Croatia’s lessons of history, from ships to soccer

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Ever since Croatia reached the World Cup finals, the world’s media has been scrambling to write on this small country on the Adriatic Sea. And most of them mention the other reason why it makes news these days – Dubrovnik, the maritime city in Croatia’s south, is the location for King’s Landing, the royal capital in the hugely successful Game of Thrones (GoT) serial.

Dubrovnik’s high walls and medieval buildings have made it a location for films ranging from Star Wars: The Last Jedi to Shahrukh Khan’s Fan. But its suitability for GoT went beyond just architecture. Just as the rulers of Kings Landing play off competing powers to retain their position, Dubrovnik did the same over centuries, bringing it prosperity and influence far from its Eastern European location.

The most unlikely proof of this can be found in Goa, in the village of Gandaulim, not far from Panaji. The parish church of Sao Bras is said to have been built, or at least substantially developed, by traders from Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was known at that time. Sao Bras is the Portuguese name for St.Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik, and the design of the church is said to resemble the church of Svete Vlaho, as he is known in Croatia.

There is a great deal unclear in all this (including whether there’s any connection with the church of St.Blaise in Mumbai). But Croatian scholars have found references to a trading post in Goa, enough to convince them that this was part of Ragusa’s historical trade network. The Croatian ambassador has visited St.Blaise along with a delegation of politicians and scholars, and Croatian writers proudly mention this tropical outpost from their past.

This is probably not enough to convince Goans who tend to be diehard Brazil supporters to start waving Croatia’s checked flag. But it does show how this tiny country has repeatedly triumphed over the many challenges it has faced over centuries. Croatia’s location has left it open to invasions from all sides and Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians, Austrian, French and communists all carved up the country.

Along with them came refugees and religions which laid the roots for yet more turmoil. This left the region one of the poorest in Europe, and if all this was not enough, it is also vulnerable to earthquakes. A devastating one in 1667 almost totally destroyed Dubrovnik, and in 1979 it was hit by one possibly even stronger, though the damage was less. Those city walls weren’t just built against human threats.

But Dubrovnik/Ragusa showed how to deal with such disadvantages. Every time the city was knocked down it was built again, better and stronger. It invested in ships, building up fleets so large and famous that we retain their memory in the word ‘argosy’, which once just meant ships from Ragusa. And while it didn’t have dragons, as the founders of Kings Landing did, it had very effective diplomacy.

A paper by Oleh Havrylyshyn and Nora Srzenti entitled ‘Economy of Ragusa, 1300 – 1800’ analyses how the city became, as they call it “The Tiger of the Medieval Mediterranean.” A lot was dictated by what wasn’t possible: since Ragusa had little chance against the powerful empires all around it had to learn to co-exist.

So there was little point in building expensive warships – Ragusa could focus almost entirely on a mercantile fleet. To every power that threatened to destroy it, the city-state pointed out that it would be a better prize if left intact. In return it paid tribute – negotiated down as best as it could – and agreed to accept overlords, who were then politely ignored.

In Black Lamb & Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s book on the Yugoslavian peninsula which is one of the greatest works of travel writing, she points to a key aspect of the city’s politics: “Dubrovnik dreaded above all things the emergence of dominant personalities.” Charismatic leaders might make for exciting politics, but rarely long-term gains. The city was governed by a complex set of interlocking aristocratic institutions that ensured rule by consensus.

Being small made the city-state aware that the population as a whole needed to be cared for, even if it didn’t have the democratic institutions that would demand it as a right. Ragusa needed a strong working class to build and sail its ships, and so it invested in education and civic amenities. “They also created a hospital system which included the first foundling (orphan) hospital in the whole civilised world, and they were as advanced in their treatment of housing problems,” writes West.

Ragusa’s medical and maritime knowledge combined to create the first quarantine system in the Mediterranean world, sparing it from devastating plagues. It was one of the first to end slave trading, and also upheld the rights of asylum – demands to give up refugees were politely met by the reminder that those making the demand might one day end up as refugees in Ragusa too.

Ragusa’s luck couldn’t last indefinitely. The same geography that signalled the long-term decline of Venice applied to it too. Once Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to Asia the world’s economic patterns shifted against Eastern Europe.

But the buildings created by its centuries of wealth have ensured it a new life as a tourist and filming destination. Smart thinking and determination can help overcome the disadvantages of size and history – as Croatia’s football team has shown us once more.

Source: Economic Times