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 in the mid-Atlantic 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 agreed on in Tordesillas. 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 of a division of it. 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.

From now on what amounted to the center of the world belonged to Portugal and the peripheries 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. 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“] 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.

External links:

In May 1857 a mutiny began among native soldiers in the army of the British East India Company. The rebels captured large parts of the northern plains of the subcontinent, including the province of Oudh and the city of Delhi, where they installed the Mughal king as their ruler. The war was characterized by great cruelty on both sides. In June 1857, the Indian rebels laid a siege on the British settlement at Kanpur – “Cawnpore” to the British – but after three weeks, with very little food left, the Europeans settlers accepted an offer of a safe passage. As they made themselves ready to depart, however, the men were all butchered. While women and children first were spared, they were later hacked to death and their bodies thrown into a well – the notorious “well of Cawnpore” – which, the story goes, “filled up to within 6 feet of the top.”

The acts of retribution meted out by the British army were every bit as savage as the acts committed by the rebels. On the suspicion of harboring pro-rebel sympathies, the British commanders ordered entire villages to be burned and the villagers to be killed. A favorite method of execution was to tie the rebels before the mouths of cannons and to blow them to pieces. As Charles Dickens’ weekly, Household Words, assured its readers in a graphic account of this practice, this way of punishing mutineers “is one of the institutions of Hindustan.” While it may seem barbarian to us, it is in fact “one of the easiest methods of passing into eternity.”

As for the British public it was largely supportive of such cruelties. Many felt betrayed by the mutineers who, an important strand of opinion argued, always had been benevolently treated by the East India Company. In general – and as newspaper proprietors soon discovered – the British public loved reading about atrocities committed against their own countrymen. The gorier the details, the more titillating; and a particular favorite were accounts of fair English maidens being raped by low-browed, brown, men. Given such heinous crimes, the justice of the British retribution was never in doubt.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Indian Mutiny”

External links:

The Germans came late to the scramble for Africa, but

External links:

After 1871, European imperialism in Africa entered a new phase. Until this time only small groups of investors, explorers and missionaries had taken an interest in this part of the world. With the exception of the Dutch settlement in South Africa and the French in Algeria, their presence had been restricted to a few trading ports along the coast. The rest of Africa was too remote, too malaria-ridden and simply not a sufficiently profitable proposition. After 1871, however, Europeans suddenly went on to explore and colonize the interior too. Before long the whole continent, with the exception of Ethiopia, was divided between them. [Read more:Countries that never were colonized“]

The reason for this burst of colonial ambition had little to do with Africa and everything to do with Europe itself. France turned to Africa as a way to compensate for the humiliating loss in the war against Germany in 1871. It was a way to prove to themselves that they still were a world power. Britain became interested mainly since they sought to check French ambitions. Germany which was united only in 1871, sought to catch up with the other Europeans powers. Africa was a good place to do it since much land here seemed to be empty. This was true of Italy too, united only in 1861. Meanwhile the Ottoman empire, which up to this point had ruled much of North Africa, was too weak to defend its former possessions. Technological advances assisted the Europeans. Steamships took them up Africa’s rivers, quinine helped them fight malaria, and far more lethal weapons helped them fight the natives.

In order to find an orderly way to resolve these conflicts, fourteen European countries gathered for a conference in Berlin in November, 1884. On the wall of the conference hall was a large map of Africa on which the Europeans staked out their claims. Only two of the delegates had themselves set foot in Africa and no Africans were present. The great winner was King Leopold II of Belgium who managed to acquire all of Congo as his personal possession. He presented himself to the world community as a great humanist and friend of the African people. In the subsequent conquest of the continent, millions of Africans died.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The scramble for Africa”

In Our Time, “The Berlin Conference”

Librivox: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Chinoiserie and the craze for all things Chinese.

External links: