Imatges de pÓgina

who might possibly become a foe. The General, after this watching of his words, is not likely to offer any further warnings at all, weighty though they would be. So I, faute de mieux, take up the running and continue the warnings, not against only one, but against all possible foes.

As I stated at the commencement of this article, it is to the precariousness of our present condition that I desire to draw special attention. If this precariousness be once realised, then surely all and every one who realises it will voluntarily put on one side the claims of self-interest, and by the offer of personal service and personal self-sacrifice make good the national shortcomings of our present rulers, and compel them to take in hand their bounden duty at once to make the defence of our home certain and sure. This once assured, and known to our friends across the water to be assured, those friends will think twice, and many times more than twice, before doing any. thing likely to disturb our present, nominally, satisfactory relations ; for they will not care lightly to encounter Great Britain, when Great Britain shall have thrown off her present state of lethargy and shall have proved that, like them, she has placed national self-preservation in the forefront of the personal life and the personal duties of the dwellers in her land.




It is not my intention to take part directly in the great political and economical controversy-Free Trade versus Tariff Reform--which agitates public opinion in England, and is par excellence the battle cry of the two historical parties in the internal politics of the British Empire. Someone might object to a foreigner's interference in a discussion which the majority of English people consider as private matter, regarding their interests alone. As son of an Englishwoman, however, I have always felt an irresistible attraction to follow the different phases of English public life, with almost the same attention as I devote to the internal politics of my own country.

Englishmen are perhaps under the impression that the question of Tariff Reform can only interest themselves. The attention, however, of other countries is every day more strongly concentrated on what is happening in England since the beginning of the new reign. If England will really abandon some day her old traditional policy of splendid isolation and Free Trade, the political and economical effects of such a radical change will be felt all over the world.

With the present article I intend simply to express my sincere admiration for the British nation, and to give a proof of the keen interest awakened on the Continent by the great political battle.

There is a new argument, or rather historical fact, which being, as far as I know, ignored by both parties might perhaps contribute to throw light on some points of the controversy, where political passion has not yet completely paralysed the use of impartial reasoning.

Public speakers in England generally prefer to avoid a display of deep learning, and to remain in the field of contemporary politics with facts and figures of the present time—the practical spirit of the British nation clearly recognises the feebleness of historical arguments in the heat of political discussions. The economical history of olden times affords, however, a mine of useful information which I know British statesmen do not ignore while leading public opinion towards the solution of the problems of the future. It might therefore be of some avail to remind politicians, even in a brief and summary manner, of the greatest experiment in Free Trade which the world has known until England repeated it in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps many still ignore the fact that a condition of International Free Trade necessarily followed the constitution of the Roman World Empire. Before Rome had extended her authority over all the Mediterranean world, no real commercial barriers existed between nations in the sense in which we understand them nowadays; nevertheless effective barriers were created by the difficulty of communications, the unsafety of commercial high roads, the state of continuous warfare between tribes and nations, and the instinctive reluctance of Governments to permit the free exportation of food-stuffs. The danger of famine was one of the great anxieties of those troublous times. The gradual formation of the Roman Empire, embracing as it did, one after the other, the rich provinces which encircle the Mediterranean basin, finally put an end to the aforesaid state of affairs. From the day in which Egypt passed under the sceptre of Cæsar Augustus, the glorious Pax Romana held sway over all the ancient world from the mouth of the Nile to the Straits of Gibraltar, overthrowing all barriers, and opening in the heart of the Empire the easiest and most economical highway of commerce, the open sea.

Rome and Italy, like London and Great Britain of the present day, became the great centre of attraction of the Empire, the centre where the greatest wealth accumulated, and towards which the world's produce naturally converged.

Italy, completely destitute of mineral wealth, has always been, since the beginning of Roman expansion, a country essentially agricultural, peopled by different races of sturdy and thrifty peasants. These knew how to extract a meagre pittance from a soil which, with the exception of a few favoured regions, answers but ungratefully to the care and toil lavished on it. Only a few very fertile provinces can bear comparison with the rich plains of Gaul or the wondrous Nile valley ; the greater part of Italy is poor and rocky, incapable of resisting the unrestricted competition of richer countries.

When therefore the Roman statesmen opened, through conquest, all the ways of the world, and demolished the natural barriers which had till then protected Italic agriculture, the latter found itself exposed without defence to the merciless competition of other countries. First came the plains of Sicily, considered at one time the granary of the Roman Republic; then the conquest of Gaul opened Italy to the competition of Gallic industry and agriculture; and, lastly, the inexhaustible richness of the Nile valley dealt the deathblow to the patient industry of the poor and ignorant Italian peasant.

