فصل 27

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فصل 27

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What until now we have called the history of the world is in fact the history of no more than half the world. Most of the events took place around the Mediterranean ­ in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Or not far from there: in Germany, France and England. We have cast the odd glance eastwards, towards China’s welldefended empire, and towards India, which, during the period that now concerns us, was ruled by a Muslim royal family. But we haven’t bothered with what lies to the west of old Europe, beyond Britain. No one bothered with it. A handful of northern seafarers on their raids once glimpsed an inhospitable land, far out in the west, but they soon turned back, for there was nothing there worth taking. Intrepid mariners like the Vikings were few, and in any case, who would dare set out across the unknown, and possibly neverending ocean, leaving behind them the coasts of England, France and Spain? This hazardous enterprise only became possible with a new invention. This, too ­ and I nearly added ‘of course’! ­ came from China. It was the discovery that a piece of magnetised iron hanging freely always turns towards the north. You will have guessed what it is: a compass. The Chinese had long used compasses in their journeys across deserts, and now news of this magical instrument leaked out via the Arabs and eventually reached Europe during the Crusades, in about 1200. But at that time the compass was rarely used. People were puzzled and frightened by it. But gradually their fear gave way to curiosity ­ and something more than curiosity. For in those far-off lands there might be treasures, undiscovered riches there for the taking. Yet no one dared set out across the western ocean. It was too immense and too unknown. And what might lie on the other side? It so happened that a penniless but adventurous and ambitious Italian from Genoa, called Columbus, who had spent much time poring over ancient books of geography, was obsessed with this idea. Where indeed might you end up if you kept on sailing westwards? Why, you would end up in the east! For wasn’t the earth round, shaped like a sphere? It said so in several of the writings of antiquity. And if by sailing westwards you went half way round the world and then landed in the east, you would be in China, in the fabulous Indies, lands rich in gold and ivory and rare spices. And, with the help of a compass, how much simpler it would be to sail across the ocean than to make a long and arduous journey across deserts and over fearsome mountain ranges as Alexander had once done, and as the trading caravans still did when they brought silks from China to Europe. With this new route, thought Columbus, the Indies were only days away, rather than months by land. Everywhere he went he told people about his plan, but they just laughed and called him a fool. Still he persisted: ‘Give me ships! Give me just one ship and I’ll bring you gold from the fabulous east!’

He turned to Spain. There, in 1479, the rulers of two Christian kingdoms had been united by marriage and were engaged in a merciless campaign to expel the Arabs ­ who, as you know, had ruled in Spain for more than seven hundred years ­ not only from their wonderful capital, Granada, but from their kingdom altogether. Neither the royal court of Portugal nor that of Spain showed much enthusiasm for Columbus’s plan, but it was put to the learned men and mariners of the famous University of Salamanca for their consideration. After four more years of desperate waiting and pleading, Columbus learned that the university had rejected his plan. He resolved to leave Spain and try his luck in France. On the way he chanced to meet a monk who was none other than the confessor of Queen Isabella of Castile. Fired with enthusiasm for Columbus’s project, the monk persuaded the queen to grant him a second audience. But Columbus nearly spoiled it all again. The reward he demanded, if his plan were to succeed, was no small thing: he was to be knighted, appointed Grand Admiral and Viceroy (king’s representative) of all the lands he discovered, and he would keep a tenth of all taxes levied there, and more besides. When the monarchs turned down his request he left Spain immediately for France. If he discovered any lands, these would now belong to the French king. This frightened Spain. The monarchs gave in and Columbus was recalled. All his demands were met. He was given two sailing ships in poor condition ­ it would be no great loss if they sank. And he rented a third himself.

And so he set sail across the ocean towards the west, on and on, always westwards, determined to reach the East Indies. He had left Spain on 3 August 1492 and was delayed for a long time on an island repairing one of his ships. Then on they went again, further and further towards the west. But still no sight of the Indies! His men grew restless. Their impatience turned to despair and they wanted to turn back. Rather than tell them how far they were from home, Columbus lied to them. At last, on 11 October 1492, at two o’clock in the morning, a cannon fired from one of the ships signalled ‘Land ahoy!’

Columbus was filled with pride and joy. The Indies at last! The friendly people on the shore must be Indians, or, as the Spanish sailors called them, ‘Indios!’ Now, of course, you know that he was wrong. Columbus was nowhere near India, but on an island off America. Thanks to his mistake we still call the original inhabitants of America ‘Indians’ and the islands where Columbus landed the ‘West Indies’. The real India (or East Indies) was still an The great sea voyage that Columbus undertook was rather short if you compare it with the journey he had intended to make. The best way to compare the two is by looking at the globe from the north pole outwards.

interminable distance away. Much further than Spain was behind them. Columbus would have needed to sail on for at least another two months, and it is likely that he would have perished miserably with all his men and never reached his goal. But at the time he thought he was in the Indies, so he took possession of the island in the name of the Spanish Crown. During his later voyages he continued to maintain that the lands he had discovered were the Indies. He couldn’t bring himself to admit that his grand idea was a mistake, that the earth was much bigger than he had imagined. The land route to the Indies was far shorter than the voyage across the whole of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. He could only think of being Viceroy of the Indies, the lands of his dreams.

You may know that it is from this date, 1492 ­ the year in which that fanciful adventurer Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered America only because it was in his way, as it were ­ that the Modern Age is said to begin. The date chosen to mark the beginning of the Middle Ages, 467, might seem a more obvious choice. For that was the year when the Roman Empire of the West fell, together with its last emperor ­ the one with the curious name: Romulus Augustulus. But in 1492 absolutely no one, not even Columbus, had any idea that this voyage might mean more than a new source of gold from unknown lands.

