Western civilisation

and the problem of



In 1991, the State Library of NSW held an exhibition about the Mutiny on the Bounty, in association with Rolf Harris Production, which supported a television series - all focused on glorifying captain Bligh, making of him a victim and a hero in the same time.  Understandably, the descendants of the mutineers on Norfolk Island were unable to match the resources of the conservative historians, and their traditional supporters.  Equally important would have been the view that it was the abusive character of captain Bligh, which was the direct cause of the mutiny.  

In addition of the views of both sides, an impartial observer would have pointed to the fact that the Bounty's mission was to support slavery by providing cheap food for people who were kidnapped from their families to work for the welfare of their "civilised" owners. Its mission was to transport pots of Bread Fruit plant, a miserable source of food, needed for the colonial authorities to feed the salves.  Being so loyal to fulfilling orders to successfully transport the plants, captain Bligh was more concerned about the pots than about the welfare of his sailors; and to keep the plants alive he had to ration drinking water on the ship.  The first thing the mutineers did after controlling the ship was throwing the plants to the sea, depicted in a dramatic painting, also held by the State Library.  

Among perhaps thousands of statements, films and books about the mutiny – the conservative historians did not even bother to criticise the inhumane mission of the Bounty.  It requires one to be totally biased to believe in merits of the word “civilisation” based on violently subduing other cultures and enslaving millions of non-western people.  While this has been the situation of the past, the current expanding network of interconnectedness and the new dynamics emerging in the world - requires a serious research in the concept of Global civilisation, in which thinkers about Western civilisation can give a vision on how to correct the effects of the past and contribute to the Global civilisation - which is facing enemies from within (racists and terrorists), and enemies from without (environmental uncertainty).  

Dealing with the past

We have witnessed two ways of encountering the problems of the past.  One approach was generated by honest, straightforward and humanitarian drive.  Former PM Kevin Rudd bravely announced (2009) “We come together today to deal with an ugly chapter in our nation's history. And we come together today to offer our nation's apology”.  This has paved the way for establishing a civilised society based on equality of all its specific groups of identification.

Another way of dealing with the history of Western civilisation in the region is based on trivialising past injustice through considering it as a mere “clash of cultures”, watering down the acts of brutality, aggression and racism –and focusing on examples of benefits, such as providing ground for legal and democratic system, education and some may argue, also religion.

The focus of conservative scholars on glorifying Western civilisation does not impress many progressive and broadminded researchers and historians in the world, as well as in the West itself.  Let's listen to what British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975) mentioned in his 1947 essay “Civilisation on Trial”, in which he took a long-term perspective into the future:

          “Future historian will say, I think, that the great event of the 20th century was the impact of the

          Western civilisation upon all other living societies of the world of that today.

          They will say of this impact that it was so powerful and so pervasive that it turned the lives

          of all its victims upside down and inside out” (1)

Western civilisation on trial:

Historian Arnold Toynbee was one of other prominent intellectuals who warned against the actions done to other nations under the umbrella of Western civilisation.  The main motivation in Western civilisation was the obsession with self-superiority, domination and destruction of other cultures - subduing other nations through politics, economy and military means.  

Not all researchers agree that it is possible to even know why Western civilisation acquired power, as if its dominance was caused by something beyond explanation!  In a lecture by Prof. Greg Melleuish, delivered at Ramsey Centre for Western Civilisation, the following question was given:

          “What has often exercised the minds of those considering Western civilisation

          is the issue of why the West, meaning largely Europe and North America,

          became so powerful in terms of politics, economics and military power.  

          There have been many attempts to provide the key which will unlock the secret

          to Western power. Of course, such a project cannot be conclusive, as it is impossible

          to conduct empirical experiments to isolate what factors determine the matter.”  (2)

Theoretical analysis aside, is not difficult to unlock the secret of the West gaining military and political domination in South and North America, after the original tribes were brutally massacred.  A mentality based on expansion for the sake of domination inevitably requires directing all resources to aid in building military power.  A powerful military system serves other industries to flourish.  Foe example, conquering India, a huge market widely opened for the British industry, and hence a more powerful economy.  One of Mahatma Gandhi's weapons of resistance was to initiate a movement of boycott to British products, and that was quite effective.  

