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20 December 1999

What if the Armada had landed . . . ?

New Statesman Millennium - What if the Armada had landed . . . or Columbus had never made i

By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

We are obsessed by change and think we live in a chronically self-transmuting world. Yet most of the “revolutions” of the past 1,000 years seem eminently forgettable, rapidly reversed or capped by long-term continuities, such as immutable human nature, which has wrecked our hopes of progress.

The industrial revolution, proclaimed to my generation as “probably the most important event in the history of the world”, has already yielded to a postindustrial age. The “scientific revolution” has been subverted: a recent counter-revolution has discarded the ordered model of the universe and substituted quanta and chaos.

Historians have reclassified the reformation as an episode in a long climacteric, not a turning-point or transformation. The uniqueness of the renaissance has vanished, as mirror-image renaissances have multiplied. The importance of the French revolution has been ridiculously overestimated: a republican dawn, followed by the proliferation of monarchies, a universalist upsurge which inaugurated an age of nationalism, an enlightenment which reigned in terror and dissolved in blood.

The recent rise of liberal democracy already seems just a brief blip, not the “end of history”. The triumph of the west is already being overtaken by the resurgence of the east. The tide of empires seems to have turned, as waves of counter-colonisation – by former victim-peoples in sometime imperial heartlands – wash over the world.

If, therefore, any or all of these supposedly great mutations had never happened, the world would not have been much different.

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Yet there are some events – usually overlooked or undervalued, like the flap of the butterfly’s wings – that really did set off convulsive effects and rejigged the history of the past 1,000 years. The big issues in the world history of our millennium have concerned the clash of civilisations, in which China, Islam and “the west” have contended for supremacy. The big issue of the future is how the cultural diversity of our “multi-civilisational world” will be perpetuated or resolved. The balance that has emerged has been delicate, shifting and prone to sudden lurches. The outcome we have experienced has happened by accident and is unlikely to last. Any of the following eventualities might have forestalled it – and others like them are likely to upset it.

If Seljuk, the 11th-century Turkish war-chief, had remained a pagan . . . if he had remained uninspired by a dream, in which he imagined himself ejaculating fire over the world, he might never have pursued all-conquering ambitions in alliance with Islam. The nomad manpower of central Asia would never have been recruited to refresh Muslim strength. The crusader kingdoms would have survived. Islam would have withered or become a marginal force in the world. Eventually, the nomads would have succumbed to those emasculating religions, Christianity and Buddhism.

If the great grassland belt of Africa had been united in the Middle Ages by an imperial people . . . an avenue of cultural exchange would have spanned the continent. The civilisations of the Niger would have been linked with Christian Ethiopia. Cultural cross-fertilisation tends to nourish technological innovations. If the grassland had developed as a corridor of east-west communications, Africa might never have ceded to Europe the vast technical advantage that crushed resistance to western imperialism in modern times.

We should live in a world of equipollent continents. African civilisation would have contended on equal terms with those of Eurasia and the Americas. White abuse of black slavery would have been impossible, modern racism unthinkable.

If Columbus hadn’t “discovered” America . . . it’s usually supposed that someone else soon would. Not so. Columbus was extremely unusual in the history of exploration: he had the guts to follow the wind, whereas almost all maritime explorations in the age of sail were made into the wind because explorers were more anxious about getting home than finding something new. If he had failed, it would have been many years before anyone in Europe opened a viable route to America. The making of our Atlantic civilisation would have been critically delayed. The rise of the west would have been cut short. The normal state of the world – with most of the world-shaping initiatives coming from the eastern end of Eurasia – would have been uninterrupted. From continent to continent, evolutionary divergence, which was only reversed as a result of trans-shipments of biota by voyages in Columbus’s wake, would have continued.

Or suppose a microbe had mutated . . . The history of the Americas and therefore of the world was shaped by the virulence of the epidemics that wiped out most of the indigenous population in the early colonial period. If the micro- organisms responsible had evolved slightly differently and failed to break human immune systems, Spanish America would have had a crushing superiority over all rivals.

The whole hemisphere would have been Hispanic, because the most densely populated areas became dependents or allies of Spain at an early date. Heretics would never have been allowed to settle. There would have been no Puritan ethic. No dissenters’ struggle for liberty. No Yankee hustle. No industrialisation. Overpopulation and dependency would have been perpetuated. North America would have ended up like the Philippines; and the dollar – or peso or whatever the currency of the present US would be called – would be at George Soros’s mercy.

If the Spanish Armada had landed . . . English resistance would have crumbled: it always does when invaders arrive, whether they’re Normans or William III or Nazis in the Channel Isles. Elizabeth I would have done a deal, enabling her to wow a Catholic court with designer vestments in a chapel lulled by the Masses of Victoria or Guerrero. There would have been no Protestant England, no independent Netherlands, no 17th-century conflict of conscience, no English civil war, no United Kingdom, no British empire and, above all, because there would have been no “Pilgrim Fathers” – they would have been immolated by an English Inquisition – there would have been no United States of America.

Or suppose all was unchanged until the 18th century and the 13 colonies had then lost the revolutionary war . . . The war of American independence was exceptional among 18th-century colonial wars: Britain lost it. If the usual pattern had been followed, Anglo-America would have stopped at the Ohio and the Chatachoochee, separated from French and Spanish territory by indigenous buffer states, which would have survived along the lines of the Cherokee republic.

Sometime early in the second half of the 19th century the colonies would have achieved dominion status. Or another war of independence would have been fought in defence of slavery against English liberalism. America would have been a redneck redoubt, incapable of modernisation. Either way, there would have been no manifest destiny, no American superstate – but there would have been a worse-off world, because the rest of us wouldn’t have had America to save us from fascism and communism.

Or, meanwhile, if the first Chinese state on Taiwan had lasted . . . western world hegemony would never have happened. For most of our millennium, scientific, technical and economic advantages qualified China for world supremacy; but the only way to world power is by sea, whereas the Chinese preferred to build up an ever bigger territorial empire in their own hinterland.

There were two lost moments in China’s potential history as a centre of seaborne empire. The first was the abrupt end of flag-showing voyages across the Indian Ocean, as far as Arabia and East Africa, in the 15th century. The second was the frustration of the imperial ambitions of Cheng Cheng-kung, known to western historians as Coxinga, in the 17th century.

He founded an island-kingdom in the China Seas and reconquered Taiwan from the Dutch. Because his was an independent state, unsupported from the mainland, it was hemmed in by none of the traditional Chinese inhibitions about maritime imperialism. But he died at the age of 40, while preparing to launch the conquest of the Philippines His heirs’ ambition waned. His state was absorbed by the mainland empire and China’s destiny was again diverted landward.

Or suppose everything were unchanged until the 1960s and then, if America had won in Vietnam . . . American arrogance would be insufferable. Instead of the nice mild superpower we’ve got – which only occasionally bombs the wrong people – we’d have an ideological monster-state ruled by fundamentalists with a conviction of their God-given right to boss the world around. America would have become as bad a world policeman as any of her 20th-century rivals for the job would have been: Germany, Russia, China, Japan . . .

To identify the genuinely world-transforming changes of our millennium, we need to risk daring shifts of perspective. For history is a muse glimpsed bathing between leaves: with every change of point of view, more is revealed. Hindsight hobbles the imagination. Counter-factual history has had a recent vogue, but it’s still a timid technique, practised with inhibition. We need to sweep it into a new dimension: to sharpen our awareness of what happened by imagining how the world could have been different.

If we can imagine a different past, we may be better equipped to start work on the next task: reimagining the future.

The author’s “Millennium” is published by Transworld, £14.99

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