Tag: history

Images of black folks in England, 1600s and 1700s

This goes along with chapter 2 of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams (but is probably also interesting on its own).

Liverpool Town Hall

Before the Beatles, Liverpool was famous as an important port in Britain’s slave trade; it was the slave trade that built Liverpool up from an unimportant town to a thriving metropolis. A bust of a ‘blackamoor’, (a black person) symbolises the slave trade that brought Liverpool wealth and prominence.

A carving on the grey stone exterior of a buildingof a black man wearing an elaborate head dress, necklace and earrings

A business card of a gun maker in Bristol, England

It incorporates an image of a British gentleman (left), an enslaved black man (right) and the coat of arms of the British Empire (top center).

A (photo of a) rectangular card, clearly very old and drawn by hand, with the following text (in very fancy lettering): WM Heard Gunmaker No. 41 Redclift Street Briftol, makes Hunting, Coach and Double Barrel Guns, Blunderbufes, Pistols, etc. etc. on the most approv'd Construction. Merchants supply'd with Guns, & Stores, for the African, West India, & Newfoundland Trade as Cheap as any Warehouse in England.

Reward offered for the return of a runaway boy

A newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway ‘Negro Boy’. The text reads: A Negro Boy, his name Africa, by his growth feeming to be about 12 years old, he had a gray cloth Livery, the Lace mixed with black, white, and orange colors, fomewhat torn, a black large Cap, a Silver Ring in one of his ears, his hair newly clipped very clofe, fpeaks fome Englifh, Dutch, and Blacks. Run away from his Mafter the firft inftant Whofoever fhall fecure him, and give notice to Mr. Arnold (…illegible…) Barner in James Ftreet, Covent Garden, fhall have 20 s. Reward. The ad doesn’t make clear whether the boy is a slave or a free servant, but the fact that there is a reward for his return suggests he is viewed as property.



On the birth and simultaneous rebirth of European civilization

A New World had been discovered overseas, but a new world was also being created at home, one where vibrant new ideas were encouraged, where new tastes were indulged, where intellectuals and scientists jostled and competed for patrons and funding. The rise in disposable incomes for those directly involved in the exploration of the continents and the wealth they brought back funded a cultural transfusion that transformed Europe. A swathe of rich patrons emerged in a matter of decades, keen to spend on luxury.

The task was now to reinvent the past… In truth, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England had nothing to do with Athens and the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome from its earliest days to its demise. This was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went to work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which over time became, not only increasingly plausible, but standard. So although scholars have long called this period the Renaissance, this was no rebirth. Rather it was a Naissance – a birth. For the first time in history, Europe lay at the heart of the world.

– From ‘The Silk Roads: a New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan, p 218-219.

Origin story of the Republic | A history of Latin part 4

‘The Suicide of Lucretia’ by Jörg Breu the Elder, 1528; a Renaissance painting showing two scenes in ancient Rome. On the left Lucretia tells a group of Roman men, including her husband and her father, that she has been raped by King Tarquin. On the right: Lucretia lies dead on a carpet as a group of men look on.

The English word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin res publica, which literally means ‘the public’ (with ‘public’ an adjective, not a noun). From Wikipedia:

Res publica usually is something held in common by many people. For instance a park or garden in the city of Rome could either be ‘private property’ (res privata), or managed by the state, in which case it would be part of the res publica.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’, accessed 19 May 2016.

At some point, it’s not clear when, res publica came to mean ‘the state’ or ‘the commonwealth’. In ancient times it always meant ‘the state of Rome’ or ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ – you didn’t have to specify the ‘of Rome’ part; it was understood that Rome was the only republic / state / commonwealth worth talking about.

According its origin story, the Roman Republic was formed around 500 BC. At that time Rome was an unimportant Latin town on the bank of the river Tiber. Latin was a local language, spoken only by a few tribes in central Italy. And Latin was a spoken language, not a written one. Perhaps once in a while someone would try out using the Greco-Phoenician alphabet to carve short Latin messages onto pottery or stone, but it would be centuries before there would be longer works of Latin prose, written in ink onto scrolls of parchment.

The earliest written origin stories of the Republic came about 300 years later, but the most famous one, and the one that is still somewhat well-known today, was written by Livy sometime around 0 AD, roughly 500 years after the events it describes.

The story goes like this: Evil King Tarquin of Rome rapes an aristocratic Roman, Lucretia, probably assuming she’ll keep the attack secret out of shame. However Lucretia sends for her husband and her father, instructing them each to bring a trusted friend. When the men arrive Lucretia tells them what happened, charges them to kill Evil King Tarquin, and then commits suicide. The men are so moved by this that they not only kill the king, but abolish the monarchy altogether and replace it with a new form of government, in which power is shared among a group of people so that no one person gets too much of it.

