پیوند علم و امپراطوری

کتاب: انسان خردمند / فصل 15

پیوند علم و امپراطوری

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15 - The Marriage of Science and Empire

HOW FAR IS THE SUN FROM THE EARTH? It’s a question that intrigued many early modern astronomers, particularly after Copernicus argued that the sun, rather than the earth, is located at the centre of the universe. A number of astronomers and mathematicians tried to calculate the distance, but their methods provided widely varying results. A reliable means of making the measurement was finally proposed in the middle of the eighteenth century. Every few years, the planet Venus passes directly between the sun and the earth. The duration of the transit differs when seen from distant points on the earths surface because of the tiny difference in the angle at which the observer sees it. If several observations of the same transit were made from different continents, simple trigonometry was all it would take to calculate our exact distance from the sun.

Astronomers predicted that the next Venus transits would occur in 1761 and 1769. So expeditions were sent from Europe to the four corners of the world in order to observe the transits from as many distant points as possible. In 1761 scientists observed the transit from Siberia, North America, Madagascar and South Africa. As the 1769 transit approached, the European scientific community mounted a supreme effort, and scientists were dispatched as far as northern Canada and California (which was then a wilderness). The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge concluded that this was not enough. To obtain the most accurate results it was imperative to send an astronomer all the way to the south-western Pacific Ocean.

The Royal Society resolved to send an eminent astronomer, Charles Green, to Tahiti, and spared neither effort nor money. But, since it was funding such an expensive expedition, it hardly made sense to use it to make just a single astronomical observation. Green was therefore accompanied by a team of eight other scientists from several disciplines, headed by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. The team also included artists assigned to produce drawings of the new lands, plants, animals and peoples that the scientists would no doubt encounter. Equipped with the most advanced scientific instruments that Banks and the Royal Society could buy, the expedition was placed under the command of Captain James Cook, an experienced seaman as well as an accomplished geographer and ethnographer.

The expedition left England in 1768, observed the Venus transit from Tahiti in 1769, reconnoitred several Pacific islands, visited Australia and New Zealand, and returned to England in 1771. It brought back enormous quantities of astronomical, geographical, meteorological, botanical, zoological and anthropological data. Its findings made major contributions to a number of disciplines, sparked the imagination of Europeans with astonishing tales of the South Pacific, and inspired future generations of naturalists and astronomers.

One of the fields that benefited from the Cook expedition was medicine. At the time, ships that set sail to distant shores knew that more than half their crew members would die on the journey. The nemesis was not angry natives, enemy warships or homesickness. It was a mysterious ailment called scurvy. Men who came down with the disease grew lethargic and depressed, and their gums and other soft tissues bled. As the disease progressed, their teeth fell out, open sores appeared and they grew feverish, jaundiced, and lost control of their limbs. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, scurvy is estimated to have claimed the lives of about 2 million sailors. No one knew what caused it, and no matter what remedy was tried, sailors continued to die in droves. The turning point came in 1747, when a British physician, James Lind, conducted a controlled experiment on sailors who suffered from the disease. He separated them into several groups and gave each group a different treatment. One of the test groups was instructed to eat citrus fruits, a common folk remedy for scurvy. The patients in this group promptly recovered. Lind did not know what the citrus fruits had that the sailors’ bodies lacked, but we now know that it is vitamin C. A typical shipboard diet at that time was notably lacking in foods that are rich in this essential nutrient. On long-range voyages sailors usually subsisted on biscuits and beef jerky, and ate almost no fruits or vegetables.

The Royal Navy was not convinced by Lind’s experiments, but James Cook was. He resolved to prove the doctor right. He loaded his boat with a large quantity of sauerkraut and ordered his sailors to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables whenever the expedition made landfall. Cook did not lose a single sailor to scurvy. In the following decades, all the world’s navies adopted Cook’s nautical diet, and the lives of countless sailors and passengers were saved.1

However, the Cook expedition had another, far less benign result. Cook was not only an experienced seaman and geographer, but also a naval officer. The Royal Society financed a large part of the expedition’s expenses, but the ship itself was provided by the Royal Navy. The navy also seconded eighty-five well-armed sailors and marines, and equipped the ship with artillery, muskets, gunpowder and other weaponry. Much of the information collected by the expedition particularly the astronomical, geographical, meteorological and anthropological data – was of obvious political and military value. The discovery of an effective treatment for scurvy greatly contributed to British control of the world’s oceans and its ability to send armies to the other side of the world. Cook claimed for Britain many of the islands and lands he ‘discovered’, most notably Australia. The Cook expedition laid the foundation for the British occupation of the south-western Pacific Ocean; for the conquest of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand; for the settlement of millions of Europeans in the new colonies; and for the extermination of their native cultures and most of their native populations.2 In the century following the Cook expedition, the most fertile lands of Australia and New Zealand were taken from their previous inhabitants by European settlers. The native population dropped by up to 90 per cent and the survivors were subjected to a harsh regime of racial oppression. For the Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand, the Cook expedition was the beginning of a catastrophe from which they have never recovered.

