Friday, April 13, 2018

Sic transit: Alfred Crosby's Intellectual Legacy

I was sorry to hear of the recent death of Alfred Crosby (1931-2018), professor emeritus at the University of Texas and one of the more influential historians of the past half-century. Crosby’s principal claim to fame was his authorship of The Columbian Exchange (1972), a study of the transfer of organisms between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres that became a foundational text in colonial and environmental history. Crosby’s book was so far ahead of its time that he could not find a university press willing to publish it and had to sign with Greenwood, an obscure independent academic publisher. Greenwood and Crosby had the last laugh, as Columbian Exchange went on to sell more than 80,000 copies (about 100 times as many as the typical academic book) in the next quarter-century.

Crosby observed that the word “exchange” in his title misled readers somewhat. Most of the biological transfers he studied ran in one direction, from the Old World to the New. Europeans introduced to the Americans new plants, like wheat and peaches and Kentucky bluegrass; new animal species, like pigs and horses and rats (all of which flourished); tens of millions of human beings, most of whom, prior to 1860, came involuntarily from Africa; and new diseases like smallpox and typhoid, which reduced the indigenous American population by more than eighty percent. In three of these categories little flowed back to the Old World. Only two or three thousand Native Americans voyaged to Europe before 1800, almost no American animals adapted to Eurasian or African environments (apart from a few small mammals like the raccoon), and no American diseases, except possibly syphilis (and Crosby expressed skepticism about its alleged American origin), crossed the Atlantic from west to east. Plants proved the great exception: Eurasians and Africans slowly but steadily adopted high-yield American food crops like maize, potatoes, and cassava, along with such piquant or addictive newcomers as cacao, tobacco, tomatoes, and chilis. American cultivars increased the total food supply of Eurasia and helped sustain high population growth there,* even as the Native American population plummeted. Columbus and his successors set off not only a major biological exchange but a global demographic revolution.

Crosby followed up this seminal publication with two more works that Native Americanists and colonialists found (I think) equally important. "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America" (1976) asked why Eurasian diseases hit Native Americans with such ferocity, and found an answer in social dynamics. A "virgin-soil" illness, hitting a population with zero acquired immunity, sickens the entire community or region at once, leaving no-one well enough to take care of the sick. Hunger, dehydration, and cold kill many who would otherwise have a fighting chance at recovery. Ecological Imperialism (1986) extended Crosby's observation about the imbalanced character of the Columbian Exchange. In this later book he argued that the success of European colonial ventures in the "Neo-Europes," the high-latitude settler-colonial societies like Australia and the United States, depended chiefly on the organisms that the colonists brought with them, their "portmanteau biota" of livestock, weeds, and pathogens. European imperialism owed its conquests to biology, not technology or culture.**

Alfred Crosby continued publishing into his seventies. His last three books studied quantitative knowledge, projectile weapons, and energy technology, discussing these highly-technical subjects in clear, crisp, often witty prose. That he kept his mind and his writing sharp during the onset of Parkinson's Disease showed a grace and endurance most of us can only hope to attain. For my part, I will account myself very successful indeed if I can write a book even one-tenth as influential as Columbian Exchange. And I am sorry I never had a chance to meet the maestro in person.

* Europe's population doubled and China's population tripled between 1650 and 1800. 

** Ecological Imperialism won an audience outside of History departments and well beyond the academy. I first heard of the book during a panel on world-building at the 1989 World Science Fiction Convention.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Britain 0, Spain 0, Anopheles 4,000

Spain's loss of Gibraltar in 1704 eventually proved permanent, but the Spanish Crown initially had no intention of acquiescing in the cession. The rocky promontory beckoned to glory-seeking Spanish officers and revanchist monarchs, who made multiple attempts to recover the Rock in the eighteenth century. One of these helped trigger one of the more obscure conflicts of the era, the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727-1729. 

