Friday, May 24, 2013

The Great Lakes Country in 1718: An Index

For the convenience of readers who might like a brief summary of and TOC for my blog series on Jacques-Charles Sabrevois's Memoir on the Savages of Canada:

Part One (23 November 2012): Niagara Falls, Seneca porters, the rivers and hunting prospects of the Ohio country.

Part Two (12 December 2012): The Odawas, Potawatomis, and Hurons of Detroit – dwellings, clothing, dances, games; fortunately, Yahtzee is not among the latter.

Part Three (23 Jan. 2013): The Odawas of Michigan's lower peninsula; the Indians of Green Bay (Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sauk, Mesquakie); Mesquakie dress and lifeways.

Part Four (22 April 2013): The Illiniwek and their Frenchified customs.

Part Five (1 May 2013): The Maumee and Wabash Rivers, the Miamis, and the similarities between their forts and the Tuileries; conclusions.

A little more to come in the near future on matters French and Louisianan.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Niall Ferguson is still a bigoted, pseudo-intellectual windbag

Those of us who hoped my intense scolding of Niall Ferguson last year had a suitably improving and chastening effect were no doubt disappointed this past weekend by the news that the Not-So-Good Professor has made some homophobic remarks about John Maynard Keynes. At the annual Altegris Conference, a forum with several hundred financiers and financial counselors – presumably well-to-do, presumably not terribly liberal – Niall-o took Keynes's famous remark “In the long run we are all dead” to mean that the economist was uninterested in the fate of posterity, and made the off-the-cuff remark that of course one would not have expected a gay man without children to be concerned with the long term. In the same talk, Ferguson further intimated that Keynes was a swishy girly-man by remarking that Keynes and his wife preferred discussing poetry to having sex. Several people at the forum took sufficient offense with Ferg's remarks to leak them to the press, and Senor Bonehead, realizing that there might be wealthy and powerful people in the world who were also gay, quickly apologized.

This doesn't sound like the kind of episode on which one ought to dwell, except that the Sexiest Scotsman's remarks are typical of the kind of carelessness and general intellectual slovenliness that characterizes his recent articles and his recent book, Civilization (which, my readers will recall, I reviewed at some length). Ferguson deliberately took Keynes's famous quote out of context to imply that Keynes was uninterested in the long-term impact of his fiscal policies (e.g. running a deficit to fight unemployment). As Paul Krugman, one of the leading neo-Keynesians, recently observed, what Keynes actually said was: “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” Keynes's point, or one of his points, was that simply waiting for a depressed economy to regain its pre-depression equilibrium was a rotten policy for the immediate term, and that economists needed also to focus on relief in the short term if they wanted to have any useful impact on government policy. To put it another way: it may be irresponsible for governments to saddle young people with heavy long-term public debts, but it is even more irresponsible to saddle them with years of unemployment – and unpayable student-loan debts – that permanently depress their earnings (and the government's future income-tax revenues) in the same term. In his apology, Ferguson did not suggest that he understood what Keynes was actually trying to say.
Niall-o also acknowledged in his apology that Keynes, despite his homosexuality, was also married and may have been trying to have children (his wife had a miscarriage), so his observations about Keynes's childlessness were somewhat inaccurate. I think this is rather beside the point, as sexual orientation, child-rearing, and other aspects of one's personal life have little impact on the quality of one's ideas, unless one's ideas primarily relate to sexual orientation. Karl Marx had a fairly untidy personal life, but this by itself did not affect his ideas about economics and history. Hannah Arendt's youthful affair de coeur with Martin Heidegger may be interesting of itself, but I haven't seen a convincing explanation of how it shaped her powerful (if rather turgidly expressed) liberal ideology. Ferg, however, finds it difficult to acknowledge this, because like many other modern conservatives he follows Paul Johnson's assumption that an intellectual's personal life necessarily shapes his or her ideas.  (Johnson himself was, as Christopher Hitchens discovered in the 1990s, a philanderer and afficionado of spanking, but this is only relevant when one is considering that he criticized Rousseau for having the same fetish, and presented himself to both British and American conservatives as a firm opponent of adultery.)

