Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Columbian Exchange

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

No, wait: When Lugalzagesi was king in Umma, Akkad came against him and defeated him. Sargon, whose father was a gardener, the cupbearer of Ur-Zababa, became king, the king of Akkad, who built Akkad; he ruled for 56 years. My point? Meet the first royal gardener. We haven't even got to history yet, and we've got a king who plants paradises and brings the trees and fruits of foreign lands home to flourish.

It's a metaphor for kingship. Or a kind of propaganda. Call it what you want, and make an appointment with this book. It doesn't make Sargon nice. Kids stayed off Sargon's yard. What it brings home to everyone but the  most blinkered Whig historian ever is that the second that Columbus got home, the rulers of Spain and everywhere else were trying to grow seeds or cuttings. It's one of the things that kings do, and anyone who doesn't think that the inhabitants of the New World were doing exactly the same thing, and, I suppose, disrupting their previously perfectly harmonious relationship with Nature is missing an important aspect of the changes that were radiating across the continent from the first points of contact. (If you dig up this book and it doesn't include references to Pima Indians working wheat before first contact with the new California missions, my apologies. I got the factoid from Bancroft, but this is more recent, to put it mildly.)

So what? It's a big deal. You may have heard of the potato. It's called "the Columbian Exchange," and it's big on the Internet right now. Why? Because it's a big thing in history? How big? The biggest. Let's go to Wikipedia.

Hmm. So. Okay.
- Potatoes were big, 'till the Potato Famine, which was a big deal, and the damn Brits' fault somehow.
-Maize  and manioc virtually replaced Africa's indigenous crops. (Well, actually, it's a bit more complicated, but point.)
-Horses were a big deal on "the American plains." Yeah, but no. Please, fewer stereotypes,  more appreciation of the real west, up in the mountains, and even including sucky Albertans, thank you very much.

Oh, yeah. Wikipedia. So also the Columbian exchange led to--
-Tomato sauce got to Italy!
-And tomatoes reached France!
Coffee and sugar cane reached the Caribbean!
-Chilis got to India! And paprika reached Hungary!
Cats! Artichokes! Amaranth! They all switched continents!

Seriously, Wikipedia? I mean, it could be worse. You  have a list of all the exchanged plants, and that's helpful. We don't have to hear Alfred Crosby's nonsense about the great earthworm/honeybee invasion of North America (kernel of fact in farrago of fiction), but the rest of it is a bit silly. Can we do better?

We'd sure as heck better, because as the article notes, 5 of the world's top 20 crops originated in the New World, while 61% of agricultural production by value in the United States today is Old World. These are pretty tantalising facts. They suggest enormous historic changes. Well, what might they have been?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, X: Squanto's Town

Let's begin with ....say... Stephen Greenblatt. You're probably too young to remember when the New Historicism was actually new, but trust me. There was a time. We history graduate students had perhaps a different take (enough with this guy Shakespeare already!) but Greenblatt's first blast of the trumpet was a revelation. The big Renaissance figures were into "self-fashioning." In Chancellor Moore's Utopia and in the allegory-laden portraits of Hans Holbein and the Northern Mannerists (I'm not the first guy to overinterpret paintings), Greenblatt detected a conscious effort to fashion an image that could only be understood in their historic context.

It went on from there. At the risk of trivialising a powerful insight, men are lying liars.

Oh, sure. Women, too. But if you're old enough, you remember Linda Ronstadt as the First Consort of California, and you remember her husband for his brave but indiscreet repudiation of the would-be iron law of historical causality. "That was then, this is now," he said. Don't ask your prince to be consistent and unswerving or even honest. Ask him to do the right thing at the time. Whether as a guide to moral behaviour or to the Benjamins, everyone gets to be the own subject of their own stories, and that's how history has to take them.

Unless the stakes are high. Then, any kind of high wire act is okay. Say that you have an Indian from Massachusetts. He crosses the Atlantic at least twice. He has the ear of the Governor of Plymouth, who happens to be an inveterate promoter of transatlantic colonisation. Say that this Indian dies a man of the highest distinction, in an English colony erected on the very soil of his hometown.