An even worse fate befell the natives of Tasmania. Having survived for 10,000 years in splendid isolation, they were completely wiped out, to the last man, woman and child, within a century of Cook’s arrival. European settlers first drove them off the richest parts of the island, and then, coveting even the remaining wilderness, hunted them down and killed them systematically. The few survivors were hounded into an evangelical concentration camp, where well-meaning but not particularly open-minded missionaries tried to indoctrinate them in the ways of the modern world. The Tasmanians were instructed in reading and writing, Christianity and various ‘productive skills’ such as sewing clothes and farming. But they refused to learn. They became ever more melancholic, stopped having children, lost all interest in life, and finally chose the only escape route from the modern world of science and progress – death.

Alas, science and progress pursued them even to the afterlife. The corpses of the last Tasmanians were seized in the name of science by anthropologists and curators. They were dissected, weighed and measured, and analysed in learned articles. The skulls and skeletons were then put on display in museums and anthropological collections. Only in 1976 did the Tasmanian Museum give up for burial the skeleton of Truganini, the last native Tasmanian, who had died a hundred years earlier. The English Royal College of Surgeons held on to samples of her skin and hair until 2002.

Was Cook’s ship a scientific expedition protected by a military force or a military expedition with a few scientists tagging along? That’s like asking whether your petrol tank is half empty or half full. It was both. The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable. People such as Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks could hardly distinguish science from empire. Nor could luckless Truganini.

Why Europe?

The fact that people from a large island in the northern Atlantic conquered a large island south of Australia is one of history’s more bizarre occurrences. Not long before Cook’s expedition, the British Isles and western Europe in general were but distant backwaters of the Mediterranean world. Little of importance ever happened there. Even the Roman Empire – the only important premodern European empire – derived most of its wealth from its North African, Balkan and Middle Eastern provinces. Rome’s western European provinces were a poor Wild West, which contributed little aside from minerals and slaves. Northern Europe was so desolate and barbarous that it wasn’t even worth conquering.

Only at the end of the fifteenth century did Europe become a hothouse of important military, political, economic and cultural developments. Between 1500 and 1750, western Europe gained momentum and became master of the ‘Outer World’, meaning the two American continents and the oceans. Yet even then Europe was no match for the great powers of Asia. Europeans managed to conquer America and gain supremacy at sea mainly because the Asiatic powers showed little interest in them. The early modern era was a golden age for the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Mughal Empire in India, and the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. They expanded their territories significantly and enjoyed unprecedented demographic and economic growth. In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production. In comparison, Europe was an economic dwarf.3 The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the worlds economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas Chinas portion had been reduced to 5 per cent.4 Under the European aegis a new global order and global culture emerged. Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste. They may be fiercely anti-European in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes, and listens to music written in European modes with words in European languages. Even today’s burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance.

How did the people of this frigid finger of Eurasia manage to break out of their remote corner of the globe and conquer the entire world? Europe’s scientists are often given much of the credit. It’s unquestionable that from 1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military–industrial–scientific complex and technological wizardry. All successful late modern empires cultivated scientific research in the hope of harvesting technological innovations, and many scientists spent most of their time working on arms, medicines and machines for their imperial masters. A common saying among European soldiers facing African enemies was, ‘Come what may, we have machine guns, and they don’t.’ Civilian technologies were no less important. Canned food fed soldiers, railroads and steamships transported soldiers and their provisions, while a new arsenal of medicines cured soldiers, sailors and locomotive engineers. These logistical advances played a more significant role in the European conquest of Africa than did the machine gun.

