Free software and a kingdom of free men

Free software and a kingdom of free men

A Kingdom of Free Men

In 1095, the County of Portugal separated almost completely from the Kingdom of Galiza, giving rise to a new European kingdom. As a consequence of the Portuguese independence, Galiza remained geographically isolated from the war against the Arab Empire in Iberia. Cut off from the lucrative business of war, part of the Galizan gentry turned their attention towards maritime commerce. They developed sophisticated production techniques and exported all kinds of goods mainly to Great Britain and Ireland. Galiza soon became one of the most prosperous and developed economies of the Atlantic façade. The Venice of the Atlantic. In parallel to the development of commerce, the bourgeoisie naturally became an increasingly important class in the economic and social structure. However, not all of the Galizan aristocracy was involved in commercial activities. Some considered such activities to be dishonorable for their class and preferred to contribute to the military campaigns of the Kingdom of Castile. For their services to the Castilian kings they were offered lands and titles. That was a good deal for them, but what about the soldiers who risked their lives in a war that was largely meaningless for them? Recruiting started to become a serious problem for the Galizan nobility. In order to encourage peasant involvement in their wars, the Castilian kings offered to the Galizan soldiers the most valuable incentive: freedom from the servitude of vassalage. Thus, in a feudal Europe, Galiza became progressively a kingdom of free men. Due to marriages and alliances between the great houses, before the 14th century almost the entire nation was composed of free men.

In 1350, Peter I, known as The Cruel, inherited the crown of Castile. He was aware that the war against the moors was coming to an end and he realised that a purely war-based economy was unsustainable. Maybe inspired by the prosperous Galizan kingdom, he wanted to introduce reforms in his own kingdom so that the military aristocracy would progressively become a sort of hybrid breed between public servants and businessmen. Obviously, most of the aristocracy did not like the idea and they soon started to conspire to get rid of the king. Finally a bloody war broke out and Peter was killed by the men of his bastard half-brother Henry, who thus became Henry II of Castile. The subsequent retaliation against Peter’s supporters was merciless.

Henry’s supporters in Galiza also profited from the victory of their camp in Castile to regain power and take revenge. Thus, the premature proto-capitalist kingdom of Galiza was sent all of a sudden back to the darkest times of feudal rule, when a man’s life was worth nothing. The most horrible abuses were systematic, eventually even made legal, and no one was safe. But free men were not ready to give up their freedoms so easily. Bourgeois and peasants alike started to organise themselves in so called Irmandades (brotherhoods) whose members where named Irmandinhos (literally, little brothers). The brotherhoods defended the people from the abuses of the neo-feudalistic lords and so the violence in the country rose up to a state of virtual civil war. At this stage, the Irmandinhos also tried the political way and sent a commission to the Castilian court to remind the Spanish monarch of the privileges that his ancestors had granted to the Galizan citizens: freedom. The Castilian king refused direct intervention against the Galizan nobility (which, for many reasons, would have been suicidal for him) but granted a legal status to the Irmandades. In so doing, he certainly wanted to promote a civil war which would destroy the country and weaken the aristocracy at no cost to him.

This first Irmandade was called Fusquenlha (derived from the Galizan word fusco, somber), presumably due to the fact that the irmandinhos conforming this brotherhood belonged to the lower classes of society and found no support among the high aristocrats. The Fusquenlha, commanded by Roi Xordo, was badly defeated in 1437, after a few years of struggle, and the popular legend goes that the waters of the river Eume, in northwestern Galiza, turned red with the blood of the Irmandinhos. Needless to say, this was a great shock for all the men and women who expected to regain freedom, but it is not the end of the story.

A second, larger, brotherhood was organised, this time with the support of certain minor Galizan earls and knights such as Alonso de Lançós (whose castles had been taken and his family killed by the house of Andrade), Pedro Osório, Diego de Lemos and Lopo Marinho de Lobeira. Towards 1467 the biggest European revolt of the 15th century started in Galiza: A Grande Guerra Irmandinha (The Great War of the Little Brothers). Thus, about eighty thousand Irmandinhos advanced on different fronts demolishing any castle that opposed their advance. The victory was speedy and complete. In a matter of a few months, most of the castles of the kingdom had been knocked down and all the great houses forced to exile in either Castile or Portugal. Galiza thus became the first European kingdom, more than three centuries before the French revolution, that got rid of all its aristocracy (except for those loyal to the brotherhoods). For about a couple of years the country was ruled by the brotherhoods. In the meantime, the Castilian king came to an agreement with the Galizan noblemen exiled in Castile and so did the king of Portugal with his Galizan refugees. In the spring of 1469 the exiled Galizan aristocracy was ready to counterattack. The big offensive came from the south, from Portugal, with the armies of the count Pedro Álvarez de Soutomaior and the archbishop Fonseca. Heavily armed with state-of-the-art guns they first surprised the Irmandinhos in Ponte-Vedra and then advanced towards Compostela. The Irmandinhos, under the command of Alonso de Lançós, resisted for a while in Compostela, but they surrendered after a meeting between Lançós and Soutomaior. Some considered Lançós a hero who saved the city from being destroyed, others considered him a traitor, who rendered the city to save his own life and privileges. The fact is that, when finally Diego de Lemos arrived in his aid, it was already too late. The war was lost. Encouraged by the quick advance of the southern front, the other noblemen started an incursion from the east, from Castile. It was the end. The noblemen regained their ancient domains and the feudal regime has restored.

With the country completely destroyed by the war and the Galizan aristocracy weakened and in debt with the Castilian king, the process of satellisation of the country was accelerated and Galiza soon definitively became a miserable colony of the Kingdom of Castile (which later would become the Kingdom of Spain). Thus, the will to freedom of the Galizan people was turned against them and ended up serving the interest of the Spanish Empire.

Free software

Does this story have anything to do with free software? Certainly not. However, there may be lessons to be learn today from medieval history. Early this year Oracle closed a deal to buy Sun Microsystems, thus giving a huge step forward towards attaining a privileged position (which may well end up being monopolistic) both in the database and storage servers markets. They felt so strong they even launched and attack against the almighty Google for some alleged intellectual property violations concerning Java. News recently leaked that the company has no interest whatsoever in the OpenSolaris project. Doubts have also been cast concerning the likely possibility that MySQL could be also kidnapped out from the public domain.

Obviously, all the non-profit developers that had invested their time and talent working on these and other projects while they were still in the public domain are feeling kind of disappointed and frustrated these days. They are feeling like if their work had been stolen from them. And probably they are right. However, it is also true that many of those developers preferred the CDDL over the GPL because it is more business-friendly a license, and now they have just learned what business means. The hard way.

I am quite convinced that Sun’s compromise with an open source-based strategy was honest. As I have no doubts concerning Novell, RedHat, Canonical, etc. However, it seems that for Sun it was not a priority to warranty the continuity or to protect the open-sourceness of its open source projects when negotiating the sale with Oracle. Like modern Alonso de Lançós, Sun’s executives and shareholders saved themselves and did not turn back to look to their loyal non-profit developers. They didn’t because executives are executives and business is business. At the end of the day, executives will protect their privileges above any other consideration and business is the bloody law of the jungle. No scruples, no honour, no regrets.

The lesson to be learned is that if we, free software supporters, do not protect our work with appropriate licenses and intelligent strategies, we may well end up working for the big corporations without being aware of it and without being paid. As happened to the irmandinhos, if we blindly trust the corporations, our will to be free might end up serving to the glory of the empire. And this means no freedom, but slavery.

Now the Illumos and the OpenIndiana projects are starting at the point where OpenSolaris was abandoned and they certainly hold great potential for innovation. Greater, probably, than their predecessor, the industry-shepherded OpenSolaris. Just let’s not make the same mistakes twice.