Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploiting the Chickasaw Working Class

Many of my readers know that the wheels of academic writing and publishing grind slowly, but they can grind exceedingly fine. I began work on my book on the U.S. Indian factories, “Engines of Diplomacy” (now under contract with University of North Carolina Press) in the spring of 2004, and am just now completing one of the last (I hope) sets of revisions to the manuscript. One advantage of such a long period of research, writing, and revision is that an author can replace earlier, shallower analyses with much more mature insights long before the book goes to press.

To take one example that has just come to hand: in a section on the trading factory at Chickasaw Bluffs (modern Memphis), I decided to use the post's price records to estimate the approximate compensation of an early-nineteenth-century Chickasaw hunter, measured in dollars and in manufactured goods. I determined that a skilled hunter could make between $25 and $50 per season if he caught between 50 and 100 deer, a realistic estimate according to Kathryn Braund's Deerskins & Duffels (Nebraska, 1993). Perhaps he might make a bit more if he also caught smaller animals like raccoons, whose furs made good hats. I then calculated what this could buy at C.B. Factory: 25-50 pounds of gunpowder (with about 10 shots per pound), 50-100 yards (a few bolts) of muslin or calico cloth, 50-100 tin quart cups, or a couple of hundred small broaches.

This seemed impressive to me when I first wrote this particular chapter in 2005, but I realize now that these were the entire returns of 3-4 months' labor for a hunter and additional work by his female relatives – Indian women accompanied hunting parties to feed their kinsmen and dress their furs and skins. To put it another way, Chickasaws earned no more than half a dollar a day from the federal trading factory for their labor as hunters and skin processors. And factory merchandise prices, while lower than those offered by private competitors, still equaled 150% or more of the prices charged by vendors in Philadelphia, which reduced hunters' wages still further. Small wonder that Chickasaws, like Indians elsewhere in North America, racked up large trading debts. My acknowledgment of the inequities of Indians' compensation, which derived from recent years' reflection on economic inequality in modern America (courtesy of David Graeber and Occupy), allowed me to replace this vague and spineless phrase from my original draft:

“As was commonly the case in the fur trade, the Chickasaws' demand for goods outstripped their ability to pay for merchandise in kind”

with what I consider a more nuanced, and accurate one:

“As returns from hunters' labor remained low, the Chickasaws' demand for trade goods outstripped their ability to pay”

and then discuss that nation's rising debts to both the federal factory and private traders. In my first draft of this chapter I assumed Chickasaws' indebtedness just sort of happened, and implied that their own profligacy may have been to blame. Now I can see that it came from the systematic underpayment of workers in an extractive industry. Granted, other scholars, like Claudio Saunt, made this point over a decade ago, but sometimes it takes a little thought and a little engagement with the real world to catch up with better minds.

(Above images, of an unshaved deerskin and HBC-style point blankets, are from Wikimedia Commons, the latter courtesy of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Battle of Actium

Courtesy of my talented sister Corinna Nichols, a student of ancient Near Eastern languages (and, in a previous life, of Greek and Latin), I am pleased to present a short poem on the Battle of Actium, a familiar subject to fans of Roman history and anyone who made it at least 15 minutes into I, Claudius:


The battle for the Roman world
Came down to boy meets boy meets girl:
Antonius, Caesar’s magister,
Was mired in a love affair
With Cleopatra Philopater
(Who also was his children’s mater).

He picked a very foolish fight--
In truth he wasn’t very bright.
He challenged young Octavian
Agrippa, and his navy and
Then with his queen began a battle
With ships stuffed full of sails and chattel.

Thus the once-triumvirate
Their ships with weapons aristate (1),
Met and clashed in mighty fracas
Rome v. posse comitatus,
Led by M. Vipsan. Agrippa
Naval whiz and valiant skipper.

For Cleo and Marc Antony
There would be no amnesty;
In manner most Shakespearian
(Some would say, ophidian)
They shuffled off their mortal coils
Leaving Rome with all the spoils.

Octavian had won the Nile,
Its grain, its every crocodile;
And though the war was slightly civil
No one raised the smallest cavil
Octavian, in fact of matter
Was made a triple triumphator.

And so that day at Actium
Augustus won imperium.
Like a less depressed Aeneas,
(Devoid of any thought impious)
He gave the world the Pax Romana
In truth, Memento Augustana (2).

For more of the learned Mme. Nichols's work, check out her blog, Of a Number of Things.

(1) Bristling. No, I'd never heard it before, either.
(2) Author's note: accusative neuter plural, in case you were wondering.