But that wasn’t the case before 1850. The military-industrial-scientific complex was still in its infancy; the technological fruits of the Scientific Revolution were unripe; and the technological gap between European, Asiatic and African powers was small. In 1770, James Cook certainly had far better technology than the Australian Aborigines, but so did the Chinese and the Ottomans. Why then was Australia explored and colonised by Captain James Cook and not by Captain Wan Zhengse or Captain Hussein Pasha? More importantly, if in 1770 Europeans had no significant technological advantage over Muslims, Indians and Chinese, how did they manage in the following century to open such a gap between themselves and the rest of the world?

Why did the military-industrial-scientific complex blossom in Europe rather than India? When Britain leaped forward, why were France, Germany and the United States quick to follow, whereas China lagged behind? When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations became an obvious economic and political factor, why did Russia, Italy and Austria succeed in closing it, whereas Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire failed? After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?

The world’s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 40,000 kilometres of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 4,000 kilometres of tracks. In 1880, the West boasted more than 350,000 kilometres of railroads, whereas in the rest of the world there were but 35,000 kilometres of train lines (and most of these were laid by the British in India).5 The first railroad in China opened only in 1876. It was twenty-five kilometres long and built by Europeans – the Chinese government destroyed it the following year. In 1880 the Chinese Empire did not operate a single railroad. The first railroad in Persia was built only in 1888, and it connected Tehran with a Muslim holy site about ten kilometres south of the capital. It was constructed and operated by a Belgian company. In 1950, the total railway network of Persia still amounted to a meagre 2,500 kilometres, in a country seven times the size of Britain.6 The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.

This explanation sheds new light on the period from 1500 to 1850. During this era Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological, political, military or economic advantage over the Asian powers, yet the continent built up a unique potential, whose importance suddenly became obvious around 1850. The apparent equality between Europe, China and the Muslim world in 1750 was a mirage. Imagine two builders, each busy constructing very tall towers. One builder uses wood and mud bricks, whereas the other uses steel and concrete. At first it seems that there is not much of a difference between the two methods, since both towers grow at a similar pace and reach a similar height. However, once a critical threshold is crossed, the wood and mud tower cannot stand the strain and collapses, whereas the steel and concrete tower grows storey by storey, as far as the eye can see.

What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages. When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else. So it is hardly coincidental that science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world of the twenty-first century. Europe and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are growing ever stronger. The victories of capitalism are examined in the following chapter. This chapter is dedicated to the love story between European imperialism and modern science.

The Mentality of Conquest

Modern science flourished in and thanks to European empires. The discipline obviously owes a huge debt to ancient scientific traditions, such as those of classical Greece, China, India and Islam, yet its unique character began to take shape only in the early modern period, hand in hand with the imperial expansion of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands. During the early modern period, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Native Americans and Polynesians continued to make important contributions to the Scientific Revolution. The insights of Muslim economists were studied by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, treatments pioneered by Native American doctors found their way into English medical texts and data extracted from Polynesian informants revolutionised Western anthropology. But until the mid-twentieth century, the people who collated these myriad scientific discoveries, creating scientific disciplines in the process, were the ruling and intellectual elites of the global European empires. The Far East and the Islamic world produced minds as intelligent and curious as those of Europe. However, between 1500 and 1950 they did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.

This does not mean that Europeans have a unique gene for science, or that they will forever dominate the study of physics and biology. Just as Islam began as an Arab monopoly but was subsequently taken over by Turks and Persians, so modern science began as a European speciality, but is today becoming a multi-ethnic enterprise.

What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.

European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. The Arabs, to name one example, did not conquer Egypt, Spain or India in order to discover something they did not know. The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth – not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.

James Cook was not the first explorer to think this way. The Portuguese and Spanish voyagers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries already did. Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama explored the coasts of Africa and, while doing so, seized control of islands and harbours. Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America and immediately claimed sovereignty over the new lands for the kings of Spain. Ferdinand Magellan found a way around the world, and simultaneously laid the foundation for the Spanish conquest of the Philippines.

As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant lands had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he took 165 scholars with him. Among other things, they founded an entirely new discipline, Egyptology, and made important contributions to the study of religion, linguistics and botany.

In 1831, the Royal Navy sent the ship HMS Beagle to map the coasts of South America, the Falklands Islands and the Galapagos Islands. The navy needed this knowledge in order to be better prepared in the event of war. The ship’s captain, who was an amateur scientist, decided to add a geologist to the expedition to study geological formations they might encounter on the way. After several professional geologists refused his invitation, the captain offered the job to a twenty-two-year-old Cambridge graduate, Charles Darwin. Darwin had studied to become an Anglican parson but was far more interested in geology and natural sciences than in the Bible. He jumped at the opportunity, and the rest is history. The captain spent his time on the voyage drawing military maps while Darwin collected the empirical data and formulated the insights that would eventually become the theory of evolution.

