Rare Spiders and Forgotten Scripts

Modern science and modern empires were motivated by the restless feeling that perhaps something important awaited beyond the horizon – something they had better explore and master. Yet the connection between science and empire went much deeper. Not just the motivation, but also the practices of empire-builders were entangled with those of scientists. For modern Europeans, building an empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project.

When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things. On 10 April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted sixty years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the exact height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.

Mohenjo-daro was one of the chief cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished in the third millennium BC and was destroyed around 1900 BC. None of India’s pre-British rulers – neither the Mauryas, nor the Guptas, nor the Delhi sultans, nor the great Mughals – had given the ruins a second glance. But a British archaeological survey took notice of the site in 1922. A British team then excavated it, and discovered the first great civilisation of India, which no Indian had been aware of.

Another telling example of British scientific curiosity was the deciphering of cuneiform script. This was the main script used throughout the Middle East for close to 3,000 years, but the last person able to read it probably died sometime in the early first millennium AD. Since then, inhabitants of the region frequently encountered cuneiform inscriptions on monuments, steles, ancient ruins and broken pots. But they had no idea how to read the weird, angular scratches and, as far as we know, they never tried. Cuneiform came to the attention of Europeans in 1618, when the Spanish ambassador in Persia went sightseeing in the ruins of ancient Persepolis, where he saw inscriptions that nobody could explain to him. News of the unknown script spread among European savants and piqued their curiosity. In 1657 European scholars published the first transcription of a cuneiform text from Persepolis. More and more transcriptions followed, and for close to two centuries scholars in the West tried to decipher them. None succeeded.

In the 1830s, a British officer named Henry Rawlinson was sent to Persia to help the shah train his army in the European style. In his spare time Rawlinson travelled around Persia and one day he was led by local guides to a cliff in the Zagros Mountains and shown the huge Behistun Inscription. About fifteen metres high and twenty-five metres wide, it had been etched high up on the cliff face on the command of King Darius I sometime around 500 BC. It was written in cuneiform script in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The inscription was well known to the local population, but nobody could read it. Rawlinson became convinced that if he could decipher the writing it would enable him and other scholars to read the numerous inscriptions and texts that were at the time being discovered all over the Middle East, opening a door into an ancient and forgotten world.

The first step in deciphering the lettering was to produce an accurate transcription that could be sent back to Europe. Rawlinson defied death to do so, scaling the steep cliff to copy the strange letters. He hired several locals to help him, most notably a Kurdish boy who climbed to the most inaccessible parts of the cliff in order to copy the upper portion of the inscription. In 1847 the project was completed, and a full and accurate copy was sent to Europe.

Rawlinson did not rest on his laurels. As an army officer, he had military and political missions to carry out, but whenever he had a spare moment he puzzled over the secret script. He tried one method after another and finally managed to decipher the Old Persian part of the inscription. This was easiest, since Old Persian was not that different from modern Persian, which Rawlinson knew well. An understanding of the Old Persian section gave him the key he needed to unlock the secrets of the Elamite and Babylonian sections. The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices – the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats. Without the efforts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern empires.

Another notable imperialist scholar was William Jones. Jones arrived in India in September 1783 to serve as a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal. He was so captivated by the wonders of India that within less than six months of his arrival he had founded the Asiatic Society. This academic organisation was devoted to studying the cultures, histories and societies of Asia, and in particular those of India. Within two years Jones published his observations on the Sanskrit language, which pioneered the science of comparative linguistics.

In his publications Jones pointed out surprising similarities between Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that became the sacred tongue of Hindu ritual, and the Greek and Latin languages, as well as similarities between all these languages and Gothic, Celtic, Old Persian, German, French and English. Thus in Sanskrit, ‘mother’ is ‘matar’, in Latin it is ‘mater’, and in Old Celtic it is ‘mathir’. Jones surmised that all these languages must share a common origin, developing from a now-forgotten ancient ancestor. He was thus the first to identify what later came to be called the Indo-European family of languages.

Jones’ study was an important milestone not merely due to his bold (and accurate) hypotheses, but also because of the orderly methodology that he developed to compare languages. It was adopted by other scholars, enabling them systematically to study the development of all the world’s languages.

Linguistics received enthusiastic imperial support. The European empires believed that in order to govern effectively they must know the languages and cultures of their subjects. British officers arriving in India were supposed to spend up to three years in a Calcutta college, where they studied Hindu and Muslim law alongside English law; Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian alongside Greek and Latin; and Tamil, Bengali and Hindustani culture alongside mathematics, economics and geography. The study of linguistics provided invaluable help in understanding the structure and grammar of local languages.

Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself. Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fewer than 5,000 British officials, about 40,000–70,000 British soldiers, and perhaps another 100,000 British business people, hangers-on, wives and children were sufficient to conquer and rule up to 300 million Indians.9

Yet these practical advantages were not the only reason why empires financed the study of linguistics, botany, geography and history. No less important was the fact that science gave the empires ideological justification. Modern Europeans came to believe that acquiring new knowledge was always good. The fact that the empires produced a constant stream of new knowledge branded them as progressive and positive enterprises. Even today, histories of sciences such as geography, archaeology and botany cannot avoid crediting the European empires, at least indirectly. Histories of botany have little to say about the suffering of the Aboriginal Australians, but they usually find some kind words for James Cook and Joseph Banks.

Furthermore, the new knowledge accumulated by the empires made it possible, at least in theory, to benefit the conquered populations and bring them the benefits of ‘progress’ – to provide them with medicine and education, to build railroads and canals, to ensure justice and prosperity. Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-European races – in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild –

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

Of course, the facts often belied this myth. The British conquered Bengal, the richest province of India, in 1764. The new rulers were interested in little except enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that a few years later led to the outbreak of the Great Bengal Famine. It began in 1769, reached catastrophic levels in 1770, and lasted until 1773. About 10 million Bengalis, a third of the province’s population, died in the calamity.10

In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ completely matches the facts. The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them. You think that these empires were evil monstrosities that spread death, oppression and injustice around the world? You could easily fill an encyclopedia with their crimes. You want to argue that they in fact improved the conditions of their subjects with new medicines, better economic conditions and greater security? You could fill another encyclopedia with their achievements. Due to their close cooperation with science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

But science was also used by imperialists to more sinister ends. Biologists, anthropologists and even linguists provided scientific proof that Europeans are superior to all other races, and consequently have the right (if not perhaps the duty) to rule over them. After William Jones argued that all Indo-European languages descend from a single ancient language many scholars were eager to discover who the speakers of that language had been. They noticed that the earliest Sanskrit speakers, who had invaded India from Central Asia more than 3,000 years ago, had called themselves Arya. The speakers of the earliest Persian language called themselves Airiia. European scholars consequently surmised that the people who spoke the primordial language that gave birth to both Sanskrit and Persian (as well as to Greek, Latin, Gothic and Celtic) must have called themselves Aryans. Could it be a coincidence that those who founded the magnificent Indian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilisations were all Aryans?

Next, British, French and German scholars wedded the linguistic theory about the industrious Aryans to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and posited that the Aryans were not just a linguistic group but a biological entity – a race. And not just any race, but a master race of tall, light-haired, blue-eyed, hard-working, and super-rational humans who emerged from the mists of the north to lay the foundations of culture throughout the world. Regrettably, the Aryans who invaded India and Persia intermarried with the local natives they found in these lands, losing their light complexions and blond hair, and with them their rationality and diligence. The civilisations of India and Persia consequently declined. In Europe, on the other hand, the Aryans preserved their racial purity. This is why Europeans had managed to conquer the world, and why they were fit to rule it – provided they took precautions not to mix with inferior races.

Such racist theories, prominent and respectable for many decades, have become anathema among scientists and politicians alike. People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it’s about time we coined it. Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’

Thus European right-wing parties which oppose Muslim immigration usually take care to avoid racial terminology. Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of the Front National go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny. Since the two cultures are so different, and since many Muslim immigrants are unwilling (and perhaps unable) to adopt Western values, they should not be allowed to enter, lest they foment internal conflicts and corrode European democracy and liberalism.

Such culturist arguments are fed by scientific studies in the humanities and social sciences that highlight the so-called clash of civilisations and the fundamental differences between different cultures. Not all historians and anthropologists accept these theories or support their political usages. But whereas biologists today have an easy time disavowing racism, simply explaining that the biological differences between present-day human populations are trivial, it is harder for historians and anthropologists to disavow culturism. After all, if the differences between human cultures are trivial, why should we pay historians and anthropologists to study them?

Scientists have provided the imperial project with practical knowledge, ideological justification and technological gadgets. Without this contribution it is highly questionable whether Europeans could have conquered the world. The conquerors returned the favour by providing scientists with information and protection, supporting all kinds of strange and fascinating projects and spreading the scientific way of thinking to the far corners of the earth. Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether modern science would have progressed very far. There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries, collections, buildings and scholarships to the generous help of army officers, navy captains and imperial governors.

This is obviously not the whole story. Science was supported by other institutions, not just by empires. And the European empires rose and flourished thanks also to factors other than science. Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.

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