Part 8 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
While on the land side of the historical stage appropriations in the grandest of styles were in progress, on the other, no less important side, that of the sea, the new distribution of our planet was being carried out. That happened as the British were taking possession of the seas.
On that side of the stage, it was the result of the pan-European upsurge in that century. Through it, the fundamental outlines of the first planetary spatial order was set, which consisted in the separation of land from sea. Henceforth, the dry land would belong to a score of sovereign states. The sea, on the other hand, would belong to nobody, or everybody, but in reality, it would belong to a single country: England. The dry-land order implies the subdivision into state territories. The high seas, in turn, are free: they know no state and are not subjected to any state or territorial sovereignty. Those were the basic spatial premises upon which the Christian-European civil law was built during three centuries. In that period they were the basic law, the nomos of the Earth.
The primordial facts of the British conquest of the seas, and the separation of land from sea, need to be taken into consideration if one is to grasp the true meaning of the famous slogans and maxims so often quoted at the time, like for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh’s saying: “Whoever controls the seas controls the world trade; whoever controls world trade holds all the treasures of the world in his possession, and in fact, the whole world.” Or: “All trade is world trade; all world trade is maritime trade.” Slogans about freedom such as “All world trade is free exchange” express the zenith of England’s maritime and global power. Their veracity should be appreciated in relation to a particular era, to a certain world situation. Indeed, no absolute and eternal truths may be derived from them. Nevertheless, they all spell out the land-sea dichotomy, in the opposition between land warfare and naval warfare. Both strategically and tactically, land warfare and naval warfare have always been two different things. But now, their opposition came to express the presence of two distinct worlds and two antithetical, juridical convictions.
Since the sixteenth century, the countries of continental Europe had been working out the forms of land warfare based on the notion that war was a state-to-state affair. On each side, there stood the organized military power of the state, while the armies were confronting each other in open, pitched battle. Only the armies present in the field took part in the hostilities: the non-combatant civilian population remained uninvolved in the fighting. As long as it did not take part in the battle, it was not regarded as the enemy.
On the other hand, the naval wars were based on the idea of the necessity of treating the enemy’s trade and economy as one. Hence the enemy was no longer the opponent in arms alone, but every inhabitant of the enemy nation, and ultimately every neutral country that had economic links with the enemy. Land warfare implied a decisive confrontation in the field. While not excluding naval combat, the maritime war, on the other hand, favored such characeristic means as bombardment, the blockade of the enemy shores, and the capture of enemy and neutral merchantmen in virtue of the right to capture. As such, the sea war tactics were directed both against enemy combatants and the non-combatants. Thus a starvation blockade indiscriminately affected the entire population of the involved territory: soldiers, civilians, men, women, children, and old people.
It is not merely a matter of two different but complementary aspects of one and the same order of the international civil law. Rather, it is a question of two different worlds. As the British took possession of the seas, both they and the nations in the English sphere of influence ended by getting used to it. The idea that a continental power might exercise its supremacy over the whole globe was unheard of and unbearable. That was not held to apply in the case of world domination built upon a maritime existence cut off from land and embracing all the oceans of the world.
By turning away from firm land and opting for the sea, a relatively small island, planted in the north-west of Europe, gradually became the center of a world empire. In a purely maritime existence, it found the means of establishing a world power spreading over the entire globe. As the severance of land from sea became the fundamental law of the planet one would witness the mushrooming of theories, expositions, and even scientific systems by which people tried to convince themselves of the wisdom and soundness of that position.
They did not bother, however, to scrutinize its origins: the British conquest of the seas, in its specific historical context. Outstanding students of national economies, lawyers, and philosophers would work out those systems, and our great grand-parents would accept them as the obvious truth. They did it so well that they could no longer imagine an alternative civil law and economics. Here you can see that the great leviathan had exerted its power over minds and hearts too. Of all the signs of its domination, it is indeed the most remarkable.
England is an island. But in order to deserve being called an “island” in the sense given to that word in the sentence “England is an island,” she first had to become the carrier and the focus of the elemental transition from land to high seas and to inherit all the maritime surge released during that period. It was only by turning into an “island” in a new sense, previously unknown, that England could succeed in conquering the oceans and win the first round of the planetary spatial revolution.
It goes without saying that England is an island. But the simple affirmation of this geographical fact does not mean much of anything. There are many islands in the world that have had quite different political destinies. Sicily is also an island, and so are Ireland and Cuba, Madagascar or Japan. Yet how divergent are their histories! In a certain sense, after all, even the largest continents are but islands, and the ancient Greeks already knew that the whole inhabited land was surrounded by oceans.
