Pathology of Empire: 'son of heaven'


3. 'son of heaven'

A common means of securing empire and emperor is to claim that Heaven decreed it. This legitimising assertion is difficult to rebut if an imperial ascension is accompanied by a significant astronomical event. In China, the 'Mandate of Heaven' has been used to shore up dynastic empires for thousands of years (and conversely, to justify their overthrowing).

The 'Mandate' first emerged in a recognisable form towards the end of the second millennium BC., when the Shang Dynasty was defeated and replaced by the Zhou Dynasty of King Wen and King Wu. The doctrine is thought to have been fully developed by the Duke of Zhou in the succeeding years when he acted as regent for King Wu's son Cheng.

In ancient China, the real-politik inquiry about who is manipulating whom becomes ambiguous. The degree to which political protagonists were themselves beholden to the religious beliefs of their times is unclear. In the words of the Grand Hi…

Pathology of Empire: 'the catfish'


2. 'the catfish'

At the core of enduring empire is Belief. The object of this belief is the Chosen One, recognised by signs of his anointing like victory in battle and the sacking of cities. The subject of this belief, the Genius of Empire, arranges his own adoration by adopting myth and designing ceremony. The relationship between the two is so intensely symbiotic that it becomes almost impossible to discern where religion ends and politics begins. Such was Ancient Egypt.

In her article, "Propaganda and Performance at the Dawn of the State", Ellen Morris brings disarming simplicity to this maze of meaning. She writes, "According to pharaonic ideology, the maintenance of cosmic, political, and natural order was unthinkable without the king, who served as the crucial lynchpin that held together not only Upper and Lower Egypt, but also the disparate worlds of gods and men. Because of his efforts, society functioned smoothly and the Nile floods bro…

Pathology of Empire: 'a mighty man'


1. 'a mighty man'

The origin of empire lies in the mind of he who would be emperor. This might seem an overly simplistic statement. Yet there is a deeply cultural suspicion in Western society of those whom the Ancient Greeks called 'tyrants'. And it is often a personalised mistrust, questioning the psychological soundness of those with great political power. Our scepticism ranges from the oft-quoted saying that 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely', to the extreme Quem Jupiter vult perdure, dementat prius, ('Whom God would destroy, he first sends mad', James Duport, Homeri Gnomologia, 1660).

For the past two millennia of European history, the most influential, and often the only, book has been the Bible. It too has its pantheon of political nightmares, mainly Judaic, but also Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman. However, it is the earliest mention of imperial ambition that may have had the most impact. Many reade…

Kongo Slaves: Portuguese Brazil


Portuguese Brazil

Most slaves loaded on the Angola Coast for Portuguese Brazil in the seventeenth century were landed at the three dominant ports of Recife in Pernambuco, Salvador in Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro in the south. Only 11 voyages were made to other small (Paraiba, Maranhao, Ilha Grande) or unspecified ("Brazil") ports in this period. Of these, a total of 3,311 slaves were embarked with 2,246 surviving the trauma of the journey. High mortality was in large part because three ships in this group were shipwrecked on the way. (1)

During the century, 85 ships departed for the captaincy of Pernambuco in north eastern Brazil. They carried 25,389 slaves when they left West Central Africa. Most voyages took place in just two decades. 44 ships landed 12,003 slaves at Recife between 1641 and 1650. Another 25 ships unloaded 5,626 slaves in the last decade of 1691 to 1700. Overall, Pernambuco planters received 21,511 slaves out of 25,389 shipped, losing 3,878 dead. Mor…