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The ‘Heroic Age’ of the Britons
From the “The Vampire of the Continent”
THE average German considers the destruction of the Spanish Armada to have been a great and noble deed of liberation, for which the world owes an eternal debt of gratitude to England. This is what the German is taught at school, and this is what he reads in innumerable historical works. Spain, and above all the Spanish King Philip II, desired to force the whole of Europe into submission to the Catholic Church, and to prevent the development of the spirit of freedom. And behold ! The Virgin Queen sends forth her fleet, and the world was saved: afflavit Deus et dissipati sunt [God blew and they were scattered]. At the call of the Deity arose the mighty storm, which scattered the ships of the oppressor.
We may well ask the question as to when these epoch-making events will be revealed to the young German in another light ? The naked reality of historical facts shows the matter to have had a very different aspect.
About the year 1500 Spain and Portugal were the two World-Powers. According to a decision of the Pope, the globe had been divided by a line of demarcation into two halves, of which the one belonged to Spain and the other to Portugal. Viewed in the light of those times, this somewhat naive division of the globe was not an unjust one. The great discoveries of the preceding century had been made by Spain and Portugal, and they had opened out immense perspectives. Neither Power, however, grasped the fact that what was necessary to enable them to maintain their world-empires was not a mere Papal decree, but an ample armed force. They neglected their fleets; only too late did they perceive that in the North of Europe a nation had arisen, which instinctively recognised in piracy on the high seas the instrument adapted to its need of expansion. That nation was England.
Not a single Englishman is to be found among the pioneers who prepared the way for the great discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Neither do we find among the English any record of journeys like those accomplished by the Vikings of old — journeys undertaken for the sole pleasure of adventure, and of exploring unknown and distant regions. We find, on the other hand, alike in the English nation and in its rulers, an extremely shrewd comprehension of the value of gold and silver — a comprehension already highly developed at that period. The news of the incredible wealth derived by Spain and Portugal from those oversea possessions which the genius of their citizens had permitted them to discover, gave the English chronic insomnia. They had themselves neither discovered nor taken possession of anything. What, therefore, more natural for them than the idea of stealing from others what these others possessed ? The idea was, indeed, the more natural, seeing that Spain and Portugal had neglected to build up their fleet. Thus began, as British historians solemnly tell us, the “heroic age” of the English people. It was an age characterised by organised piracy and highway robbery; which was at first tolerated, and subsequently sanctioned, by the English sovereigns — especially by the Virgin Queen, the champion of Protestantism.
English piracy sailed under the flag of Protestantism, and of the liberation from Rome. Leaders such as Hawkins, Frobisher, and Sir Francis Drake fitted out expeditionary fleets and sailed over the ocean to the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in America. But their favorite trick was to lie in waiting for the Spanish ships filled with gold and silver, which they captured and brought in triumph to England, where these pirates were welcomed by Queen and people as champions of the Protestant faith, no less than of civilisation and progress. Or else they sailed to Spain herself, — without ever war having been declared, — and flung themselves like a pack of hungry wolves on the vessels at their moorings in Cadiz or Vigo, which they promptly robbed, burnt, and sank; they then destroyed docks and warehouses, and massacred everyone they could find. This went on for years. But woe betide any “naval commander” who dared to return home without a rich booty in gold, silver, or colonial produce ! Even if his life was spared, he could be sure of a long term of imprisonment, and of the lasting dislike of the Queen. In return for their heroic efforts on behalf of religious freedom, the English wished to have at least plenty of ships filled with gold and silver.
Spain at last resolved to put an end to English piracy, and the Armada was built. The English did not succeed in preventing the construction of the Spanish fleet by their attacks on Spanish ports, and by burning docks and vessels at anchorage therein — albeit Drake destroyed 150 ships and an immense quantity of provisions in Cadiz in 1587. The following year Philip of Spain endeavored, by means of the Armada, to punish the English pirate nation, and to ensure once for all the safety of Spanish property. The unsuccessful result of the expedition is well known; we would only recall the fact that the Duke of Parma was waiting with an army in the Spanish Netherlands, and that a fleet was at his disposal in order to permit of his rejoining the Armada, and of landing in Great Britain. England did not adopt the only attitude suitable for her, namely that of the ambushed highway robber — but adopted instead the attitude of a defender of the Protestant faith. We still read to-day, in English history books, that Philip of Spain fitted out the Armada in order to force the doctrines of Catholicism down the throats of the English. The good Continental Protestants were full of admiration for the sacrifices endured by England in order to prevent a disaster to the pure doctrine.
All the fundamental principles of Great Britain’s insular policy were manifested during the long years of war between England and Spain — war which resulted finally in the destruction of the Armada, and the complete upsetting of the plan to invade England by way of the Netherlands. British policy, from the earliest times of British expansion, has always remained the same, even if (according to Clausewitz) it has subsequently adopted different means for attaining its ends.
