An Introduction To The Place We Call Europe

OUR earth is but as an atom in space, a star amongst stars. Yet, to us who inhabit it, it is still without bounds, as it was in the time of our barbarian ancestors. Nor can we foresee the period when the whole of its surface will be known to us. We have been taught by astronomers and geodesists that our planet is a sphere flattened at the poles, and physical geographers and meteorologists have applied their powers of inductive reasoning to establish theories on the direction of the winds and ocean currents within the polar regions. But hitherto no explorer has succeeded in reaching the extremities of our earth, and no one can tell whether land or sea extends beyond those icy barriers which have frustrated our most determined efforts. Thanks to the struggles of indomitable seamen, the pride of our race, the area of the mysterious regions around the north pole has been reduced to something like the hundredth part of the earth’s surface, but in the south there still remains an unknown region of such vast extent, that the moon, were she to drop upon our planet, might disappear within it without coming into contact with any part of the earth’s surface already known to us.

And the polar regions, which present so many natural obstacles to our explorers, are not the only portions of the earth not yet know-n to men of science. It may be humiliating to our pride as men, but we feel constrained to admit that among the countries not yet known to us there are some, accessible enough as far as natural obstacles are concerned, but closed against us by our fellow-men ! There are peoples in this world, dwelling in towns, obeying laws, and having customs comparatively polished, but who choose to live in seclusion, and are as little known to us as if they were the inhabitants of’ some other planet. Their frontiers are closed by war and its horrors, by the practice of slavery, by religious fanaticism, and even commercial jealousy. We have heard of some of these peoples by vague report, but there are others concerning whom we absolutely know nothing. And thus it happens that in this age of steam, of the printing press, of incessant and feverish activity, Ive still know nothing, or very little, of the centre of Africa, of a portion of Australia, of the interior of that fine and no doubt most fertile island of New Guinea, and of vast tablelands in the centre of Asia. Nay, even the country which most men of learning love to look upon as the cradle of our Aryan ancestors is known to us but very imperfectly.

As regards most countries which have been visited by travellers, and figure more or less correctly upon our maps, a great amount of further research is required before our knowledge of their geography can be called complete. Years will pass erc the erroneous and contradictory statements of our explorers concerning them have been set right. A prodigious amount of labour must be performed before their climate, their hydrography, their plants and animals, can be thoroughly known to us. Minute and systematic researches have to be conducted to elucidate the slow changes in the aspects and physical phenomena of many countries. The greatest caution will have to be exercised in distinguishing between changes due to the spontaneous action of natural causes and those brought about by the hand of man. And all this knowledge we must acquire before we can boast that we know the earth, and all about it !

Nor is this all. By a natural bent of our mind, all our studies are carried on with reference to Man as the centre of all things. A knowledge of our planet is, therefore, imperfect as long as it is not joined to a knowledge of the various races of man which inhabit it. The earth which man treads is but imperfectly known, man himself even less so. The first origin of races is shrouded in absolute darkness, and the most learned disagree with reference to the descent, the amalgamation, the original seats, and migratory stages of most peoples and tribes. What do men owe to their surroundings? What to the original seats of their ancestors, to inborn instincts of race, to a blending with alien races, or to influences and traditions brought to bear upon them from beyond? We hardly know, and as yet only a few rays of light begin to penetrate this darkness. Unfortunately our erroneous views on many of these questions are not due solely to ignorance. Contending passions and instinctive national hatreds too frequently obscure our judgment, and ive see man as he is not. The far-off savages assume the shape of dim phantoms, and our near neighbours and rivals in the arts of civilisation appear repulsive and deformed of feature. If we would see them as they really are, we must get rid of all our prejudices, and of these feelings of contempt, hatred, and passion which still set nation against nation. Our fore-fathers, in their wisdom, said that the most difficult thing of all was to know one’s self. Surely a comprehensive study of mankind is more difficult still.

We are thus not in a position at present to furnish a complete account of the earth and its inhabitants. The accomplishment of this task we must leave to the future, when fellow-workers from all quarters of the globe will meet to write the grand book embodying the sum of human knowledge. For the present an individual author must rest content with giving a succinct account of the Earth, in which the space occupied by each country shall be proportionate to its importance, and to the know ledge we possess w with respect to it.

It is natural, perhaps, that each nation should imagine that in such a description it ought to be accorded the foremost place. Every barbarous tribe, however small, imagines itself to occupy the very centre of the earth, and to be the most perfect representative of the human race. Its language never fails to bear witness to this naïve illusion, born of the very narrowness of its horizon. The river which irrigates its fields is called the “Father of Waters,” the mountain which shelters its camp the “Navel,” or ” Centre of the Earth ; ” and the names by which primitive races designate their neighbours are terms of contempt, for they look down upon them as their inferiors. To them they are ” mute,” ” deaf,” ” unclean,” ” imbecile,” ” monstrous,” or ” demoniac.” The Chinese, one of the most remarkable peoples in some respects, and certainly the most important of all as far as mere numbers go, are not content with having bestowed upon their country the epithet of ” Flower of the Centre,” but are so fully conv inced of its superiority as to have fallen into the mistake (very excusable under the circumstances) of deeming themselves to be the “Sons of Heaven.” As to the nations thinly scattered around the borders of their ” Celestial Empire,” they know them merely as “dogs,” “swine,” “demons,” and “savages.” Or, more disdainful still, they designate them by the four cardinal points of the compass, and speak of the ” unclean ” tribes of the west, the north, the east, and the south.

