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October 21, 1999
1700-1800: LIBERITY, EQUALITY AND BLOODSHED
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
As the 18th century got under way, a few thoughtful and acquisitive people began fooling around with the notions of electricity and steam, and with ways in which the production (mainly in England) of textiles - cloth - could be made more profitable. Little did such dabblers know that these apparently minor pastimes would result in the complete transformation of the planet during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Much that was politically earthshaking - the War of American Independence and the French Revolution - awaited the last quarter of the century. Until then, the European powers busied themselves with continuing religious, territorial and dynastic conflicts that resulted in the redrawing of European maps as well as the reconfiguration of each country's American holdings.
It was called the Age of Enlightenment, a fitting name for several reasons. Even supreme rulers like Frederick II of Prussia and Peter the Great of Russia saw their people's destiny in the future, not the past. Around 1740, Frederick, like the British earlier in the century, abolished torture in his country and launched a concerted effort to administer justice even-handedly, at that time a somewhat novel concept. Peter, after bludgeoning the mighty Swedes into second-class citizenship in the commonwealth of nations, moved his vast, resource-heavy and half-civilized country in the direction of the West with a series of political and social reforms.
Indeed, the whole world moved toward the West, not always wholeheartedly. The Japanese and Chinese viewed Europe with intense suspicion and maintained policies to keep their ancient cultures isolated from it, but the latest technological ideas and the latest philosophical and political principles were imported by way of Jesuit priests, traveling scholars and far-voyaging commercial ships.
And finally East met West in a very literal sense as Russian ships sent to survey the Siberian coastline were blown off course, resulting in the discovery of the Bering Strait. Later expeditions put Russia in possession of Alaska and gave Russian fur traders a line of beachheads on America's Pacific Coast, all the way down through Northern California. Meanwhile, explorations by Britain's Captain Cook opened up the island paradise of the South Pacific, bringing the inhabitants of the archipelagoes the gifts of clothing, and disease.
Britain, after losing most of its American possessions, began late in the century to send its criminals and outcasts to Australia, leaving, in effect, the entire length and breadth of the Pacific Ocean open for business.
During the course of the century, disease - which had victimized humans at will since the dawn of time - received one defensive check after another. As early as 1717 a keen observer deduced the connection between mosquitoes and malaria. Others later saw that a person inoculated with a microscopic bit of smallpox became proof against the full-blown disease, and by the end of the century British sailors were eating limes during voyages to stave off the ravages of scurvy.
It was also the Age of Enlightenment insofar as the foundations of our modern, rational sciences were laid. A whole gang of French scholars spent decades laboriously and disputatiously compiling the Encyclopedia, a first attempt at creating a global compendium of knowledge. Samuel Johnson put that immense, fluid creature, the English language, in a bottle with his first modern English dictionary, and the British went up against the French at their own game with the publication of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The discovery, In 1748, and subsequent excavation (still continuing today) of Pompeii - a city of antiquity whose population had been destroyed by a volcano which, at the same time, preserved its streets and buildings in ash - gave modern people their first dramatic look at how their counterparts had actually lived in previous millennia.
The discovery at the century's very end of the Rosetta stone, bearing equivalent inscriptions in multiple extinct languages, eventually was to unlock the door to the wisdom of the distant past.
Yet in the midst of all this enlightenment the African slave trade reached its peak, with more than 6 million black men, women and children sold into servitude and transported across the Atlantic to the New World. More than draining off Africa's humanity in massive numbers, the penetration of the continent by Europeans made an instant end to its ancient cultures as indigenous societies scrambled to reorganize themselves to better to deal with the West.
The War of American independence was, to be sure, a sufficiently bloody exercise. Yet the military transaction by which Britain's North American colonists separated themselves politically from British rule was a disagreement between propertied gentlemen compared with the French Revolution, which erupted in Paris not long after the Americans created their Constitution and which occasioned a massive shedding of blood whose ramifications are still being felt today.
While, in the American conflict, Royalists were shunned, pilloried, inveighed against, and subjected to social and economic reprisals, in France the revolutionaries took the king and his aristocrats and summarily beheaded them in a long and bitter orgy of blood. It was all in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and as the forces of reaction gathered steam a military leader named Napoleon managed to save the day for the regicides. It looked like a new order was dawning in France and, by extension, in the Western world, an order without kings and fat cats, dedicated to the principles of law. Unfortunately, Napoleon wasn't quite what he seemed.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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