geographically distinct regions that only loosely influenced each other, and took only what they wanted from Civilisation Alley.  No one has ever tried to conquer China from India, nor vice versa.

The geographic barriers between China and India are not that formidable, a ‘spine’ of South-East Asia jutting off the Tibetan Plateau.  Social factors may have proved a more decisive barrier. India grew from its own Far West, the Indus Valley, while China grew from its north, the Yellow River.  And conquering nomadic invaders of India or of China typically followed much the same path and had become worn down and over-extended by the time they reached Bengal or Burma.

The Bamboo Zone had its own unique pattern of development. China, the Central Empire of the region, was not necessarily the original core.  Both Japan and South-East Asia had important local developments well before the remarkable advance of the peoples along China’s Yellow River.  These however formed the world’s fourth river-valley civilisation, following on from Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley.  Most likely the idea of irrigation was borrowed from Mesopotamia, but had to be applied locally and to quite different crops, whereas the Egyptians and Indus Valley peoples seem to have borrowed the whole package.

The peoples of the Yellow River, and similar if less powerful people of the Yangtze formed themselves into a ‘Central Empire’, which kept a political and cultural continuity that only Egypt could match, and then only up until the Greek, Roman and Islamic conquests which basically erased the older culture. China, with no invaders other than nomads, kept its identity much better.

“We take this seeming unity of China so much for granted that we forget how astonishing it is. One reason why we should not have expected such unity is genetic. While a coarse racial classification of world peoples lumps all Chinese people as so-called Mongoloids, that category conceals much more variation than the differences between Swedes, Italians, and Irish… In particular, North and South Chinese are genetically and physically rather different: North Chinese are most similar to Tibetans and Nepalese, while South Chinese are similar to Vietnamese and Filipinos. My North and South Chinese friends can often distinguish each other at a glance by physical appearance: the North Chinese tend to be taller, heavier, paler, with more pointed noses, and with smaller eyes that appear more “slanted” (because of what is termed their epicanthic fold).

“North and South China differ in environment and climate as well: the north is drier and colder; the south, wetter and hotter. Genetic differences arising in those differing environments imply a long history of moderate isolation between peoples of North and South China. How did those peoples nevertheless end up with the same or very similar languages and cultures?”  (Guns, Germs & Steel., page 323)

This is a good picture, but I’d refine it further as an Original South and the Extended South.  The original cultures of the Yangtze valley were part of the first mixing of Chinese civilisation, a number of similar peoples around the Yangtze and Yellow River merging into one culture:

“By the Bronze Age millet, rice, soybeans, tea, mulberries, hemp, and lacquer had become characteristic Chinese crops. That most, if not all, of these plants were native to China indicates the degree to which Neolithic culture developed indigenously. The distinctive cereal, fruit, and vegetable complexes of the northern and southern zones in Neolithic and early historic times suggest, however, that at least two independent traditions of plant domestication may have been present … The suggestion that some of these southeastern cultures belonged to an Austronesian complex remains to be fully explored.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

“China’s heartland is bound together from east to west by two long navigable river systems in rich alluvial valleys (the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers), and it is joined from north to south by relatively easy connections between these two river systems (eventually linked by canals). As a result, China very early became dominated by two huge geographic core areas of high productivity, themselves only weakly separated from each other and eventually fused into a single core. Europe’s two biggest rivers, the Rhine and Danube, are smaller and connect much less of Europe. Unlike China, Europe has many scattered small core areas, none big enough to dominate the others for long, and each the center of chronically independent states.”  (Guns, Germs & Steel, 416.)

In fact the conventional concept of South China includes both the Original South around the Yangtze and an Extended South which went right down to the Pearl River, the Han Dynasty conquests.

“Once China was finally unified, in 221 B.C., no other independent state ever had a chance of arising and persisting for long in China. Although periods of disunity returned several times after 221 B.C., they always ended in reunification. But the unification of Europe has resisted the efforts of such determined conquerors as Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler; even the Roman Empire at its peak never controlled more than half of Europe’s area.”  (Guns, Germs & Steel, 416.)

