Colonial Expansion and War
A Chapter Which Ought to Give You a Great Deal of Political Information about the Last Fifty Years, But Which Really Contains Several Explanations and a Few Apologies
I F I had known how difficult it was to write a History of the World, I should never have undertaken the task. Of course, any one possessed of enough industry to lose himself for half a dozen years in the musty stacks of a library, can compile a ponderous tome which gives an account of the events in every land during every century. But that was not the purpose of the present book. The publishers wanted to print a history that should have rhythm—a story which galloped rather than walked. And now that I have almost finished I discover that certain chapters gallop, that others wade slowly through the dreary sands of long forgotten ages—that a few parts do not make any progress at all, while still others indulge in a veritable jazz of action and romance. I did not like this and I suggested that we destroy the whole manuscript and begin once more from the beginning. This, however, the publishers would not allow.
As the next best solution of my difficulties, I took the typewritten pages to a number of charitable friends and asked them to read what I had said, and give me the benefit of their advice. The experience was rather disheartening. Each and every man had his own prejudices and his own hobbies and preferences. They all wanted to know why, where and how I dared to omit their pet nation, their pet statesman, or even their most beloved criminal. With some of them, Napoleon and Jenghiz Khan were candidates for high honours. I explained that I had tried very hard to be fair to Napoleon, but that in my estimation he was greatly inferior to such men as George Washington, Gustavus Wasa, Augustus, Hammurabi or Lincoln, and a score of others all of whom were obliged to content themselves with a few paragraphs, from sheer lack of space. As for Jenghiz Khan, I only recognise his superior ability in the field of wholesale murder and I did not intend to give him any more publicity than I could help.
"This is very well as far as it goes," said the next critic, "but how about the Puritans? We are celebrating the tercentenary of their arrival at Plymouth. They ought to have more space." My answer was that if I were writing a history of America, the Puritans would get fully one half of the first twelve chapters; that however this was a history of mankind and that the event on Plymouth rock was not a matter of far- reaching international importance until many centuries later; that the United States had been founded by thirteen colonies and not by a single one; that the most prominent leaders of the first twenty years of our history had been from Virginia, from Pennsylvania, and from the island of Nevis, rather than from Massachusetts; and that therefore the Puritans ought to content themselves with a page of print and a special map.
Next came the prehistoric specialist. Why in the name of the great Tyrannosaur had I not devoted more space to the wonderful race of Cro-Magnon men, who had developed such a high stage of civilisation 10,000 years ago?
Indeed, and why not? The reason is simple. I do not take as much stock in the perfection of these early races as some of our most noted anthropologists seem to do. Rousseau and the philosophers of the eighteenth century created the "noble savage" who was supposed to have dwelt in a state of perfect happiness during the beginning of time. Our modern scientists have discarded the "noble savage," so dearly beloved by our grandfathers, and they have replaced him by the "splendid savage" of the French Valleys who 35,000 years ago made an end to the universal rule of the low-browed and low-living brutes of the Neanderthal and other Germanic neighbourhoods. They have shown us the elephants the Cro-Magnon painted and the statues he carved and they have surrounded him with much glory.
I do not mean to say that they are wrong. But I hold that we know by far too little of this entire period to re-construct that early west-European society with any degree (however humble) of accuracy. And I would rather not state certain things than run the risk of stating certain things that were not so.
Then there were other critics, who accused me of direct unfairness. Why did I leave out such countries as Ireland and Bulgaria and Siam while I dragged in such other countries as Holland and Iceland and Switzerland? My answer was that I did not drag in any countries. They pushed themselves in by main force of circumstances, and I simply could not keep them out. And in order that my point may be understood, let me state the basis upon which active membership to this book of history was considered.
There was but one rule. "Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?" It was not a question of personal taste. It was a matter of cool, almost mathematical judgment. No race ever played a more picturesque role in history than the Mongolians, and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent progress, was of less value to the rest of mankind.
The career of Tiglath-Pileser, the Assyrian, is full of dramatic episodes. But as far as we are concerned, he might just as well never have existed at all. In the same way, the history of the Dutch Republic is not interesting because once upon a time the sailors of de Ruyter went fishing in the river Thames, but rather because of the fact that this small mud-bank along the shores of the North Sea offered a hospitable asylum to all sorts of strange people who had all sorts of queer ideas upon all sorts of very unpopular subjects.
