Malcolm Turnbull’s review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (‘Cry Freedom’, March 2011) shows that author and reviewer share more than an interest in conservative politics. Facts that might shed light on their grandiose claims seem to be conveniently (or perhaps unknowingly) overlooked in both book and review.
Take the notion of competition. It’s true that the Portuguese benefited from competition but it was not competition in trade that gave the Portuguese an edge in the fifteenth-century Indian Ocean trade, it was the European development of the Chinese invention of gunpowder and the cannon driven by European states’ endless internal wars.
The first significant sign of competition from the Portuguese was when they sank a ship just off India’s Malabar Coast, which was carrying Muslims back from the Haj – killing 700 in one action. The Portuguese were so lacking in trading skills that when they failed to have any success in Melaka – the most vibrant entrepot port in the world at the time – they retreated to the safety of their ships and opened fire on Melaka killing thousands of Indian, Arab, and Chinese traders.
Portugal was a small nation but a vicious one. Their method of trading was to set up a fortified trading post in a port and visit it every few months. If the locals had been good in supplying Portuguese merchants with goods, then fine, but if the locals did not trade then Portuguese cannons would competitively open fire on the local populace.
As for the competitive way the Europeans and Americans took control of China: the English grew opium in Bengal and shipped it to Hong Kong to sell to the rich kids of China. The Americans brought their opium from Turkey and between them they were supplying 40 million opium smokers per day when the Chinese finally woke up to it. When the Chinese burned a warehouse full of opium belonging to English dope smugglers, European and American governments sent a military expedition to invade China as punishment for this uncompetitive act of arson, and to force the Chinese to open their ports to ‘competitive’ trade.