Of course, on his return Columbus was given a hero’s welcome, but during his later voyages his pride and his ambition, his greed and his wild imaginings made him so unpopular that the king had his own viceroy and admiral arrested and brought home from the West Indies in chains. Columbus kept those chains for the rest of his life, even after he was returned to royal favour, honour and riches. It was an insult he could neither forget nor forgive.

The first Spanish ships carrying Columbus and his companions had discovered only islands, whose simple and good-natured inhabitants had little to offer them. All that interested the Spanish adventurers was the source of the gold rings that some of them wore through their noses. The islanders gestured towards the west, and so America was discovered. For the Spaniards were actually in search of the fabled land of Eldorado. Convinced of its existence, they had visions of whole cities roofed with gold. These conquistadores, as they were called, who left Spain in search of new lands to conquer for their king and to enrich themselves with loot, were rough fellows, little better than pirates. Driven by their insatiable greed into ever more crazy adventures, they exploited and deceived the natives at every turn. Nothing could deter them and no means

were too foul wherever gold was concerned. They were indescribably brave and indescribably cruel. And the saddest thing of all is that, not only did these men call themselves Christians, but they always maintained that all the atrocities they committed against heathens were done for Christendom.

One conqueror in particular, a former student of law named Hernando Cortez, was possessed by the wildest ambition. He wanted to march deep into the heart of the country and seize all its legendary treasures. In 1519 he left the coast at the head of 150 Spanish soldiers, thirteen horsemen and a few cannons. The Indians had never seen a white man before. Nor had they seen a horse. Horrified by the cannons, they were convinced that the Spanish bandits were powerful magicians, or even gods. Still, they made many brave attempts to defend themselves, attacking the soldiers by day as they marched and in their camp at night. But from the outset Cortez took terrible revenge, setting fire to villages and killing Indians in their thousands.

Before long, messengers came from a mighty king whose country lay further inland. They begged him to turn back and gave him magnificent gifts of gold and feathers of many colours. But the gifts only served to increase his curiosity and his greed. So on he marched, enduring unimaginable hardships, and forcing many Indians into his army as great conquerors had always done. At last he came to the kingdom of the mighty king who had sent the messengers with their gifts. The king’s name was Montezuma, and his land was called Mexico, as was its capital city. Montezuma waited respectfully for Cortez and his small force outside the city, which stood on an island at the centre of a great chain of lakes. The Spaniards were astonished when they were led across a long causeway into the city and saw the splendour, beauty and might of this great capital that was as big as any city in Europe. It had wide, straight streets and a great number of canals and bridges. And there were many squares and great marketplaces to which tens of thousands of people came each day to buy and sell.

In his report to the king of Spain Cortez wrote: ‘Here they trade in all kinds of merchandise: in foodstuffs and in jewellery made of gold, silver, pewter, brass, bone, mussel and lobster shell and feathers, in cut and uncut gems, in lime and brick, in timber, both rough and prepared . . .’ In some streets, he says, they sell nothing but birds and animals of all kinds, while in others they sell infinite varieties of plants. He talks of pharmacies and barbers’ shops, bakeries and inns, merchants selling rare garden plants and fruits, utensils and pigments for painting, and how, in the marketplace, three judges always sat, ready to settle any dispute as it arose. And he describes the city’s monumental temples, each in itself as big as a town, with their tall towers and brightly decorated rooms covered in huge and terrifying depictions of gods to whom dreadful human sacrifices were made.

He was particularly impressed by Montezuma’s royal palace. Spain, he said, had nothing to compare with it. This palace was several storeys high, raised on pillars faced with jasper, its vast halls enjoying views as far as the eye could see. Beneath it stretched a fine park, with bird-ponds and a great zoo in which all sorts of wild animals were caged. Montezuma was attended by a sumptuous court of high-ranking officials who showed him the greatest deference. He changed his dress four times a day, always appearing in new and different robes never to be worn again. One approached him with one’s head bowed, and when he was carried through the streets of Mexico in a sedan chair, the people had to throw themselves to the ground before him and must never be seen to look upon his face.

Cortez used guile to trap this mighty sovereign. As if paralysed by their disrespect and insolence, Montezuma didn’t lift a finger against the white intruders. For according to an ancient saying, white gods, sons of the sun, would one day come from the east to take possession of Mexico, and Montezuma believed the Spaniards to be these gods. In fact they behaved more like white devils. They took advantage of a ceremony in a temple to attack and kill all the Mexican nobility, knowing that they would be unarmed. In the ensuing revolt Cortez forced Montezuma to appeal to the angry crowds from the palace roof. But the people ignored him. They hurled stones at their own king, and Montezuma fell, mortally wounded. In the carnage that followed, Cortez demonstrated his true courage. For, by some miracle, his little band of Spaniards fled the town in all its uproar and, carrying the sick and wounded, made their way back to the coast through that hostile land. Of course, he soon returned with fresh troops and they burned and destroyed the whole of that magnificent city. And that was only the beginning. There and in other parts of America the Spaniards proceeded to exterminate the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.

Meanwhile the Portuguese had discovered the true sea route to the Indies, where their behaviour was little better than that of the Spaniards. All the wisdom of ancient India meant nothing to them. They too wanted gold, and nothing else would do. In the end, so much gold reached Europe from India and America that burghers grew richer and richer as knights and landowners grew poorer and poorer. And because all the ships sailed out westwards and returned from the west, it was Europe’s western ports that benefited most and grew in power and importance. Not only those of Spain and Portugal, but the ports of France and England and Holland as well. However, Germany played no part in these overseas conquests. For they had far too many problems to deal with at home.

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