Radhanites

Fun fact:  20 years ago on this day the US state of Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery.  That Southern Anti-Slavery impetus is fast like molasses in winter.

This got me thinking about slavery and the slave trade through history.  Along the way I came across the history of the Radhanites, a group I never heard about before.  It seems Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta found their way to China by tramping a well worn path created by a group of enterprising Jews.

Radhanites were a bridge in time, space and culture.  Masters of language, they could trade from France to China.  As Jews they could move between the Christian and Muslim worlds in “relative” safety (they were equally hated in both spheres).  They were a bridge from China to Europe and the Middle East.

This is not to say that they were true blue nice guys.  They were canny businessmen.  Muslims were forbidden from enslaving other muslims.  The Radhanites made good money supplying Christian slaves to Muslim markets.  Mostly they dealt in high value goods that were easy to transport.  Spices, silks, gems and intellectual property.  They may have been instrumental in the introduction of paper and Arabic number systems to Europe.

They were pioneers of long range funds transfer through letters of credit.  It is almost certain that the Italians learned the fundamentals of banking from the Radhanites.  The enclosed and tribal nature of Jewish society, and the community focus on morality engendered the level of trust required to underpin the establishment of letters of credit.  The Italian finance families achieved the same end by a Mafiosi style culture of “loyalty to the death” and by administration of poisons, to which they controlled the antidote, to be taken on a regular basis.

The Radhanites were at their most influential from 500 AD to 1,000 AD.  They spanned the period between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the establishment of the Crusader Kingdoms.  The Radhanite control of the Silk road was undermined by the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China and the Khazar Khaganate  in the 10th Century.  Central Asia became highly unstable until the rise of the Mongols.  In Europe and the near East their trade was wrested from them by Italian City States.

The Radhanite sea route to China, via the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, Malaysia etc is the basis for the stories of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Radhanites

The Slave’s Dream : Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,
They held him by the hand!–
A tear burst from the sleeper’s lids
And fell into the sand.
And then at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger’s bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion’s flank.
Before him, like a blood-red flag,
The bright flamingoes flew;
From morn till night he followed their flight,
O’er plains where the tamarind grew,
Till he saw the roofs of Caffre huts,
And the ocean rose to view.
At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.
The forests, with their myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty;
And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled
At their tempestuous glee.
He did not feel the driver’s whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay

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23rd February 1455 is commonly held to be the publication date of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced on a moveable type printing press.

In our Euro-Centric Imperialist world view of history we were always told that Gutenberg invented the printing press.  The truth is a lot more murky.  The press was pioneered by the Chinese in the mid 11th Century, and they even invented a moveable type press.  However, due to the vagaries of the Chinese alphabet and difficulties in casting metal typefaces, it was never popularised.

China of the 11th century was a closed society.  While trade in silks, spices and teas found its way to Europe through the Islamic Caliphate, as it had previously done in Roman times through various Persian empires, the volumes were small, the prices high.  Technology did not transfer from place to place with any alacrity.

It was the turmoil of 12th Century Mongol conquest that paved the route for ideas to move between China and the West.  Travellers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta braved the Silk Road and brought back inventions and ideas from the east, such as Rice, Pasta, Gunpowder and Cast Iron.  Somewhere along the way the idea of the printing press made its way to Europe.

It was not until the mid 14th century that Gutenberg put all the pieces together.  His primary skill was with metal.  It was his ability to develop a quick and cheap casting process for the type that opened the door to printing.  Type metal is made of a combination of lead, antimony and tin.  It does not shrink and deform as it cools in the mold.  Gutenberg also developed inks that adhere to the metal type, and then cleanly imprint onto paper, and he developed paper of a quality to suit the pressing process.

The first thing printed was the Gutenberg Bible.  Making a bible that was accessible to a wide audience led to a reading of the bible by a large number of scholars.  Once they began to see what the bible contained they began to question church dogma.  The protestant reformation was born in a printing press.

Very soon after the bible the press was harnessed for other purposes, and became the first mass market mode of communications.  Media was born with the news sheet.  Political change by the people and for the people was made possible by literacy and was made reality by leaflets, pamphlets and manifestos from printing presses.  American independence and the French Revolution were a product of changes in society that began with a press, ink and a sheet of paper.

Sonnet XI; by Christopher Pearse Cranch

IN boyhood’s days we read with keen delight
How young Aladdin rubbed his lamp and raised
The towering Djin whose form his soul amazed,
Yet who was pledged to serve him day and night.
But Gutenberg evoked a giant sprite
Of vaster power, when Europe stood and gazed
To see him rub his types with ink. Then blazed
Across the lands a glorious shape of light,
Who stripped the cowl from priests, the crown from kings,
And hand in hand with Faith and Science wrought
To free the struggling spirit’s limèd wings,
And guard the ancestral throne of sovereign Thought.
The world was dumb. Then first it found its tongue
And spake — and heaven and earth in answer rung.