I doubt that it was just geographic, accidents of political ideology also played a role.  As H. G. Wells observed:

[Confucius] “found a prince, but court intrigues undermined the influence of the teacher and finally defeated his reforming proposals. It is interesting to note that a century and a half later the Greek philosopher Plato also sought a prince and was for a time adviser to the tyrant Dionysius who ruled Syracuse in Sicily.

“Confucius died a disappointed man. ‘No intelligent ruler arises to take me as his master,’ he said, ‘and my time has come to die.’ But his teaching had more vitality than he imagined in his declining and hopeless years, and it became a great formative influence with the Chinese people. It became one of what the Chinese call the Three Teachings, the other two being those of Buddha and of Lao Tse.

“The gist of the teaching of Confucius was the way of the noble or aristocratic man. He was concerned with personal conduct as much as Gautama [Buddah] was concerned with the peace of self-forgetfulness and the Greek with external knowledge and the Jew with righteousness. He was the most public-minded of all great teachers. He was supremely concerned by the conusion and miseries of the world, and he wanted to make men noble in order to bring about a noble world. He sought to regulate conduct to an extraordinary extent; to provide sound rules for every occasion in life. A polite, public-spirited gentleman, rather sternly self-disciplined, was the ideal he found already developing in the northern Chinese world and one to which he gave a permanent form.”  (H.. G. Wells, A Short History Of The World, page 110)

The best-known people of the Extended South are the Cantonese, but they are only one element.  Less well known but not much less numerous are the Hakka:

[Hakka are a] “group of North Chinese who migrated to South China … during the fall of the Southern Sung dynasty in the 1270s. Their origins remain obscure, but the people who became the Hakka are thought to have lived originally in Honan and Shansi provinces in the Huang Ho (Yellow River) valley. They moved southward in two large migrations, one in the early 4th century and another in the late 9th century, perhaps to escape warfare or the domination of Inner Asian tribesmen. Their final migration in the 13th century took them farther south to their present areas of concentration. The name Hakka is a Cantonese pronunciation of the Mandarin word k’o-chia (“guest people”), which the northerners were called to distinguish them from the pen-ti, or natives.

“Having settled in South China in their own communities, the Hakka never became fully assimilated into the native population. Unlike most other Chinese before the 20th century, they never allowed their women to bind their feet, and they speak a language that has affinities with both Cantonese, the language of the people of Kwangtung province, and Mandarin, the language of much of northern and central China; many of the tongue’s initial sounds are a bridge between the two dialects.

“An extremely industrious, shrewd people, the Hakka tend to be very clannish. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when conditions in South China became very bad and land quite scarce, the Hakka often were involved in land feuds with the pen-ti. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), which is said to have resulted in the death of more than 20,000,000 people and completely shattered South China, initially grew out of these local conflicts. Although the pen-ti eventually joined the revolt, Taiping leadership was mainly of Hakka origin.

“After the rebellion, the Hakka continued to be involved in little skirmishes with their neighbours, as a result of which many migrated to other areas. Today many Hakka live in such widely scattered locations as Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Sabah, Sarawak, and even Jamaica. In South China they continue to dwell mainly in the less fertile upland areas and in Hong Kong.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

People who talk glibly about some sort of secession or separatism for the disparate peoples seem not to understand the immense complexity of intermingled peoples.  They are currently content to live as part of the Central Empire, whether or not they consider themselves Ethnic Chinese.  But if the pattern once started to unravel it could take an appalling turn, as it has done in once-prosperous Yugoslavia after some of the more westernised ethnic groups started listening to Western ‘good advice’.  The Serbs did not use their dominant position wisely, certainly, but it was Western support for secession without regard for overlapping populations that made the various wars and massacres unavoidable.

