Still fooled by our own myths

Still under the sway of our own imperialist myth, even in these times, most of us imagine that the countries we colonized in the nineteenth century had always been savage and backward, and it was only when the western imperialists arrived that they began to become acquainted with civilization.  But this was not at all the case.  Both India and China had advanced civilizations while Europe was still sunk in the Dark Ages.  In South America the Inca Empire achieved extraordinary feats of organization and engineering.  Macchu Pichu is an architectural wonder that still amazes us today.  The Incas’ Royal Highway stretched 3,250 miles from Ecuador to Chile, crossing mountains with huge flights of steps and rivers with corbel arched bridges.  Every twelve miles there were way stations for the couriers who carried royal messages in quipo strings, arrangements of knots more complex than most languages.   They farmed near-vertical slopes with terraces and built stone canals up to nine miles long for irrigation.  They were experts in soil conservation and reserved maize in granaries enough to cover several years of famine.


In Africa, sixteenth century travellers  marvelled at the riches of the courts of Mali, Benin and Ghana.    Benin City, once the capital of what is now Southern Nigeria and its outlying villages were, according to Fred Pearse writing in New Scientist, surrounded by walls four times as long as The Great Wall of China.


In 1691 the Portuguese captain Lourencon Pinto reported Benin was the richest and most beautiful city in the world.  He observed:


“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”


In contrast, London at the same time is described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market”.


According to Professor von Luschen of Berlin Ethnological Museum, the bronze sculptures produced by the artists of Benin rival those of Benvenuto Cellini.  Astonishingly, the kingdom was organized on principles of complex mathematical fractals.  Ron Eglash, author of African Fractals, writes  : “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”


At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.


In 1897 Benin was destroyed by British soldiers, looted and burnt to the ground.   Hardly a trace remains today.


The Mossi Empire, in today’s Burkina Faso, far from being a collection of mud hut villages, had a highly organized complex hierarchical administrative system with ministers, bureaucrats, court scribes and musicians.  Their art, especially in the form of masks, was remarkable.  This was a great trading empire straddling the trade routes across the Sahara from North Africa to the Guinea coast,  exchanging gold, slaves and ivory for salt, horses, beads and cloth.


But in one respect the Mossi Empire, like all those in what is today the third world with the exception of China, was backward in comparison with Europe.  It failed to develop advanced industrial processes.  Because of its primitive agricultural technology it was unable to produce significant agricultural surpluses.  Long fallow periods were necessary that left three quarters of the land unused at any one time.  The hoe was the most advanced tool and the plough unknown.   Of course, we do not know what would have happened had history taken a different course.  But what would these civilizations have achieved if the western capitalist nations had preferred trade to guns?  It is surely reasonable to think that if the British and French had traded their technologies for the riches that Africa had to offer,  the African empires would have developed naturally into strong modern societies rather than the poverty-stricken countries so many of them are today. The irony is that if Adam Smith’s principles had been followed and the African countries had been allowed to develop into independent trading nations, instead of the captive plantations to which the colonialists reduced them, not only they but the western nations too would be much better off.  It is trade, Adam Smith tells us, that makes people rich.   The implications of nineteenth century colonialism for the world today are staggering.


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