It is quite true that Athens or Florence, during the hey-day of their glory, had only one tenth of the population of Kansas City. But our present civilisation would be very different had neither of these two little cities of the Mediterranean basin existed. And the same (with due apologies to the good people of Wyandotte County) can hardly be said of this busy metropolis on the Missouri River.
And since I am being very personal, allow me to state one other fact.
When we visit a doctor, we find out before hand whether he is a surgeon or a diagnostician or a homeopath or a faith healer, for we want to know from what angle he will look at our complaint. We ought to be as careful in the choice of our historians as we are in the selection of our physicians. We think, "Oh well, history is history," and let it go at that. But the writer who was educated in a strictly Presbyterian household somewhere in the backwoods of Scotland will look differently upon every question of human relationships from his neighbour who as a child, was dragged to listen to the brilliant exhortations of Robert Ingersoll, the enemy of all revealed Devils. In due course of time, both men may forget their early training and never again visit either church or lecture hall. But the influence of these impressionable years stays with them and they cannot escape showing it in whatever they write or say or do.
In the preface to this book, I told you that I should not be an infallible guide and now that we have almost reached the end, I repeat the warning. I was born and educated in an atmosphere of the old-fashioned liberalism which had followed the discoveries of Darwin and the other pioneers of the nineteenth century. As a child, I happened to spend most of my waking hours with an uncle who was a great collector of the books written by Montaigne, the great French essayist of the sixteenth century. Because I was born in Rotterdam and educated in the city of Gouda, I ran continually across Erasmus and for some unknown reason this great exponent of tolerance took hold of my intolerant self. Later I discovered Anatole France and my first experience with the English language came about through an accidental encounter with Thackeray's "Henry Esmond," a story which made more impression upon me than any other book in the English language.
If I had been born in a pleasant middle western city I probably should have a certain affection for the hymns which I had heard in my childhood. But my earliest recollection of music goes back to the afternoon when my Mother took me to hear nothing less than a Bach fugue. And the mathematical perfection of the great Protestant master influenced me to such an extent that I cannot hear the usual hymns of our prayer-meetings without a feeling of intense agony and direct pain.
Again, if I had been born in Italy and had been warmed by the sunshine of the happy valley of the Arno, I might love many colourful and sunny pictures which now leave me indifferent because I got my first artistic impressions in a country where the rare sun beats down upon the rain-soaked land with almost cruel brutality and throws everything into violent contrasts of dark and light.
I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view. The bibliography at the end of this book, which represents all sorts of opinions and views, will allow you to compare my ideas with those of other people. And in this way, you will be able to reach your own final conclusions with a greater degree of fairness than would otherwise be possible.
After this short but necessary excursion, we return to the history of the last fifty years. Many things happened during this period but very little occurred which at the time seemed to be of paramount importance. The majority of the greater powers ceased to be mere political agencies and became large business enterprises. They built railroads. They founded and subsidized steam-ship lines to all parts of the world. They connected their different possessions with telegraph wires. And they steadily increased their holdings in other continents. Every available bit of African or Asiatic territory was claimed by one of the rival powers. France became a colonial nation with interests in Algiers and Madagascar and Annam and Tonkin (in eastern Asia). Germany claimed parts of southwest and east Africa, built settlements in Kameroon on the west coast of Africa and in New Guinea and many of the islands of the Pacific, and used the murder of a few missionaries as a welcome excuse to take the harbour of Kasochau on the Yellow Sea in China. Italy tried her luck in Abyssinia, was disastrously defeated by the soldiers of the Negus, and consoled herself by occupying the Turkish possessions in Tripoli in northern Africa. Russia, having occupied all of Siberia, took Port Arthur away from China. Japan, having defeated China in the war of 1895, occupied the island of Formosa and in the year 1905 began to lay claim to the entire empire of Corea. In the year 1883 England, the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen, undertook to "protect" Egypt. She performed this task most efficiently and to the great material benefit of that much neglected country, which ever since the opening of the Suez canal in 1868 had been threatened with a foreign invasion. During the next thirty years she fought a number of colonial wars in different parts of the world and in 1902 (after three years of bitter fighting) she conquered the independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Meanwhile she had encouraged Cecil Rhodes to lay the foundations for a great African state, which reached from the Cape almost to the mouth of the Nile, and had faithfully picked up such islands or provinces as had been left without a European owner.