It’s more exciting the way Livy tells it:

They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and to her husband’s inquiry whether all was well, replied, “No! what can be well with a woman when her honour is lost? The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. It is Sextus Tarquin, who, coming as an enemy instead of a guest, forced from me last night by brutal violence a pleasure fatal to me, and, if you are men, fatal to him.” They all successively pledged their word, and tried to console the distracted woman by turning the guilt from the victim of the outrage to the perpetrator, and urging that it is the mind that sins, not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt. “It is for you,” she said, “to see that he gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.” She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry.

Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” Then he handed the knife to Collatinus and then to Lucretius and Valerius, who were all astounded at the marvel of the thing, wondering whence Brutus had acquired this new character. They swore as they were directed; all their grief changed to wrath, and they followed the lead of Brutus, who summoned them to abolish the monarchy forthwith.

‘From the Founding of the City’ by Livy.

This is an origin story that exemplifies the qualities that Romans living in Livy’s time considered to be the essence of Roman-ness: upright morality, stiff resolve and courage in battle, and passionate defence of freedom in the face of tyranny.

Oddly enough this story, which emphasizes Romans’ freedom-loving, tyranny-hating qualities, was written shortly after the Roman Republic officially dissolved and became the Roman Empire.

What’s perhaps even stranger is how the ancient Roman Republic has gotten folded in to the myths about the origins of the modern-day West. In a way, our ideas about the Roman Republic make up one of the origin stories of our own political ideals and institutions.

Further notes

In English ‘Lucretia’ is pronounced loo KREESH uh. In Latin (and Italian) it’s spelled ‘Lucrezia’ and pronounced something like loo CRATE zee uh.

Lucretia could be considered an early example of the Women in Refrigerators trope in fiction.

History books and Wikipedia articles sometimes treat Livy’s story of Lucretia, Tarquin and Brutus as if it were a legitimate work of history. Which is bonkers. It’s like treating Beowulf or Le Chanson de Roland or the Christian New Testament as history textbooks.

References and sources

‘From the Founding of the City’ Livy’s history of Rome, written sometime around 0 AD, this translation is from 1905.

‘The Oxford History of the Classical World’, John Boardmann, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, 1991; chapter 26 ‘Roman Historians’.

Wikipedia article ‘Res publica’.

Horse-drawn wagons 5000 years ago, beneath a huge dramatic sky

… it is now possible to solve the central puzzle surrounding (the language) Proto-Indo-European, namely, who spoke it, where it was spoken, and when…

I believe with many others that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was located in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas in what is today southern Ukraine and Russia… The steppes resembled the prairies of North America – a monotonous sea of grass framed under a huge, dramatic sky. A continuous belt of steppes extends from eastern Europe (between Odessa and Bucharest) to the Great Wall of China, an arid corridor running seven thousand kilometers across the center of the Eurasian continent. This enormous grassland was an effective barrier to the transmission of ideas and technologies for thousands of years… Eventually people who rode horses and herded cattle and sheep acquired the wheel, and were then able to follow their herds almost anywhere, using heavy wagons to carry their tents and supplies… after the horse was domesticated and the covered wagon invented… life became predictable and productive for the people of the Eurasian steppes. The opening of the steppe – its transformation from a hostile ecological barrier to a corridor of transcontinental communication – forever changed the dynamics of Eurasian historical development…

– From ‘The Horse, The Wheel, and Language; how Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world’ by David W. Anthony, p 5-6.

A history of Latin part 3: The alphabet

Roughly 3000 years ago a revolutionary new invention swept through western Asia and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea: the alphabet.

It wasn’t that writing had been unknown before then. On the contrary, both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform had been around for thousands of years. These writing systems were ancient, prestigious, and complex. For example, ancient Egyptian writing had over 600 symbols, and the meaning of a symbol might change depending on the other symbols around it. Young would-be scribes had to spend years in intense (and expensive) study in order to become competent at reading and writing.

The alphabet was different. It had only 20 or so symbols; you could memorize it in a few hours. And – this is the really genius part – the symbols did not represent words, objects, or ideas, but sounds. Once you knew the 20 or so symbols and the sounds they represented, you had everything you needed to start reading and writing.

(For native English speakers the idea of a truly phonetic script can seem alien. English spellings and pronunciations have drifted apart over the centuries, with the result that the rules of pronunciation have countless exceptions; school children have to learn the spellings of these words by simple rote memorization. If English was written phonetically… wel, if Inglish wuz riten fonetiklee, it wud luk veree difrent frum thee Inglish raiteen wee ar yoost too, purhaps it wud luk sumthing laik this.)

