Intercontinental Drift

Intercontinental Drift

History has shown how the relocation of displaced people and refugees has altered the world for the better. Norman Maclean explains how mass exoduses have spread knowledge, culture, technology, and wisdom from ancient civilisations to the present day.

“They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean.”

When Roman poet, Horace penned these words over two millennia ago, he could scarcely have envisaged the chaos unfolding in our time as hundreds of thousands clamour for salvation in the West, carrying with them both faith and culture. Yet the drift of migrants to the heart of Horace’s empire had begun long before and was the reason why citizens of the Eastern provinces were as common a sight in the Forum Romanum as bewhiskered Celts and flaxen-haired Germanics.

It has become mandatory to bewail the implications of today’s vast movement of refugees from the near East into Europe, the Americas and beyond. Our concern is entirely justified, but we should not for a moment imagine that the relocation of entire peoples is unprecedented. While your grand-parents gape in horror and vow that things will never be the same again, it might be worth reminding them that although they are quite right, the changes that are inevitable will almost certainly alter the world for the better. 

A little optimism is perhaps required to offset the prevailing sense of deep unease that permeates virtually all forms of media.

Those swarming thousands making their way from Turkey to Greece and onward past the barriers and check-points and the misery of the camps are largely people fired by determination to seek a better life, rather than any desire to impose their personal beliefs on an increasingly secular West as some apparently fear. Furthermore, it is evident that plenty of them are well educated, resourceful and determined to make their way in whatever society finally accepts them which is precisely why Angela Merkel has sensibly opted to welcome close on a million into Germany where an aging work force and a declining birth rate pose major problems for the near future of that state.

How vastly different this invasion is from historical examples. In the year 846, genuine fanaticism saw a wave of Muslim invaders penetrate as far as Rome where they gleefully looted St. Peter’s basilica, inspiring Pope Leo to order the construction of defensive walls. The huge stone barrier of the Leonine wall surrounding the Vatican still evokes awe among the crowds queuing to click cameras at the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Of course the armies of the prophet who stormed across the Tiber were simply behaving with all the rapaciousness and militancy displayed by Christian hosts from the time the empire had begun to brandish crosses in the form of swords and ruthless dominance of the east emanated by imperial command from Constantinople. That city was a replacement Rome, transplanted to the point where a small Greek settlement, Byzantium perched on the eastern edge of Europe, looked across to Asia. Constantine who founded the new capital knew what he was doing: the location gave him easy access to the great trade routes running to Egypt and as far as India. It gave control over the fabulous wealth of the Greek east, long annexed by Rome yet always intellectually, spiritually and culturally so much more dynamic and in some respects autonomous.

The culture of Constantinople remained Greek until the city eventually fell to the Muslim armies of Ottoman sultan, Mehmed ii after a siege of 54 days in 1453. That, of course, was the end of the world for the Christians of the East.  The unthinkable had happened with the greatest city on earth becoming a final colossal gem in the Muslim crown. From Baghdad and far beyond, to all of North Africa and now the borders of Europe, the Prophet held sway. No matter that Rome had survived and an attempted assault on Vienna back in 1529 had been repulsed: Allah was now reverenced in Jerusalem in a quite amicable accommodation with local Christians, while Constantinople’s vast Hagia Sophia was converted from Christendom’s greatest shrine to a glorious mosque.

All of which rather diminishes, in terms of global alarm, the spectacle of thousands scrambling for a better life in the West while the Jeremiahs of our day lament this unthinkable mass movement of foreign peoples.

Inevitably the West was to retaliate. From 1096 to 1270, a succession of European armies invaded the Muslim east, bent on reclaiming Christian holy places. Those cross-bearing hordes were the largely illiterate ruffian descendants of the assorted tribes who had gradually brought the Roman Empire to its knees. When short of meat, they were not averse to barbequing Muslim children on spits. Butchering their way through the Levant, they made the word crusade synonymous with barbarism and left a legacy that still festered when George W. Bush—evidently lacking any knowledge of history—used that very term when talking of the need to invade Iraq. The rest, as they say, is history: the chaotic consequences of that misguided decision are still very much with us. 