Wouldn't you at least wonder what kind of story might make him the subject? And the answer is that no, you would not. Because once you've made Indians subjects instead of objects in the story of the plantation of the Atlantic, you've broken the corn dam, and the flood is like to carry you over the mountains to disaster.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Gather the Bones, 12: Disembedded Capital

Two inspirations for this post: first, from Benjamin Woolley's brilliant Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America, the fate of George Casson and John (Sicklemore) Ratcliffe. This one has been waiting for a while, and was much on my mind as I tackled A. Martin Byers. Second, a blogger I deeply respect jumped in on the anti-Mormon sentiment burbling around the current American Presidential election campaign. Since it continues to be my opinion that we're not going to get American history until we start taking the Book of Mormon seriously, I'm going to have another go at the Angel Moroni's revelation.

Anyway, prolegomena, check. Horror? Starting now.

The place is Tsenacomoco, Virginia between the Fall Line and the shore. More specifically, it is the fall hunting camp of the weroance Opechancanough, rich in manitou. He is attended by a skilled quiyoughcosuck, people seeking his favour, and one of the trousered men from beyond the sea, who appears to be promising to aid the weroance in making war on the Monacans above the Line, who control access to stone.

For stone is important to the people who flock to Opechancanough's hunting camp, and scarce on the outflow silt of the lowlands. The weroance surrounds himself with a guard of twenty men armed with macahuitls, while many of the poor who attend him depend on sharp shells for the heavy work of butchering. In this fall of 1607, the weroance does not yet understand that the advent of the trousered men means that the stone, copper, and crystal of the mountains is no longer precious. On the contrary, they have impressed locals by simply throwing their stone ballast by the way.

For whatever reason, not all trousered men are equal, and a common sailor, George Casson, has fallen into Opechancanough's hands at a bad time. He is tied hand and foot to two stakes, set between two fires, and when the weroance tires of berating him, a quiyoughcosuck (probably) slips up behind him

[B]randishing mussel shells and reeds. Using the edges of the shells as blades,and the reeds as cheese-wires, the executioner systematically set about cutting through the flesh and sinews of Casson's joints, stretched out between the staves. As each of his limbs was removed,it was cst upon the fire, until only his head and trunk were left, writhing helplessly on the blood-soaked ground.
Turning the torso over, so Casson faced the ground, the executioner carefully cut a slit around the neck, then slipped a mussel shell beneath the skin. He proceeded to ease off the scalp, and, turning the body back over again, gently unpeeled Casson's face from the skull. He then slit open Casson's abdomen, and pulled out his stomach and bowels, which steamed in the cold winter air. Casson's remains then joined the rest of his body to burn on the fire, until only his dried bones were left, which, according to White, were gathered up and deposited in a 'by-room' in one of the tents. (Woolley, 114.)

Casson was already in bad odour down at Jamestown. He was linked to one of the early Governors of the Jamestown Colony, a John Sicklemore. Unfortunately for himself, if he dis so innocently, Sicklemore travelled under an alias, by which he was better known. He was John Ratcliffe, one of the early governors, although he had already lost a power struggle by the time a condemned man, another common sailor, blurted out his secret identity in a vain attempt to stay his own execution. Ratcliffe is thus a bit of a mystery, upon which others have attempted to build further. A Ratcliffe received a major land grant in Beaufort County, North Carolina, and only two Ratcliffes are known in America in this timeframe to have received it. There is Ratcliffe himself, and a Roanoke Colony man, and the myths to which I refer attach this grant to the Roanoke man, who must then have survived the failure of that colony and shown up at Jamestown a generation later to receive his due, and in all this never recorded. At least, in a surviving text. (That is, if I read the sanitised account in Wikipedia correctly.)

Which is all very unlikely, and the only reason that we attend it is that in the winter of 1609, Govenor John (Sicklemore) Ratcliffe died the same death as George Casson, except at the hands of the weroance known to history as King Powhatten.

That's right. A former and recent Governor of Jamestown with powerful patrons at home was stretched out between the fires and ritually butchered by the great Powhatten. And, in later times, this was taken as a thing that happened by the men who attended on Powhatten and sued for his daughters' hands. Because that's the way that things happened in the Seventeenth Century --on both sides of the Atlantic. Although on the eastern shore the king set the quarters about the city rather than reserving the bones to his private ossuary. Bearing in mind that Sicklemore may have been a former Catholic priest and informer, his fate might have an element of ironic justice to it.