The original alphabet was developed by the Phoenicians. They were a Semitic people who originally came from the region that is now Lebanon and Israel. Their language, Phoenician, is related to Hebrew.

(Depending on the time period, the Phoenician people are also sometimes called Canaanites or (more generically) Semites. Their language (again, depending on the time period) can be called Proto-Canaanite or Phoenician or Punic, and early versions of their alphabet are called Proto-Sinaitic. The ancient cities of Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Carthage, are all Phoenician cities.)

Historians think they probably borrowed some pictograms from the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system to use as the symbols in early versions of the alphabet. Over time the Egyptian pictograms were streamlined to create a set of symbols that, in their overall form and style, are somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet that is used today.

Two rows of symbols, 22 in total. Some of the symbols are similar to familiar letters of the alphabet.
The Phoenician alphabet. Public Domain image.


A history of Latin part 2: history vs. the past

The Latin-speaking people who lived in central Italy around 800 BCE were not, from a historian’s point of view, very interesting. They were just one group of semi-nomadic herders among many, and their language was just one Indo-European language among many. If some of their descendants had not, centuries later, created the Roman Empire, no-one would pay any attention to them at all.

And yet, being historically uninteresting is not the same as being actually uninteresting.

Imagine if you could build a time machine and travel to the landscape of prehistoric Italy. Imagine if you could get to know the people there, learn their language, stay as a guest in their home, and share meals with them; learn their daily routines, their customs, their habits, their stories, their jokes; follow along with them as they led their herds to new pasture – if you could do all this, the people you met would undoubtedly prove to be fascinating, puzzling, wonderful, and compelling, like people everywhere.

History and the past are not the same thing, though we often speak of them as if they are.

History is not so much the study of the past as it is the study of things that have been written about the past. Historians study inscriptions on tombs and temples and palaces and monuments; they study the edicts of kings carved in stone or written on animal hide or tree bark or paper or papyrus or impressed onto clay tablets; they study religious literature and bureaucratic records of long-ago tax collections, and above all, historians study the writings of other historians.

A photograph of a white stone statue in the classical Greek style of a man wearing a toga, holding a scroll, who seems to be deep in thought. In the background are steps leading up to a building with classical Greek pillars, all carved of the same white stone.
Herodotus, who lived in 484–425 BCE, is sometimes called ‘the first historian’. Photograph by Wikimedia user Pe-Jo. Public domain.

A Venn diagram. There is a large circle labelled 'The past' and a much smaller circle, labelled 'History' is mostly inside the the larger circle but partly outside; the outside part is shaded in and is labelled 'Things historians believe about the past that are not actually true.'

There are other ways to get information about the past, or course. Archaeologists study old buildings and tools and pottery and things like that. Linguists study the similarities and differences between languages, and the ways that languages evolve over time. Anthropologists and ethnographers study how people belonging to a particular culture live, their technologies, habits, customs, religious beliefs, and how they view the world.

However history, and archaeology, and ethnolinguistics and all the rest of it, will always be different from, and smaller than, the past. If you want to know about history you can read a history book, and if you want to know about old buildings and pottery and burial customs, you can read about archaeology. If you want to learn about ancient languages, you can read a book on historical linguistics.

But if you want to get an idea of what the past might have been like, you have to use your imagination. You have to go into the vast empty space that facts can never fill, where only speculation and a sense of wonder can take you.

A history of Latin part 1: The Latins, 1000 – 650 BCE

Latin started out as most languages do, as a spoken language but not a written one. It belonged to a people called the Latins, who migrated to the Italian peninsula sometime around 1000 BCE and settled in a territory called Latium, along the Tiber River.

Little is known about them. They were pastoralists who periodically moved their herds to new pasture, following the same course from one place to the next, year after year. They lived in huts which they built according to the ‘wattle and daub’ construction technique. The walls were made from straw and perhaps strips of wood, held together with a ‘cement’ made from locally available materials such as mud, clay, and animal dung. The roof was a woven mat of straw supported by wooden posts.

They cremated their dead in pottery urns which were shaped like miniature versions of their huts. These funeral urns were buried in stone-lined holes, along with grave goods, such as small statues and miniature versions of useful items such as spindle-whorls or armor and weapons. They were polytheists who believed in a pantheon of gods. It’s hard to know how much their religion had in common with the famous Roman pantheon of Apollo, Jupiter, Diana, Minerva, Mars and Venus; the famous Roman pantheon did not appear until centuries later, and it was strongly influenced by Greek religious beliefs.

The Latins shared the Italian peninsula with a patchwork of other peoples, each with their own territory. Over time the Latins undoubtedly had contact with and were influenced by these other cultures, but what form the interactions took – whether they could speak each-others’ languages, whether there was trade, or inter-marriage, or whether there were raids or battles over territory, or whether the different groups simply ignored one-another – is unknown.

