The Buddhist monastery complex at Nalanda, in today’s Indian state of Bihar, was a center of learning founded in the fifth century CE. Archaeological excavations which begun in 1915 has revealed temples, lecture and meditation halls, libraries and gardens, together with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions. Subjects taught here included the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, fine arts, astronomy, mathematics, politics and epistemology, but above all it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta empire, 240-590 CE, despite the Hindu commitments of the Gupta rulers. [Read more:Indian mathematics“] Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese monks who came here to study in the seventh century. He described the nine storey library as “soaring into the clouds.” The university had some 2,000 professors and 10,000 students who all were accommodated in dormitories. Nalanda was the first educational institution to conduct rigorous entrance exams. The fortunes of the university declined after the Gupta rulers and in the 1190s it was destroyed by invading armies from Central Asia.

There is some discussion regarding which university that is the oldest in the world. The universities founded in Paris and Bologna in the thirteenth-century CE are often said to be the oldest. Yet this ignores the fact that European universities were modeled on similar institutions in Muslim Spain which, in turn, were modeled on an institution such as Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 CE. [Read more:Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason“] Yet Nandala is older still, although Al Quaraouiyine has been in continuous operation since it was established. But in the Gupta period there were other universities in India too — at Pushpagiri, Taxila and Vikramashila.

Yet since 2014 Nandala University is once again accepting students. Led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and with economic support from various Asian countries, its aim is to once again to become Asia’s leading center of learning. Subjects taught here include ecology, history economics and languages. Buddhism is taught too but features less prominently on the curriculum. The hope is that Nandala University can help contribute to the economic development of Bihar which is one of India’s poorest regions.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The era between the empires of ancient India”

The Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty did not live in the imposing buildings in the center of Beijing, they lived at Yuangmingyuan. Yuanmingyuan was a large pleasure garden filled with palaces, villas, temples, pagodas, lakes, flowers and trees. It was also the location of an imperial archive and library, and the place where the emperors stored tributary gifts. The Yuanmingyuan was the secluded playground of the Chinese rulers; it was “the garden of gardens”and a vision of paradise.

In October, 1860, a combined army of British and French troops entered Yuanmingyuan and destroyed the whole thing. Between October 6 and 9, the French looted much of the contents of the palaces. The soldiers, including many officers, ran from room to room, “decked out in the most ridiculous-looking costumes they could find,” looking for loot. The ceramics were smashed, the artwork pulled down, the jewelry pilfered, rolls of the emperor’s best silk were used to tie up the army’s horses. “Officers and men seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity”; “a furious thirst has taken hold of us”; it was an “orgiastic rampage of looting.” Then on October 18, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, the highest-ranking diplomat and leader of the British mission to China, decided to burn the entire compound to the ground. Since most of the buildings were made of cedar-wood, they burned easily and quickly but since the compound was so large it still took them two days to complete the task.

The Europeans committed this act of barbarism in order to “civilize” the Chinese. In the middle of the nineteenth-century, the Europeans had only limited access to the Chinese market for their goods; they could not travel around the country and there were no European diplomats or missionaries permanently stationed there. This, the Europeans decided, was the reason why China had failed to become a modern – that is to say a “civilized” – country. China had isolated itself but now the Europeans were going to help them. By making war on the Chinese, they were going to force the Chinese to open up to the world market and to new influences from abroad. The destruction of Yuanmingyuan was the act of barbarism which finally decided the matter. The destruction terrorized the emperor and the court and made them realize that they were powerless against the intruders.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Opium Wars”

Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, or “Carl von Linné” as Swedes call him, was the botanist who came up with the Latin names for all plants and animals. In fact, they were not only named but above all organized into a system — a Systema naturæ, to give the title of his most famous work, published in 1735 — in which every living thing found its proper place. All species could be related to each other, even those that had not yet been discovered. In order put names into the grids of his system, Linnaeus traveled all around Sweden looking for plants, but he also dispatched his students — often referred to as his “disciples” — to find new plants in the most remote corners of the globe.

