Thursday, December 31, 2009

Samuel Johnson on Terrain and Tribes

Reading "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" which combines Johnson's travelogue with James Boswell's "The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides," chronicling their trip around the Hebrides in 1773, I was struck by Dr. Johnson's description of The Highlands. He discusses the opportunity to "investigate the reason of those peculiarities by which such rugged regions as these are generally distinguished."

Mountainous regions contain the original inhabitants, for geography qualifies them as not easily conquered. It happens that isolated peoples develop and keep their own version of the language. Tribes become small nations, with irregular justice, courage esteemed of highest value, and, removed from any seat of sovereignty by difficult access, clans pay little heed to central government. "Law is nothing without power," both to promulgate and enforce.

"The inhabitants of mountains are...careful to preserve their genealogies with a common interest in the honour and disgrace of every individual." Generations have lived together in the same place with alliances and feuds lasting centuries.

The chapter bears reading today, for although the observations in the Hebrides of the 18th century are a world and centuries distant, what Samuel Johnson observed about people who live in mountains applies to Afghanistan today. "Such are the effects of habitation among mountains, and such were the qualities of the Highlanders, while their rocks secluded them from the rest of mankind, and kept them an unaltered and discriminating race. Then begins the union of affection and co-operation of endeavours, that constitute a clan."

Who will the writers be who chronicle the logistics of supply depots and fuel disposition as we negotiate the mountains of Afghanistan, and who will read about this journey among the people of the mountains in the next centuries?

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