March 2011

Arts & Letters

Cry freedom

By Malcolm Turnbull
Yongle Emperor, of the Ming Dynasty, shown in the Dragon Chair. The original hanging scroll is held at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. © Wikimedia Commons
Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation: The West and the Rest’

In 1759 Samuel Johnson published his novel Rasselas about an Abyssinian prince who travels through Egypt with his philosopher guide, Imlac. Rasselas asks his teacher, “By what means are the Europeans thus powerful? Or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiatics and Africans invade their coast, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.” Imlac responds: “They are more powerful, sir, than we because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance …”

Niall Ferguson’s latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane, 400pp; $49.95) poses Rasselas’ question and provides a more elaborate version of Imlac’s response. An eloquent and experienced writer on the rise and fall of empires, Ferguson rejects simplistic explanations for the rise of the West to dominate Asia, the Americas and Africa. Not for him the historian Hilaire Belloc’s pithy explanation: “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

Ferguson offers what he describes as six “killer applications” for the West’s success. They are competition, science, democracy, modern medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic. The thread that runs through all six “killer apps” is freedom – of which each is an aspect or facet. Some of his explanations are more persuasive than others, but his account is filled with intriguing mysteries of history.

Consider, he asks us, the world in 1411. Europe was a chaotic, plague-ridden, blood-soaked battlefield. Nine of the ten largest cities in the world were in Asia. China was by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth. The Ottomans were building up to their final conquest of the remnant of the Roman Empire in Constantinople – and, over the centuries that followed, they would conquer much of Eastern Europe, while threatening, but never taking, Vienna itself as late as 1683.

So what went wrong? Why did China slip so far behind the West over the following 400 years? And why did the Islamic world – pre-eminent in science and scholarship in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries – lapse into a reactionary, anti-scientific torpor from which to this day it is still struggling to emerge? Why, he asks, did the British settlements in North America go on to found the greatest democracy, and economic and military power the world has ever known, and yet the Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the much better resourced Central and Southern America result in “two centuries of division, instability and underdevelopment”?

Amidst these and other great questions, Ferguson also poses some interesting sartorial problems. Why has the attire of early twentieth-century Englishmen become the standard uniform of the world? Indeed he notes that in Japanese the word for a man’s suit is sebiru from Savile Row, still the home of London’s finest men’s tailors. He also reflects on the humble blue denim jeans. Originally made for American workers and cowboys, jeans became so fashionable with young people in the West that they also became the ultimate object of desire for the youth of the Soviet Bloc, and a major commodity on the black market. “Perhaps,” Ferguson observes, “the greatest mystery of the entire Cold War is why the Workers’ Paradise could not manage to produce a decent pair of jeans.”

As China advances to reclaim its status as the world’s largest economy, it is worth reflecting on what saw it decline from that position centuries ago. In the first decades of the 1400s, China reached out across the Indian Ocean and throughout South-East Asia. Led by the Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He, and inspired by the Yongle Emperor, a series of vast fleets, one with 28,000 men aboard hundreds of ships, visited all the main ports of the Indian sub-continent as well as those on the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. But by 1500, a change of emperor and a change of mood saw it made a crime in China to build a ship with more than two masts or even to go to sea in such a ship. The records of Zheng He’s journeys were all destroyed and his achievements almost forgotten.

Yet at the same time as the world’s strongest economy was turning its back on the world, the ragged, fractious kingdoms of Europe were competing furiously with each other to explore the world in search of spices, trade, slaves and plunder.

The contrasts are bewildering. Zheng He with a mighty fleet lands at the East African port of Malindi in 1416, exchanges gifts and trade goods, and then leaves never to return. In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama with a tiny fleet of caravels – one-fifth the size of Zheng He’s flagship – lands at Malindi and establishes a trading post. It was one of many. Indeed, by 1557 the Portuguese had established a trading post in China itself, at Macau.

So why was tiny Portugal able to build a maritime empire when China could not? Ferguson puts it down to competition – the fractious, divided state of Europe with roughly 1000 independent polities in the year 1400 still had around 500 polities two centuries later.

In short, the political fragmentation that characterised Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities – economic, geopolitical and religious – in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule – except that paradoxically it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world.

The decline of the Islamic world follows a similar story to China’s. In the first centuries of Islam, under the Abbasid caliphate, the Islamic world was far ahead of the West in every conceivable field of scientific or intellectual inquiry. Not only did the Arabs preserve the scientific classics of the Greeks and Romans but they pioneered, in royal academies and universities – such as the Abbasid “House of Wisdom” – new developments in mathematics, physics and medicine.

In 1575, as the Enlightenment was taking hold in the West, a fine observatory, equal to the best in Europe, was built in Istanbul. Yet five years on, at the behest of the mullahs, it was demolished; it was not until 1868 that a new observatory was built. As Ferguson writes: “The legacy of Islam’s once celebrated House of Wisdom vanished in a cloud of piety.” Once again, it was a lack of freedom that saw Islam turn its back on science, and a commitment to freedom in the West that resulted in the establishment of scientific academies in the seventeenth century – hubs in a new network of investigation and knowledge.

Ferguson makes a poignant contrast between two eighteenth-century leaders: the free-thinking King of Prussia, Frederick the Great (one of Ferguson’s heroes), and the indolent, decadent Sultan Osman III, who – far from being trained in statecraft, science and philosophy – became Sultan at 57 after spending more than half a century confined in the harem.

Frederick established a free press and, by the standards of the day, a free and diverse society. His new capital of Berlin opened its arms to foreigners – 20% of its population was French Protestant, and there was a substantial Jewish community as well. It is bitterly ironic that more than 200 years later, Adolf Hitler could claim to be an admirer of Frederick and yet simultaneously seek to destroy the cosmopolitan and tolerant society Frederick had sought to create.

No book about civilisation is complete without a reflection on the prospects of our own. Ferguson points to the growth of China as the beginning of the end of 500 years of western predominance. And, he reminds us, there is no reason to believe that decline will be slow and graceful. The Roman Empire in the West, after all, collapsed into anarchy in less than a generation and in our own time we have seen the Soviet Empire go from existential threat to historical memory.

In many respects, however, the dichotomy of the “West and the Rest” is no longer valid. If you trace a path through time, a modern Chinese city has as much, if not more, in common with New York or London of 50 years ago than it does with any mid twentieth-century Chinese city. China is certainly less free in terms of the rule of law and democracy but, by most other measures, the business-suited commuters on the metros of Shanghai and Hong Kong have much more in common with their American or British counterparts than their respective grandparents did.

As to the future, Ferguson is wise enough to recognise that historians can overdo great theories and that events are more often unpredicted. But if there is one thread that emerges from this most interesting book it is the golden thread of freedom. Societies that encourage freedom of competition, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and do so in a way that secures and protects private property, will be stronger and more prosperous than those that do not. A better title for this book may have been just that: Freedom.

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull is a member of the Liberal Party and former leader of the Opposition. He is a former Rhodes scholar, journalist and lawyer. @TurnbullMalcolm

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