Montesquieu
 

XXI.17 Discovery of two new worlds ; the state of Europe in this regard

The com­pass ope­ned up, in a man­ner of spea­king, the entire globe. Asia and Africa, only a few sho­res of which were pre­viously known, were found, and America, about which we knew nothing at all.

The Portuguese, sai­ling in the Atlantic Ocean, dis­co­ve­red the sou­thern­most point of Africa ; they saw a vast sea : it car­ried them to the West Indies. Their perils on this sea, and the dis­co­very of Mozambique, of Melinde, and of Calicut, have been sung by Camoens,1 whose poem makes one expe­rience some­thing of the charms of the Odyssey and the magni­fi­cence of the Æneid.

The Venetians had until then plied the Indian trade through Turkish lands, and had pur­sued it amidst extor­tions and harass­ments. With the dis­co­very of the Cape of Good Hope, and others made some time the­reaf­ter, Italy was no lon­ger at the cen­ter of the tra­ding world ; she was, so to speak, in one cor­ner of the world, and still is. With trade even in the Levant depen­ding today on that which the great nations ply in the two Indies, Italy now prac­ti­ces it only seconda­rily.

The Portuguese tra­ded in the Indies as conque­rors. The obs­truc­tive laws on com­merce which the Dutch impose today on petty Indian prin­ces had been esta­bli­shed by the Portuguese before them.2

The for­tune of the House of Austria was pro­di­gious. Charles XV inhe­ri­ted the suc­ces­sion of Burgundy, Castile, and Aragon ; he became empe­ror, and in order to obtain a new kind of gran­deur for him, the world expan­ded, and a New World came into being under his scep­ter.

Christopher Columbus dis­co­ve­red America ; and although Spain sent no for­ces there that a petty European prince could not have sent just as well, she sub­ju­ga­ted two great empi­res and other large sta­tes.

While the Spaniards were dis­co­ve­ring and conque­ring to the west, the Portuguese were pres­sing their conquests and dis­co­ve­ries to the east ; these two nations met up and appea­led to Pope Alexander VI, who made the famous line of demar­ca­tion, and jud­ged a great case.3

But the other nations of Europe did not allow them to enjoy their divi­sion quietly : the Dutch drove the Portuguese from almost all the eas­tern Indies, and seve­ral nations esta­bli­shed set­tle­ments in America.

The Spanish first consi­de­red the dis­co­ve­red lands as objects of conquest ; peo­ples more refi­ned than they found that they were objects of com­merce, and direc­ted their views on that assump­tion. Several peo­ples beha­ved with such pru­dence that they yiel­ded control to com­pa­nies of mer­chants who, gover­ning these dis­tant sta­tes solely for trade, have crea­ted a great acces­sory autho­rity without bur­de­ning the mother state.

The colo­nies crea­ted there are under a sort of depen­dency of which scar­cely any exam­ple is to be found in ancient colo­nies, whe­ther today’s are owned by the state itself or by some mer­chant com­pany esta­bli­shed within that state.

The pur­pose of these colo­nies is to trade under bet­ter condi­tions than they do with the neigh­bo­ring peo­ples, with which all advan­ta­ges are reci­pro­cal. It was esta­bli­shed that the mother coun­try alone would be able to do busi­ness in the colony, and this quite rightly, because the pur­pose of the esta­blish­ment was the exten­sion of trade, not the foun­da­tion of a city or a new empire.

Thus it is once more a fun­da­men­tal law of Europe that all trade with a foreign colony is consi­de­red a pure mono­poly puni­sha­ble by the laws of the coun­try ; and this must not be jud­ged by the laws and exam­ples of ancient peo­ples which are hardly appli­ca­ble.4

It is fur­ther unders­tood that the com­merce esta­bli­shed bet­ween the mother coun­tries does not imply per­mis­sion for the colo­nies, which remain fore­ver in a state of pro­hi­bi­tion.

The disad­van­tage of the colo­nies that lose liberty of com­merce is visi­bly com­pen­sa­ted for by the pro­tec­tion of the mother coun­try,5 which defends it with her arms or main­tains it with her laws.

A third law of Europe fol­lows from this, that when foreign trade is for­bid­den with the colony, one may not enter its seas except in cases esta­bli­shed by trea­ties.

Nations, which are with res­pect to the globe what indi­vi­duals are in a state, like them govern them­sel­ves by natu­ral law and by the laws they have made for them­sel­ves. One peo­ple may yield the sea to ano­ther, as it may yield land. The Carthaginians deman­ded that the Romans not sail beyond cer­tain limits,6 as the Greeks had deman­ded that the king of Persia always main­tain the dis­tance of a career7 bet­ween him­self and the sea­coasts.8

The extreme dis­tance of our colo­nies is not a lia­bi­lity for their secu­rity : for if the mother coun­try is far away when it comes to defen­ding them, the mother coun­try’s rival nations are not less far away when it comes to conque­ring them.

In addi­tion, because of this dis­tance, peo­ple who go set­tle there can­not adopt the man­ner of life in such a dif­fe­rent cli­mate, and are obli­ged to obtain all the conve­nien­ces of life from their coun­try of ori­gin. The Carthaginians, in order to make the Sardinians and Corsicans more depen­dent, had for­bid­den them on pain of death to plant, to sow, or to do any­thing of that sort ; they sent them food from Africa.9 We have rea­ched the same point without making such harsh laws. Our colo­nies in the Antilles are admi­ra­ble : they have objects of com­merce which we do not nor can­not have, and they lack the pro­ducts we trade in.

The effect of the dis­co­very of America was to bind Asia and Africa to Europe ; she fur­ni­shed it the mate­rial of her com­merce with that vast part of Asia we call the East Indies. Silver, that metal so use­ful to com­merce as sign, was fur­ther the basis of the lar­gest trade in the world as com­mo­dity. Finally, sai­ling to Africa became neces­sary : she fur­ni­shed men to work the mines and fields of America.

Europe has rea­ched such a pin­na­cle of might that his­tory has nothing that can com­pare with it, if we consi­der the immen­sity of the expen­di­tu­res, the size of the com­mit­ments, the num­ber of troops and their conti­nual main­te­nance, even when they are the most use­less and we keep them only for show.

Father du Halde10 says that China’s domes­tic trade is grea­ter that that of all Europe. That may be, if our foreign trade did not increase the domes­tic trade. Europe car­ries on the trade and ship­ping of the three other parts of the world, as France, England, and Holland essen­tially carry on the ship­ping and trade of Europe.

[Luíz Vas de Camõens (c. 1524–1580), Portuguese poet, author of The Lusiads.]

See the relation of François Pyrard, part 2, ch. xv.

[His bull Inter cætera of 1493 set the dividing line in the New World between Spain and Portugal.]

Except for the Carthaginians, as we see from the treaty that ended the first Punic War.

In the language of the Ancients, a state which has founded a colony.

Polybius, book III.

[A career is the distance which a horse can be made to go before exhaustion (Trévoux).]

The king of Persia obliged himself by treaty not to sail in any warship beyond the Cyanean Rocks and the Chelidonian Isles (Plutarch, Life of Cimon).

Aristotle, on supernatural things ; Livy, book VII of the second Decade.

Vol. II, p. 170.