Despite its chronological subtitle, the fighting in this war lasted only a few months. A Spanish army of 18,000 mounted a desultory siege of Gibraltar, pausing its bombardment daily for siesta, a practice their British counterparts eagerly adopted. (They were as likely to spend the time drinking and copulating as sleeping.) Royal Navy ships provided effective covering fire for the defenders until Spain lifted its siege. Across the Atlantic, Britain's navy used the war to justify an offensive of its own, against the city of Portobello on the Isthmus of Panama. This had less amusing consequences. Admiral Francis Hosier's attacks on the port ran afoul of the Caribbean's deadliest resident, the mosquito Aedes aegypti, and 4,000 sailors (and the admiral) succumbed to yellow fever. To the north, one of Britain's North American colonies conducted a more successful raid against the Spanish province of Florida. Militia from South Carolina, assisted by Chickasaw warriors, attacked and dispersed the Yamasee Indians who had taken refuge near Saint Augustine after the Yamasee War (1715-16). White Carolinians didn't quite settle their scores with the Yamasees, but the raid doubtless pleased colonial governor Arthur Middleton.

The war of 1727-29 thus spread to three continents, and cost several thousand men (and a few women) their lives. It ended with a treaty that made no concessions of rights or territory, and both the war and its participants faded almost immediately into obscurity. Kings and princes usually promise those who fight for them honor and immortal glory. They lie.


Sources: James Falkner, Fire over the Rock (Pen & Sword, 2009), 8-10; John McNeill, Mosquito Empires (Cambridge UP, 2010), 1-2; Edward Cashin, Guardians of the Valley (University of South Carolina, 2009), 15.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cotton Mather and the Bomb

In British America, in the eighteenth century, the month of November became known for the destructive revelry of Pope's Day. It was not anti-Catholic enthusaism, however, that induced someone to fling a very large firecracker - a bomb, actually - through Cotton Mather's window on the 14th day of that month, in the year 1721. Rather, the anonymous bomber wanted to lodge a protest against a controversial new medical technique, smallpox inoculation, that the clergyman had just introduced to Boston. Like other remote European colonies, Massachusetts suffered from repeated outbreaks of the dread pox. The epidemic of 1721 infected a quarter of the city and left hundreds dead. Normally New England colonists dealt with smallpox through quarantine. Deliberately inoculating a healthy person with infectious pus in order to induce a (usually mild) case of smallpox, thus bestowing immunity on whomever survived the treatment, seemed both dangerous and perverse. That Mather learned of inoculation from Boston's African slave community further undermined his credibility in the eyes of white colonists, even though West Africans had been dealing with smallpox for centuries.

The bomb, a gunpowder-and-turpentine-filled grenade, failed to detonate, allowing Mather to die peacefully in his bed six years later. It also allowed him to read the note attached to the deadly billet-doux: "Cotton Mather, you dog, damn you, I'll inoculate you with this." Such sentiments remained common in Boston for some years thereafter. Former Bostonian Benjamin Franklin declined to inoculate his own offspring, later lamenting his decision when one died of smallpox in childhood. Military necessity obliged George Washington to inoculate the Continental Army in 1777. His soldiers might have disdained the procedure but their commander didn't allow them to vote on it. Even quarantine could provoke violence, as during riots in early 1774 against the inmates of a Boston smallpox hospital. 

The notion of injecting oneself or one's children with a foreign substance, even through a very safe procedure like vaccination (inoculation with a dead or weakened microorganism), remained an uncomfortable one for many. Indeed, opposition to vaccination can be revived even in a more scientific age, and adults who religiously vaccinate their children still find the procedure creepy enough to ignore the needs of their own immune systems. How many of my readers get their flu shots every year?


Sources: Mark Peterson, "Life on the Margins: Boston's Anxieties of Influence in the Atlantic World," in Wim Klooster and Alfred Padula, eds., The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination (Prentice Hall, 2005), 45-59, esp. 57-58; Pauline Maier, "Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 27 (Jan. 1970): 3-35, esp. 5-6.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Is it Steam Engine Time Yet?

In re-reading Alfred Crosby’s Children of the Sun (2006), I was struck by the Rube-Goldberg-like complexity of the first practical steam engine. Thomas Newcomen’s machine, which first went into operation in 1712*, used coal - the remains of Mesozoic plants - to heat water within a large boiler, the steam from which then discharged into a large, cylindrical brass chamber. The steam filled the cylinder with vapor pressure and raised a piston connected to a rocker beam. Then the mechanism cooled the cylinder with a spray of cold water, condensing the steam and creating a vacuum. Atmospheric pressure, whose power Europeans had only discovered a few decades earlier, then pushed the piston back down into the evacuated cylinder and delivered the power stroke to the rocker beam. The cycle then began anew with the refilling and condensation of the engine chamber.