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorised, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’ Empty Maps

The modern ‘explore and conquer’ mentality is nicely illustrated by the development of world maps. Many cultures drew world maps long before the modern age. Obviously, none of them really knew the whole of the world. No Afro-Asian culture knew about America, and no American culture knew about Afro-Asia. But unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders. These maps had no empty spaces. They gave the impression of a familiarity with the entire world.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces – one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world.

The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps. Using them, Columbus calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain. On 12 October 1492, at about 2:00 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’ Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies – what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation. For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour – America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’ The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. If they really wanted to control the vast new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Christian Scriptures, old geography books and ancient oral traditions were of little help.

Henceforth not only European geographers, but European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge began to draw maps with spaces left to fill in. They began to admit that their theories were not perfect and that there were important things that they did not know.

The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets, and promptly started filling them in. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European expeditions circumnavigated Africa, explored America, crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and created a network of bases and colonies all over the world. They established the first truly global empires and knitted together the first global trade network. The European imperial expeditions transformed the history of the world: from being a series of histories of isolated peoples and cultures, it became the history of a single integrated human society.

These European explore-and-conquer expeditions are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook just how extraordinary they were. Nothing like them had ever happened before. Long-distance campaigns of conquest are not a natural undertaking. Throughout history most human societies were so busy with local conflicts and neighbourhood quarrels that they never considered exploring and conquering distant lands. Most great empires extended their control only over their immediate neighbourhood – they reached far-flung lands simply because their neighbourhood kept expanding. Thus the Romans conquered Etruria in order to defend Rome (c.350–300 BC). They then conquered the Po Valley in order to defend Etruria (c.200 BC). They subsequently conquered Provence to defend the Po Valley (c.120 BC), Gaul to defend Provence (c.50 BC), and Britain in order to defend Gaul (c. AD 50). It took them 400 years to get from Rome to London. In 350 BC, no Roman would have conceived of sailing directly to Britain and conquering it.

Occasionally an ambitious ruler or adventurer would embark on a long-range campaign of conquest, but such campaigns usually followed well-beaten imperial or commercial paths. The campaigns of Alexander the Great, for example, did not result in the establishment of a new empire, but rather in the usurpation of an existing empire – that of the Persians. The closest precedents to the modern European empires were the ancient naval empires of Athens and Carthage, and the medieval naval empire of Majapahit, which held sway over much of Indonesia in the fourteenth century. Yet even these empires rarely ventured into unknown seas – their naval exploits were local undertakings when compared to the global ventures of the modern Europeans.

Many scholars argue that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of discovery. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. The largest of these comprised almost 300 ships and carried close to 30,000 people.7 They visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East Africa. Chinese ships anchored in Jedda, the main harbour of the Hejaz, and in Malindi, on the Kenyan coast. Columbus’ fleet of 1492 – which consisted of three small ships manned by 120 sailors – was like a trio of mosquitoes compared to Zheng He’s drove of dragons.8 Yet there was a crucial difference. Zheng He explored the oceans, and assisted pro-Chinese rulers, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. Moreover, the expeditions of Zheng He were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. When the ruling faction in Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated the operation. The great fleet was dismantled, crucial technical and geographical knowledge was lost, and no explorer of such stature and means ever set out again from a Chinese port. Chinese rulers in the coming centuries, like most Chinese rulers in previous centuries, restricted their interests and ambitions to the Middle Kingdom’s immediate environs.

The Zheng He expeditions prove that Europe did not enjoy an outstanding technological edge. What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices. There was nothing peculiar about that. The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’

Invasion from Outer Space

Around 1517, Spanish colonists in the Caribbean islands began to hear vague rumours about a powerful empire somewhere in the centre of the Mexican mainland. A mere four years later, the Aztec capital was a smouldering ruin, the Aztec Empire was a thing of the past, and Hernán Cortés lorded over a vast new Spanish Empire in Mexico.

The Spaniards did not stop to congratulate themselves or even to catch their breath. They immediately commenced explore-and-conquer operations in all directions. The previous rulers of Central America – the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Maya – barely knew South America existed, and never made any attempt to subjugate it, over the course of 2,000 years. Yet within little more than ten years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizarro had discovered the Inca Empire in South America, vanquishing it in 1532.

