Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Sometimes Imperialism Wears an Expensive Fur Hat

The Manchus, whose soldiers conquered China in the 1640s and whose Qing dynasty ruled it for 270 years, shared with other northern Eurasian peoples a love of fur. In the cold northern provinces of the Qing Empire, ermine, sable, and otter adorned the hats and outer garments of Manchu elites and their wealthier Han subjects. Of all these adornments the thick and lustrous pelts of Pacific sea otters were probably most prized. European observers claimed that Han merchants would buy otter fur for its weight in silver. This made sea otter pelts very valuable to Europeans, for China had much that Europe wanted - tea and fine silks, in particular - and Europe had nothing China wanted, except for silver itself. Hard cash being ever in short supply in the backward and barbarous West, China-bound merchants saw the luxury fur market as their salvation. Here at last was a commodity the sophisticated Han would willingly buy.*
Russia pioneered the Chinese luxury-fur trade, selling high-value pelts at the Qing entrepot of Kyakta on the Amur River. Once Russian traders (promyshlenniki) discovered the value of sea otter pelts, they began buying or seizing them from northern Pacific indigenes. From the Kamchatka Peninsula the adventurers expanded their range into the Aleutian Islands, thence to southern and southeastern Alaska. The 100 or so Russian trading expeditions to Alaska between 1740 and 1800 brought home up to 4,000 otter pelts each, and collectively sold eight million rubles’ worth** of otter in northern China. Many paid little or nothing to their Native American suppliers, forcing Aleut hunters (for instance) into their service by taking Aleut families hostage. Some indigenes proved harder to coerce: the Tlingits destroyed several Russian outposts rather than submit to serfdom, and the Russian-American Company decided that peaceful commerce would cost less than the conquest of so large a nation. Russians bought the Tlingits’ furs with European and Chinese trade goods. Tlingit chiefs displayed the wealth they derived from the tripartite Pacific trade by wearing vests adorned with one of their new imports: Chinese coins. Three continents’ peoples were now joined not only by commerce but by the exotic clothing, the bright silks and sleek furs and formidable vests, that their elites showed off in public.

Russia could not long enjoy a monopoly of northern Pacific commerce. Other European powers with strong mercantile fleets soon inserted themselves into the Sino-American otter trade. Britain got in early, after James Cook learned (1778) that the Nootka people would sell the furs of “sea beavers” (as he called otters) for a relative pittance. The fractious but intrepid Americans soon followed. After American independence New Englanders began sailing round the Horn to the north Pacific, stopping near the Columbia River to swap beads and nails for Chinook hunters’ furs, then continuing on to Canton with their “soft gold.” By 1820, 400 British and American trading ships had called at the Columbia, Puget Sound, and Vancouver Island. Sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest drew lower prices than their Alaskan equivalents, but Alaska lay under a Russian claim, and otter remained easier for Americans (or Brits) to obtain in quantity than their other China-market export, ginseng.
Fairly early on, wealthy British and American merchants, and the government officials with whom they enjoyed a more-than-cordial relationship, realized that a land-based otter trade could probably operate more cheaply and effectively than a maritime one. Coastal trading posts could attract trading partners from greater distances, as Native American hunters would presumably more readily undertake long journeys to a permanently staffed storehouse than to an ephemeral landing site. Also, such posts might prove easier to supply by land than by sea. Using an oceanic route, the Pacific Northwest lay half a planet away from London and Boston, but a continental riverine route might make it  more accessible from the eastern United States and Canada.

Britain’s Northwest Company, one of the two largest trading firms in eighteenth-century Canada, made an early attempt to develop an overland route to the western sea. In 1792-93 NWC employee Alexander McKenzie, with substantial assistance from Native American guides, crossed the northern Rockies and reached the Pacific. The path he followed proved too rough and difficult for sustained long-distance commerce. Nonetheless, it stoked the anxieties of American officials when Mackenzie published an account of his travels in London a decade later. President Thomas Jefferson worried that the British would soon discover a cheap and easy overland route to the Pacific, use it to establish trading posts in the Northwest, and thereby dominate the region’s sea-otter trade. Hoping that the United States could beat Britain to the punch, Jefferson charged the Corps of Discovery (which departed just one year after the release of Mackenzie’s book) with charting a route for water traffic from the center of North America to the western shore, and planting the American flag on the north Pacific coast. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark weren’t engaged in an early act of Manifest Destiny, blazing a trail for brave pioneer settlers*** - they were securing American access to the complex and valuable China trade. Gumption and bravery these explorers doubtless had, but what set them on their course were silk and silver, Manchu fur hats and Native American coin vests, and plain old-fashioned imperialism.


