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Friday, 10th September 2010

No man is an island

The carnage involving Hong Kong tourists in Manila last month reminds us once again how fragile life can be.

In 1623, the English poet and preacher, John Donne, wrote his Meditation while recovering from a serious illness. The seventeenth prose contains the following:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Donne referred to 'island' and 'continent', probably alluding to the threats and opportunities that existed between England and Europe at the time.

The 17th century was the age of geographic exploration and global trade. Exploration of continents and confrontation with indigenous communities started in the 15th century after Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492. The next year the Pope decreed that any further exploration be split between Spain and Portugal, the two sea powers at the time. While Spain was to head west in the direction of the Atlantic, Portugal would head east towards the Indian Ocean. This led to the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the Philippines (name derived from King Philip II of Spain) in 1521 and claimed the islands for Spain, and to Macao becoming a Portuguese enclave in 1557.

Regarding global trade, merchants in the India subcontinent began to import by sea porcelain from China in the 15th century or earlier. After Vasco de Gama's discovery of the sea route round the African corner to India in the late 15th century, Portuguese mariners started to bring vast amounts of porcelain, silk and other goods to Europe. (This was overtaken by the Netherlands by the turn of the 16th century.)

Marine trade routes in South China Sea, 17th Century

Marine trade routes in South China Sea, 17th Century

In February 1625, a Spanish Jesuit, Adriano de las Cortes, boarded the ship Nossa Senhora da Guia from Manila to Macao. Journeys like this normally involved the exchange of silver for silk made in China, the resulting profit being used to support religious activities in Manila. Passengers on board the ship were truly international: Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, Indians, Jews, Moors, and Africans. Because of a wind storm, the ship was stranded in the China coast near Fujian. While being incarcerated, las Cortes asked for some water. He was given a bowl of hot water which he was not used to. Subsequent hand signs obviously did not help, for he was offered tobacco which Jesuits should not take. Eventually he was given 'warm water made with a herb called tea'. This was probably one of the first European contacts with the herb. Tea became very popular in the West starting from the 19th century.

The above tells us that by the early 17th century tobacco smokes were already part of Chinese life, at least along the coastal areas. Tobacco belongs to the tomato family, which includes: tomato, potato and pepper, all of which are native to South America. These were brought to the Far East by Spanish ships arriving at Manila from Acapulco, a major seaport southwest of Mexico City.

The influx of silver into China was reversed in the early 19th century when the British East India Company brought shiploads of opium to China. This led to the military confrontations which started in 1837-1842, resulting in the successive ceding of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. Whereas Hong Kong came to the fore at this time, Manila and Macao were very much the trading hubs for goods to and from south China.

While the rest of the world picked up various new things from the Americas, what was perhaps not learnt from the American Indians is their morals and ethics. There and then the aim of confrontation was to ensure balance of ecological borders and resources, not extermination. While prisoners especially the weak were allowed to admit defeat and leave or escape, only the bravest could volunteer to stay and face torture and death. But this century and last we still see holocausts, genocide, deliberate starvation and terrorism, and these afflict mostly innocent civilians. There is something we can learn from our past.

No man is an island. Every person is a piece of the continent. If a clod be washed away by the sea, the continent is the less. The world is the less. Any death diminishes us.

B.Y. Lee


a) Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brooks, Chinese translation, 2010.
b) Wikipedia

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>