England herself, since she was severed from the Continent a few millennia ago (probably some 18,000 years before our era) has remained an island from a geographical standpoint, despite all the attempts to the contrary in her historical evolution. She was an island when the Celts colonized her and afterward when she was conquered by Caesar for Rome; she was an island at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) and later, during the life-time of Joan of Arc (1431), when the English were occupying a good part of France.
Moreover, the inhabitants of this island felt that they were living inside a well-defended redoubt. The Middle Ages have left us beautiful poems and songs about England sheltered by the sea as a fortress by its moat. Nonetheless, it is in Shakespeare that one finds the best and most beautiful expression of that insular feeling:
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
. . .
This happy breed of man, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house.
It is understandable why the English liked to quote these verses and why, in particular, the line “This precious stone set in the silver sea” could become a household word. Such outbursts of English insular consciousness, though, refer to the old island. The island was still perceived as a piece of land separated from the Continent and surrounded by water. The insular consciousness was still land-bound, soil-bound and so territorial through and through. It does not take long to realize that the insular sentiment expressed a distinctively strong terrestrial rooting. So it would be wrong to think that every islander or even all of today’s Britons are born sea-roamers.
We have already seen what a turnabout was implicit in the transformation of a nation of sheep-breeders in the sixteenth century into a nation of sea children. It was the fundamental transformation of the political and historical essence of the island itself. Henceforth, the land would be looked at from the sea, and the island would cease to be seen as a split chipped from the Continent, but rather as part of the sea: a ship or a fish.
The terrestrial onlooker finds it hard to understand that the continental space could be perceived with a distinctly maritime eye, in virtue of an outlook molded by the sea. Ordinary, everyday language builds up its designations out of our earthly experience. We have talked about it at the very beginning of this story. We simply call our planet and our representation of it our earth, forgetting that it might as easily be called our sea. While talking of maritime communications, we speak of maritime routes, whereas in reality, there are but lines and no routes as on dry land. A ship on high seas recalls a piece of territory afloat, a “floating extension of the national territory,” to use the words sanctioned by the international law. A man-of-war makes us think of a floating fortress, and an island like England, of a fortified castle with waves lapping round it as in a moat.
To the seamen, they were as many inexact metaphors, the fruit of a terrestrial imagination. A ship is as much a floating piece of land as it is a swimming dog. Contrarywise, from a strictly maritime point of view, the Continent is but a shore, a strand with its hinterland. Looked at from the sea, a whole country may seen the very picture of a shipwreck washed ashore by the waves. An illustration of this perspective, extreme in its formulation and quite astounding, are Edmund Burke’s words: Spain is but a whale stranded on Europe’s shores.
That is why all her essential relations with the rest of the world, and particularly with the countries of the European continent, were transformed as soon as England opted for an exclusively maritime existence. Henceforward, all the standards and criteria of British politics became incompatible with those of all the other European countries. Energized by her maritime and global supremacy, England, queen of the seas, built up an empire that spread to the four corners of the planet.
The English world began to think in terms of bases and lines of communication. What to other nations was soil and homeland, appeared to the English as mere hinterland. The very word “continental” was lent a retrograde connotation, and the nations concerned were thought of as backward people.
As a consequence, the island of Britain, the metropolis of a world empire raised on a maritime destiny, would be uprooted and lose its territorial character. Like a fish, it was able to swim to another spot of the globe. It was no more and no less than the mobile centre of a world empire, the possessions of which were strewn in no coherent pattern over all continents.
The leading politician at the Victorian era, Disraeli, would state that the British Empire was more an Asian than a European power when looked upon from India. It was he who in 1876 added to the title of Queen of England that of Empress of India. Thus it was made apparent that the British world power owed its imperial character to India. As early as 1847, in his novel Tancred, the same Disraeli had suggested that the English queen should hold court in India. “The queen would gather a powerful fleet and together with all her court and the ruling elite move the seat of her empire from London to Delhi. There, she would find an immense empire ready to welcome her, a first-rate army, and considerable revenues.”
Disraeli was a 19th-century Abravanel. Some of his opinions about race as engine of world history, about Judaism and Christianity, were zealously disseminated by non-Jews and non-Christians. He knew what he was talking about. When making such suggestions, he felt that England, the island, was no longer part of Europe. Her destiny was no longer necessarily linked to that of Europe. She could free herself and change seats, as metropolis of a world maritime empire. The ship could lift its anchor to go and cast it some other place. The great fish, the leviathan could set itself in motion in search of other oceans.