فصل 37

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فصل 37

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Thanks to railways and steamships the world became much smaller. To set off across the seas for India or China was no longer a perilous adventure into the unknown, and America was almost next door. And so from 1800 onwards it is even less possible to see the history of the world as only that of Europe. We must take a look beyond our frontiers at Europe’s new neighbours, and in particular at China, Japan and America. Before 1800, China was still in many ways the same country it had been at the time of the rulers of the Han family at around the time of the birth of Christ, and at the time of China’s great poets, eight hundred years later. It was a mighty, orderly, proud, densely populated and largely peaceful land, inhabited by hardworking peasants and citizens, great scholars, poets and thinkers. The unrest, the religious wars and the endless disturbances which troubled Europe during those years would have seemed alien, barbaric and inconceivable to the Chinese. True, they were now ruled by foreign emperors who made men wear their hair in a plait, as a sign of their submission. But since their invasion, this family of rulers from inner Asia, the

Manchus, had adopted Chinese ways and had learnt and absorbed the guiding principles of Confucius. So the empire flourished.

On occasion, learned Jesuits came to China to preach Christianity. They were usually received with courtesy, for the emperor of China wanted them to teach him about Western sciences, and about astronomy in particular. European merchants took home porcelain from China. People everywhere tried to match its exquisite fineness and delicacy. But it took centuries of experimenting before they could do so. In how many ways the Chinese empire, with its many, many millions of cultivated citizens, was superior to Europe you can see from a letter sent by the emperor of China to the king of England in 1793. The English had asked for permission to send an ambassador to the Chinese court, and to engage in trade with China. The emperor Ch’ien-Lung, a famous scholar and an able ruler, sent this reply:

You, O king, live far away across many seas. Yet, driven by the humble desire to share in the blessings of our culture, you have sent a delegation, which respectfully submitted your letter. You assure us that it is your veneration for our celestial ruling family that fills you with the desire to adopt our culture, and yet the difference between our customs and moral laws and your own is so profound that, were your envoy even capable of absorbing the basic principles of our culture, our customs and traditions could never grow in your soil. Were he the most diligent student, his efforts would still be vain.

Ruling over the vast world, I have but one end in view, and it is this: to govern to perfection and to fulfil the duties of the state. Rare and costly objects are of no interest to me. I have no use for your country’s goods. Our Celestial Kingdom possesses all things in abundance and wants for nothing within its frontiers. Hence there is no need to bring in the wares of foreign barbarians to exchange for our own products. But since tea, silk and porcelain, products of the Celestial Kingdom, are absolute necessities for the peoples of Europe and for you yourself, the limited trade hitherto permitted in my province of Canton will continue. Mindful of the distant loneliness of your island, separated from the world by desert wastes of sea, I pardon your understandable ignorance of the customs of the Celestial Kingdom. Tremble at my orders and obey.

So that was what the emperor of China had to say to the king of the little island of Britain. But he had underestimated the barbarity of the inhabitants of that distant island, a barbarity which they demonstrated several decades later when they arrived in their steamships. They were no longer prepared to put up with the limited trade allowed them in the province of Canton, and they had found a ware that the Chinese people liked all too well: a poison ­ and a deadly one at that. When opium is burnt and the smoke is inhaled, for a short time it gives you sweet dreams. But it makes you dreadfully ill. Anyone who takes up smoking opium can never give it up. It is a little like drinking brandy, but far more dangerous. And it was this that the British wanted to sell to the Chinese in vast quantities. The Chinese authorities saw how dangerous it would be for their people, and in 1839 they took vigorous action to stamp out the trade.

So the British returned in their steamships, this time armed with cannons. They steamed up the Chinese rivers and fired on peaceful towns, reducing beautiful palaces to dust and ashes. Shocked and bewildered, the Chinese were powerless to stop them and had to give in to the demands of the big-nosed foreign devils: they had to pay a huge sum of money and open their ports to foreign trade. Soon afterwards, a rebellion broke out in China, known as the Taiping ­ or great peace ­ Rebellion, begun by a man who proclaimed himself Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace. At first the Europeans supported him, but when the port of Shanghai was threatened, they fought alongside the imperial troops to protect their trade and the rebels were defeated.

The Europeans were determined to expand their trading activities, and set up embassies in China’s capital, Peking. But the imperial government would not allow it. And so, in 1860, British and French troops together forced their way northwards, bombarding towns and humiliating their governors. When they reached Peking, the emperor had fled. In revenge for Chinese resistance, the British sacked, looted and burned the beautiful and ancient imperial Summer Palace, together with all its magnificent works of art dating back to the earliest days of the empire. Wrecked, and in a state of utter confusion, the vast and peaceful thousand-year-old empire was forced to bow to the demands of Europe’s merchants. This was China’s reward for teaching Europeans the art of making paper, the use of the compass, and ­ regrettably ­ how to make gunpowder.

During these years the island empire of Japan might easily have suffered the same fate. Japan at this time was much like Europe in the Middle Ages. Actual power was in the hands of noblemen and knights, in particular those of the distinguished family which looked after the emperor ­ not unlike the way the ancestors of Charles the Great had looked after the Merovingian kings. Painting pictures, building houses and writing poetry were all things the Japanese had learnt hundreds of years before from the Chinese, and they also knew how to make many beautiful things themselves. But Japan was not an orderly, vast and largely peaceful country like China. For years powerful noblemen from the various districts and islands had fought each other in chivalrous feuds. In 1850 the poorer ones among them joined together to seize power from the great rulers of the kingdom. Would you like to know how they did it? They enlisted the help of the emperor, a powerless puppet who was forced to spend several hours each day just sitting on the throne. Those impoverished noblemen rose up against the great landowners in the emperor’s name, claiming that they would give him back the power Japan’s emperors were said to have had, way back in the mists of antiquity.