When English sailors, under the protection of the Queen or on her suggestion, systematically pounced upon Spanish property; when they attacked, in time of peace, the Spanish coasts, or Spanish ships on the high seas, or Spanish oversea possessions, there was never any sort of question of British rights, or of legitimate British interests, or of the defence of British homes, or of the protection of the Protestant faith. The English simply coveted that which others possessed; and they were angry that others had it, and not themselves. Above all things they wanted gold. Not only the ancient English historians, but also the modern ones, admit this as something which is self-evident. Whenever an English “naval commander” cruised during months, or even years, on the high seas, in order to capture a fleet of Spanish galleys carrying gold and silver; when, in the midst of peace, he undertook a marauding expedition against Spanish or Portuguese ports, in order to rob, burn, and massacre to his heart’s content, he was received on his return as a hero of the Protestant faith — provided he had been successful. If he came home with empty hands, he was despised. The “treasure ships,” i.e. galleys laden with gold and silver, play an extraordinary part, which the German reader can at first hardly understand, in the descriptions of that “heroic age.” But the ambitions of the English heroes of the faith were not limited to the ships alone; with the sure instinct of the bandit de grand style, they soared beyond them, as far as the countries from which the precious metal came. Drake’s “voyage around the world,” which is still admired in Germany as the deed of prowess of an idealistic pioneer of civilisation, was nothing else than a thieves’ raid. Admiral Freemantle wrote a few years ago concerning it: “Drake undertook an extensive cruise, in the course of which he burnt and plundered the wealthy coast towns of the Spanish colonies, beginning with Valparaiso, the capital of Chili. He continued his journey, seizing all the treasures he could lay hands on ….. He returned to Plymouth in triumph, the first Englishman who had sailed round the world, and laden with a million of pounds’ worth of booty. Honored by his Queen, beloved of his countrymen, he then put to sea once more, in order, as he expressed it, to singe the King of Spain’s beard. This time he left England, not as a private adventurer, but as an English Admiral, backed up by the authority of the Queen.”
Drake embodied the English ideal of heroism, and still embodies it to-day. The form alone under which that ideal incorporates itself has altered, although even the alteration of form is less great than is generally supposed.
Throughout English history, and up till the present day, we can trace the constant application of three methods: firstly, destruction of the means which the nation whom it is intended to rob possesses for protecting its property on the seas and oversea — i.e. its fleet, harbors, docks, etc.; secondly, the seizure or destruction of the trading vessels of such a nation. When these aims have been realised, England lays hands without further difficulty on that nation’s oversea possessions. It is to be observed, that this policy and this method of warfare depend in the last instance for their success on the weakening of England’s continental rivals. When the sea-power of the latter has been broken, the colonies fall off automatically, so to speak.
For the first time in English history we now see, during the Elizabethan period, the relations between England, on the one hand, and the Netherlands and Belgium, on the other, clearly delineated. The Netherlands, as we know, formerly included Holland and Belgium, and belonged entirely to Spain till 1579; after this date Holland became independent, while Belgium remained in Spanish hands. From the beginning, England viewed the Spanish Netherlands as a dangerous outpost of the Spanish world-empire. She did everything she could to assist the Netherlands in their struggle for liberty, and to detach them from Spain. The London Government hoped, in this case, to have a weak state at the other side of the Channel and the North Sea — a state naturally inclined to be serviceable to England. The planned invasion of the latter by a Spanish army stationed in Holland, has become, for British statesmen, a never-to-be-forgotten nightmare. From that day on the decision was taken, never to allow Belgium and Holland to come under the influence of any Power save England. As soon as the sea-power of Spain had been broken, England’s interest was absorbed by a new problem: how to prevent the Netherlands from becoming themselves a strong Sea-Power.
If England came, to the help of the Netherlands in their struggle against Spain, she did so, of course, under the pretext of defending the cause of Protestantism. The real reason, however, was to prevent any nation with sea-power behind it from obtaining property and influence at the other side of the Channel. It is very conceivable that the English statesmen of those days did not first enunciate this principle as a theory, and put it subsequently into practice. On the contrary, they invariably acted in accordance with the requirements of practical necessity. Neither must the experiences be forgotten, that England had made in the course of many centuries during which her ambition had been to become a Continental Power. She had tried hard to obtain rights of property on the French coast, and in the whole of France. If England finally abandoned her efforts in this direction, it was because she recognised that her insular position, in regard to European nations, far from being a weak one, was very strong. As a consequence of this recognition, arose her growing dislike to the despatch of English troops to the Continent. Her fighting forces must be kept in the country, so as not to sacrifice them except on very favorable occasions. The destruction of the Spanish Armada entailed the recognition of another great truth: namely, that an invasion of England was not to be feared, as long as the English fleet retained the mastery of the sea. A corollary of this truth was, that every continental fleet must be considered to be a potential enemy of England’s prosperity and safety; and, further, that the danger must be considered to increase in proportion as the harbors serving as a basis for such a fleet are near to the English coasts.