Probably Ferg would have been better off if he had stuck to the mild defense of Keynes he made in Chapter 5 of Civilization, but I suspect he felt this would not have made him popular with a fiscally conservative audience, and so decided to take a few cheap (and dimwitted) shots in order to earn a few cheap laughs. This is one other besetting sin of the Sexiest Scotsman: a pathological need for public approval, even if one can only extract it from a particular source by lawsuit.  One might almost feel sorry for Ferguson, except that there are other people - several billion of them, in fact - far more worthy of our concern and consideration.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Through the Eighteenth-Century Midwest with This Guy Named Sabrevois, Part Five

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Sabrevois concludes his jaunt around the Great Lakes with a description of the Maumee River, which he follows to its headwaters at Kekionga and then across that portage to the Wabash. The Maumee was quite shallow, which may explain why it was an expensive water transport route in the early modern era, and it presented “continuous marshes” for the first 20 or 30 miles upstream from Lake Erie. It was, however, richly populated with waterfowl, so much so that in the spring “one cannot sleep on account of the noise made by their cries” (p. 375). Halfway up the river, 60 or 70 miles from its mouth, Sabrevois points out The Glaize, “the place of clay,” where bison used the clay banks as a wallow. 75 years later the Northwest Indian confederacy would build its settlements, plant its crops, and hold its meetings at this site; its occupation by Anthony Wayne (1794) dealt that confederation a heavy blow.

At the head of the Maumee River, 60 leagues (approximately 120 miles) from Lake Erie, was the town of the Miamis, the principal members of the Miami confederacy. Sabrevois puts their population at “400 men,” which, assuming he means “fighting men,” translates to a total population of 1,600 – 2,000. Across a three-league portage from the Maumee flowed the headwaters of the Wabash River, which Sabrevois here confuses with the Ohio. This is understandable if one knows that colonial French cartographers referred to the lower Ohio River as the Wabash. On the actual Wabash River resided the Weas, who by Sabrevois's reckoning were the larger part of the Miami confederacy: 1,000 – 1,200 men, or 4,000 – 6,000 people overall, residing in five towns (Ouiatenon, Peticotia, Les Gros, Peangnichia, and one other). He does not mention that the Weas and Miamis may have been offshoots of the neighboring Illini, or that by 1718 they outnumbered their “elder” brethren to the west.

Sabrevois was perhaps tiring by this point in his memoir, because his descriptions of the Miamis' and Weas' lifeways are repetitive and reminiscent of his descriptions of other Lakes Indians. Both peoples raised corn and other crops, both adorned themselves with vermilion, both preoccupied themselves with “gaming and dancing” (375). In both nations women wore ample clothing and men very little - presumably Sabrevois refers to summer attire. Regarding the Miamis, Sabrevois adds that the men wore many tattoos, that men's and women's garments were principally of deerskins rather than cloth, and that men punished adultery by cutting off their wives' noses. The author notes that only the Miamis had this punishment for adultery, and only applied it to women, though we may note that the Chickasaws had a similar practice by the 1760s – perhaps Chickasaw men borrowed it from their Miami allies? Sabrevois, who is uninterested in gendered violence, presumably includes this detail to let travelers know when they are in Miami communities rather than Illini or Wea ones. Of the Weas, the lieutenant says that their fields were very extensive and that one of their towns had a fortified enclosure with a very clean interior, covered in a layer of sand “like the Tuileries” (376).

Sabrevois's choice of ethnological details helps explain the purposes this memoir was to serve. The lieutenant was writing not as an ethnographer but as an imperial functionary, and he intended, I think, for his document to be used by other French colonists, especially traders and officials. In discussing various Indian nations he provides details of clothing, tattoos, and games not to provide local color, but to help French travelers distinguish between Indian nations whose people physically resembled one another and often spoke similar languages. Such distinctions were important for Europeans who needed to know whether the people they visited were French allies. Sabrevois counts the male population of each Indian nation as a kind of military inventory, to let French officials know how many gunmen they could potentially raise from each of those nations in wartime. Sabrevois's interest in Indian subsistence and food supplies, finally, was not intended as a reflection on Native Americans' civility, but rather an indication of how easily various communities could feed French travelers. In sum, his memoir is an instrument of empire: a device allowing officials and traders to operate more freely in territory claimed by the French monarchy, describing waterways and available food supplies (both domesticated and wild), identifying distinctions between different Indian nations with whom one might wish to trade (or whom one should avoid), and counting Native American men who might rally to the French colors in wartime.

Such is the case with nearly all historical documents; the purpose for which they were written is vastly different from the purposes to which the historian wishes to put them. Such is arguably the case with all writing: the author cannot know or control his or her readers' interaction with their finished work. Would Jacques-Charles Sabrevois have been amused, puzzled, or horrified by the uses to which later ethnohistorians have put his memoir? And does that really matter?