A map of Italy didvided into blobs of color, each representing a different language. Latin is a tiny blob in west-central Italy. Other languages include Etruscan, Umbrian, Faliscan, Oscan, Greek, Sicel.
Peoples / languages of Italy, around 600 BCE. Latin is a tiny slice in the west-center of the peninsula. Image by Wikimedia user Dbachmann, CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0.



Consider English

English is the only language I can speak or read very well. In fact, I can only read English writing from the past 400 years or so because, like most languages, English changes continually. The older a piece of writing is, the harder it will be for modern English speakers to understand it. For example:

We are of all Nations the people most loving and most reverently obedient to our Prince, yet are wee (as time hath often borne witnesse) too easie to be seduced to make Rebellion, upon very slight grounds. Our fortunate and oft prooved valour in warres abroad, our heartie and reverent obedience to our Princes at home, hath bred us a long, and a thrice happy peace…King James I

HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond \ and so regned that there was a myȝty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme \ And the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil \ and so by meanes kynge Vther send for this duk \ chargyng hym to brynge his wyf with hym \ for she was called a fair lady \ and a passynge wyse \ and her name was called IgrayneLe Morte d’Arthur

Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? \ Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel! \ Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel; \ For if I wolde selle my bele chose, \ I koude walke as fressh as is a rose; \ But I wol kepe it for youre owene toothCanterbury Tales

Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas and his leod-biscopas and Þurcyl eorl and ealle his eorlas and ealne his þeodscype, twelfhynde and twyhynde, gehadode and læwede, on Englalande freondlice. And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum and to rihtre woroldlage.Cnut the Great

Ā-lēdon þā lēofne þēoden, \ bēaga bryttan on bearm scipes, \ mærne be mæste. Þær wæs mādma fela, \ of feor-wegum frætwa gelæded: \ ne hyrde ic cymlīcor cēol gegyrwan \ hilde-wæpnum and heaðo-wædum, \ billum and byrnum; him on bearme læg \ mādma mænigo, þā him mid scoldon \ on flōdes æht feor gewītan.Beowulf

Languages are a little bit like genes: people get them from their parents, and they are in a continual process of gradual change. When two groups of people who initially share a language become isolated from one-another, their languages gradually become more and more different as time goes on.

French, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, and Romanian are called the Romance languages, and they are all derived from Latin. Latin was spoken throughout southern Europe during the period of Roman rule (roughly, 200 BCE – 479 CE). During this period Rome’s centralised government brought a steady flow of officials back and forth from the capital to the provinces, and made long-distance travel relatively safe. Thus there was a continual flow of people around the empire, which ensured that the same Latin language was spoken throughout, at least by the wealthier members of society.

However after Roman rule collapsed in the 400s people didn’t move around so much. Local kings or tribal leaders were often at war with each-other, so it wasn’t safe to travel over long distances. The economy contracted, which meant that fewer people could afford to travel, and since people had less money to spend long-distance trade became less profitable. Regions became isolated from one-another, and over time the languages they spoke diverged so much as to become mutually unintelligible.

English has many similarities to the Romance languages, particularly French, because there has been a fair amount of contact over the years between English speakers and speakers of Latin and French. However English is not derived from Latin, but from Germanic languages which were spoken by people who, in Roman times, lived in the region of Northern Germany and Scandinavia. The modern-day languages that English is most closely related to are German, Dutch, Frisian, and Afrikaans.

The story of the origin of the English language goes like this. When Roman military control broke down in the 400s, Germanic tribes who lived in Denmark, northern Germany, and the southern parts of Norway and Sweden, took the opportunity to migrate and conquer new lands. Several of these tribes, including the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, migrated to the south-east of what is now England, where they probably interacted with the various Celtic peoples who already lived there. Some of these Celts were Christian, spoke Latin, and were to a greater or lesser extent culturally Roman, while others still kept their ancient Celtic languages, religions, and cultural practices. Out of this melting pot, during (very roughly) the period 400 CE – 700 CE, the earliest version of the English language was born.

In a way it’s a ironic that today’s English-speaking western world views itself as the cultural successor of ancient Rome, since in terms of our language, we are much more closely related to the northern barbarian tribes who battled the Romans for centuries, and eventually tore their empire apart.

Britain’s Prime Minister considers abolishing the slave trade, 1783-1806

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.

Saint Domingue [the French colony which would later become Haiti] was larger than any British colony, its soil was more fertile and less exhausted, hence its costs of [sugar] production were lower.