All this was happening at about the time when European envoys first returned to Japan, a land forbidden to foreigners for more than two hundred years. To these white-skinned ambassadors, life in Japanese cities ­ with their millions of inhabitants, the houses made of paper and bamboo, the ornamental gardens and pretty ladies with their hair piled high upon their heads, the bright temple-banners, the rigid formality, and the solemn and lordly manner of the sword-bearing knights ­ was all delightfully comical. In their filthy outdoor boots they trampled over the priceless mats of the palace floor where the Japanese only trod barefoot. They saw no reason to respect any of the ancient customs of a people they thought of as savages, when exchanging greetings with them or drinking tea. So they were soon detested. When a party of American travellers failed to stand aside politely, as was the custom, when an important prince happened to pass by in his sedan chair, together with his entourage, the enraged attendants fell on the Americans and a woman was killed. Of course, straight away British gunships bombarded the town, and the Japanese feared they were about to suffer the same fate as the Chinese. Fortunately, the rebellion had meanwhile been successful. The emperor ­ known in Europe as the Mikado ­ now really did have unlimited power. Backed by clever advisers who were never seen in public, he decided to use it to protect the country against arrogant foreigners for all time. The ancient culture must be preserved. All they needed was to learn Europe’s latest inventions. And so, all at once, the doors were thrown open to foreigners.

The emperor commissioned German officers to create a modern army, and Englishmen to build a modern fleet. He sent Japanese to Europe to study Western medicine and to find out about all the other branches of Western knowledge which had made Europe so powerful. Following the example of the Germans he established compulsory education, so that his people would be trained to fight. The Europeans were delighted. What sensible little people the Japanese had turned out to be, opening up their country in this way. They made haste to sell them everything they wanted and showed them everything they asked to see. Within a few decades the Japanese had learnt all that Europe could teach them about machines for war and for peace. And once they had done so, they complimented the Europeans politely, as they once more stood at their gates: ‘Now we know what you know. Now our steamships will go out in search of trade and conquest, and our cannons will fire on peaceful cities if anyone in them dares harm a Japanese citizen.’ The Europeans couldn’t get over it, nor have they, even today. For the Japanese turned out to be the best students in all the history of the world.

While Japan was beginning to liberate itself, very important things were also happening across the seas in America. As you remember, the English trading posts which had grown into coastal cities on America’s eastern seaboard had declared their independence from England in 1776 in order to found a confederation of free states. British and Spanish settlers had meanwhile pressed on towards the west, fighting Indian tribes as they went. You must have read books about cowboys and Indians, so you’ll know what it was like. How farmers built log cabins and cleared the dense forest and how they fought. How cowboys looked after enormous herds of cattle and how the Wild West was settled by adventurers and gold diggers. New states sprang up everywhere on land taken from the tribes, although, as you can imagine, not much of that land had been cultivated. But the states were all very different from each other. Those in southern, tropical regions lived off great plantations where cotton or sugar cane was cultivated on a gigantic scale. The settlers owned vast tracts of land and the work was done by negro slaves bought in Africa. They were very badly treated.

Further north it was different. It is less hot and the climate is more like our own. So there you found farms and towns, not unlike those the British emigrants had left behind them, only on a much larger scale. They didn’t need slaves because it was easier and cheaper to do the work themselves. And so the townsfolk of the northern states, who were mostly pious Christians, thought it shameful that the Confederation, founded in accordance with the principles of human rights, should keep slaves as people had in pagan antiquity. The southern states explained that they needed negro slaves because without them they would be ruined. No white man, they said, could endure working in such heat and, in any case, negroes weren’t born to be free . . . and so on and so forth. In 1820 a compromise was reached. The states which lay to the south of an agreed line would keep slaves, those to the north would not.

In the long run, however, the shame of an economy based on slave labour was intolerable. And yet it seemed that little could be done. The southern states, with their huge plantations, were far stronger and richer than the northern farm lands and were determined not to give in at any cost. But they met their match in President Abraham Lincoln. He was a man with no ordinary destiny. He grew up as a simple farm boy in the backwoods, fought in 1832 in a war against an Indian chief called Black Hawk, and became the postmaster of a small town. There in his spare time he studied law, before becoming a lawyer and a member of parliament. As such he fought against slavery and made himself thoroughly hated by the plantation owners of the southern states. Despite this, he was elected president in 1861. The southern states immediately declared themselves independent of the United States, and founded their own Confederation of slave states.

Seventy-five thousand volunteers made themselves available to Lincoln straight away. Despite this, the outlook was very bad for the northerners. Britain, which had abolished and condemned slave labour in its own colonies for several decades, was nevertheless supporting the slave states. There was a frightful and bloody civil war. Yet, in the end, the northerners’ bravery and tenacity prevailed, and in 1865 Lincoln was able to enter the capital of the southern states to the cheers of liberated slaves. Eleven days later, while at the theatre, he was murdered by a southerner. But his work was done. The reunited, free, United States of America soon became the richest and most powerful country in the world. And it even seems to manage without slaves.

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