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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Chiefs, priests and thieves

Commerce has been the source of more virtue than glory or courage or faith

Read this, taken from Roger Crowley's brilliant book Empires of the Sea:

Everyone employed chained labour -- captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death. Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and short.

And this:

Bragadin's end was lingering and dreadful. He was kept alive until August 17, a Friday. The wounds on his head were festering; he was crazed with pain. After prayers, he was processed through the city to the sound of drums and trumpets...More dead than alive, he was tied in a chair and hoisted to the top of a galley's mast, ducked in the sea, and shown to the fleet with jeers and taunts...Then he was hustled into the square beside the church of Saint Nicholas, now converted into a mosque, and stripped naked. The butcher ordered to commit the final act -- and this would not be forgiven in Venice-- was a Jew. Tied to an ancient column from Salamis still standing to this day, Bragadin was skinned alive. He was dead before the butcher reached the waist.

Until I read Crowley's book I knew little about the struggle between the Ottoman and Spanish empires to dominate the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century, with the Pope, Venice, the Knights of St John and the Barbary corsairs as their allies and proxies. It was a time of such horror that much of southern Italy, Greece and north Africa ended the century severely depopulated by the slave raiders in search of galley fuel. The cruelty of both sides defies belief, as does both sides' complete conviction that they were acting in the name of a virtuous God.

Now I understand better how Spain squandered the riches of south America. (Charles V built a fleet with a Peruvian windfall and lost that fleet and most of his men in a single abortive attack on Algiers.) Now I understand how the Ottoman empire destroyed its own prosperity. (The sultan requisitioned vast quantities of men, food, weapons and supplies then destroyed them all in long sieges of Rhodes, Malta and Cyprus.) Now I understand how the trading city states of Italy got sucked into the pursuit of war rather than business.

It is clear that, as always, ordinary people wanted to carry on with commerce, but chiefs, priests and thieves -- sultans, emperors, popes, pashas, holy knights and corsairs -- just kept plundering the fruits of that commerce for their own enrichment and their own glory. Little wonder that, as the historian Meir Kohn concludes, preindustrial government was predominantly predatory in nature.Not that it is entirely free of that suspicion today.

So next time you hear somebody tell you any of the following things, urge them to read Empires of the Sea:

1. Life was better in the past

2. Faith and glory are virtues

3. Commerce is evil