Linnaeus believed botany should serve the interests of the nation. In particular he found it an outrage that Swedes spent their hard-earned money on tea from China. We are sending silver to the Chinese and all we get in return are dry leaves! When one of the disciples returned from China with a tea bush Linné was very excited by the prospect of starting a tea plantation in Sweden. Imagine how rich Sweden would be if we never had to trade with others! Unfortunately the bush died when exposed to the harsh Swedish winter.

Carl von Linné may have been a great botanist but he, together with next to all of his contemporaries, did not understand political economy. The wealth of a nation, as Adam Smith was to explain, consists of what it can produce and Sweden cannot produce tea. It is much better to let the Chinese focus on tea and for Swedes to focus on what they are comparatively better at producing ― cars, for example, or flat-pack furniture. By focusing on their respective advantages and by trading, the wealth of both China and Sweden will be maximized. Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, 1776, provided the intellectual rationale for a global market in which there are no borders and no custom duties.

But Linné’s system of nature had a universal scope. By naming all species and putting them into the same system, the Europeans had a complete map of every living thing. Once Linné had named the world, the Europeans could start to control it. [Read more:Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494“]


External links:

Scientific American, “What’s In A Latin Name: The Legacy of Linnaeus”

Richard Coeur-de-lion, or “Lionheart,” 1157-1199, was king of England yet he is famous above all as one of the commanders of the Third Crusade. In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Europeans had captured Jerusalem and established a Christian kingdom there. In 1187, however, the faranj were decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin and Jerusalem retaken by the Muslims. It was to relieve them, and to try to get Jerusalem back, that Richard set off for the Holy Land.

On the way there he occupied Sicily in 1190, Cyprus in 1191, and once he arrived he retook the city of Acre which previously had been one of the Crusaders’ strongholds. The faranj established a new kingdom here which was to last until 1291. [Read more:Rabban Bar Sauma, Mongol envoy to the pope“] But that was as far as Richard got. The various European commanders were quarreling with each other and they lacked the soldiers and the patience required for a successful campaign. Despite repeated attempts, Richard never recaptured Jerusalem.

The person who stopped the Europeans was An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 1137–1193 CE, known as “Salah ad-Din” or “Saladin.” He was of Kurdish origin but had made his career with the Fatamids in Cairo where he rose to become vizir. In 1171, however, he turned on his employer and established a dynasty of his own, the Ayyubids. It was consequently Saladin and the Ayyubid armies that defeated the Crusaders at Hattin, took Jerusalem back, and successfully defended themselves against the European onslaught.

Richard Lionheart and Saladin are the original “knights in shining armor,” and despite an abundance of high-quality scholarship on the Crusades it is difficult to separate fact and fiction. Walter Scott, the British author, published a highly romanticized account of their rivalry in 1825, and in the twentieth-century Hollywood has produced a number of similar versions. According to the Europeans, Richard is bringing Christianity and civilization to the Middle East. According to the Arabs, Saladin is defending Muslim lands against a barbarian invasion. Reading, and fantasizing, about them ever since, political leaders both in Europe and in the Muslim world have found their respective role models.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Third Crusade”

Sir Walter Scott, Talisman

In 1620, a ship, the Mayflower, transported 102 passengers from Plymouth, England, to what was to become the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, New England. A majority of the people on-board were “Puritans,” members of a strict Protestant denomination who were persecuted in Europe. Yet they arrived too late in the season to plant crops and, the story goes, they survived only because of the help they received from the natives. The following year, after their own first harvest, they held a “thanksgiving,” a ritual meal which is commemorated by Americans to this day.

The reason they survived the first winter, it turns out, was not that they were given food by the natives but that they stole it. One of the Puritans, William Bradford, who chronicled the event, describes how they ransacked houses and dug up native burial mounds looking for buried stashes of corn. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn, for else we know not how we should have done.”