China & Tibet

Just now [the year 2000] the USA seems best-friends with China, but this could change.  The particular likely cause is Tibet, another region full of complexity and potential for  disaster.  Outer Tibet or High Tibet – the Tibetan Autonomous Region in modern China –  is part of a wider zone of Tibetan culture that overlaps massively with Han-Chinese and Mongolian populations.  During their rule in India, Britain did from time to time try detach High Tibet from China.  The wider and ethnically mixed zone, Inner Tibet or Greater Tibet, they were content to leave to the Chinese Empire

“British colonial officials in India, including administrator Warren Hastings, attempted to secure a foothold in the region. These efforts proved unsuccessful, mainly because of Tibetan resentment of an unsuccessful Nepalese invasion of Tibet in the 1790s, which the British had supported.

“In 1904 the British, who were alarmed over purported Russian influence in Tibet, invaded the region. At that time, Tibet had considerable autonomy under Chinese authority. In 1906 the British and Chinese governments established an agreement by which Britain recognized the Chinese Empire as Tibet’s suzerain power (state that controls another state’s international affairs)…

“Following the revolutionary overthrow of China’s Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibetans reasserted their independence and began expelling all Chinese officials and troops from the region, which they accomplished by 1913. That year representatives of Britain, China, and Tibet met in Simla, India, to discuss Tibet’s status and borders. The representatives reached a tentative agreement that provided for a region known as Inner Tibet to become part of China proper and for Chinese suzerainty over an autonomous Outer Tibet, located further west. Despite British and Tibetan acceptance, the Simla agreement was never ratified by the Chinese government, and China later repudiated the convention, refusing to abandon its claim to all of Tibet. Relations between China and Tibet grew increasingly strained, culminating in 1918 in an armed conflict in eastern Tibet.”  (Microsoft Encartia 1999).

Tibet had had various forms of government over the centuries, mostly local and autonomous.  But the political system represented by the Dalai Lama was very much a creation of the Central Empire, China under Manchu rule:

“Until 1642 the Dalai Lamas were principal abbots of the Dge-lugs-pa, and in that year they acquired temporal and spiritual rule of Tibet. With Altan’s help virtually all the Mongols became Dge-lugs-pa adherents, and on Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho’s death they acquired a proprietary interest in the order and some claims on Tibet itself when the fourth Dalai Lama was conveniently discovered in the Tümed royal family.

“To support their protégé the Mongols sent armed bands into Tibet. Their opponents were the Red Hat Lama, head of a Karma-pa subsect, and his patron the Gtsang king. That phase of rivalry ended inconclusively with the early death of the fourth Dalai Lama and the decline of Tümed Mongol authority in Mongolia…

“The installations of the fifth Dalai Lama at Lhasa (1642) and the Ch’ing, or Manchu, dynasty in China (1644) were almost synchronous. Good relations with Tibet were important to the Manchu because of the Dalai Lama’s prestige among the Mongols, from whom a new threat was taking shape in the ambitions of the powerful Oyrat of western Mongolia.

“Elsewhere Lhasa’s expanding authority brought disagreements with Bhutan, which held its own against Tibetan incursions in 1646 and 1657, and with Ladakh, where a campaign ended in 1684 in Tibetan withdrawal to an accepted frontier when the Ladakhi king appealed for help to the Muslim governor of Kashmir.”   (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

It was in fact the Mongols who first made the link.  Such government as there was in Tibet had submitted to Genghis Khan and his successors.

“In 1247, Köden, younger brother of the khan Güyük,  symbolically invested the Sa-skya lama with temporal authority over Tibet. Kublai Khan appointed the lama ‘Phags-pa as his ‘Imperial preceptor’ (ti-shih), and the politicoreligious relationship between Tibet and the Mongol Empire is stated as a personal bond between the emperor as patron and the lama as priest…

“A series of Sa-skya lamas, living at the Mongol court, thus became viceroys of Tibet on behalf of the Mongol emperors. The Mongols prescribed a reorganization of the many small estates into 13 myriarchies (administrative districts each comprising, theoretically, 10,000 families).”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The present Dalai Lama comes from Greater Tibet.  His birthplace was under a local ruler who was loyal to the central government of China, in as far as there was one in those days.  His claims applies to Greater Tibet, not just High Tibet.

The Ming Dynasty that drove out the Mongol successors of Kublai Khan had other concerns, most notably their own failure to conquer the Mongols in the nomadic heartland.