Had the Aztecs and Incas shown a bit more interest in the world surrounding them – and had they known what the Spaniards had done to their neighbours – they might have resisted the Spanish conquest more keenly and successfully. In the years separating Columbus’ first journey to America (1492) from the landing of Cortés in Mexico (1519), the Spaniards conquered most of the Caribbean islands, setting up a chain of new colonies. For the subjugated natives, these colonies were hell on earth. They were ruled with an iron fist by greedy and unscrupulous colonists who enslaved them and set them to work in mines and plantations, killing anyone who offered the slightest resistance. Most of the native population soon died, either because of the harsh working conditions or the virulence of the diseases that hitch-hiked to America on the conquerors’ sailing ships. Within twenty years, almost the entire native Caribbean population was wiped out. The Spanish colonists began importing African slaves to fill the vacuum.

This genocide took place on the very doorstep of the Aztec Empire, yet when Cortés landed on the empire’s eastern coast, the Aztecs knew nothing about it. The coming of the Spaniards was the equivalent of an alien invasion from outer space. The Aztecs were convinced that they knew the entire world and that they ruled most of it. To them it was unimaginable that outside their domain could exist anything like these Spaniards. When Cortés and his men landed on the sunny beaches of today’s Vera Cruz, it was the first time the Aztecs encountered a completely unknown people.

The Aztecs did not know how to react. They had trouble deciding what these strangers were. Unlike all known humans, the aliens had white skins. They also had lots of facial hair. Some had hair the colour of the sun. They stank horribly. (Native hygiene was far better than Spanish hygiene. When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honour. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers’ smell unbearable.)

The aliens’ material culture was even more bewildering. They came in giant ships, the like of which the Aztecs had never imagined, let alone seen. They rode on the back of huge and terrifying animals, swift as the wind. They could produce lightning and thunder out of shiny metal sticks. They had flashing long swords and impenetrable armour, against which the natives’ wooden swords and flint spears were useless.

Some Aztecs thought these must be gods. Others argued that they were demons, or the ghosts of the dead, or powerful sorcerers. Instead of concentrating all available forces and wiping out the Spaniards, the Aztecs deliberated, dawdled and negotiated. They saw no reason to rush. After all, Cortés had no more than 550 Spaniards with him. What could 550 men do to an empire of millions?

Cortés was equally ignorant about the Aztecs, but he and his men held significant advantages over their adversaries. While the Aztecs had no experience to prepare them for the arrival of these strange-looking and foul-smelling aliens, the Spaniards knew that the earth was full of unknown human realms, and no one had greater expertise in invading alien lands and dealing with situations about which they were utterly ignorant. For the modern European conqueror, like the modern European scientist, plunging into the unknown was exhilarating.

So when Cortés anchored off that sunny beach in July 1519, he did not hesitate to act. Like a science-fiction alien emerging from his spaceship, he declared to the awestruck locals: ‘We come in peace. Take us to your leader.’ Cortés explained that he was a peaceful emissary from the great king of Spain, and asked for a diplomatic interview with the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II. (This was a shameless lie. Cortés led an independent expedition of greedy adventurers. The king of Spain had never heard of Cortés, nor of the Aztecs.) Cortés was given guides, food and some military assistance by local enemies of the Aztecs. He then marched towards the Aztec capital, the great metropolis of Tenochtitlan.

The Aztecs allowed the aliens to march all the way to the capital, then respectfully led the aliens’ leader to meet Emperor Montezuma. In the middle of the interview, Cortés gave a signal, and steel-armed Spaniards butchered Montezuma’s bodyguards (who were armed only with wooden clubs, and stone blades). The honoured guest took his host prisoner.

Cortés was now in a very delicate situation. He had captured the emperor, but was surrounded by tens of thousands of furious enemy warriors, millions of hostile civilians, and an entire continent about which he knew practically nothing. He had at his disposal only a few hundred Spaniards, and the closest Spanish reinforcements were in Cuba, more than 1,500 kilometres away.

Cortés kept Montezuma captive in the palace, making it look as if the king remained free and in charge and as if the ‘Spanish ambassador’ were no more than a guest. The Aztec Empire was an extremely centralised polity, and this unprecedented situation paralysed it. Montezuma continued to behave as if he ruled the empire, and the Aztec elite continued to obey him, which meant they obeyed Cortés. This situation lasted for several months, during which time Cortés interrogated Montezuma and his attendants, trained translators in a variety of local languages, and sent small Spanish expeditions in all directions to become familiar with the Aztec Empire and the various tribes, peoples and cities that it ruled.