A far greater devastation was caused by European diseases. It is estimated that some 90 percent of the indigenous population of New England was wiped out by measles and smallpox. Indeed, the Puritans themselves got sick with pneumonia and tuberculosis and about half of them died as a result. Yet by this time the natives had already been infected by other Europeans. The hand of God, Thomas Morgan, another early settler, recalled, “fell heavily upon them, with such a mortall stroake that they died on heapes as they lay in their houses.” Yet this too, the settlers decided, was a result of the foresight of the Christian God who had made the land “so wondrously empty.” After their many trials and tribulations the Pilgrims were now ready to start life in the new world which God had given them.

People in the United States think of the passengers on the Mayflower as the first Americans, and those who can claim descent from one of them consider themselves as uniquely American. There are today some ten million people who can make that claim.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects: “North American Buck Skin Map”

On August 22, 1791, the slaves on the French island of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean begun a rebellion which ended with independence for the new country of Haiti in 1804. This was the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas and Haiti was the second country, after the United States, to become independent of European colonizers.

The French had first arrived here in the 1660s and in 1697 the established a colony. Saint-Domingue was a quiet, provincial, outpost in the French empire until the sugarcane arrived. In the eighteenth-century Europeans developed an intense love affair with sugar. Sugar was added to next to every form of food and drink, and it was above all on plantations in the Caribbean and the southern United States that it was produced. The labor force required for the task was imported as slaves from Africa. [Read more:Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey“] Soon the plantation owners in Saint-Domingue were making enormous profits, and the 40,000 whites on the island were the owners of some 500,000 African slaves.

The French Revolution which had taken place in 1789, two years earlier, provided the slaves with a language in which to formulate their claims. They too wanted liberté, égalité and fraternité. In addition, the voodoo religion united the community around a shared identity. The leader of the uprising, Toussaint Louverture, was a freed slave who proved himself to be a very talented general and before long he had the slave masters on the run. Once Napoleon had come to power in Paris, he sent an expedition to the Caribbean. They manage to capture Toussaint Louverture and sent him to France. Yet the revolution was unstoppable. New, equally talented, leaders emerged and in 1803 the French army was conclusively defeated. Independence was declared the following year. The country was renamed “Haiti,” meaning “mountainous place” in the language spoken by the Taino, the people who had lived here before Columbus arrived.

The subsequent history of Haiti is sad. By the nineteenth-century the sugar boom was over and the country’s new elite proved itself to be both authoritarian and corrupt. The United States invaded the island in 1915 and occupied it until 1934. Since 1945, the country has had had a number of dictators and military coups have replaced one another. Haiti is today the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Effects of the slave trade on the Americas”

15 Minute History, “The Haitian Revolution”

In 1494, representatives of the crowns of Portugal and Spain met to divide the world between them. At the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal was given everything west of a meridian running between the Cape Verde islands and the new lands which Columbus had discovered. The other, the eastern, side of the world was subsequently divided through the Treaty of Zaragoza, 1529, along a meridian which mirrored the one already agreed on. On both occasions the Pope in Rome was involved. It was God who had given the world to mankind, after all, and only his representative on earth had the authority to approve a division of it.

From now on what amounted to the center of the world belonged to Portugal and the rest belonged to Spain. Thus Africa, the Indian Ocean and Brazil fell to the Portuguese, whereas Spain received the remainder of the Americas but also, for example, the Philippines. This is why people to this day speak Portuguese in Brazil but Spanish in Mexico and Peru. The treaty is a one of the first examples of how a science invented in Europe — cartography — could be used as a means of controlling the world.

Spain and Portugal respected this agreement fairly conscientiously despite the fact that it was based on maps which were less than perfect. However, other European countries never did. When the Dutch Republic and England took over much of world trade in the seventeenth-century, the Treaty of Tordesillas became irrelevant.

In the twentieth-century the Treaty of Tordesillas was invoked by Chile to support its claims to a chunk of the Antarctic, and by Argentina as a part of its claim to the Falkland islands, the Islas Malvinas, in the south Atlantic.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was only the first time that European powers met to divide the world between them in an orderly and civilized fashion. In the nineteenth-century Africa and China were divided in much the same way. [Read more:The Berlin Conference“] And at the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union met to determine each other’s respective “spheres of influence.” On none of these occasions were the people who were divided asked for their opinion.


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