From the standpoint of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, this was the decisive factor. The age of the British sugar islands was over. The West Indian system [of producing sugar in plantations on island colonies in the Caribbean, using slave labour] was unprofitable, and the slave trade on which it rested, “instead of being advantageous to Great Britain… is the most destructive that can well be imagined to her interests.”

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European [sugar] market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade which would ruin Saint Domingue. If not international abolition, then British abolition. The French were so dependent on British slave traders that even a unilateral abolition by England would seriously dislocate the economy of the French colonies.

Pitt’s plan failed, for two reasons:

1. The importation of sugar from India, on the scale planned, was impossible owing to the high duties [import taxes] imposed on all sugar not the produce of the British West Indies.

2. The French, Dutch and Spaniards refused to abolish the slave trade.

It was not difficult to see the political motives behind Pitt’s cloak of humanitarianism. Gaston-Martin, the well-known French historian of the slave trade and the Caribbean colonies, accuses Pitt of aiming by propaganda to free the slaves, “in the name no doubt of humanity, but also to ruin French commerce”. As Ramsay had admitted: “We may confidently conclude that the African [slave] trade is more confined in its utility than is generally imagined and that of late years it has contributed more to the aggrandisement of our rivals than of our national wealth.”

When war broke out with France in 1793, expedition after expedition was sent unsuccessfully to capture the precious colony of Saint Domingue, first from the French, then [after the slaves of Saint Domingue carried out a successful rebellion and drove out the French] from the Negroes. Britain lost thousands of men and spent thousands of pounds in the attempt to capture Saint Domingue. She failed, but the world’s sugar bowl was destroyed in the process and French colonial superiority smashed forever.

Pitt could not have had Saint Domingue and abolition as well. Without its 40,000 slave imports a year, Saint Domingue might as well have been at the bottom of the sea. [The treatment of slaves in the Caribbean was so brutal that they usually only survived a few years, and unlike slaves in the American South they did not have children; therefore in order to keep the sugar plantations running it was necessary to continually import new slaves from West Africa.] The very acceptance of the island meant logically the end of Pitt’s interest in abolition. Naturally he did not say so. He had already committed himself too far in the eyes of the public. He continued to speak in favour of abolition, even while giving every practical encouragement to the slave trade. Thereafter Pitt’s support of parliamentary motions for the abolition of the slave trade became nothing short of perfunctory. Under Pitt’s administration the British slave trade alone more than doubled, and Britain conquered two more sugar colonies [worked by slaves], Trinidad and British Guiana.

– excerpted from the book ‘Slavery and Capitalism’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.

On the origin of our notion of the corporation

Legally, our notion of the corporation is very much a product of the European High Middle Ages. The legal idea of a corporation as a “fictive person” (persona ficta) – a person who, as Maitland, the great British legal historian, put it, “is immortal, who sues and is sued, who holds lands, has a seal of his own, who makes regulations for those natural persons of whom he is composed” – was first established in canon law by Pope Innocent IV in 1250 AD, and one of the first kinds of entities it applied to were monasteries – as also to universities, churches, municipalities, and guilds.

– From “Debt: the first 5000 years” by David Graeber, p304.

Pro-market but anti-capitalist

The Confucian state actively pro­moted markets, and as a result, commercial life in China soon became far more sophisticated, and markets more developed, than anywhere else in the world. This despite the fact that Confucian orthodoxy was overtly hostile to merchants and even the profit motive itself. Commercial profit was seen as legitimate only as compensation for the labor that merchants expended in transporting goods from one place to another, but never as fruits of speculation. What this meant in practice was that they were pro-market but anti-capitalist.

This seems bizarre, since we’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing, but as the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, they could be viewed as opposites. While markets are about using money as a medium to exchange goods, capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money.

– Exerpted/adapted from ‘Debt: the first 5000 years’ by David Graeber, p260

A Commercial Revolution in the Middle Ages

The following is an exerpt from ‘The Crucial Centuries: the Medieval Experience’ by Francis Oakley, 1979, p92-93.

A great leap forward in financial operations occured in the 12th and 13th centuries in Catholic western Europe. It was all the more striking in that it had to be made in the teeth of the church’s attempted prohibition as usurious of practically every type of loan made at interest; but, then, those teeth were blunted somewhat by the pressing fincancial needs of the papacy itself which could ill afford to examine too closely the procedures of the bankers, whose services it needed to shuttle funds from one part of Europe to another, to help it anticipate its revenues, and to extend it credit from time to time when it had to cope with mounting deficits. In any case, in their efforts to conceal the taking of direct interest, bankers and merchants alike resorted to a whole array of complicated strategems, and even for the most zealous of investigators the detection of the usurious amid the maze of contractual arrangements could not always have been an easy task.