The Aztec elite eventually revolted against Cortés and Montezuma, elected a new emperor, and drove the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan. However, by now numerous cracks had appeared in the imperial edifice. Cortés used the knowledge he had gained to prise the cracks open wider and split the empire from within. He convinced many of the empire’s subject peoples to join him against the ruling Aztec elite. The subject peoples miscalculated badly. They hated the Aztecs, but knew nothing of Spain or the Caribbean genocide. They assumed that with Spanish help they could shake off the Aztec yoke. The idea that the Spanish would take over never occurred to them. They were sure that if Cortés and his few hundred henchmen caused any trouble, they could easily be overwhelmed. The rebellious peoples provided Cortés with an army of tens of thousands of local troops, and with its help Cortés besieged Tenochtitlan and conquered the city.

At this stage more and more Spanish soldiers and settlers began arriving in Mexico, some from Cuba, others all the way from Spain. When the local peoples realised what was happening, it was too late. Within a century of the landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of the Americas had shrunk by about 90 per cent, due mainly to unfamiliar diseases that reached America with the invaders. The survivors found themselves under the thumb of a greedy and racist regime that was far worse than that of the Aztecs.

Ten years after Cortés landed in Mexico, Pizarro arrived on the shore of the Inca Empire. He had far fewer soldiers than Cortés – his expedition numbered just 168 men! Yet Pizarro benefited from all the knowledge and experience gained in previous invasions. The Inca, in contrast, knew nothing about the fate of the Aztecs. Pizarro plagiarised Cortés. He declared himself a peaceful emissary from the king of Spain, invited the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, to a diplomatic interview, and then kidnapped him. Pizarro proceeded to conquer the paralysed empire with the help of local allies. If the subject peoples of the Inca Empire had known the fate of the inhabitants of Mexico, they would not have thrown in their lot with the invaders. But they did not know.

The native peoples of America were not the only ones to pay a heavy price for their parochial outlook. The great empires of Asia – the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese – very quickly heard that the Europeans had discovered something big. Yet they displayed little interest in these discoveries. They continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even puny European kingdoms such as Scotland and Denmark sent a few explore-and-conquer expeditions to America, but not one expedition of either exploration or conquest was ever sent to America from the Islamic world, India or China. The first non-European power that tried to send a military expedition to America was Japan. That happened in June 1942, when a Japanese expedition conquered Kiska and Attu, two small islands off the Alaskan coast, capturing in the process ten US soldiers and a dog. The Japanese never got any closer to the mainland.

It is hard to argue that the Ottomans or Chinese were too far away, or that they lacked the technological, economic or military wherewithal. The resources that sent Zheng He from China to East Africa in the 1420S should have been enough to reach America. The Chinese just weren’t interested. The first Chinese world map to show America was not issued until 1602 – and then by a European missionary!

For 300 years, Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America and Oceania, in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The only significant struggles in those regions were between different European powers. The wealth and resources accumulated by the Europeans eventually enabled them to invade Asia too, defeat its empires, and divide it among themselves. When the Ottomans, Persians, Indians and Chinese woke up and began paying attention, it was too late.

Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony. Thus in the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), Algerian guerrillas defeated a French army with an overwhelming numerical, technological and economic advantage. The Algerians prevailed because they were supported by a global anti-colonial network, and because they worked out how to harness the world’s media to their cause – as well as public opinion in France itself. The defeat that little North Vietnam inflicted on the American colossus was based on a similar strategy. These guerrilla forces showed that even superpowers could be defeated if a local struggle became a global cause. It is interesting to contemplate what might have happened had Montezuma been able to manipulate public opinion in Spain and gain assistance from one of Spain’s rivals – Portugal, France or the Ottoman Empire.

Rare Spiders and Forgotten Scripts

Modern science and modern empires were motivated by the restless feeling that perhaps something important awaited beyond the horizon – something they had better explore and master. Yet the connection between science and empire went much deeper. Not just the motivation, but also the practices of empire-builders were entangled with those of scientists. For modern Europeans, building an empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project.

When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things. On 10 April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted sixty years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the exact height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.