The Mongols in fact almost retook the Central Empire, and a lot of the character of the later Ming dynasty should be understood by its failure to settle this ever-present threat.

It was in fact a related nomadic people, the Manchus, who took over instead and founded a dynasty in the 17th century that lasted until the 20th.

The Sa-skya lama system had fallen apart in the interim, but something similar had developed around the newly created line of the Dalai Lamas, which the Manchus took over, as explained above.Overcrowded Planet

Why ASEAN speaks English

If China in complex, the other kingdoms and civilisations of the Bamboo Zone are no simpler. South-East Asia is very different, an immense diversity of language families and cultural and religious traditions.  I would summarise the major groupings as follows:

Language Family Language / people Political status Religious and cultural influences
Sino-Tibetan Burmese Dominant in Myanmar Theravada, acquired from the Mon
Chinese (various dialects) Dominant only in Singapore, a strong minority in Malaysia Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism
Austro-Asiatic Khmer Cambodia Hinduism plus Mahayana Buddhism and then Theravada
Viet Vietnam Mahayana Buddhism plus Confucianism. Also some Catholicism & Cao Dais
Mon Old kingdom, minority in Myanmar Hinduism and then Theravada
Austronesian Malayan Dominant in Malaysia, though with a strong Chinese minority and some others Hinduism plus Mahayana Buddhism and then Islam
Champa Long absorbed into Vietnam As for Malaya
Indonesian Dominant in Indonesia, with a continued expansion across the Archipelago that continues their historic settlement from Malaya As for Malaya.  A common cultural tradition expressed in numerous political units diverged with the separate experiences of Dutch and British colonial power
Filipino Filipino and English the official languages Mostly Catholic, Muslims in the south
Tai group Thai, Dominant in Thailand Hinduism plus Mahayana Buddhism from the Khmers, followed by   Theravada Buddhism.
Lao Largest group in Laos Mixed
Indo-European French, Dutch Colonial period Limited and likely to be replaced by local languages and English
English An official language in the Philippines, and spreading elsewhere as the language of global business The influence is mostly Globalist / commercial.  Little religion comes with it (unless you count money & gun-power)
Hindu tongues Hindu settlers, from ancient to modern eras Brought Hindu and Buddhist influences

A lot of the details are obscure and controversial, obviously.  The status of Tai as a separate language family could be argued about, some people class it as another branch of Sino-Tibetan.  There are other smaller language families, and none of the five are related to the Dravidians of South India, to the language of the Mongols or to those of the Japanese or Koreans.  It is also confusing for a Westerner to find that the older Theravada branch of Buddhism gained a new lease of life in the South-East Asian mosaic, displacing the newer Mahayana school which had been dominant there after the split that occurred in the first century of the Christian era:

“During the reign of the [Buddhist] emperor Ashoka (3rd century BC), the Theravada school travelled to Sri Lanka, where it divided into three subgroups, known after their monastic centres as the Mahaviharika, the Abhayagirika, and the Jetavaniya. The Theravada form of Buddhism gradually spread eastward, becoming dominant in Myanmar in the late 11th century and in Cambodia and Laos by the 13th and 14th centuries.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

This happened in parallel with a spread of Islam among the Austronesian peoples of Malaya and the Indonesia Archipelago, a process interrupted by militantly Catholic Spain in the Philippine Islands.

The modern ASEAN – Association Of South-East Asian Nations – conducts its business in English just because there is no other obvious common medium.

Meantime in North-East Asia, Korea and Japan both built high civilisations which mixed their own traditions and elements from China.  Japanese are reckoned to be emigrants from Korea who displaced and incorporated the older Ainu peoples.  Korean and Japanese may be related to Mongolian, Turkish and other languages of the Altaic group, they are not related to the five other dominant language families of the Bamboo Zone.