Not all people of the West approved of this tendency of gaining power through controlling other culture.  And despite that ordinary people of the West opposed such inhumane tendencies - despite individualism, freedom of speech, and even the democratic system of parliament, the tendency for controlling the welfare of other nations through aggression and war - could override the good will of ordinary people of the West:

          “European opium smugglers flirted with China's death penalty as early as 1729,

          for opium's immense profits were more addictive than the poppy.

          The only problem was supply, which Britain solved in 1756 by conquering Calcutta.

          Most Westerners by far opposed the trade. Even the British opposed it.

          The entire British parliament opposed the 2nd Opium War--and was dissolved.

           In the 1880s, when the U.S. made it illegal for Americans to engage in the opium trade,

          a Chinese leader said, "This is the first time that

          I've seen a Christian nation act like a Christian country."

          But the trafficking continued until, by the 1920s, fully half of Europe's Asian profits derived

          from opium. While only a small minority benefited from the trade,

          that minority controlled the fate of half the world's population in China and India,

          and dictated Western policy as well”. (3)

Self-reflection is truly important to establish the cause of this apparent weaknesses within the Western civilisation: when even the entire British parliament, the will of the citizens, opposed the Opium war – but was dissolved and the war continued aimed at subduing 300 million Chinese - at that time - through enslaving them to drugs.  The Western obsession with own superiority has caused humanity to suffer greatly.  

In early September 2018, China hosted the biggest gathering of African Leaders, who praised the Chinese initiative for a win-win outcome of cooperation:  

          “Zimbabwe's newly elected president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, hit out at critics of China

          in an interview on state TV.  “There is now a transition to a new world order

          and those who don't see it are blind,” he said. “The relationship between Africa and China

          is based on equality, mutual respect and a commitment to a shared well-being,” he said.

          "Our growing ties with China do not come at anyone's expense.” (4)

What was the position of Western civilisation regarding Africa? Perhaps not far from the following statement by Albert Schweitzer (1875 -1965), famous for the hospital he operated in equatorial Africa for many decades:

          “The negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority.  

          We must, therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority

          can find expression.  With regard to the negros, then, I have coined the formula:

          'I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother” (5)  

The above-mentioned mentality contrasts greatly with what President Xi Jinping had lately to say:

          “China does not interfere in Africa's internal affairs and does not impose its own will on Africa,”

          he said. “More than 1.3 billion Chinese people and more than 1.2 million African people

          have always pursued a shared future. We respect Africa.” (6)

The current Western reaction of doubt and criticism of China-Africa cooperation is dictated by how the West was motivated in relationships with Africa and China (or other regions of the world).  Scholars who are concerned about Western civilisation have now a serious task of exploring how would Western civilisation contribute to the changing dimensions of the “new world order” and support the emergence of a Global civilisation.  Some statistics forecast that more than half of the world's population growth will be in Africa by 2050. (7)

How would Western civilisation develop and make a shift for solidifying the global human civilisation? In his Peace Proposal submitted to the United Nations in the year 2000, philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Value Creation Society, Soka Gakkai International – suggested the following:

          “We must first succeed in transcending the excessive attachment to differences

          that is deeply rooted in the psychology of individuals,

          and we must conduct dialogue on the basis of our common humanity”.  (8)

Shifting from focus on what differentiates (Western or non-western) to focus on what unites (Global civilisation), will help all civilisations to contribute to the future and transform the past, securing the ground for a future of survival without disasters.



1/  Civilisation on Trial, p.214.  Arnold Toynbee, Oxford University Press, 1948  

2/  Western Civilisation, Prof. Greg Melleuish, Ramsey Centre http://www.ramsaycentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Western-Civilisation-GM-002.pdf

3/  The First Drug Wars, Opium and Britain, Kevin Jaffray, Linkedin article:


4/  African Leaders in China, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-africa-bejing-forum-investment-interest-free-loans-a8522376.html

5/ Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, The Experience and Observation of a Doctor in Equatorial Africa, Fontana Edition (London and Glasgow: A.&C. Black Limited, 1956) p. 96

6/ African Leaders in China, The Independent

7/ https://qz.com/africa/1016790/more-than-half-of-the-worlds-population-growth-will-be-in-africa-by-2050/

8/  Daisaku Ikeda Peace Proposal: Peace Through Dialogue, p.17 January 26, 2000, Published by Soka Gakkai International


Author: Safwan Zabalawi