It behoves us to recall that out of the chaos that reigned for so many centuries, emerged cultural and intellectual advantages that were largely responsible for shaping the modern world. When Constantinople fell, the refugees who fled westward often ended up in Venice since ships tended to make their way to that great seaport in preference to most others. Trunks full of manuscripts and every kind of codex came with the escapees. Many of the precious documents were the works of Greek thinkers and it was access to these that largely fired the Italian Renaissance. Prior to this – think here of architectural and sculptural splendours from the geniuses of Donatello, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo—such places as Rome had long been rural backwaters. Where the Caesars had once sat in power there were malarial swamps in the late medieval period and a squalid slum of perhaps 25,000 persons, a minute fraction of the once teeming population in the distant days when millions of gallons of pure water gushed from aqueducts to feed public fountains and flush civic latrines. The mighty Forum Romanum in the late 1400’s was still known as the Campo Vacchino—the Cow Field—where unwashed and lice-ridden peasants tended their herds among the broken columns of temples and basilicas. 

Which is why when Irish monks penetrated northern Italy on their missionary journeys in the 8th century, locals were astounded to be told something of their ancestors who once dominated the entire Mediterranean. Most had not the faintest idea what Rome had once been. The very ruins of the Colosseum, home at that time to hundreds of squatters who built their shacks and hovels in its crumbling arches, was deemed by most to be the ruins of a giant’s castle or some extraordinary relic of fairy rule in a past unknown.

Such vast tides of itinerant peoples had crossed back and forth over Europe in the preceding centuries that identification of any one race with a single country had become near impossible. 

In their tens of thousands, Vandals, Sueves, and Alans had broken through Roman ranks and crossed the frozen river Rhone in the first decade of the 5th century and spread throughout Gaul, pillaging and sacking as they went until the achievements of the Caesars had been reduced to the ruins photographed by tourists today. These wandering armies only stopped when they reached the barrier of the Pyrenees so from there, they poured east and west into neighbouring provinces. Within a mere century, successive waves of German barbarians, many of them more or less Christianised, had irrevocably altered the map of Western Europe. That continent had slumped intellectually and spiritually into a state that enabled future generations to belittle it by speaking of the Dark Ages. A scathing term it may be, but despite contemporary efforts to rehabilitate this era, certain facts are undeniable.

All the great continental libraries had vanished by this time: even memory of them had been erased from the minds of those who lived in the emerging feudal societies of medieval Europe. Rome possessed twenty-eight libraries in the days of Constantine. One writer of the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus averred that, “bibliotecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis”—the libraries like tombs were closed forever. Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, it is evident that learning was all but extinguished except in the monasteries.

Yet in sharp contrast was the embrace of learning that so characterised the Muslim world in the centuries that followed Mohammed’s extraordinary lifetime.

By the time Muslim hordes had swept their way through all of the near-East, the whole of north Africa and into Spain, they had laid claim to the remnants of classical civilisation not totally eliminated by the savagery of the early Church that had presided over the burning of libraries, the closing of centres of learning and the destruction of all that might be deemed pagan. Muslim scholars had appropriated much that laid the foundations for their own ascendancy as the great academic faith with advanced knowledge of everything from astronomy, medicine and algebra to chemistry, botany and geography.

By 900 C.E. Cordoba in Spain had become, after Baghdad, the second city of the world, a luminous, teeming metropolis of 100,000. It was an extraordinary polyglot of three continents in which paved streets were lit by oil-burning lamps. It boasted three hundred baths since Moorish engineers had built extensive hydraulic systems that poured pure water from the mountains into the city and also watered vast horticultural regions. Emphasis on art and learning put Cordoba high above the rest of Europe, which only a century before could offer precisely two universities while Spain alone had seventeen.  Cordoba’s central library established between 961 and 976 was the pride of the caliphate, possessing more than 400,000 books.


aliphate! That term evokes a shudder in our time and not without very real cause. Yet, how strangely human society adjusts to vast movements of people; the dissemination of knowledge; the blending of cultures. We may hardly expect to find some radical 15th century-style intellectual boost as a result of this century’s exodus from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but we can certainly assume some melding of cultures out of which new vitality may emerge to invigorate an increasingly self-satisfied, hedonistic and often bored West.