James Gibson, Otter Skins, British Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast (McGill-Queens UP, 1992), 12-15

Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (W.W. Norton, 2014), Chapter 1

Jonathan Schlesinger, “China’s Tangled Environmental History,” The Diplomat, 5 November 2016

Alan Taylor, “Continental Crossings,” Journal of the Early Republic, 24 (Summer 2004): 182-188

Jason Wordie, “Pelt and Road: How Trade with China was Smoothed with Furs from British Columbia,” South China Morning Post, 7 March 2018

* Before the British introduced opium, the only other European imports saleable in China were French clocks and printed cotton cloth, the latter of which Chinese traders bought only reluctantly.

** About 240-480 million modern U.S. dollars, based on the equivalent exchange values between each currency and gold.

*** The Oregon Trail followed a different route than Lewis and Clark’s path, in any case, a route pioneered by the first American fur-trading company to set up shop in the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Program Notes

My usual monthly (or twice-monthly) post here will have to wait, alas, until early June. My better half and I will be traveling for several weeks, and the end-of-semester grading crunch drained the time I would normally use to finish one or more of my current blog projects. These, which I will endeavor to start posting next month, include:

* A short essay on Rosalba Carriera (1673-1758), the Venetian artist who invented the Rococo style,

* Reflections on David Graeber and David Wengrow's great new essay, "How to Change the Course of Human History,"

* An exploration of the connections between Qing-era Chinese fashion and the Lewis and Clark expedition, 

* and perhaps a word or two about the new book I've got coming out later this month. 

See you in a few weeks.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Man It Pleases Us to Despise

The man whom it pleases a large but unpleasant minority of Americans to call their president has made little secret of his hatred for Native Americans. In the 1990s he questioned the identity of his business rivals, the Mashuntucket Pequots, declaring before Congress that “They don’t look like Indians to me.” He accused the Oneidas of building a casino as a front for organized crime. More recently he labeled one of his political adversaries, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had (somewhat inaccurately) claimed Cherokee ancestry, as “Pocahontas” – a slur in the sense that it blurred the identities of different Indian nations together, and caricatured Native women. DJT also held a ceremony honoring Navajo/Nadene “code talkers” in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, perhaps the most famous Indian-hater in American history. The chief executive sees Jackson as one of his personal models, though unlike Jackson he prefers slow-motion genocide to a more complicated program of ethnic cleansing.

That, at least, seems the implication of the Trump administration’s current Native American health policies. In his recent budget proposals to Congress, the president* called for cuts to the Indian Health Service, a vital agency for people who suffer both from poverty and chronic illnesses. Earlier this month, the Trumpista Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that, after Indian leaders asked for an exemption from several state governments’ newly-imposed Medicaid work requirements, the DHHS refused. Native Americans, the department said, comprised a racial group, not sovereign entities, and deserved no preferential treatment. Since 1976 Medicaid has served as a complementary funding agency with the Indian Health Service, and restrictions on Native people’s ability to use Medicaid would place a huge, probably unsupportable, burden on the IHS. Medicaid work requirements, meanwhile, are a dumb idea to begin with – good health is a prerequisite to full-time work, not the reverse – and would pose a particularly large barrier to health care for Indians, who thanks to the isolation of reservations suffer from an unemployment rate above ten percent. The policies, taken as a whole, seem designed to deny Native Americans access to health care and condemn tens of thousands of them to early deaths. That crosses the line from callousness to murderous intent.

The DHHS declaration that Native Americans are not sovereign entities is almost equally troubling. It simply does not conform with the facts. Indigenous Americans signed 400 treaties with the United States between 1778 and 1871. In those treaties the U.S. government repeatedly affirmed Indian nations’ possession of most of the core attributes of sovereignty: defined territorial boundaries; a government-to-government relationship with a sovereign power (namely, the U.S. government); a defined national identity, with (in some cases) the ability to define who was a member of the nation; and national resources, like land or school funds or annuities (paid for with land cessions) under tribal control. These resources, let us note, included federally-provided health care. The Treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868), for instance, promised that the signatories would receive physicians and infirmaries in return for the large land cessions they made to the United States. The modern IHS, which former director Mary Smith called “the largest prepaid health system in the world — [paid for] through land and massacres” – descends from these inter-sovereign obligations.

I’ve written about the relationship between treaties and sovereignty before. Here, let me just reiterate that most independent nations have recognized these as sovereign attributes since the 1931 Montevideo Convention, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the validity of Indian treaties and Native American sovereign identity in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Blue Jacket v. Commissioners of Johnson County (1865), Winans v. U.S. (1905), and Williams v. Lee (1959). Tribal sovereignty is not a fiction ginned up by social justice warriors. It is a juridical, legal, and constitutional reality. Even Andrew Jackson understood that point, which is one reason he signed seventy treaties with Indian nations – more than any other president – during his time in the White House. 

I shudder to think what the seventh president would have made of the forty-fifth. DJT and his fascist advisor Steve Bannon see Trump as a modern-day Jackson, but the real Andrew Jackson would certainly have found DJT’s vulgar contempt for women, his hatred of immigrants, and his complicity with a hostile foreign government appalling. I dare say Old Hickory would have cut out Donald Trump’s tongue. Then he would have eaten it.

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 cows (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.