A broad range of contractual arrangements had been developed by the 13th century and were in use throughout the Mediteranean world, though not necessarily in the northern trade. These contracts made possible not just a rational sharing of risk but the concentration of capital in the large amounts needed to fuel the ambitious commercial operations that Italian merchants were mounting with increasing frequency in the long-distance trade. Of these new contractual forms the commenda was probably the most important and did much to promote the rapid expansion of the maritime trade. A wealthy home-based lender undertook the financial risk of putting up the capital for a single, round-trip trading voyage and received the bulk of the profits.

By the 13th century it was possible to transfer increasingly large sums of money across Europe by means of letters of exchange and without undertaking the risk of moving actual coinage. It also became possible, at least in the Mediteranean world, to cut down the risks involved in maritime trade by purchasing insurances. By the end of the century, many Italian merchants had entered the business of commercial banking and a few were specialising in it, maintaining agents in the principal cities of Europe, receiving deposits at one place and paying out at another when their depositors asked them to do so, acting as financial agents for papal and royal governments alike, amassing enviable amounts of capital, making available the large-scale credit that big commercial operations needed, and, though at much higher risk, advancing the huge, high-interest loans upon which the realisation of royal ambitions increasingly depended.

The problem with the idea of science

The concept of science and its division into disciplines cannot be treated as unproblematic. Science and scholarship are themselves historically defined human enterprises, with a specific social function and background. An ancient body of knowledge may contain things rather different from our conception of science, and may be put to uses far removed from what seems proper for a scholarly subject in our eyes. The history of science has for a long time been satisfied with tracing the course of modern scientific ideas through the past. Now it is becoming clear that such an approach is very limited. It isolates those ancient ideas which ‘fit’ from ideas which cannot be related to ours. Moreover, ideas tend to be treated as more or less independent things, separate from the social context in which they functioned. The unreflected application of the modern concept of science necessarily distorts the relations between the data, putting together what was separate, and separating things that belong together.

– ‘Elementary education at Nippur. The lists of trees and wooden objects.’ by Nicolaas Christiaan Veldhuis, 1997, p138.

Some notes on Western Civilization

1. On being the heir to Rome

The Parthenon in Athens. Photo credit: Steve Swayne, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The western world prides itself on being the heir to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

It’s true that some parts of the world that we would not normally think of as being in the West – Russia and the Arab world, for example – have also been strongly influenced by classical Greco-Roman culture. Nevertheless, we feel, the western world is Rome’s true successor.

It’s hard to explain why. Perhaps, we believe, there is some unique essence of westernness which began in the ancient world, and which western Europe alone was heir to.

2. Fuzzily mapped

Pretty much everyone has a rough idea what “western civilization” means, even if we aren’t sure how to define it. It started in ancient Greece and Rome, with Plato and Aristotle. It is predominantly white and Christian, and its main language is English. It is associated with rationality, individualism, technological progress, democracy, and freedom, and it currently dominates the world.

And when people talk about “the west” or “the western world” we roughly know what that means. On a map it looks like this:

A world map with North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa coloured in red.
The western world. Image based on Blank Map of the World 6

which goes to show that “west” does not necessarily have anything to do with geography.

Perhaps “the west” really means western Europe, plus those parts of the world whose cultural origins lie in western Europe as a result of colonisation. Except for Mexico and all of South and Central America and the Caribbean. And Israel is culturally western but it isn’t in the west. Um.

“West” is a fuzzy concept.

3. On Europe, and the ancient Roman Empire, and how they were not the same place

The origins of western civilization are said to lie in ancient Greece and Rome, but the ancients themselves did not think they were “west”. They considered themselves to be right at the center of the world, straddling Europe and Asia. They even named their sea the Mediterannean, which means “center of the Earth”.

And the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are sometimes called “European”, but they weren’t, really.


Oriental Despotism

The theory of Oriental Despotism was created by western historians, and was a reflection of the colonial mindset; it negated Indianess, Indian nationalism, Indian culture and Indian people. Western historians even refused to accept that there was an Indian freedom struggle against the British colonialism and exploitation.

The focus of this theory is on India and China, the two major civilizations of the Orient. There were comments about “unchanging stagnant India”. Since India had been ruled by despots and tyrants, the uncivilized Indians were fit to be ruled with an iron had. It was held that there had been no change in Indian custom, laws and manners because Indians are indolent in both body and mind and hence prone to inaction.

Indian thought was depicted as symbolic and mythical rather than rational and logical. Anglicists argued that western knowledge in English should displace the Eastern.

Such ideological constructs were created to derive the legitimacy to impose tyrannical rule on India. The British administrator historians or the Anglicists as they were called, developed related theory of “Civilizing Mission”, “White Man’s Burden”, “Theory of Guardianship” etc.

