Since our greed and hunger are multi-fold, it has never only been about satisfying our stomachs and souls, but also about controlling the routes and flow into the rest of the world’s stomachs. The Greeks, Romans and Persians all harboured fantasies of global rule and their adventures triggered world orders that extended their influence in order to control trade and top up their treasury. When any power crumbles or is toppled, it gives rise to new identities, values and presumptions. Some claimed cultural superiority, others were convinced of their racial superiority, but even those who had the image of brutes advanced by means of controlling trade. In the tenth century, the Vikings had control of the trading ports in Wexford, Waterford, Dublin and Limerick. The wood in Dublin’s oak forests was converted into giant ships that took the Vikings as far as they could to raid ports. Over time, the Vikings gained control of the territories and the trade, which made them rich.
From empires to colonies or superpowers, the goal remains unchanged, and it centres around eliminating competition and capitalising on profits in the name of the greater good. Ports have always served as entry and exit points not just for trade, but also for people and populations. The vast influx of people through these places makes them multicultural and multi-ethnic hubs. In fact, what the ports and coasts have gone through in the history of their geography is what the big cities in the West are going through today precisely for the same reason – trade.
The Portuguese and Spanish Reconquista opened the ports of Bilbao from where the Spaniards shipped off their wines to London, Bristol and Southampton. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella I, the rulers of Castile and Aragon, not only completed the Reconquista but also funded Christopher Columbus who harboured the grand ambition of finding the sea route to India. In 1492 Columbus set off on his adventure, but as luck would have it, he ended up in South America. Yet, he shot off euphoric letters describing the riches and wealth of what he arrogantly believed to be India. A confused Columbus led himself to believe that he had ‘discovered’ India until his second voyage proved otherwise. The Portuguese must have had the stars on their side when Vasco da Gama had better luck with King Manuel’s funding. He landed in the real India but was forced to sail back without a trade treaty. Despite his catastrophic return to Lisbon, the Portuguese monarch, King Manuel I, immediately wrote a letter to Isabella and Ferdinand (his parents-in-law) boasting the riches they had ‘discovered’. A grand ceremony was organised in Lisbon cathedral where Vasco da Gama was likened to Alexander the Great. It angered the Spaniards that Vasco da Gama had made Columbus’ dream come true. Fortunately, Spain too had landed in the lap of luxury, and it was only a matter of time before they stumbled into pits of gold and silver. The vying monarchs reached out to the Pope, who issued four Papal bulls setting out rules and regulations on how the newly discovered resources ought to be shared. Once the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, it helped establish the boundaries of business. The rest of Europe, however, had to fall in line and adjust themselves to a ‘Portuñol’ or ‘Portunhol’ world order. Some were unhappy; the city of Venice was disgruntled with the change because it knew that it was only a matter of time before Lisbon would overtake it as the commercial centre of Europe. Venice grew paranoid to the extent that it sent an envoy to Egypt to discuss ways of stopping the Portuguese from getting ahead. In the land grab that followed, neither of the superpowers realised that they would trigger events that would have consequences for centuries to come.
The Portuguese unwittingly triggered the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but in their defence, they have perhaps the best record of breaking down racial segregation. Their history in India and Africa actively encouraged all kinds of mixes and the word ‘race’ is almost foreign to them. The term ‘black-Portuguese’ is rarely used, and neither do they fancy hyphenated identities. The Portuguese have never shared the Anglo-Saxon obsession of staying white or collecting data on ethnicity. Yet, the trans-Atlantic slave trade would uproot millions and plant them on American soil. Those in the North would end up in a society where segregation was systemic.
Spain, on the other hand, followed Columbus’s description of the natives; his letters to the Spanish Court read, ‘They are fit to be ordered around and made to work, plant and made to do everything else that may be needed, and build towns and taught our customs.’ Their adventures would lead to the genocide of populations across South American civilisations. The indigenous Taino people fell drastically from half a million to barely 2,000. Spain’s fascination with styling themselves as ‘conquistadors’ led to the downfall of the grand Aztec Empire as they set about dismantling the highly sophisticated civilisation. When they took over Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, the Spaniards went maniacal and unleashed savage violence on the people. If the natives were lucky enough to survive the spears and swords, they fell victim to unknown diseases brought by the Europeans. Thus, the ancient populations of the Mayans and the Aztecs were devastated by smallpox and influenza. As far as the Spaniards were concerned, it fit perfectly into their plan of importing populations from Europe. Shortly after, Spain hit the jackpot and dug the gold route. Their new-found wealth triggered spending habits beyond their means, and their voracious appetite for gold drained South America of its natural resources.
Eventually, Spain and Portugal lost their grip over their world order, and that position was seized by the British and American world order, which is known to some of us as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world. Their obsession is not the spice trade or gold but oil, which is, in fact, the new gold rush. The British and American policies shaped the troubled regions of the Middle East, and every other superpower fell in line with their methods and orders. The past century has been largely about securing and controlling the flow of oil by any and all methods. In 1908, the British got their hands on Persian oil and drilled their fortune under the name of a company known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The English held the lion’s share of the profits and the Iranians received about 16% of it. But when the Iranian parliament voted to nationalise their oil under a democratically elected leader of Iran called Mohammad Mossadegh, the British waged a trade war against Iran. As if that were not enough, the CIA and the MI6 orchestrated a coup to bring about his downfall in 1953. By 1958, that company came to be known as British Petroleum, and the Shah of Iran was carefully placed in power by the American and the British in return for oil. However, by the 1970s, when the Shah’s son declared his intentions to tweak the price of oil, the powers of the West pulled their support for him. His fall coincided with the rise of what is now defined as radical Islam in Iran with Ayatollah Khomeini at the helm of his Islamic world order.
The desperation to control oil and oil prices means that the Middle East easily falls victim to greed and treachery. When the Syrian War broke out in 2011, the Kurds fought the Islamists, known to us as the ISIS, in the hope that they would finally have a homeland – a dream they have cherished for a good century. However, their oil-rich lands are unlikely to end up under their control. As recently as October 2019, Donald Trump proudly declared that he likes their oil and is going to keep it. The Middle East is relevant and rich because of its oil, but American shale gas is likely to render them less significant.
In the meantime, the unexpected rise of China is creating a disorder in the ranks. For the next few decades, the race to resources is likely to be dominated by the Chinese and their rush to secure the much-needed resources to fulfil their grand ambition of Belt and Road Initiatives. It is reported that the Chinese will mine cobalt from the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo and transport it to Kazakhstan where batteries – for our laptops – will be built. The batteries will then be shipped off to China where electric vehicles and cars will be finished with Chinese class. Unsurprisingly, China will take the lion’s share of the cash and credit, which has made the US wary. The strategy to connect Asia and Europe is being treated with deep suspicion, so the European Union is not ready to invest in this project. They have, however, ordered the Chinese to follow European rules. But as Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese politician and writer, has pointed out – why on earth would China bear the costs alone just to obey European rules?
In the late fifteenth century, the Portuguese and Spanish routes were funded by the kings because they knew they would have the right to dictate policy in those regions. In the nineteenth century, even the crass and crude Stanley was funded by King Leopold in order to ensure a policy suitable to King Leopold in Congo Free State. In modern terms, China has proposed innovative ideas and has funded unsavoury nations that are likely to benefit to some extent from the investments. Around 4.5 billion people live along China’s new silk routes, and many of them do not aspire to European or western standards of transparency, morality or democracy. From spices to precious woods, from gold to oil, our supply and demand chain influences powers to lead the race to resources. Today, every superpower is looking to tap into hydrocarbons or fossil fuels. It is reported that 70% of the world’s fossil fuels are sitting in the East or rather to the east of Istanbul. As for our daily bread, 65% of the world’s wheat grows to the east of Istanbul and 85% of the world’s rice too. Our dependence on technology – laptops and every other gadget – means that we need rare earth, 90% of which sits with China and 10% in Mongolia. Parts of the West may be self-sufficient, but have no resources to offer the world. The West, however, does have the power to influence people to aspire to better justice systems, better education systems and fair concepts of secularism, equality and freedom of speech, all of which have been hit hard in the past decade by newly- arrived populations who do not value these commodities. For now, the West remains in denial of the fact that they lack a blueprint to inspire populations to aspire to their values. Philosophically, the world belongs to those who believe in a better, brighter tomorrow. But for now, it belongs to every superpower that controls the world’s resources, its networks and its infrastructure.