If in our description of the Earth we accord the first place to civilised Europe, it is not because of a prejudice similar to that of the Chinese. No! This place belongs to Europe as a matter of right. Europe as yet is the only continent the whole of whose surfaee has been scientifically explored. It possesses a map approximately correct, and its material resources are almost fully known to us. Its population is not as dense as that of India or of China, but it nevertheless contains about one-fourth of the total population of the globe ; and its inhabitants, whatever their failings and vices, or their state of barbarism in some respects, still impel the rest of mankind as regards material and mental progress. Europe, for twenty-five centuries, has been the focus whence radiated Arts, Sciences, and Thought. Nor have those hardy colonists who carried their European languages and customs beyond the sea succeeded hitherto in giving to the New World an importance equal to that of “little ” Europe, in spite of the virgin soil and vast area which gave them scope for unlimited expansion.

Our American rivals may be more active and enterprising than we are—they certainly are not cumbered to the same extent by the traditions and inheritances of feudal times—but they are as yet not sufficiently numerous to compete with us as regards the totality of work done. They have scarcely been able hitherto to ascertain the material resources of the country in which they have made their home. ” Old Europe,” where every clod of earth has its history, where every man is the heir of a hundred successive generations, therefore still maintains the first place, and a comparative study of nations justifies us in the belief that its moral ascendancy and industrial preponderance will remain with it for many years to come. At the same time, we must not shut our eyes to the fact that equality will obtain in the end, not only between America and Europe, but also between these two and the other quarters of the world. The intermingling of nations, migrations which have assumed prodigious proportions, and the increasing facilities of intercourse must in the end lead to an equilibrium of population being established throughout the world. Then will each country add its proper share to the wealth of mankind, and what we call civilisation will have its centre everywhere, its periphery nowhere.”

The central geographical position of Europe has undoubtedly exercised a most favourable influence upon the progress of the nations inhabiting it. The superiority of the Europeans is certainly not due to the inherent virtues of the races from which they sprang, as is vainly imagined by some, for in other parts of the ancient world these same races have exhibited far less creative genius. To the happy conditions of soil, climate, configuration, and geographical position the inhabitants of Europe owe the honour of having been the first to obtain a knowledge of the earth in its entirety, and to have remained for so long a period at the head of mankind. Historical geographers are, therefore, right when they insist upon the influence which the configuration of a country exercises upon the nations who inhabit it. The extent of table-lands, the heights of mountain ranges, the direction and volume of rivers, the vicinity of the ocean, the indentation of the coast-line, the temperature of the air, the abundance or rarity of rain, and the correlations between soil, air, and water—all these are pregnant with effects, and explain much of the character and mode of life of primitive nations. They account for most of the contrasts existing between nations subject to different conditions, and point out the natural highways of the globe which nations are constrained to follow in their migrations or warlike expeditions.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that the influence exercised upon the history of mankind by the general configuration of land and sea, or any special features of the former, is subject to change, and depends essentially upon the stage of culture at which nations have arrived. Geography, strictly speaking, confines itself to a description of the earth’s surface, and exhibits the various nations in a passive attitude as it were, whilst Historical Geography and statistics show man engaged in the struggle for existence, and striving to obtain the mastery over his surroundings. A river, which to an uncultured tribe would constitute an insurmountable barrier, becomes a commercial high-road to a tribe further advanced in culture, and in process of time it may be converted into a mere canal of irrigation, the course of which is regulated by man. A mountain range frequented by shepherds and huntsmen, and forming a barrier between nations, may attract, in a more civilised epoch, the miner and the manufacturer, and in course of time will even cease to be an obstacle, as roads will traverse it in all directions. Many a creek of the sea, which afforded shelter of yore to the small vessels of our ancestors, is deserted now, whilst the open bays, which vessels dreaded formerly, have been protected by enormous breakwaters, and have become the resort of our largest ships.

Innumerable changes such as these have been effected by man in all parts of the world, and they have revolutionised the correlations existing between man and the land he lives in. The configuration and height of mountains and table-lands, the indentation of the coasts, the disposition of islands and archipelagos, and the extent of the ocean—these all lose their relative influence upon the history of nations in proportion as the latter emancipate themselves and become free agents. Though subject to the condition of his dwelling-place, man may modify it to suit his own purpose ; he may overcome nature as it were, and convert the energies of the earth into domesticated forces. As an instance we may point to the elevated table-lands of Central Asia, which now separate the countries and peninsulas surrounding them, but which, when they shall have become the seats of human industry, will convert Asia into a real geographical unit, which at present it is only in appearance. Massy and ponderous Africa, monotonous Australia, and Southern America with its forests and waterfalls, will be put on something like an equality with Europe, whenever roads of commerce shall cross them in all directions, bridging their rivers, and traversing their deserts and mountain ranges. The advantages, on the other hand, which Europe derives from its backbone of mountains, its radiating rivers, the contours of its coasts, and its generally well-balanced outline are not as great now as they were when man was dependent exclusively upon the resources furnished by nature.

This gradual change in the historical importance of the configuration of the land is a fact of capital importance which must be borne in mind if we would understand the general geography of Europe. In studying SPACE we must take account of another clement of equal value—TIME.