– Om Prakash, “Negating the Colonial Construct of Oriental Despotism: The Science of Statecraft in Ancient India”, somewhat paraphrased.

The political world map of 1492, and myths

This post is an exerpt from ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p5,11-13.

If there were such a thing as a political globe for the year 1492 much of the world would have appeared as a pointilist canvas of tribal territories, often without fixed boundaries or with interpenetrating rights to the same stretches of land. There were small city-states and nations, deriving from tribal groups who had become sedentary. There were two great empires, dominating large slabs of territories, those of Ming China, and the Incas of Peru.

Two callow would-be empire-builders, seemingly far apart, would meet within a generation: the Castilians of Spain and the Aztecs of Mexico. Both were expanding states with tribal origins; both had quickly gained control over other peoples but had not absorbed them effectively. Of the two, Mexico was by far the larger. The Aztec capital – today’s Mexico City – held a quarter of a million people, and the total population under its control was some 20 million.

The British Isles had only 5 million people, Spain about eight. European political boundaries were essentially those which had resulted from barbarian migrations after the fall of Rome; the Franks had settled in France, the Germani in Germany, the Angles and Saxons in England, the Vandals and Visigoths in Spain. The last proper roads had been built by the Romans more than a thousand years before. The rapidly growing cities were unplanned, ramshackle, and seething with disease. If famine struck a region, the state was quite unable to provide relief. Life expectancy oscillated between the high teens and low thirties, lower than in the most deprived nations of today. The achievements of Europe were technological, not social. It had the best ships, the best steel, the best guns; it also had conditions desperate enough to make its people want to leave and use these things to plunder others. Spain, in particular, was scarcely touched by the Renaissance; 700 years of war against the Moors had produced a warrior culture filled with loathing and contempt for other ways of life, not a new spirit of inquiry. The reconquista of Iberia, which ended in 1492, would be the model for the conquista of America.

Why was America so overwhelmed by Europe that, unlike Asia and Africa, it has never been decolonized? Why are the modern countries of America not really American at all, but immitation Europes built on American soil? Why was America different? The short answer is disease. The Old World plagues killed at least half the populations of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations shortly before their overthrow. The great death raged for more than a century, and by 1600, less than a tenth of the original population remained. It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though God really was on the white man’s side.

* * *

I was told by Dehatkadons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Iroquois, “You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’ England.” That such an obvious point has eluded European consciousness for five centuries reveals that the history we have been taught is really myth.

Most history, when it has been digested by a people, becomes myth. Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns which resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so axiomatic, that they go unchallenged. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time. Those vanquished by our civilization see that its myth of discovery has transformed historical crimes into glittering icons. Yet from the West’s vantage point, the discovery myth is true.

The history of the other side is also mythic. But while the Western myths are triumphalist, those of the “losers” have to explain and overcome catastrophe. If the vanquished culture is to survive at all, its myths must provide it with a rugged terrain in which to resist the invader and do battle with his myths.

A description of a place

The two cities grew into one, but each had its own central square, temples, nobility, and royal palace. Tenochtitlan’s great plaza, measuring more than a quarter of a mile on each side, held some eighty shrines; Tlatelolco’s was almost as big, but much of it was taken up by a marketplace. One was the political hub of the empire, the other its commercial core. Each ceremonial center was dominated by massive flat-topped pyramids supporting dual temples to the gods of war and water. Near these was a great stone court for playing tlatchli, a sacred ball game in which teams enacted the eternal struggle between night and day. Though a rite as much as a sport, the game attracted heavy betting from the rich. Beyond the squares were two-story stone houses of nobles, priests, and wealthy merchants, then thousands of single-story houses belonging to artisans, soldiers, and farmers. The buildings had flat roofs and were painted with bold murals. The were also schools, ateliers, shops with hanging signs, and public lavatories. Unlike European cities of the day, Mexico was clean: wastes were hauled away by barge and composted for fertilizer; a thousand men swept and washed the streets each day. Refined Aztecs, who bathed daily, found it advisable to hold flowers to their noses when they met Europeans, who made a point of being filthy. (Spaniards considered bathing an infidel Moorish custom; to be too clean was to risk the attentions of the Inquisition.)

Most of Mexico’s streets were canals, laid out on a grid. Three great causeways with drawbridges ran north, west, and south to the mainland, an aqueduct brought drinking water from mountain springs, and a long dike kept out the briny waters to the east. The Spaniards called Mexico “another Venice.” The Aztecs, like many American peoples, conceived of their world as a great island; their capital, by both chance and design, was a microcosm of the whole.

– From ‘Stolen continents: conquest and resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p20-21.