In this way did English statesmen come to the decision to employ on the Continent, as far as possible, foreign soldiers to fight England’s battles; for the native troops, as we have said, must be kept in the country. The only possibility of applying such a decision in practical life, lay in inducing the Continental Powers to let their armies fight for England’s interests. In order to carry out this policy it was indispensable that the Powers in question should be made to believe that, in combating England’s enemies, they were at the same time defending their own interests, if not their own existence. Henceforth were the main lines to be followed by English policy in its dealings with the Continent, definitely laid down. The means adopted for pursuing that policy were made to depend entirely on two factors: the circumstances of the moment, and the adversary to be dealt with. From the very outset it was tacitly admitted that nothing could be so disadvantageous for the realisation of English aims, than harmony among the Continental States, i.e. peace in Europe. Peace must inevitably bring about increased prosperity; and the consequence will be the growth of the sea-power of Continental nations, alike in the waters in the neighborhood of England, and on the ocean. Sea-power is the typical expression of the inner strength and unity of a nation — of a strength which must expand abroad because it cannot find adequate employment within the limits of the mother country. But it was precisely this growing prosperity of the European Continent of which England had no need!
Very early did the English Kings come to understand the value of industry for a country. As the English mind was not productive in this domain, skilled workers were, in the later Middle Ages, systematically recruited abroad. The manufacture of cloth, weaving, mining, ironwork, machinery, dyeing — all these industrial arts were brought to England by German, Dutch and French artisans. In this way was the incapacity of the English people compensated for. The narrowness of mind, quarrelsomeness, and intolerance of the Germans proved very useful in this respect; all the dissatisfied or persecuted German artisans went over to England. The stream of emigrants grew constantly larger as a result of the wars of religion. The English industry was slowly developed behind the impregnable wall of a prohibitively high tariff. As long as trade and industry and art were able to flourish in Germany, England was wholly unable to compete with them; for the German products were immeasurably superior to the English ones. But when the Empire decayed in strength as a consequence of political and religious dissensions, industrial and commercial regression likewise set in; and England did everything she could to hasten the downfall. Whilst England was undertaking, during the sixteenth century, the freebooters’ war against Spain of which we have already spoken; whilst she was thereby increasing her sea-power to such an extent as to become, at times, the mistress of the ocean; — during this time the power of the German Hansa was broken, and the last emblem of the latter’s former greatness, the Hanseatic Steel Court in London, disappeared in the last years of the sixteenth century.
During one hundred and fifty years English ships continued to carry out the policy of burning, murdering, and stealing immense treasures which were taken off to England; all this was done in the name of religion, and more particularly of Protestant freedom. The Germans, meanwhile, were busy slaughtering each other, and dissolving their empire in religious strife; the Thirty Years’ War turned the once prosperous country into a desert, and annihilated the whole of that flourishing industry which had been the admiration of the world. England fanned to the utmost possible extent the flames of German religious strife. The English were pious people — especially the English Kings and Queens; they were of opinion that the Germans were perfectly justified in transforming their own country into a cesspool of human blood, for the glory of God and of the Protestant faith. In this manner was England spared the disagreeable necessity of fighting a dangerous competitor. The German wars of religion, the hopeless want of unity among the Germans, were among the important factors that contributed to the establishment, in later times, of the English monopoly of trade and industry. The stolen gold of Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, constituted the basis on which the future edifice of English capitalism was reared. English capital, in turn, admitted of goods being manufactured and delivered cheaply; and this cheapness rendered subsequently all competition with British industry impossible. Soon the home market was not sufficient, and English goods were brought to other lands under the protection of the English fleet, mistress of the seas.
At the end of the sixteenth century the East India Company was founded. Twenty years later England stole from the Portuguese the important commercial center of Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf. An English historian remarks drily that “this action marks the beginning of our supremacy in those waters.” The same historian writes: “An attempt was made to obtain possession of the Spanish colonies in Germany and Holland by means of a sudden raid. The enterprise failed owing to the unskilful leadership of the Earl of Mansfield. After this failure, the English Court applied all its resources to the fitting out of a fleet, in order that Cadiz might be sacked, and the Spanish treasure-ships captured.” Great was the grief and anger in England when the unsuccessful raiders came back empty-handed from their excursion to Holland.
In the course of her “heroic age,” England laid the foundations of her future supremacy; she did so by means of brigandage and theft, of violence and treachery, after she had perceived the strength of her insular position and had learnt how to utilise that strength. Her rulers had recognised the value of a national industry, and had understood the means best calculated to favor its growth.
The English of those days were by no means supermen. They were not more intelligent than other nations; on the contrary, during the era of discoveries they discovered nothing, and during the era of inventions they invented nothing. But they understood the art of ploughing their fields by means of stolen oxen. And that which very clearly distinguished them from every other European people was the greed of lucre as the fundamental mainspring of action.