Newcomen’s engine (the “Common Engine”) was clumsy and crude by the standards of later inventors, but revolutionary enough in its day: it generated five horsepower in a confined space, using fuel far cheaper than the fodder and upkeep for five living horses. Its two-cycle rocker beam could power a pump capable of draining some of the deepest coal mines in southern England. One feature of the Newcomen engine strikes me as particularly magical: the way it combined all four of the Classical elements to do its work. From the earth came the machine's black and sulfurous** fuel, and to the earth its labor returned. The common air supplied the pressure for the engine's power stroke. Water became the eponymous steam, and cooled that steam to produce the all-important vacuum. Fire generated the steam itself and thereby drove the piston upward. The chartered firm that patented Newcomen's device in 1715 encapsulated in its name the bizarre and contradictory nature of the engineer's experiment: "The Society for Moving Water by Fire." It sounds almost like an alchemists' club. I imagine Isaac Newton, who considered astronomy and astrology of nearly equal interest, would have found its work intriguing if its members weren't so declasse.

*Hellenistic Greeks knew of steam’s power and one or two had built a simple steam engine, but these functioned only as toys. The Greeks had sufficient slaves to discourage their replacement with labor-saving devices.

** I presume it used bituminous coal.

Friday, December 08, 2017

We Hate Illinois Nazis

So, this actually happened:

Last December, as my partner Susan and I were on our way to O'Hare Airport, our interurban bus driver struck up a conversation with us about the new president-elect. The driver, a white man in his sixties or early seventies - we'll call him Reinhard - expressed great satisfaction with Donald Trump's electoral victory. Now the United States could do something about all the dangerous immigrants crossing its borders and endangering its people.

It was early in the morning, and Susan and I were as yet the only passengers on the bus. Susi maintained a polite if deeply uncomfortable silence,. I decided to talk with Reinhard and see where he was coming from. I asked him which countries he thought had the most dangerous immigrants. "Oh, Syria, Iran..." He stopped there, acknowledged that his familiarity with current affairs didn't extend exceptionally far, but assured me that we Americans needed protecting. We talked a little about our own immigrant ancestors, and found we both had people from Germany. My predecessors (on my mother's side) came from the Palatinate, his from, IIRC, Saxony. Reinhard reported that two of his uncles had immigrated from Germany as recently as the 1950s. Both had to lie about their identities, he said, because both had been in the SS a decade earlier. "It had been expected of them," Reinhard said of his uncles' service to the Third Reich, because they both came from respectable families. He did not seem to see the irony of fearing allegedly dangerous immigrants when his own uncles had belonged to a dangerous, indeed famously hostile, terrorist military force, and had then entered the United States illegally. I suspect he and his family would describe his SS relatives as "some very fine people."

People will tell you the damnedest things if you'll just listen to them, sometimes.

I let the conversation dwindle, and Susi and I kept to ourselves for the rest of our trip to Chicago and our subsequent flight to Taiwan. I was only reminded of our encounter with Reinhard and his Illinois Nazi relatives when his employer made national news for its blatantly racist, anti-Asian advertising. Our driver worked for Suburban Express, you see, and on December 2nd of this year the company advertised itself as a university shuttle service for white people, promising "You won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses." When their ad met with protests, SubExpress issued a non-apology, asserting that Chinese students imposed an unfair burden on Illinois's institutions and taxpayers, and claiming that anyone critical of the company was merely advancing a political agenda. I wonder if Reinhard has moved from driving the company's buses to running its public relations department?

Monday, November 27, 2017

First Peoples in Revolution

Age of Revolutions has just finished (more or less) a series on Native Americans in the era of the American Revolution. The authors in the series wrote of efforts by the Iroquois, one of the groups most devastated by the Revolutionary War, to mitigate conflict between their own Six Nations. They studied the Chickasaws’ successful balancing of their alliance with Britain (and the vital supplies it brought) with their desire to stay out of another damaging war. They noted how the Odawas used Britain's growing demand for their military services to leverage greater material concessions from the Crown. They described how traditional masculinity, the desire to defend hunting grounds and display martial valor, drew some Cherokee men into the conflict, and how some Cherokee leaders sought to cool the tempers of warriors from the Chickamauga faction. One looked at eastern Native Americans’ efforts to mitigate the destruction of the war by shifting to a new, diversified commercial economy. One, Andrew Frank, found the Revolution a non-event from the perspective of nations like the early Seminoles.