How Samuel Morse invented the telegraph

A diagram representing a telegraph machine.
Image from the US patent ‘Improvement in electro-magnetic telegraphs US RE118 E’ Jun 13, 1848, of S. F. B. Morse, available at http://www.google.com/patents/USRE118?dq=re118

On a ship voyage not long before, he had overheard one passenger discuss some of the ways electricity was being used for such long-distance contacts. It was pretty well known. Joseph Henry was teaching at the College of New Jersey (soon to be renamed Princeton University) by then, and some of his work had been publicized. There also had been similar trials in Europe…

After struggling to make a telegraph of his own work efficiently, Morse almost gave up in frustration. He was certain there had to be an easier way, so he decided to get help from someone who actually knew how these mysterious electrical substances operated and could explain it to him.

Which is how, probably on a spring day in 1838, Joseph Henry found a surprisingly impassioned ex-painter at the door of his Princeton office.

… Henry had often declared that patents were the sort of thing that had held Europe back. He happily explained to Morse how the system worked – the batteries and the electromagnet and the spools of wire. In America, a young and growing country, it was right and proper, Henry believed, for all good citizens to share what they learned.

It took Morse several years – and judicious financial involvement with key members of congress – before he secured enough government funds to actually build a large, working prototype of his telegraph device. In its first week of commercial operation in 1844, connecting Washington with Baltimore, it took in just thirteen and a half cents in paid traffic, but in the next year an expanded line was taking in over a hundred dollars each week, and within a decade Morse was one of the wealthier men in North America.

Did it matter that he had largely stolen the idea for his invention? Telegraphs were already operating in England and Germany, and in America other inventors were close behind them. Someone else would no doubt have helped jump-start the American system if Morse hadn’t done it.

Although divine justice didn’t keep Morse from earthly riches, it did strike in another way. Joseph Henry had a satisfying life, at ease with his students and respected by his peers. Morse, however, having engaged in so much subterfuge, spent much of the next three decades stuck in litigation trying to defend the patents he’d railroaded through in his name.

– From ‘Electric Universe: how electricity switched on the modern world’ by David Bodanis, p21-24

Slavery in Britain in ancient times

In ancient times slavery was a common feature of life in many parts of the world, including the British Isles. People became slaves through being taken captive in war or by slave-raiding parties, or as punishment for crimes, or they sold their children into slavery or became slaves themselves if they could not afford to pay a fine or a debt.

A trade in slaves existed in the British Isles even before the Roman conquest. Slavery continued after the fall of the Roman Empire and into the medieval period; according to the Domesday of 1086 roughly 10% of the population of England were slaves, although slavery was already in the process of being phased out at that time.

In 1066 the enslavement of Christians was abolished, and over time slavery was replaced by serfdom. Unlike slaves, serfs were tied to the land, and could not be bought or sold unless the land itself was sold.

Reference: Wikipedia: Slavery in the British Isles

Eurocentric history of science

This text is based on the chapter ‘Eurocentrism’ of the book ‘Science a four thousand year history’ by Patricia Fara. The images are from Wikipedia.

From the time of the Renaissance onward, because Europeans were politically and financially powerful, they placed themselves at the centre of everything, and wrote accounts of the past that confirmed their supposed superiority. In wishful thinking versions of the past, science leads to Absolute Truth – and moreover, it started in Europe. Classical revivalists located the cradle of European civilization in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle (and they ignored the fact that even the cultural achievements of ancient Athens were themselves built upon knowledge developed in still older civilizations of Sumeria and Egypt). Artists, scholars, and politicians imbued this small and remote city-state with the quasi-mythical aura of a bygone golden age, linking themselves directly to ancient Greece, and dissociating themselves from everything in between.

Black and white printed Chinese text with a Buddha-like figure in the centre, surrounded by attendants.Frontispiece to the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty of China, i.e. 868 CE. It is the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.

The Eurocentric interpretation of history ignored the so-called Dark Ages, a vaguely-defined period which ran roughly from 400 CE to 1400 CE. For both China and the Islamic civilization this was a period of technical innovation and economic growth, yet by ingeniously eradicating a millennium, historians made it seem that the torch of scientific knowledge had been handed on directly from ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe.

A page from a medieval European bibleThe first page from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455 CE. It was the first major book printed with movable type in the West.

For example, from a Eurocentric perspective, Venice appears to be the site of many innovations. However, because it traded both eastwards and westwards, the city imported and then modified techniques that had originated in China, India, or the Islamic civilization. These included not only practical devices, such as improvements in navigation, but also more effective methods of marketing and accounting. Western Europeans boasted about a famous trilogy of Renaissance inventions – printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass. In reality, all three had been invented centuries earlier in China.