Friday, February 29, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XIX

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Native American travel to Europe, voluntary or otherwise, was relatively light during the second half of the sixteenth century, and it remained so into the early 1600s. Most of the Indians who journeyed across the Atlantic during the first two decades of the seventeenth century were brought by Europeans as curiosities, translators, diplomats, or some combination thereof. Most, therefore, traveled singly or in small groups - much smaller than the groups of caciques and slaves brought home by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the previous century.

The Indians who traveled to England during the first five years of the new century were cases in point. There were only two documented groups of Native American visitors to England during this period, and each consisted of fewer than half a dozen people - and each traveled involuntarily. In 1603, Walter Raleigh sent a ship to Virginia to determine the fate of the Roanoke colony, which had disappeared (actually, relocated to the Chesapeake Bay) in 1590. The mariners, led by Captain Samuel Mace, did not find the colony, but they did kidnap two Rappahannock men on the Virginia coast, whom the Englishmen brought back to London. The two abductees probably lodged with Sir Robert Cecil at his home on the Strand, and were apparently asked by Sir Walter Cope to put on a public display of canoeing in the Thames (Sept. 1603), which drew a large crowd. Their sojourn probably did not end happily, however, for London was stricken with the Plague that year, and there is no record of these Indians having survived it. (Alden Vaughan, "Sir Walter Ralegh's Indian Interpreters," William and Mary Quarterly 59 [April 2002], 357-358.)

The fate of the other party of Indians brought to England during the opening years of the Stuart era was slightly happier, but their experiences were more harrowing. In 1605, two of Raleigh's business associates sent another expedition to the coast of Maine to search for likely sites for a trading post or colony. The expeditionaries, headed by Captain George Weymouth, landed at Pemaquid that summer and captured five Abenaki men, including a local chief. Weymouth sent these captives - Maniddo, Assacomoit, Skicowaros, Amoret, and Tahanedo (or Dehaneda) - back to England as trophies, along with two canoes and several bows and arrows. The captives received fair treatment from Sir John Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the two gentlemen who had organized the expedition, and provided them with information on the rivers and Indian communities of Maine, along with a short glossary of the Abenaki language. After spending a year in England, Tahanedo returned to Maine with Popham and Gorges, and helped them establish a short-lived settlement on the Sagadahock River.

Maniddo and Assacomoit also sailed for home in 1606, but their ship, the Richard, was intercepted by a Spanish fleet off the coast of Florida. The two Indians and the English crew were taken back to Spain, where Spanish officials jailed all of them. Gorges eventually ransomed Assacomoit and brought him back to England; in 1614 Assacomoit and two other Indians, probably Skicowaros and Amoret, finally returned to Maine. Maniddo's fate, however, remains unknown; there's a good chance he died in prison in Seville. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 [1993]: 185-186; Alden Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 [Cambridge, 2006], 57-58, 60-63.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Of Cellphones and Coffeehouses

The "creative destruction of capitalism," as Joseph Schumpeter famously described the effects of this flawed but powerful economic system, has noteworthy corollaries. One of these concerns a nation's technological development: the ongoing obsolescence of old machinery and the rapid emergence of newer, cheaper replacement technologies means that poor countries often find it easier to go high-tech than to adopt older devices and techniques. In sub-Saharan Africa, this corollary is demonstrated by the widespread demand for cellular telephones in nations which never had more than rudimentary land-lines, and by the ability of telecom companies to meet that demand. Since Africans are finding it easier and cheaper to erect cellphone towers than to string telephone wires, in the field of telecommunications they are jumping directly from the nineteenth to the 21st centuries.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still poor, however, and most cellphone customers there buy prepaid minutes rather than long-term contracts. The downside of this is that phone companies are unwilling to provide African customers with cheap or free cellphones, which they reserve as incentives for contract customers. Thus, there is a large market in Africa for used cellphones, and in today's global economy, people meet that demand in ingenious ways. Consider the following excerpt from a recent article by Jon Mooallem (citing Chinese scholar Jack Qin):

"In Kowloon, Hong Kong, Pakistanis and other immigrants...import phones from Europe by the shipping container. In the past, Nigerians and other African exporters swept in to buy tens of thousands of phones at a time, particularly so-called '14-day phones,' those that have been returned under warranty and used little. But recently...the markets for these phones have become saturated in African cities. So the Nigerians, needing to take their business to poorer African villages, have been leaving Hong Kong for Chinese cities like Guangzhou, where they can purchase cheaper, more heavily used phones...Many Nigerians have learned Mandarin in order to do business in Guangzhou...and the city now has an African-style coffee-shop." (Mooallem, "The Afterlife of Cellphones," New York Times Magazine, 13 January 2008, p. 41.)

So exporters are shipping European cellphones to southern China, where Pakistani immigrants purvey them to Mandarin-speaking African entrepreneurs for eventual resale in rural Nigeria. And there's an African coffeehouse in Guangzhou. Every day, our world is becoming more and more like a Neal Stephenson novel.