Most of the series’ writers agree, I think, that Native Americans did not view the American Revolution as a positive good. Why would they? The rebel colonists wanted freedoms that either endangered or did not apply to American Indians: the freedom to acquire more (indigenous) land, and freedom from arbitrary, non-consensual taxation Some First Peoples did share the rebels’ distaste for the British army, the intrusive force that radicalized rural New Englanders, white Carolinians, and others as the war progressed. Few, however, trusted the Patriots enough to join force with them against that army. Those few who did generally lived “behind the frontier” in New England reserve communities, or in districts like the Catawba homeland, a capsule of southern Indians surrounded by white backcountry settlers. Indians in these regions shared at least some interests with their white neighbors. Some First Peoples also supported the rebels because they believed the alliance would bring them political advantages, or because they had personal connections to colonists that preceded the Revolution (e.g. the Oneidas). The great majority of Native Americans, however, either supported George III or stayed out of the Revolutionary War altogether.

In general, in a global context, revolutionaries don't seem to make much effort to appeal to indigenous peoples. If one is trying to overthrow a state, it makes sense to focus one's recruitment efforts on the state's constituents, on those who have to pay its taxes and obey its laws, and who also have some stake in the political community. Indigenes, who usually live independently of state authority or (all too often) live in subjugation at its margins, don't make optimal targets for revolutionary persuasion. I don't believe the First French Republic made an outreach to the Guaranis of Guyana,* for instance, nor the Bolsheviks to indigenous Siberians (at least not during the Russian Revolution), nor Mao's communists to the Miao of southwestern China. Indeed, indigenous peoples often provide fighting men to counter-revolutionary forces, as did the Senecas and Creeks in the American Revolutionary War, the Mapuches (whom my friend and colleague Pilar Herr studies) in the Chilean independence war, and the Hmong in the Second Indochina War. Incumbent regimes enjoy more familiarity with the divide-and-conquer tactics, like the use of "ethnic soldiers,"** essential to most kinds of imperial rule. Indigenous peoples, for their part, quite rightly view radical social change as more of a threat than an opportunity, particularly if Europeans introduced that change. Regrettably, their experiences after the Age of Revolution would only ratify what they had already learned.

* The Republic's agents in the United States did try to recruit Creek and Cherokee warriors for a planned campaign against Saint Augustine, but no-one replied to their appeal. (Robert Alderson, Jr., This Bright Era of Happy Revolutions [South Carolina, 2008], 142-43, 160-61.)

** To borrow a term from Neil Whitehead. See his "Carib Ethnic Soldiering in Venezuela, the Guianas, and Antilles," Ethnohistory 37 (1990): 357-85.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cattle, cotton, and capitalism in Indian country

Last summer the redoubtable editors of the Age of Revolutions weblog asked Your Humble Narrator to contribute a post on Native American history. I am pleased to report that my essay, "The Economic Revolution in Indian Country," is now live on the AoR site. It is part of a series that includes contributions from my friends and colleagues Karim Tiro, Kathleen DuVal, and Andrew Frank.

Had I written the piece five or seven years ago, when I first started contemplating Native American economic history, I probably would not have included my George Colbert quote, which came from my later research on the Chickasaws. I also would not have qualified my paragraph on cotton cultivation with the phrase "not found east of the Rio Grande"; I hadn't yet internalized the Pueblo Indians' pre-Columbian domestication of cotton and production of cotton cloth. It's sometimes hard for someone trained in the East, or even in the Midwest (Kentucky counts as Midwest), to recall that western Indians have a very rich history of their own prior to the nineteenth century.

The editors estimate that one can read my blog post in 11 minutes, but I suspect it will also inspire at least 66 seconds of historical musing. I always try to give 110 percent.

(The image above, "Benjamin Hawkins and the Creeks," is from the Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art, and is in the public domain.)