The Koreans also invented their own alphabet, an original creation not derived from the Semitic scripts that Europeans, Arabs, Hindus etc. make use of.  The Japanese separately accepted the script and much of the culture of Tang Dynasty China, but adapted it to their own use.  This included adding not one but two alphabetic systems for writing the sounds of Japanese, and yet the Japanese prefer to use ideograms even so, a point not addressed by those (including Wells) who assume that alphabets are a grand advance over primitive ideographic systems.

Japanese and Koreans and Chinese have an interlinked history which consists mostly of interlinked invasions and mutual suspicion.  Meantime South-East Asia pursued an essentially separate history, just as Europe and India went their own ways until Europe finally made the link by sea.

By global standards, Europe is relatively uniform, and Western Europe especially so.  West of Vienna, it is dominated by two major groups of languages, the Germanic and the descendents of Latin, which have swamped the older Celtic substratum and left the Basques as a tiny enclave.  Likewise Western Europe is dominated by the Latin-Christian tradition, in its Protestant and Catholic versions, with a small minority of Jews and an insignificant remnant of European paganism.

The British Empire was but a passing phase in the history of Civilisation Alley, the Bamboo Zone and other complex ancient regions of the world.  It broke the old world order, but then failed to build anything enduring.  There was a naïve belief that the various oddities and irrationalities of Victorian Britishness would be easily and automatically accepted by peoples with enormously long and complex histories of their own, histories that often stretched back well before the very foundation of England and that included cultures as sophisticated as Greece or Rome, and sometimes rather older.

Likewise modern Anglo culture seeks to impose a blend of British and US traditions on a complex world, without having any idea of what this involves.  English identities were shaped by William the Conqueror, Henry the Eighth, Oliver Cromwell etc., and yet foreigners are expected, not just to copy the same cultural forms, but to do so without doing anything offensive to modern liberal tastes.

The original cultural influences on South-East Asia had been both Chinese and Hindu.  But while China made military forays from time to time, and ruled part of Vietnam for about a thousand years, Hindu models gave the forms of state structures and the original Hindu / Mahayana religious culture:

“The Indian influence is no longer regarded as the prime cause of cultural development; rather, it was a consequence of a development which was already in progress in Southeast Asia… indigenous tribal organisation was egalitarian and prevented the emergence of higher forms of political organisation…  It was at this point that chieftains and clan heads required Brahmin assistance.  Although trade might have helped spread the necessary information, the initiative came from those indigenous rulers.  The invited Brahmins were isolated from the rural people and kept in touch only with their patrons.  In this way the royal style emerged in Southeast Asia just as it had done in India.” (South-East Asia, page 145)

The Austronesian peoples of Malaya and Indonesia had a grand seafaring tradition, and were probably the first humans to settle distant Madagascar.  But though Australia was well within range, it was just of no interest to them, and the Australian Aboriginals were left alone until the Europeans got there.

“In historical times northwestern Australia was visited each year by sailing canoes from the Macassar district on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes), until the Australian government stopped the visits in 1907. Archaeological evidence traces the visits back until around A.D. 1000, and they may well have been going on earlier. The main purpose of the visits was to obtain sea cucumbers … exported from Macassar to China as a reputed aphrodisiac and prized ingredient of soups…  Aborigines did acquire from the Macassans some loan words, some ceremonies, and the practices of using dugout sailing canoes and smoking tobacco in pipes.   But none of these influences altered the basic character of Australian society. More important than what happened as a result of the Macassan visits is what did not happen. The Macassans did not settle in Australia – undoubtedly because the area of northwestern Australia facing Indonesia is much too dry for Macassan agriculture. Had Indonesia faced the tropical rain forests and savannas of northeastern Australia, the Macassans could have settled, but there is no evidence that they ever travelled that far…

“Apparently much more astonishing than Australians’ resistance to Indonesian influence is their resistance to New Guinea influence. Across the narrow ribbon of water known as Torres Strait, New Guinea farmers who spoke New Guinea languages and had pigs, pottery, and bows and arrows faced Australian hunter-gatherers who spoke Australian languages and lacked pigs, pottery, and bows and arrows. Furthermore, the strait is not an open-water barrier but is dotted with a chain of island…”  (Guns, Germs and Steel, pages 314-315)

