THE valleys which radiate in all directions from the great central masses of the Alps are admirably adapted for imparting to almost the whole of Europe a remarkable unity, whilst they offer, at the same time, an extreme variety of aspects and of physical conditions. The Po, the Rhone, the Rhine, and the Danube traverse countries having the most diverse climates, and yet they have their sources in the same mountain region, and the fertilising alluvium which they deposit in their valleys results from the disintegration of the same rocks. Minor valleys cut up the slopes of the Alps and of their dependent chains, and carry towards the sea the waters of the mountains and the triturated fragments of’ their rocks. Running waters are visible, wherever we cast our eyes. There are neither deserts, nor sterile plateaux, nor inland lakes and river basins such as we meet with in Africa and Asia. The rivers of Europe are not flooded as are those of certain portions of South America, which deluge half the country with water. On the contrary, in the scheme of her rivers Europe exhibits a certain degree of moderation which has favoured the work of the settler, and facilitated the rise of a local civilisation in each river basin. Moreover, although most rivers are sufficiently large to have retarded migration, they are not sufficiently so to have arrested it for any length of time. Even when roads and bridges did not exist, barbarian immigrants easily made their way from the shores of the Black Sea to those of the Atlantic.
Bat Europe, in addition to the advantages due to its framework of mountains and the disposition of its river basins, enjoys the still greater advantage of possessing an indented coast-liDe. It is mainly the contours of its coasts which impart to Europe its double character of unity and diversity, which distinguish it amongst continents. It is “one” because of its great central mass, and “diversified” because of its numerous peninsulas and dependent islands. It is an organism, if we may say so, resembling a huge body furnished with limbs. Strabo compared Europe to a dragon. The geographers of the period of the revival of letters compared it to a crowned virgin, Spain being the head, France the heart, and England and Italy the hands, holding the sceptre and the orb. Russia, at that time hardly known, is made to do duty for the ample folds of the robe.
The area of Europe is only half that of South America, and one-third of that of Africa, and yet the development of its coast-lines is superior to that of the two continents taken together. In proportion to its area the coasts of Europe have twice the extent of those of South America, Australia, and Africa; and although they are to a small extent inferior to those of North America, it must be borne in mind that the arctic coasts of the latter are ice-bound during the greater portion of the year. A glance at the subjoined diagrams will show that Europe, as compared with the two other continents washed by the Arctic Ocean, enjoys the immense advantage of possessing a coast-line almost wholly available for purposes of navigation, whilst a large portion of the coasts of Asia and America is altogether useless to man. And not only does the sea penetrate into the very heart of temperate Europe, cutting it up into elongated peninsulas, hut these peninsulas, too, are fringed with gulfs and miniature inland seas. The coasts of Greece, of Thessaly, and of Thrace are thus indented by bays and gulfs, penetrating far into the land ; Italy and Spain likewise possess numerous bays and gulfs ; and the peninsulas of Northern Europe, Jutland and Scandinavia, are cut up by the waters of the ocean into numerous secondary peninsulas.
The shaded circles represent the various continents; the outer circle represents the actual extent of coast-line. The blank space between the two concentric circles represents graphically the difference between the smallest possible or geometrical contour of a country hiving the area of the respective continents, and the actual contour as exhibited in the existing coast-lines. Europe, being in reality only a peninsula of Asia, hardly admits of this comparison.
The islands of Europe must be looked upon as dependencies of that continent, for most of them are separated from it only by shallow seas. Candia and tit) islands scattered broadcast over the AEgean Sea, the Archipelagos of the Ionian Sea, and of Dalmatia, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, Elba, and the Baleares, are in reality but prolongations, or maritime out-stations, of neighbouring peninsulas. To the islands of Sealand and Fyen, at the entrance to the Baltic, Denmark owes most of her commercial and political importance. Great Britain and Ireland, which actually formed a portion of the European continent in a past age, cannot be looked upon otherwise than as dependencies of it, although the isthmus which once joined them has been destroyed by the waters of the ocean. England has actually become the grand commercial emporium of Europe. and plays now the same part in the world’s commerce that Greece once played in that of the more restricted world of the Mediterranean.
It is a remarkable fact that each of the European peninsulas should have enjoyed in turn a period of commercial preponderance. Greece, the ” most noble individuality of the world of the ancients,” came first, and when at the height of her power governed the Mediterranean, which at that time meant nearly the whole universe. During the Middle Ages Amalfi, Genoa, and Venice became the commercial agents between Europe and the Indies. The discovery of a passage round the Cape and of America diverted the world’s commerce to Cadiz, Seville, and Lisbon, on the Iberian peninsula. Subsequently the merchants of the small Dutch Republic seized a portion of the heritage of Spain and Portugal, and the wealth of the entire world was floated into the harbours of their sea-bound islands and peninsulas. In our own days Great Britain, thanks to its favourable geographical position, in the very centre of’ great continental masses, and the energy of its people, has become the great mart of the world. London, the most populous city of the world, is also the great centre of attraction for the treasures of man-kind ; but there can be no doubt that sooner or later it will be supplanted, in consequence of the opening of new commercial high-roads, and changes in the political preponderance of nations. Perhaps some city of the United States will take the place of London in a future age, and thus the American belief in the westward march of civilisation will be verified ; or we may possibly return to the East, and convert Constantinople or Cairo into the world’s emporium and centre of intercourse.
But, whatever may happen in the future, the great changes which have taken place in the relative importance of the peninsulas and islands of Europe in the short span of twenty centuries, sufficiently prove that geographical features exercise a varying influence at different epochs. That which at one time was looked upon as a great natural advantage may become, in course of time, a serious disadvantage. Thus the numerous inlets and gulfs enclosed by mountain chains,
which favoured the rise of the cities of Greece, and gave to Athens the dominion of the Mediterranean, now constitute as many obstacles to their connection with the existing system of European communications. That which in former times constituted the strength of the country has become its weakness. In primitive times, before man ventured upon the seas, these bays and gulfs formed insurmountable obstacles to the migration of nations ; at a later date, when the art of navigation had been acquired, they became commercial high-roads, and were favourable to the development of civilisation ; and at the present time they are again obstacles in the way of our road-builders and railway engineers.