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Commerce has been the source of more virtue than glory or courage or faith

Read this, taken from Roger Crowley’s brilliant book Empires of the Sea:

Everyone employed chained labour —
captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so
destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these
wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea
wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death.
Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre
quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes
driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and

And this:

Bragadin’s end was lingering and
dreadful. He was kept alive until August 17, a Friday. The wounds
on his head were festering; he was crazed with pain. After prayers,
he was processed through the city to the sound of drums and
trumpets…More dead than alive, he was tied in a chair and hoisted
to the top of a galley’s mast, ducked in the sea, and shown to the
fleet with jeers and taunts…Then he was hustled into the square
beside the church of Saint Nicholas, now converted into a mosque,
and stripped naked. The butcher ordered to commit the final act —
and this would not be forgiven in Venice– was a Jew. Tied to an
ancient column from Salamis still standing to this day, Bragadin
was skinned alive. He was dead before the butcher reached the

Until I read Crowley’s book I knew little about the struggle
between the Ottoman and Spanish empires to dominate the
Mediterranean in the sixteenth century, with the Pope, Venice, the
Knights of St John and the Barbary corsairs as their allies and
proxies. It was a time of such horror that much of southern Italy,
Greece and north Africa ended the century severely depopulated by
the slave raiders in search of galley fuel. The cruelty of both
sides defies belief, as does both sides’ complete conviction that
they were acting in the name of a virtuous God.

Now I understand better how Spain squandered the riches of south
America. (Charles V built a fleet with a Peruvian windfall and lost
that fleet and most of his men in a single abortive attack on
Algiers.) Now I understand how the Ottoman empire destroyed its own
prosperity. (The sultan requisitioned vast quantities of men, food,
weapons and supplies then destroyed them all in long sieges of
Rhodes, Malta and Cyprus.) Now I understand how the trading city
states of Italy got sucked into the pursuit of war rather than

It is clear that, as always, ordinary people wanted to carry on
with commerce, but chiefs, priests and thieves — sultans,
emperors, popes, pashas, holy knights and corsairs — just kept
plundering the fruits of that commerce for their own enrichment and
their own glory. Little wonder that, as the historian Meir Kohn
concludes, preindustrial government was predominantly predatory in nature.Not that it
is entirely free of that suspicion today.

So next time you hear somebody tell you any of the following
things, urge them to read Empires of the Sea:

1. Life was better in the past

2. Faith and glory are virtues

3. Commerce is evil


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist