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1492: Mysticism & Individualism; Wind, Spices & Economic Incentives

August 26, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

January 19: Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami dies at Herat.

While Columbus was beginning preparations for his first transoceanic voyage, one of the greatest mystics of the age died in what is now Afghanistan. Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami was a consummate—the last great Persian poet, some say, and the biographer of a long line of Sufis. He was one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the age, whose fame in Asia was wider and deeper than any mere hero of the Renaissance could have achieved, at the time, within the narrow limits of Christendom. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and the heirs of the Mongol khans compete unsuccessfully for his services as a political adviser: he preferred a life of art and meditation. Some of his works were translated into Chinese and sustained considerable influence over the next two hundred years in Buddhist as well as Muslim mysticism. (p. 269)

Why, in a book that posits 1492 as a turning point in world history, does Fernández-Armesto devote much of a chapter to Jami’s life and influence?

Because mysticism is:

“a gateway to one of the great mansions of modernity: the enhanced sense of self—the individualism, sometimes edging narcissism or egotism, that elbows community to the edge of our priorities. Without the rise of individualism, it would be hard to imagine a world organized economically for ‘enlightened self-interest’ or politically along lines of ‘one person, one vote’. Modern novels of self-discovery, modern psychology, feel-good values, existential angst, and the self-obsessions of the ‘me generation’ would all be unthinkable…. Sufis, Catholic and Orthodox mystics, and Protestant reformers were all, therefore, engaged, in one sense, in the same project: firing the synapses that linked them to divine energy; freeing themselves to make up their own minds; putting clerisy in its place.  Whatever modernity is, the high valuation of the individual is part of it. The mystics’ role in making modernity has been overlooked, but by teaching us to be aware of our individual selves, they helped to make us modern.” (p. 272)

In the same chapter Fernández-Armesto sprinkles a plethora of insights into some of the broad and fundamental forces shaping human history, including:

Wind:“For the whole of the age of sail—that is, almost the whole of the recorded past—winds and currents set the limits of what was possible in long-range communications and cultural exchange….

Where winds are constant, there is no incentive to try to exploit them as causeways to new worlds. Either they blow into one’s face, in which case seafarers will never get far undersail, or they sing at one’s back—in which case they will prevent venturers from ever returning home. Monsoon systems, by contrast, where prevailing winds are seasonal, encourage long-range seafaring and speculative voyages, because navigators know that the wind, wherever it bears them, will eventually turn and take them home….”

The Indian Ocean has many hazards….But the predictability of a homebound wind made this the world’s most benign environment for long-range voyaging for centuries—perhaps millennia—before the continuous history of Atlantic or Pacific crossings began. The monsoon liberated navigators in the Indian Ocean and made maritime Asia the home of the world’s richest economies and most spectacular states.” (pp. 241-44)

Spices:“In the fifteenth century, the biggest single source of influence for change in the (Indian Ocean) region was the growing global demand for, and therefore supply of, spices and aromatics…. China dominated the market and accounted for well over half the global consumption, but Europe, Persia, and the Ottoman world were all absorbing ever greater amounts…. The spice boom was part of an ill-understood upturn in economic conditions across Eurasia. In China, especially, increased prosperity made expensive condiments more widely accessible as the turbulence that brought the Ming to power subsided and the empire settled down to a long period of relative peace and internal stability.

In partial consequence, spice production expanded into new areas. Pepper, traditionally produced on India’s Malabar coast, and cinnamon, once largely confined to Sri Lanka, spread around Southeast Asia. Pepper became a major product of Malaya and Sumatra in the fifteenth century. Camphor, sappanwood and sandalwood, benzoin and cloves all overspilled their traditional places of supply. (pp. 244-45)

Economic Incentives: In the early 1400s, the Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded fleets with ships 10 times the size of anything Europeans would produce before the 19th century. He sailed the known world from Japan and Australia to India and Arabia to Kwa-Zulu Natal in southeastern Africa, trading with scores of nations. And then the Chinese stopped. They stopped building ships, and they stopped exploring the limits of the world.

“Chinese disengagement from the wider world was not the result of any deficiency of technology or curiosity…. But there was no point in pursuing such intiatives: they led to regions that produced nothing the Chinese wanted….

To a lesser—but still sufficient—extent, the same considerations applied to other maritime peoples of the Indian Ocean and East and Southeast Asia. The Arabs, the Swahili merchant communities, Persians, Indians, Javanese and other island peoples of the region, and the Japanese all had the technology required to explore the world, but plenty of commercial opportunities in their home ocean kept them fully occupied. Indeed, their problem was, if anything, shortage of shipping in relation to the scale of demand for interregional trade. That was why, in the long run, they generally welcomed interlopers from Europe in the sixteenth century, who were truculent, demanding, barbaric, and often violent, but who added to the shipping stock of the ocean and, therefore, contributed to the general increase of wealth. Paradoxically, therefore, poverty favored Europeans, compelled to look elsewhere because of the dearth of economic opportunities at home.” (pp. 249-50)

Other posts in this series:

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From → Books, History

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