Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXXII
Usbek to the Same
THE ORDINARY effect of colonies is to weaken the countries from which they are taken, without peopling those which are colonized. 1  1
  Men ought to stay where they are: the change from a good climate to a bad one produces diseases, and others spring from the mere change itself.  2
  The air, like the plants, is loaded with the particles of the soil of each country. It acts upon us in such a way as to fix our constitutions. When we are transported to a foreign country we become ill. The fluids being accustomed to a certain consistency and the solids to a certain arrangement, and both to a certain degree of motion, cannot put up with others, and resist a new order.  3
  When a country is uninhabited, it is an indication of some particular defect in the nature of the soil or of the atmosphere: so that when men are removed from an agreeable clime to such a country, exactly the opposite of what was intended is done.  4
  The Romans knew this by experience: they banished all their criminals to Sardinia, and sent the Jews there too. They had little difficulty in consoling themselves for their loss, on account of the contempt in which they held these wretched creatures.  5
  The great Shah Abbas, wishing to deprive the Turks of the means of supporting large armies on the frontier, transported almost all the Armenians out of their own country, and sent more than twenty thousand families into the province of Guilan, where they nearly all perished in a very short time.  6
  None of the transportations of people into Constantinople has ever succeeded.  7
  The immense numbers of negroes already mentioned have not peopled America. 2  8
  Since the destruction of the Jews under Adrian, Palestine has been uninhabited.  9
  It must therefore be admitted that great depopulations are almost irreparable, because a people whose numbers are brought down to a certain point, remains there; and if by chance it recovers itself, it must be the work of ages.  10
  If, in a state of decay, the least of the circumstances which I have mentioned comes to pass, a people not only never recovers, but falls off daily and approaches annihilation.  11
  The expulsion of the Moors from Spain is still as much felt as at the time it happened; instead of the void being filled up, it grows greater every day.  12
  Since the devastation of America, the Spaniards, who have taken the place of the ancient inhabitants, have not been able to repeople it: on the contrary, by a fatality, which I ought rather to call an instance of Divine justice, the destroyers are destroying themselves, and waste away daily.  13
  Princes ought not therefore to think of peopling large countries by means of colonies. I do not say that they are not sometimes successful; there are climes so favorable, that the human race always multiplies there; witness the isles 3 which have been peopled by some sick folks abandoned by passing vessels, and who soon recovered their health there.  14
  But, if these colonies were to succeed, in place of increasing power, they only divide it; unless they should happen to be of small extent, like those which are occupied for trading purposes.  15
  The Carthaginians, like the Spaniards, discovered America, or, at any rate, certain large islands with which they carried on an enormous trade; but, when they beheld the number of their inhabitants decreasing, that wise republic forbade its subjects to carry on that trade, or to sail to these islands.  16
  I dare affirm that, if in place of sending the Spaniards into the Indies, the Indians and cross-breeds had been transported to Spain; if its scattered people had been returned to it, and supposing only half of its great colonies had been preserved, Spain would have become the most formidable European power.  17
  An empire may be compared to a tree whose branches, if too widely spread, draw all the sap from the trunk, and are of use only to give shade.  18
  Nothing is fitter to cure in princes the rage for distant conquests than the example of the Portuguese and the Spaniards.  19
  These two nations having conquered with inconceivable rapidity immense kingdoms, more amazed at their victories than the conquered peoples at their defeat, considered the means of preserving them, and chose each of them for that purpose a different method.  20
  The Spaniards, despairing to keep the conquered nations faithful to them, took the plan of exterminating them, and of sending to Spain for dutiful subjects: never was a dreadful design carried out with greater thoroughness. A people as numerous as all those of Europe together, was seen to disappear from the earth, on the arrival of these barbarians, who, in discovering the Indies, seemed only to have thought of discovering to mankind the utmost reach of cruelty.  21
  By that barbarity, they held the country under their government. Judge from this what baleful things conquests are, since such are their effects. For, indeed, this horrible expedient was the only one. 4 How could they have kept so many millions of men in subjection? How could they have carried on a civil war at such a distance? What would have become of them, had they given these people time to recover from the consternation caused by the advent of these new gods, and from the terrors of their thunders?  22
  As to the Portuguese, they took an entirely opposite course; they did not employ cruelty, and were consequently very soon expelled from all the countries which they had discovered. The Dutch favored the rebellion of their foreign subjects against the Portuguese, and profited by it.  23
  What prince would envy the lot of these conquerors? Who would wish for conquests on these conditions? One nation was soon driven out from its conquests; the other made them into deserts, and made a desert of its own country at the same time.  24
  It is the destiny of heroes to ruin themselves by conquering countries which they suddenly lose, or by subjecting nations which they themselves are obliged to destroy; like that madman who wasted his substance in buying statues which he cast into the sea, and glasses which he broke as soon as bought.

  PARIS, the 18th of the moon of Rhamazan, 1718.
Note 1. History proves the contrary. [back]
Note 2. Montesquieu did not foresee the “Negro question.” [back]
Note 3. The author probably means the Isle of Bourbon.—(M.) [back]
Note 4. Not the only one; there is the method by which England has retained India. [back]
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