Only Dumb People Understand History

The more we see of Portugal, the better we like it. The people are friendly. The streets are clean and safe. The old buildings — in the Iberian baroque style — are beautiful. And the food is good — especially the seafood.

We’re getting more and more people moving here from Northern Europe,’ explained our contact. ‘The weather is better. And the taxes are lower. Retirees don’t pay taxes on their pensions, for example.

Portugal doesn’t seem to have an immigrant problem either. The only ‘outsiders’ we’ve seen so far are tourists…who are not as elegant as the locals…and gypsies, who have their own culture, which is resolutely different.

A view of the train station in Porto, Portugal
[Click to enlarge]

We’ve never had a terrorist incident,’ our host went on. ‘Crime is very low.

We came on business. But we’re taking a few days to look around and get to know the place.

Empty Eden

Yesterday, we drove out to the Douro Valley, east of Porto. It’s wine country, with terraced hills that have been worked for 1,000 years.

And last night, we walked down to the historic old town, along the river, with its narrow, winding streets…hundreds of restaurants and bars…street performers…and one group which seemed to be acting out a charming scene from the Inquisition…

We began our visit by picking up a copy of AR Disney’s A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire.

What surprised us was how much history there was. We had thought of the Iberian Peninsula as having been relatively cut off…a kind of empty Eden that had been lived in by the proto-Celts…invaded by the Vandals…and then by the Moors.

After that, the Christians took over and it was clear sailing all the way to the European Union.

Of course, it is much more complicated… That is the problem with history…and real life; it is infinitely complex, nuanced, and unfathomable.

The truth is always repulsive; it contradicts your prejudices and conceits. You can only really understand history by becoming dumb; that is, by learning a simplified version and ignoring all the many parts that don’t fit into your bonehead schema.

History’s great oddities

Sometimes, in Disney’s telling, the story is hard to follow. But we will summarise the first 4,000 years as follows: tribes came from north and south. By land and by sea. Indo-European. Non-Indo-European. Celtic. Germanic. Iranian. Phoenician. Roman. Greek. They killed each other.

New tribes arrived. They joined the killing. Kingdoms and empires fought for control. Some were pagan. Others were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish…with various subsets and heresies — Arian, Priscillian, Sufi, and others…all of whom were in danger of extermination from time to time.

Finally, after many dynasties and dictatorships, the Revolution of 1974 established today’s enlightened Portuguese government…a modern nation-state with a humbug democracy.

We should probably insert a brief paragraph on the Napoleonic wars, since they produced one of history’s great oddities.

Under attack from the French, the King of Portugal decamped to Brazil, turning Portugal into a ‘colony of a colony’. Pedro IV came back in 1826. But it was too late. By then, Europe was enthralled by the latest political fad — parliamentary democracy. Portugal took Pedro back, but it was never quite the same for Europe’s monarchs.

Ancient win-lose deals

Another thing worth noting… Judging from Disney’s account, Moorish rule was no worse — and probably better, at least at the beginning — than the Visigoth kingdoms that preceded it.

In his conquest of Iberia in 711, for example, Tariq ibn Ziyad imposed his win-lose deals with a veneer of civilisation on them. He rode up to a fortified town and gave the burghers a choice.

They could open their doors, submit to Muslim rule, and pay tribute to their new masters. If so, their lives, their property, and their religion would be spared. If they resisted, on the other hand, the town would be attacked, and if taken, the men would be executed and the women and children enslaved.

Most surrendered and lived more or less happily with their new government for a couple hundred years. These Mozarabs — those who remained Christian — learned to speak Arabic, learned to live with Muslim rule, and were generally more prosperous than they had been before.

This was far better than what had happened three hundred years before…when the Suevi, the Alans, and the Vandals crossed the Pyrenees.

The records are few, but it appears that they killed or enslaved almost everyone they came across and stole everything they wanted. Then, these tribes had barely settled down to fight with each other when a whole new set of invaders rushed through the mountain passes, the Visigoths.

They continued the orgy of blood and fire until they, too, had killed everyone they wanted to kill and stolen everything they found worth stealing.

It was better treatment than the Christians meted out to the Muslims in the ‘reconquest’ too. In taking back Lisbon and Santarém, for example, the Christians massacred thousands of men, women, and children. (Portuguese historians generally attribute these slaughters to ‘foreign crusaders’.)

Sanitised history

Maybe a word about the reconquest is in order, too. You read about the Muslim conquest and then the Christian reconquest. But the religion of the conquerors only provided an easy storyline for historians.

Elites always try to gain wealth and power by imposing their will on other groups. Religion plays a part…but rarely the lead. Like patriotism and nationalism, it embellishes some lives…and disguises the naked piggishness of others.

Religion was never the real cause — neither in the coming of the Moors…nor in their going.

In the conquest as well as the reconquest, groups changed sides when it suited them, regardless of what gods they worshipped. Rodrigo himself, the Visigoth king, may have collaborated with Tariq in the crucial battle of Medina-Sidonia. And Fernando II certainly sent Christian troops to aid the Muslims at Badajoz when it was besieged by Afonso Henriques in 1169.

That was the way of the world back then…as it is now. The habits learned in a zero-sum economy are hard to break. In a hunter-gatherer economy — which was what man had known even before he was man — there was a delicate balance between humans and the natural world around them.

The only way you could get ahead was to take things — food, hunting grounds, women — from others. Win-lose deals were the fastest, surest way to status and wealth. Even if you didn’t covet your neighbour’s ass or his wife…you still had to be prepared; he might have his eye on yours!

And now, 21 centuries after the birth of Christ, government elites are still imposing their win-lose deals whenever they can get away with it.

Here in Portugal, each conqueror made slaves of the native population. That, too, was the way of the world until relatively recently. It wasn’t until the 19th century that slavery was outlawed.

But if you listen to the discussion in America, you might think slavery was the greatest sin ever committed by mankind…and perpetrated primarily against black people. But slavery was not the worst thing that could happen to you. Often it was the best choice.

Poor people routinely sold their children into slavery. In times of famine or distress, they sold themselves. Debtors were enslaved. Prisoners of war and people captured in raids…all were put in chains, and happy not to be tortured and killed.

American blacks may still feel the lash upon their backs, but most slaves in human history weren’t black. And it would be hard to find anybody — black or white — without a bit of slavery somewhere in his background.

But people always prefer simplified, sanitised history. Black or white. Short and sweet. Lies are more agreeable than truth, and much easier to remember.


Bill Bonner,

For Markets & Money

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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