My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
If you ever wonder what role culture plays in the fortunes of nations, here’s an exhaustively researched book exploring culture and conquest. Why are certain nations and cultures open to conquest while others are able to resist? What role does conquest play in spreading technology, literacy and economic practices, for example? Thomas Sowell has written a fascinating book on the subject. It’s not a quick or an easy read. He clashes head on with many “politically correct” theories but always presents facts to back up his arguments. This is a solid piece of research, cogently argued and an engrossing read if the interplay of cultures interests you.
“On a broad international canvas, the role of culture reaches beyond particular racial and ethnic groups to encompass the differing economic and social fates of nations and civilizations…Like migrations, conquests have changed the cultural landscape of the world,” writes Sowell.
The book starts with Britain, which until the Romans conquered it was an astonishingly backward land compared to the areas around the Meditarranean, for example. “The intrusion of a more advanced culture began a long process of transformation of an island and a people,” says Sowell. This is best exemplified by what happened after the Romans left.
“The market agriculture of Roman times gave way to smaller farms and subsistence farming. Imitations of Roman mass-produced goods began to be crudely hand-made. The use of coins declined. Pottery ceased to be mass produced. Roads and waterways fell into disrepeair. Central heating and hot baths disappeared for many centuries. So did bricks, which the Romans used, but which did not appear in Britain until the fourteenth century, when they were imported from the continent. Glass bottles, which had been produced in Roman times, disappeared from England and did not reappear until Elizabethan times, when bottles began to be imported from Venice, and it was not the seveneeth century before glass-blowing was re-established in the British Isles.”
“The long shadow of Rome still falls over much of Europe – and the absence of the Roman cultural contributions has left other parts of Europe economically and socially in arrears for centuries, as the history of the Slavs illustrates.”
One of the most important aspects of Sowell’s narrative is how well he marshes his facts to defeat the scourge of racism – that other explanation of superiority that is so often still trotted out to explain why one nation is able to conquor another or why one nation prospers while its neighbour does not. Sowell calmly explains the structural factors within cultures that may help or hinder peoples. for example, complex trade is impossible without robust economics so those cultures with advanced mathematics are able to become richer and more developed – the Indian zero versus Roman numerals versus non-literate socieities “one, two and many”.
“The current cultural impact of the Western world on non-Western socieities is neither a new nor a unique phenomenon, and has lasted thus far nothing like the many centuries in which cultural advances radiating outward from China or the nations clustered around the eastern end of the Mediterranean,” says Sowell.
What’s refreshing about “Conquests and Culture” is that Sowell is not pursuing the usual narrative of oppressors and victims, which is the subtext of so many books about this subject. This is not to deny the appalling slaughter and wanton destruction that conquest has often brought. But Sowell is hunting for the factors behind the conquests. Why, for example, did sosphisticated trade develop on the east coast of Africa but not on the west coast? One reason is that west Africa has no suitable harbours or ports. And even the rivers could not be penetrated far inland because of rapids and waterfalls. Land transport is much more expensive than water transport, making goods more expensive and liable to theft by robbers, taxes by local chieftains etc. This cramped prosperity and that limited development.
The great handicap of the book is that Sowell does not discuss Asia. It always astounds me when books claim to be “international” or comprehensive but then omit discussion of Asia’s complex societies, philosophies and dramatic histories. This is beginning to change but it is still much to common. Nevertheless, though Sowell discusses in detail only the British, the Africans, the slavs and the Western Hemisphere Indians, the book is a valuable contribution to the subject.
He makes the point that transfers of cultural capital – economic, political and social tools for living – have brought about many striking changes in productivity amongst people and hence raised their standards of living:
“Such transfers do not represent mutually cancelling gains and losses, as transfers of material wealth do in exploitation theories, for knowledge is not diminished at its source when it spreads to others.”
Conquests and Culture, an International History, published by Basic Books in 1998 completes a trilogy that began with Race and Culture (1994) and Migrations and Cultures (1996).