It’s a fact that the planet only produced a limited number of sea-colonising cultures.  The Irish and then the Vikings got to Iceland, and the Vikings also to Greenland and Newfoundland, but could not flourish in competition with the Native Americans or with the Inuit (Eskimos).  It is also accepted now that the Polynesians also got as far as the Pacific coast of America and may have had some influence, though claims for limited crossings of the Atlantic before the Vikings remain controversial

The Inuit (Eskimos) are a very interesting case.  Their culture is believed to have started in Siberia and spread eastward as far as Greenland, which was also the extreme west of long-lived European settlement before Columbus.  It is unclear how far if at all they caused the failure of the last of the Norse settlers there, small island populations often do fail for internal reasons, which is why Pitcairn Island was habitable but empty when the mutineers from the Bounty settled there.

Successful European settlement came when governments with a positive Modernist approach took a hand in the matter.  The New Right take the European settlement of the New World as their prime example of swarms of The Individual achieving grand things.  But the Vikings with their individual households and loose republican government come as close to the New Right model of swarms of The Individual as anything I’ve been able to find in real-world history, and they failed to make anything of their North American discovery.  Their effect was limited except where they became state-builders, as Normans in the west and as Rus in the east, imposing a new order on Anglo-Saxons and on Slavs in what later became Russia.  (From these, England was to settle North America and Russia settled Siberia, the two waves meeting in Alaska.)

South-East Asia was both more diverse and more tolerant than Western Europe.  Provided you paid your taxes and did not question the right of the rulers to rule, you could live much as you pleased and believe whatever you wished.  This sort of tolerance is in fact the human norm, with the various intolerant versions of Christianity being a considerable exception.  Modern Europeans increasingly see that this isn’t correct and isn’t what Jesus taught.  And that the cultural shifts of the 20th century are merely a ‘return to the normal’.

Set in a global context, it looks very much as if Western Europe’s success came not from any superior adjustment but precisely from its own inter tensions, a confusion that bordered on dementia.

The age of Columbus and Copernicus was also the age of Hieronymus Bosch.  This devout Roman Catholic lived in what is now the Netherlands.  Reference works try to push him away as late-mediaeval oddity.  Regrettably, he was nothing so innocuous:

“Dated works by Bosch do not exist and, of those panels that bear his signature, many might have been by followers. His pictures were widely imitated well into the later 16th century. During the 1550s, a veritable Boschian revival occurred in Antwerp that involved artists such as Pieter Huys and even Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who openly made variations of his paintings.”  (Microsoft Encarta)

The Boschian vision was the flip-side of the Renaissance, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that Phillip II of Spain being an enthusiastic collector.  Once you realise that King Phillip was a sincere believer in the nightmarish visions of Bosch – and that this in fact was Official Catholicism given visual expression – you understand why Phillip threw away an Empire for reasons that might seem mad to the modern mind.

“An affectionate father to his daughters, he lived an austere and dedicated life. ‘You may assure His Holiness,’ Philip wrote to his ambassador in Rome, in 1566, ‘that rather than suffer the least damage to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and an hundred lives, if I had them; for I do not propose nor desire to be the ruler of heretics.’ This remark may be regarded as the motto of his reign. To accomplish the task set him by God of preserving his subjects in the true Catholic religion, Philip felt in duty bound to use his royal powers, if need be, to the point of the most ruthless political tyranny, as he did in the Netherlands.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

As husband of Mary Tudor, Philip helped first with the recovery of England for Roman Catholicism, and then with the damagingly tough line against a residuum of Protestants that drove Middle-England back to revolt against Rome.  In the same spirit, he drove his own Protestant subjects to revolt in the Netherlands, creating deadly enemies where a little tolerance would have secured loyal subjects.  But how could a Catholic King be even a little tolerant, when the Boschian vision is taken literally?

And so it happened that the Netherlands escaped Spanish control, while England reasserted itself under Elizabeth.  Both of these countries were to take the Spanish / Portuguese pattern of global imperialism and extend it much further.

First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism No. 62, Winter 2000


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