Either way,we have a very different use of the same thing: people disembodied and thus turned into a sort of symbolic capital. Powhatten had the bones of a governor, Opechancanough a mere common sailor, and so we see how Powhatten on the way out in 1607, was back on top in 1618. (He was even dispossessed of his capital, a part of modern Richomond, when the  weroance Parahunt sold it to John Smith for a likely slave boy, Henry Spelman.

Powhatten's movements from one to another "capital," illustrate the anthropological meaning of the phrase "disembodied capital." Ever since Nimrod erected the Tower of Babel, rulers have attempted to register new departures and social revolutions by building themselves new residence cities. Sargon's Akkad may have been one. I've already talked about Epaminondas' move with Messene; Constantine's Constantinople marks an epoch. St. Petersburg is the model of record for Washington, D.C. One could take my basic argument and make an overly romantic move with it and have Cahokia a model for Washington. More defensibly, you could make Teotihuacan the model for Cahokia via intermediaries.

I'm going to try to unpack this with the history of technology: specifically, the technology of Mode IV stone tools. But first I'm going to talk about Mormons.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Running Away to the Air, 5: Wooden Wings

Have you ever been told that "The wings of the Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain were made of British Columbia spruce?" Probably not. Chances are, you're not British Columbian. It's untrue, but you might have been persuaded by more plausible versions,such as that it was the Hawker Hurricane or De Havilland Mosquito. (And you will have heard stories about this.) Actually, BC's aeronautical-grade lumber was staked in a frenzy of ration allocations in 1942, and went into machines like this and this.  But who wants to hear that? Certainly not anyone who has ever lived north of the Skookumchuk.

Because you've felt the November rains.

And you've gone out to the cut blocks in old crummies smelling of wet rain gear. I remember being told, rather arrogantly, in Toronto in the early 90s, during one or another manufactured standoff in the woods, that my interlocuter would prefer to see Vancouver Island evacuated and turned into a nature preserve.

(The scenery isn't from Vancouver Island, but it is authentically straight out of the cutblocks, so here's the Be Good Tanyas again illustrating the point.)

It's because there's just not a lot of people out there (some half million, but far fewer than that on the northern half) and a great many trees. Old time boosters used to dream of integrated regional development, that the sawmill would bring houses and schools, and hobby farms, and garages, then real farms and factories; finally a Gothic city hall and a militia regiment and a university and a cathedral.

It didn't work out that way. Perhaps it might have. Perhaps it was starting to happen in the 1920s, but then it stopped, sometime in the 1920s. Some mills still run, but they shed more jobs all the time. The rest have shut down, sweeping their towns away with them: Ocean Falls, Gold River... Sometimes the community fails, sometimes it doesn't. People have to live somewhere.

It's like history reached just so far, like the tide.  So it's some consolation that we floated out a few wooden wings before it was too late. Does it matter whether it was for Spitfires, or Hurricanes, or Mosquitoes, or these? They all played their part.

I almost gave up on this post. We've past the anniversary of Operation Typhoon, and all the old German excuses about the quality of Russian roads are being dredged up again, as though "we couldn't campaign" is an excuse an army can use. So I thought about writing about armies, and roads, and pavements. But I wanted to check whether I've used some of my quality anecdotes already. Besides, this morning, a CBC sportscaster talked about wooden aerodynamic test models of the Avro Arrow: wo Canadian patriotic urban myths in one. And on top of that, going through my notes on the wartime run of Aviation, I came on one of Robert Neville's editorials from the fall of 1944, patiently explaining why the rapidly rising national debt didn't portend a postwar apocalypse, that the crucial thing was maintaining economic growth, not stringent austerity.

Now, you've never heard of Robert Neville. He certainly doesn't have a Wikipedia page. He's just a former editor-in-chief of the McGraw-Hill stable of technical monthlies who cranked out wise, thoughtful editorials each month for many years. Now, he's gone and forgotten, and the same things still get said, again and again,   into the same dull, uncomprehension. Thinking about Robert Neville is a reminder, if a reminder were needed, that people have been patiently saying wise and sensible things for many years. And that we've been ignoring them and substituting our own preferred narratives.

For example, that the RAF somehow "forgot" that you could make planes out of wood (presumably over five years in the late 30s, because allegedly in 1932 it was still building wooden planes indistinguishable  from the aircraft of WWI), and was blindsided by the wonderful Mosquito when it appeared out of nowhere in 1939. It's not true. And not true in a usefully informative way.