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How to make yourself care about stuff you don’t care about
What are you doing in geography at the moment? The weather? Why should you care about seasons and climates and cold fronts and clouds? Good question. Why you should care about the weather, or photosynthesis, or World War II, or any of the other things you study?
I think a great way to start trying to understand something, is to start by asking “Why should I care? Why is this important and worth learning about?” Or even, “How is this interesting?”
A useful question for the internet
Let’s talk about research, which is about the different ways we can find answers to our questions. When I’m trying to find out about something new, trying to find a reason to care, I like to ask the internet for “10 interesting facts about …”. I am looking for a list, a small list of important and, if possible, interesting facts about whatever it is I’m learning.
Let’s try this. Let’s take Portugal, a small, country at the western end of Europe. All I know about Portugal is that it’s a small and not very rich country and a nice place to go on holiday. I ask the internet for “Portugal 10 interesting facts”, and read the first list I find, looking for something interesting.
I discover something surprising and interesting about Portugal
I’m not very interested in the fact that Portugal has one of the oldest universities in Europe, is the oldest country in Europe, is great for surfing or has the oldest bookshop in the world. But, wait, what’s this? “Half of the New World once belonged to Portugal”? The new world was what we called all the continents outside of Europe that Europeans started discovering – and invading – about 600 years ago. It says that in 1494, Portugal had the first global empire in history, and ruled over Africa, Asia and Brazil in South America. What?
We’ve talked about empires before: this is when a population or nation decides that it is so superior compared to everyone else that they should rule the world. There have been a lot of famous empires. I’ve mentioned the empires of Ancient Rome and Nazi Germany, and other empires I remember hearing about when I was at school were the Holy Roman Empire (not the same as the Roman Empire), the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the British Empire. Why haven’t I heard of the Portuguese Empire?
I discover another interesting fact: why we aren’t all speaking Portuguese today
There is another interesting fact on the list: “In 1755, Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, was struck by one of the most powerful earthquakes in European history.” Aha! I wonder if this earthquake in Portugal’s capital city is connected with the end of their empire? So, I write “1755 Lisbon earthquake ends Portuguese empire” in my search engine. The titles of the results are things like, “The Earthquake That Brought an Empire to Its Knees”, is one title, and “How One Earthquake Changed the Course of Human History”, is another. So there is a connection.
I have a look at a couple of the articles and discover that, a few hours after suffering the worst earthquake in European history, Lisbon was struck by a tsunami (a gigantic wave caused by an earthquake), and then a terrible fire destroyed whatever survived the earthquake and tsunami. 40,000 people were killed. I read that the little country of Portugal could have been the richest country in the world today, more powerful than Germany, than the USA, than China, if it’s capital city hadn’t been destroyed 250 years ago.
Think about it …. If Portugal’s capital city hadn’t been destroyed 250 years ago, today we might all be forced to learn Portuguese at school instead of English, Spanish and French.
How do you start an empire?
Now I care. Now I think Portugal’s interesting. One of the questions I have now about Portugal is: how did Portugal become so powerful 500 years ago?
Let’s look at the usual three reasons why countries and states decide they should rule the world and start an empire. A country’s power comes from 3 main things:
A country’s source of power: superior technology
a) The first is Technology. Opportunities to rule the world often come from having invented bigger and better catapults, guns, tanks or bombs. A second way a country can get a big advantage over its neighbours is to be the first to invent something, especially if it’s something to do with transport, like ships that can sail across oceans, hot-air balloons, and airplanes that can fly long-distance. Or invent things that make a lot of money for the country because they own them, like the technology for turning oil into petrol for cars, or like Facebook.
b) The second source of power is ideas and beliefs. Every country that invades other countries to start their empire is sure of one thing: they are better than the countries they are invading. Countries starting empires believe they have the best or most advanced civilisation – a combination of things like technology, history, religion, race and organisation – and this gives them the right – and most even see it as their duty – to dominate less civilised people.
How being organised can help you rule the world
Sometimes ideas give countries an advantage which is like a technological advantage. The Ancient Romans spent a lot of time thinking about how to make their armies invincible, and this meant coming up with ideas for things like how to group and move large numbers of soldiers around, how to make them obedient, how to feed and clothe them, how to keep them alive on the battle field, how to find the best soldiers, how to pay them, etc. Roman organisation helped the Roman Empire keep going for 500 years.
How a belief can be a weapon
Another example of this kind of idea comes from the Japanese in World War II. The Japanese invented Kamikaze fighting. The Japanese taught their soldiers that dying for your country was the greatest honour, whereas losing or surrendering was a dishonour. If the best way of killing as many enemy soldiers as possible was to blow yourself up, taking as many enemy lives as possible, then you should do that, for your country. This idea produced a determined and terrifying army which managed to invade and conquer Korea, large parts of China and all of Southeast Asia during WWII.
The end of this story, which is also about the end of WW II, is that technology defeated the Japanese. In 1945 the Americans and their allies won the race to invent the atomic bomb, still the most powerful weapon ever created. They showed the Japanese how they could destroy an entire city with just one of these bombs, by bombing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 10 days later the Japanese surrendered, I imagine because they didn’t want the Americans dropping one of these bombs on Tokyo, their capital city. Look what happened to Portugal.
Yes, we still have those bombs, now called nuclear weapons. Let me tell you about the Cold War some time.
How your geography can help you rule the world
c) The third source of power is geography. A country’s natural resources – for example, oil, iron, gold, diamonds – can be their main source of power, if the people of that country can turn them into useful things like money or fuel. It’s not enough to have natural resources: the country needs to be able to use them, and, more importantly, defend them from other countries that want them.
Countries that want to build empires look for countries to invade that are technologically weaker than they are and have natural resources that they want, like agricultural land, people, diamonds, and climates where interesting things like cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco can grow.
If a country discovers a natural resource and can combine it with a new technology this can give it an enormous advantage.
So back to our question, what made Portugal so powerful 500 years ago? Because they had the weather on their side.
A country’s access to wind can help them win
The physical geography of every country is unique, and consists of things like mountains, rivers, lakes, coasts – and winds. To cut a long story short, some parts of the world have very predictable winds, called prevailing winds, that blow in the same place and direction, depending on the time of year. The Portuguese were the first, a little more than 500 years ago to work out that you could sail with one of these winds all the way from Portugal along the coast of western Africa, and from there, powered by another wind, into the Atlantic Ocean towards the Americas, and from there, back to Europe powered by a third wind. The Portuguese called this a “volta do mar” – a “turn of the sea” – and this discovery gave the Portuguese a huge advantage in their exploration of the unknown world, and in building their empire.
Discovering this wind power 500 years ago was as revolutionary for the world as using steam to power trains 300 years later, and the invention of the petrol-powered car 400 years later.
How a triangle of winds made Europeans rich
The European countries which became most involved with Africa and the Americas were Portugal, Spain, France and the UK, and if you look at a map of Europe you can see that these countries all have coasts facing the Atlantic Ocean, and all of these countries benefitted from the “volta do mar” and from these winds, which became known as the Atlantic Triangle – because they formed a triangle between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Unfortunately for Africa, the Atlantic Triangle allowed these European countries to get rich from the slave trade: first, the Europeans sailed to Africa to capture slaves, then they transported the slaves to the Americas and exchanged them for goods like cotton and sugar, and then they transported these goods back to Europe.
Do you think the weather is more interesting now?