It is a commonplace that destruction and decay are essential for new growth.  It applies throughout the natural world and it appears to apply equally in human societies. How completely devastating it must have been to pick an existence out of the ruins of Berlin a mere seventy years ago with an entire country brought to its knees; its glorious cities shattered; a massive death toll and a broken spirit expected to also accommodate national guilt. Had anyone suggested then that the leading nation of Europe at the end of the 20th century would be Germany there might have been wry and dismissive laughter. Apart from the repatriation of displaced hordes, no real influx of alien residents subsequently occurred: rather, by the early 1960’s the Wall cut a once proud country in two, actually reducing the population and symbolising a permanent enmity between the West and the Soviet Union.

This writer was one of millions who gaped in disbelief as television showed that same barrier coming down overnight: vast numbers streaming across what had been No Man’s Land, incredulous tears and wild exclamations of joy marking a kind of return to unification. It was like a science-fiction scenario—few if any sci-fi writers had ever postulated such a happening.  Mass movement of people, bent on a better existence was again occurring. It repeatedly shapes and reshapes society; eliminates much that was corrupt; creates a variety of new problems (just ask any Berliner) yet signals an urge to regeneration and a reinvigoration of the human spirit.

But, oh God!  What can the world be coming to when desperate people paddle across the Aegean in search of something better than the hellhole that is Syria?

The neo-Nazis of Europe are militantly opposed which is entirely predictable: somewhere in their tiny minds lurks the nonsense once cheerfully promulgated by Goebbels and his fellow fanatics. Bitter anti-Semitism was the order of the day then, but undesirables came in many forms including such evident deviants as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, trade unionists, gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped and coloured peoples, all of whom could usefully be categorised as degenerate and fit only for elimination. Mass media today makes a Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda somewhat redundant, which is why we have witnessed mobs marching again under banners that demand the removal of refugees. Goebbels’ successors bear the same erroneous notion that in the 1930’s mythologised and motivated those torch-lit processions in Nuremburg: the Germanic people were of pure stock, untainted by any dangerous alien blood-lines and could probably trace their origins back to Atlantis if a massive mental convulsion was attempted and reason thrown out along with all contaminating thought such as had been purveyed by anti-social intellectuals.

New Zealand has grandly offered to accept a few hundred displaced people. The Prime Minister’s hand was forced by the weight of public opinion. Still, there are individuals and organisations demanding an increase in the quota since one fact is glaring obvious: quite apart from humane concern that stirs a desire to help, this country is in grave danger of foundering financially if it remains as ludicrously under populated as it is at present. Germany’s dilemma is our problem too: we have a rapidly aging population, a diminishing work-force and a pressing need for skilled, motivated, multi-talented immigrants who can provide for the future of this nation as well as for themselves. Our population of four and a quarter million inhabit a land roughly equivalent to Italy where 44 million somehow manage to live largely productive lives, despite their own variety of social and economic challenges. If by some bizarre fluke we were to number eight million —not a serious proposition—there is no reason why that should make more than a relatively small dent on the landscape.

The technology exists to provide solutions to all problems of pollution, food production, waste disposal, the provision of water and power, opportunities to create meaningful work and enjoy creative pursuits. Entire cities could exist in such places as Westport, Hokitika, Hicks Bay, and a dozen other places where limited employment and development now exist. There is no longer any excuse to pump filth into the sea or the air or into land-fills: with vision and enterprise and a massive injection of population, superbly designed urban centres could rise to take full advantage of what is available to local residents.

We would, of course, have to be prepared to accept the best of those who applied – not merely plutocrats believing they can purchase whatever takes their fancy but self-reliant, skilled, vigorous, mostly young men and women who by every indication would practically sell their souls to have the kind of chance we could so easily offer. This is the land that by its very name proclaims what advertisers would deem the strongest sounds of persuasion. What other place on the planet can offer NEW and ZEAL? Where else is there a society so completely blessed by nature yet able to offer the comforts and conveniences taken for granted in any civilised place?

Hammer on Wellington’s doors now: our future depends on it.

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2016.
Posted 11:55am Sunday 3rd April 2016 by Norman H. Maclean.