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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Niall Ferguson's 'Civilisation: Is the West History?'

 4OD Link:

Niall Ferguson, historian and presenter
One of our foremost contemporary historians, Niall Ferguson, has produced a superb TV series for channel 4, which recounts the rise of Western civilisation, examining why for so long it was able to reign supreme  above the rest of the world.

Niall Ferguson,  Professor of history at Harvard University, perhaps best known for his book Empire, presents his history with fresh vibrancy which is rarely seen in history documentary. Every word is said with so much emphasis and effort that it seems to take on a whole new meaning. The series transports us to locations as varied as London, Vienna, Berlin,  Istanbul, China, Peru, Africa and the United States. Visiting the places, and admiring the splendour of the buildings, and sharing the books used as sources brings the history to life. Seeing him in a library, engaging with the sources, gives us interaction with the past. So Ferguson's excellent presentation, and the brilliancy of the locations, combine to provide superb documentary, which is fascinating, and entertaining.

In the six-part series, Ferguson uses a model of 'killer apps' to structure each episode. These link the past, not just with the present, but also the future, showing how the West gained supremacy historically for a number of reasons, and how things seem to be swinging back to the East again. 

Episode 1

China for many years was at the centre of technology and advances in wisdom

The first episode looks at competition, and how this helps to make Western civilisation a dominant one for so many centuries. Starting off with China in the fifteenth century, he examines how China was once an expansive superpower, that invented many things that would not be discovered in Europe for centuries; the clock, football, chess, and gun powder, all came from China centuries before they were used by their European counterparts. 

China even set off on its own voyage of discovery, finding parts of the Pacific and Americas that would not be identified by Europeans for many years. It was the loss of a great ruler, and subsequently a great captain leading these voyages, that would cause the Chinese to look inwards, and abandon their discoveries, until they were eventually ravaged by disease, war and bankruptcy. The West, however, were interested in competition. Unlike the Chinese, who suddenly became isolationist, Europeans were keen for new trade oppurtunities, competing with each other to identify new routes to India, when the Silk Road was inaccessible. It was competition that spurred on the voyages of discovery, which led to the colonisation of the Americas, and opened up new opportunities for Europeans to trade, spread their ideas and religion, marking it out as a superior civilisation. 

Episode 2

Frederick the Great of Prussia

In the second episode, Ferguson looks at why the West was able to progress in science. He explains that for centuries before the seventeenth century, the Islamic world had been a leader in science and mathematics, discovering the theory of algebra. The Ottoman Empire, centred in Istanbul, was a force to be reckoned with. In 1683 they laid siege to Vienna, which was then the capital of a vast empire stretching across swathes of Europe. Mistakes at the siege caused the Ottomans to be defeated and lose confidence in their abilities. As a result of religious rulers, calligraphy was to be used in preference to books, hindering their access to education and discovery. Bureacrats became unable to deal with the systems of government, and the Ottomans came under threat from the Persians. 

Meanwhile, Frederick the Great (who I remember from my degree being referred to as an "Enlightened despot") took great care in the governance of Prussia, developed a superior military army through the development of artillery, and erected magnificent buildings (which had me in complete awe just looking at them - I now really want to go to Vienna and Berlin) in order to project the military greatness of Prussia. Unlike in Istanbul, where science was seen as contrary to religion (which reminded me of creationism in America, perhaps suggesting that America's decline is due to the beliefs of some Americans). European governments not only encouraged the advancement of science, but often endorsed it, as is seen with Charles II and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.  

Without  the investment in science and the Enlightenment, the Ottoman Empire lagged behind. But in the twentieth century, Turkey underwent a revolution which changed Islamic attitudes to science, and sought to separate the two from the structures of the state. Now science has become a key component of the Islamic education system, and countries such as Iran have caught up with Europe, developing nuclear weapons, which could have us all quaking in our boots.

Episode 3

John Locke, philosopher of the late seventeenth century, whose ideas were adopted by some of the earliest American settlers in South Carolina

The third episode, entitled 'property', looks at how North America became dominant over the South. He suggests this was not because of the fertility of the soil, but because of John Locke's idea that equality meant an entitlement to property. This laid the foundations of new colonies in America, based on the democratic ideas of Britain, and allowed the colonies to flourish; through working hard and collectively,  everything was obtainable. This was something that would develop into the American Dream. The  aim of these settlers in South Carolina was to build a better life for themselves. In contrast, the Spanish bound for South America, believing it to be rich in gold, and were interested in conquering the colony. The Conquistadors ravaged the Inca population, in order to exploit the land and people. It caused division, resistance and disunity, that would eventually unhinge the country, and cause it to decline. Bolivar envisioned a South America free from the tyrannical constraints of the Spanish, but he was by no means a Latin American George Washington. He was interested in forming an independent Continent, not democracy based on European principles.

A poignant image of slavery

However, while Locke's ideas had created a dominant North America, slavery was to tear it down. It is a fundamental contradiction to America's founding ideals, since their ideas of equality seem to completely contradict slavery. But slavery in North America, convinced the Euro-Americans of their racial superiority,  and the belief that they alone were entitled to certain rights. This was something that was largely accepted across the States until about forty years ago. In the States, slavery caused divisions among racial lines, and eventually between North and South in the Civil War, whereas in Brazil racial difference became an accepted part of society. Ferguson concludes by saying that Brazil is quickly becoming an industrial superpower, while the United States seems to be abandoning their racial links, with white Americans coming to be superseded by a Latino migrant population, and a black president - the suggestion is that within forty years, the white population will be a minority in the States!

Episode 4


In the fourth episode, Ferguson travels to Africa, where he looks at the development of medicine, and how this was used to ensure Western supremacy. The French believed the Africans were more susceptible to disease, Africa had many diseases which did not exist in Europe. They were able to transport their medicine to the Dark Continent, while conducting experiments which would improve their own medicine, and increase their grip on the continent. Medicine was also used to confirm European dominance, by proving their racial supremacy. This technique was adopted by the Germans, who built camps to house Africans so they could do horrific experiments on them. These were the precedents for the Nazi concentration camps - in fact Hitler read the literature of the leading doctor in these experiments, using them in Mein Kampf to develop his ideas of the superior Aryan race. Let us also not forget that huge numbers of Africans went off to fight in the First World War, many with the expectation of French citizenship. While European medicine had advanced, allowing many soldiers to be saved at the end of the War from the discovery of penicillin, and typhoid vaccines; thousands of Africans died from pneumonia, not protected by the medicine they were exploited to develop! So I found this episode particularly poignant and fascinating, reminding us once again how cruel us Europeans were (although it seemed to focus on France and Germany, I am sure it was us too)!

I am looking forward to next week's episode, hoping it can give me further insight into why the West was best, and now it just isn't!

*All pictures have been taken from the internet and are there simply to make the blog a bit more vibrant.

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