The shrewd king of Belgium, by name Leopold, used the discoveries of Henry Stanley to found the Congo Free State in the year 1885. Originally this gigantic tropical empire was an "absolute monarchy." But after many years of scandalous mismanagement, it was annexed by the Belgian people who made it a colony (in the year 1908) and abolished the terrible abuses which had been tolerated by this very unscrupulous Majesty, who cared nothing for the fate of the natives as long as he got his ivory and rubber.
As for the United States, they had so much land that they desired no further territory. But the terrible misrule of Cuba, one of the last of the Spanish possessions in the western hemisphere, practically forced the Washington government to take action. After a short and rather uneventful war, the Spaniards were driven out of Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and the two latter became colonies of the United States.
This economic development of the world was perfectly natural. The increasing number of factories in England and France and Germany needed an ever increasing amount of raw materials and the equally increasing number of European workers needed an ever increasing amount of food. Everywhere the cry was for more and for richer markets, for more easily accessible coal mines and iron mines and rubber plantations and oil-wells, for greater supplies of wheat and grain.
The purely political events of the European continent dwindled to mere insignificance in the eyes of men who were making plans for steamboat lines on Victoria Nyanza or for railroads through the interior of Shantung. They knew that many European questions still remained to be settled, but they did not bother, and through sheer indifference and carelessness they bestowed upon their descendants a terrible inheritance of hate and misery. For untold centuries the south-eastern corner of Europe had been the scene of rebellion and bloodshed. During the seventies of the last century the people of Serbia and Bulgaria and Montenegro and Roumania were once more trying to gain their freedom and the Turks (with the support of many of the western powers), were trying to prevent this.
After a period of particularly atrocious massacres in Bulgaria in the year 1876, the Russian people lost all patience. The Government was forced to intervene just as President McKinley was obliged to go to Cuba and stop the shooting-squads of General Weyler in Havana. In April of the year 1877 the Russian armies crossed the Danube, stormed the Shipka pass, and after the capture of Plevna, marched southward until they reached the gates of Constantinople. Turkey appealed for help to England. There were many English people who denounced their government when it took the side of the Sultan. But Disraeli (who had just made Queen Victoria Empress of India and who loved the picturesque Turks while he hated the Russians who were brutally cruel to the Jewish people within their frontiers) decided to interfere. Russia was forced to conclude the peace of San Stefano (1878) and the question of the Balkans was left to a Congress which convened at Berlin in June and July of the same year.
This famous conference was entirely dominated by the personality of Disraeli. Even Bismarck feared the clever old man with his well-oiled curly hair and his supreme arrogance, tempered by a cynical sense of humor and a marvellous gift for flattery. At Berlin the British prime-minister carefully watched over the fate of his friends the Turks. Montenegro, Serbia and Roumania were recognised as independent kingdoms. The principality of Bulgaria was given a semi-independent status under Prince Alexander of Battenberg, a nephew of Tsar Alexander II. But none of those countries were given the chance to develop their powers and their resources as they would have been able to do, had England been less anxious about the fate of the Sultan, whose domains were necessary to the safety of the British Empire as a bulwark against further Russian aggression.
To make matters worse, the congress allowed Austria to take Bosnia and Herzegovina away from the Turks to be "administered" as part of the Habsburg domains. It is true that Austria made an excellent job of it. The neglected provinces were as well managed as the best of the British colonies, and that is saying a great deal. But they were inhabited by many Serbians. In older days they had been part of the great Serbian empire of Stephan Dushan, who early in the fourteenth century had defended western Europe against the invasions of the Turks and whose capital of Uskub had been a centre of civilisation one hundred and fifty years before Columbus discovered the new lands of the west. The Serbians remembered their ancient glory as who would not? They resented the presence of the Austrians in two provinces, which, so they felt, were theirs by every right of tradition.
And it was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, that the archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was murdered on June 28 of the year 1914. The assassin was a Serbian student who had acted from purely patriotic motives.
But the blame for this terrible catastrophe which was the immediate, though not the only cause of the Great World War did not lie with the half-crazy Serbian boy or his Austrian victim. It must be traced back to the days of the famous Berlin Conference when Europe was too busy building a material civilisation to care about the aspirations and the dreams of a forgotten race in a dreary corner of the old Balkan peninsula.