This essay has been in my mind for some time, though writing it has been prompted by reading a book review in October’s Quadrant. The review was by James C. Bennett, and the book,Shadows of Empires: the Anglosphere in British Politics, was written by Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce. I’ll return to both in due course.
Human beings started in families who formed groups, which I here label ‘tribes’, both for protection and for mutual support in other ways. The tribes met other tribes, and in time competed with each other for land and other resources. About twelve thousand years ago human beings began to discover the virtues and costs of agriculture, and formed much larger entities through the coalescing of tribes into what I will call ‘empires’. Empires allowed the creaming-off of what might be thought of as a ‘surplus’, and the surplus enable the building of fortified cities, the creation of armed forces, and monuments to the rulers, like the pyramids of Egypt.
Important in all this was the creation of language, both in oral and readily recognised written forms. The rulers’ language became the dominant one, and subject tribes needed to learn it if they were to prosper. There must have been some extremely good years in the few thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ, at least in the larger European/Asian area, because there was extensive movement of population, which is itself suggestive of high birth rates and abundant food supply. No matter, empires there were, and they competed with one another. The most successful was the Roman Empire, and we know a great deal about it, because it left a great deal of written material, preserved for the most part in Christian monasteries. Interestingly, at the time of Christ’s birth educated Romans spoke Greek; the native Roman tongue, Latin, they thought somewhat vulgar.
To the East, from the Roman perspective, there existed an older and more successful civilisation, with its own language, China. To the Southeast, until the Romans conquered it, were the surviving elements of another older civilisation, the Egyptian. Rome and China had little to do with each other, though there was some trade with India, where there had also been some successful but not long-lived civilisations, most notably the Indus River civilisation, the Harappan, built around the city of Mohenjo-daro, which showed a fine sense of urban planning (it was finally covered in a gigantic flood, and has been excavated, so we can see it for ourselves).
I’ll concentrate on the European theatre from now on. After the crumbling and then fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century of the modern era, Europe descend into what we call ‘the Dark Ages’, mostly because it is hard for historians to throw light upon what happened for several hundred years. The records are simply not there. What finally happened was the development of city-states built around trading centres, and to a degree on the production of good, mostly manufactured, which others wanted to buy. Again, language was important, but more important was the development of what we might now call ‘civic trust’. Trust has always been important to traders. You need to trust those with whom you trade, even though you may speak a different language, and they need to trust you. How does this work? By trial and error. By experience. Through practice. If and when it works, it is copied by others. Trading networks spread across Europe, and from Europe to the Near East, and then from Europe into China and India.
This was something new, or an enhanced version of something old, assisted by new and improved forms of communication, mostly better ships. Common languages developed, so if you had a smattering of them you could get by a long way from home. Better ships and growing wealth in Europe led to the creation of kingdoms and then empires, familiar things, but now with a greater reach. Spain, Portugal, England, France and Holland all used naval power and wealth to find and colonise distant parts of the world, and as they did so, their languages became dominant. Traces of that dominance appear all over America, Asia and Africa today. Indeed, Southern America is mostly Spanish or Portuguese in language, and Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the USA, while a whole province of Canada, Quebec, speaks French, and it is a second official language for all Canadians.
By 1900 the Western domination of the world was largely set out in colour as well as in language. I grew up with much of my school atlas coloured in red, the signal colour of the British Empire. That was something to be proud of at that time. By then there was competition between languages, too. While commerce was carried out in English, for the most part, diplomacy was the domain of French, and that remained true with the League of Nations after the First World War, and even into the United Nations, after 1945. In Australia, we were Anglo-Celt for the large part, and there was a division between Catholics (Irish) and Protestants (English and Scots). That was really tribal. The town I grew up in possessed a whole Catholic world, schools, social cubs, traders, shops, doctors, chemists, to whom the faithful went. I hardly met a Catholic boy except on the sporting fields until I went to university. I didn’t meet a Catholic girl at all. So the tribal inclination was alive and well, along with an old and working capacity to trust others, even if they were not of the same tribe.
Then we had the postwar influx of migrants, ‘Balts’, ‘reffos’, ‘wogs’. They, understandably and necessarily, formed tribes as soon as they arrived — people who were already here, spoke their language, knew the ropes and understood the system. That was sixty years ago. They are gone, but their children and grandchildren are Australians. We are a much more diverse society, and in my view much the better for their arrival. We are now dealing with a new and for some a worrying arrival, that of Islamic immigrants, and I’ll finish the essay with a thought about them. So, now to the review and the book which started this essay.
What is the Anglosphere? It is a concept built round the notion that there is a common bond linking the old white settler dominions — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the ‘mother country’, the United Kingdom, and add in the United States if you want, and then the millions of people in India and Africa and Asia who use English as a daily language (though they will likely have other languages as well). It is easy to move from one of the old dominions to another, and people do. Bennett and others see the growth of CANZUK as another way forward, now that the EU is having trouble. I don’t think that we in Australia have much sense of this possibility, but I found the review stimulating, and the book full of interesting argument. For my own part I would agree that I found it easy to live and work in Canada, the USA, and the UK, and certainly to move around New Zealand and lecture. There were such familiar ways and familiar civilities, and of course the common language. And that led to a lot of trust.
My final thought is about the way in which we treat Islamic immigrants. There are a little more than 600,000 people in our country who self-identify as Muslims. They do present a problem for some of us, who see every one of them as a potential jihadist. They are not. The great majority are like other immigrants, wanting to make a new life and home for themselves. Yes, we could reduce the number of Muslim immigrants, but only at the cost of radically changing our family immigration rules, which would upset everyone else.
I go back to trust. We have to trust that in the long run things will settle down, and that Muslim kids will grow into Muslim/Australians. They do. That outcome will require tolerance on the part of those who are not Muslims, and the capacity to welcome Muslims as neighbours and, in time, as friends. There is no real alternative, I think.