Nowadays Egypt, thanks to the wise British administration, which reminds one of the highest and most glorious traditions of ancient Rome, has shown again how much wealth it can produce, and what a huge margin it leaves to free exportation.

The economical problems created by the absorption of Egypt into the Empire acquired, moreover, an exceedingly serious character by the co-operation of a very powerful political factor. The lords of Rome, for well-known reasons which I omit, inaugurated that unhappy system of distributing gratuitously a daily ration of bread to the teeming thousands of the capital. From this deplorable policy there grew up a numerous population of parasites who, without producing anything, absorbed annually an enormous amount of food-stuffs. The evil became intensified through the fact that Rome, as the administrative centre of the Empire and the seat of the Imperial Court, attracted all the wealthiest and most ambitious men of the time, who, in hopes of popularity or Imperial favour, squandered vast sums of money in worthless enterprises and lavish generosity.

Rome, whose population at one moment surpassed a million inhabitants, became therefore a gigantic consumer who ought to have constituted a great source of wealth to Italian agriculture. On the other hand, the Imperial treasury through the free distribution of such vast amounts of food-stuffs was overloaded by a financial charge which in times of trouble and distress became one of its most serious economical problems, and any possible economy would have been readily applied.

If therefore the peasants had been able to offer their produce on the market of Rome at a price inferior to that of Sicily, Gaul or Egypt, no doubt the emperors, or rather the administrators of the Imperial treasury, would have given preference to the cheaper Italian article.

It so happened instead that the government of Rome only partially understood the economical phenomenon produced by universal Free Trade, and ignored completely its causes and its possible remedies. Already in the time of the Gracchi, before the fall of the Roman Republic, the effects of the agricultural crisis, brought about by the competition of Sicily, had given birth to many painful consequences. The great agitation with which the name of the Gracchi is closely bound gives us the first safe indication of the economical catastrophe under which Italy was to fall.

The remedies tried in those circumstances by the leaders of the Roman people were of no avail, because they failed to grasp the real causes of the evil. The crisis under the Empire became ever more acute, and in Italy agriculture slowly died out as an unremunerative industry; those fields from which the revenue was poor and uncertainthat is, the greater part of Italy-were gradually abandoned. Agriculture survived only in relatively happy conditions in some restricted areas, like the valley of the Po and Campania, for instance, where the exceptional richness of the soil permitted the continuation of agriculture even with greatly diminished profits. The special system of

cultivation, the minute subdivision of property and the conservative tenacity of a hard-working population saved those privileged regions from the ruin which extinguished all life in the rest of the Peninsula.

Nobody thought of defending the native industry, for Italy was but a province of the Empire extending from the banks of the Euphrates to the Atlantic coast. Reasons of political opportunism, selfish hand-to-mouth principles of internal policy, seemed more urgent and impelling; the highest economical interests of our unhappy country were sacrificed to these principles, and Italy, deprived of other resources, was fatally condemned to misery and depopulation.

The process was slow but relentless, it lasted several centuries, but in the end the country was transformed into a desert; some of the peasants emigrated, others became shepherds or slaves, and the rest died of hunger. The plains, once covered with stretches of golden grain, became overrun by brambles and rank weeds, or sank back into marshes teeming with game. The greater part of the country was absorbed into the immense landed estates of the wealthy Roman capitalists, and formed those celebrated latifundia of the later Roman Empire.

Through the erroneous interpretation of historical phenomena the effects were mistaken for the causes, and succeeding generations formulated that celebrated sophism : Latifundia Italiam perdidere.

In conclusion : Italy was ruined economically and abandoned by her inhabitants principally through the formation of the Roman Empire, and in consequence of the greatest experiment of Free Trade in the history of mankind.

Without entering here into greater details it is sufficient to add that the crisis ruined Sicily likewise, and inflicted heavy losses even on Gaul and Spain. All the weaker industries succumbed under the free competition of those countries where the same goods could be produced at a lower price. It so happened that the government of the Empire, by neglecting the real remedies for a problem of such vital importance, permitted, and even encouraged, the extinction of the principal sources of national wealth. This contributed in a very high degree to the great political catastrophe of the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Barbarians overthrew the Empire.

If the Roman statesmen had been able to foresee the disaster and to understand its principal causes, and if they had tried to protect the agricultural industry on which alone Italy's power relied, they might have saved their country. By giving means of existence to a numerous population of sturdy peasants they could have considerably modified the course of events during the last centuries of the Empire and through the Middle Ages.

The singular consequence of this state of affairs was that Italy began to pick up her ancient material prosperity only after the Empire she had founded went to pieces. Then the natural barriers between

« AnteriorContinua »