Mohenjo-daro was one of the chief cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished in the third millennium BC and was destroyed around 1900 BC. None of India’s pre-British rulers – neither the Mauryas, nor the Guptas, nor the Delhi sultans, nor the great Mughals – had given the ruins a second glance. But a British archaeological survey took notice of the site in 1922. A British team then excavated it, and discovered the first great civilisation of India, which no Indian had been aware of.

Another telling example of British scientific curiosity was the deciphering of cuneiform script. This was the main script used throughout the Middle East for close to 3,000 years, but the last person able to read it probably died sometime in the early first millennium AD. Since then, inhabitants of the region frequently encountered cuneiform inscriptions on monuments, steles, ancient ruins and broken pots. But they had no idea how to read the weird, angular scratches and, as far as we know, they never tried. Cuneiform came to the attention of Europeans in 1618, when the Spanish ambassador in Persia went sightseeing in the ruins of ancient Persepolis, where he saw inscriptions that nobody could explain to him. News of the unknown script spread among European savants and piqued their curiosity. In 1657 European scholars published the first transcription of a cuneiform text from Persepolis. More and more transcriptions followed, and for close to two centuries scholars in the West tried to decipher them. None succeeded.

In the 1830s, a British officer named Henry Rawlinson was sent to Persia to help the shah train his army in the European style. In his spare time Rawlinson travelled around Persia and one day he was led by local guides to a cliff in the Zagros Mountains and shown the huge Behistun Inscription. About fifteen metres high and twenty-five metres wide, it had been etched high up on the cliff face on the command of King Darius I sometime around 500 BC. It was written in cuneiform script in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The inscription was well known to the local population, but nobody could read it. Rawlinson became convinced that if he could decipher the writing it would enable him and other scholars to read the numerous inscriptions and texts that were at the time being discovered all over the Middle East, opening a door into an ancient and forgotten world.

The first step in deciphering the lettering was to produce an accurate transcription that could be sent back to Europe. Rawlinson defied death to do so, scaling the steep cliff to copy the strange letters. He hired several locals to help him, most notably a Kurdish boy who climbed to the most inaccessible parts of the cliff in order to copy the upper portion of the inscription. In 1847 the project was completed, and a full and accurate copy was sent to Europe.

Rawlinson did not rest on his laurels. As an army officer, he had military and political missions to carry out, but whenever he had a spare moment he puzzled over the secret script. He tried one method after another and finally managed to decipher the Old Persian part of the inscription. This was easiest, since Old Persian was not that different from modern Persian, which Rawlinson knew well. An understanding of the Old Persian section gave him the key he needed to unlock the secrets of the Elamite and Babylonian sections. The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices – the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats. Without the efforts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern empires.

Another notable imperialist scholar was William Jones. Jones arrived in India in September 1783 to serve as a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal. He was so captivated by the wonders of India that within less than six months of his arrival he had founded the Asiatic Society. This academic organisation was devoted to studying the cultures, histories and societies of Asia, and in particular those of India. Within two years Jones published his observations on the Sanskrit language, which pioneered the science of comparative linguistics.

In his publications Jones pointed out surprising similarities between Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that became the sacred tongue of Hindu ritual, and the Greek and Latin languages, as well as similarities between all these languages and Gothic, Celtic, Old Persian, German, French and English. Thus in Sanskrit, ‘mother’ is ‘matar’, in Latin it is ‘mater’, and in Old Celtic it is ‘mathir’. Jones surmised that all these languages must share a common origin, developing from a now-forgotten ancient ancestor. He was thus the first to identify what later came to be called the Indo-European family of languages.

Jones’ study was an important milestone not merely due to his bold (and accurate) hypotheses, but also because of the orderly methodology that he developed to compare languages. It was adopted by other scholars, enabling them systematically to study the development of all the world’s languages.

Linguistics received enthusiastic imperial support. The European empires believed that in order to govern effectively they must know the languages and cultures of their subjects. British officers arriving in India were supposed to spend up to three years in a Calcutta college, where they studied Hindu and Muslim law alongside English law; Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian alongside Greek and Latin; and Tamil, Bengali and Hindustani culture alongside mathematics, economics and geography. The study of linguistics provided invaluable help in understanding the structure and grammar of local languages.

Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself. Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fewer than 5,000 British officials, about 40,000–70,000 British soldiers, and perhaps another 100,000 British business people, hangers-on, wives and children were sufficient to conquer and rule up to 300 million Indians.9 Yet these practical advantages were not the only reason why empires financed the study of linguistics, botany, geography and history. No less important was the fact that science gave the empires ideological justification. Modern Europeans came to believe that acquiring new knowledge was always good. The fact that the empires produced a constant stream of new knowledge branded them as progressive and positive enterprises. Even today, histories of sciences such as geography, archaeology and botany cannot avoid crediting the European empires, at least indirectly. Histories of botany have little to say about the suffering of the Aboriginal Australians, but they usually find some kind words for James Cook and Joseph Banks.

Furthermore, the new knowledge accumulated by the empires made it possible, at least in theory, to benefit the conquered populations and bring them the benefits of ‘progress’ – to provide them with medicine and education, to build railroads and canals, to ensure justice and prosperity. Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-European races – in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’: Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild –

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

Of course, the facts often belied this myth. The British conquered Bengal, the richest province of India, in 1764. The new rulers were interested in little except enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that a few years later led to the outbreak of the Great Bengal Famine. It began in 1769, reached catastrophic levels in 1770, and lasted until 1773. About 10 million Bengalis, a third of the province’s population, died in the calamity.10

In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ completely matches the facts. The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them. You think that these empires were evil monstrosities that spread death, oppression and injustice around the world? You could easily fill an encyclopedia with their crimes. You want to argue that they in fact improved the conditions of their subjects with new medicines, better economic conditions and greater security? You could fill another encyclopedia with their achievements. Due to their close cooperation with science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

But science was also used by imperialists to more sinister ends. Biologists, anthropologists and even linguists provided scientific proof that Europeans are superior to all other races, and consequently have the right (if not perhaps the duty) to rule over them. After William Jones argued that all Indo-European languages descend from a single ancient language many scholars were eager to discover who the speakers of that language had been. They noticed that the earliest Sanskrit speakers, who had invaded India from Central Asia more than 3,000 years ago, had called themselves Arya. The speakers of the earliest Persian language called themselves Airiia. European scholars consequently surmised that the people who spoke the primordial language that gave birth to both Sanskrit and Persian (as well as to Greek, Latin, Gothic and Celtic) must have called themselves Aryans. Could it be a coincidence that those who founded the magnificent Indian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilisations were all Aryans?

Next, British, French and German scholars wedded the linguistic theory about the industrious Aryans to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and posited that the Aryans were not just a linguistic group but a biological entity – a race. And not just any race, but a master race of tall, light-haired, blue-eyed, hard-working, and super-rational humans who emerged from the mists of the north to lay the foundations of culture throughout the world. Regrettably, the Aryans who invaded India and Persia intermarried with the local natives they found in these lands, losing their light complexions and blond hair, and with them their rationality and diligence. The civilisations of India and Persia consequently declined. In Europe, on the other hand, the Aryans preserved their racial purity. This is why Europeans had managed to conquer the world, and why they were fit to rule it – provided they took precautions not to mix with inferior races.

Such racist theories, prominent and respectable for many decades, have become anathema among scientists and politicians alike. People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it’s about time we coined it. Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’ Thus European right-wing parties which oppose Muslim immigration usually take care to avoid racial terminology. Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of the Front National go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny. Since the two cultures are so different, and since many Muslim immigrants are unwilling (and perhaps unable) to adopt Western values, they should not be allowed to enter, lest they foment internal conflicts and corrode European democracy and liberalism.

Such culturist arguments are fed by scientific studies in the humanities and social sciences that highlight the so-called clash of civilisations and the fundamental differences between different cultures. Not all historians and anthropologists accept these theories or support their political usages. But whereas biologists today have an easy time disavowing racism, simply explaining that the biological differences between present-day human populations are trivial, it is harder for historians and anthropologists to disavow culturism. After all, if the differences between human cultures are trivial, why should we pay historians and anthropologists to study them?

Scientists have provided the imperial project with practical knowledge, ideological justification and technological gadgets. Without this contribution it is highly questionable whether Europeans could have conquered the world. The conquerors returned the favour by providing scientists with information and protection, supporting all kinds of strange and fascinating projects and spreading the scientific way of thinking to the far corners of the earth. Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether modern science would have progressed very far. There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries, collections, buildings and scholarships to the generous help of army officers, navy captains and imperial governors.

This is obviously not the whole story. Science was supported by other institutions, not just by empires. And the European empires rose and flourished thanks also to factors other than science. Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.

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