Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, VIII: The Rule of the Admiral

Hee. I'm hilariously riffing on Jeffrey Bannister's Rule of the Admirals. Because Christopher Columbus was appointed "Admiral of the Ocean Seas," and he came to grief when he tried to rule his discoveries in the New World, so that he died old and bitter, and maybe a bit of a religious maniac.

(Because they were playing old Johnny Cash at the local Chapters when I converted birthday money into this and this.)

Well, no, actually. It seems to me that there's a more useful way of thinking about all of this. Imagine for a second that Columbus was normal. Where does that lead us? To cassava, I think.

The default presumption that Columbus might be a bit abnormal springs up naturally enough. He ended his life with a great deal of gains that could be passed on to his son Diego, and rather more that could at least be litigated for. That set Diego up to create a story about his father; or, rather, two stories, because there was to be a secular and a religious version. The former gives us stories of Columbus as navigator, mainly aimed at taking down criticisms out of the Pinzon camp. Needless to say that if you elect to bulk up your account of Columbus with anecdotes from both camps, you get something a little odd.

As for the religious account, it too has an agenda. It might,  ultimately, be about Columbus as regional governor on a religious frontier, but it comes out of  Fra Bartolomé de las Casas, and is thus a typically medieval rivalry between the Franciscans and the Dominicans. That it is largely based on what we probably mistakenly believe to be an abstract of Columbus' logs gives it a spurious authenticity.

And then you get Washington Irving's memorably picture of Columbus as an obsessed crank. We may now see Irving as a mythmaker, but we can preserve his Columbus-as-truther by focussing instead on his systemic underestimation of the circumference of the Earth. Throw in moral tergiversations that, ironically, come ultimately out of the good Father Bartholomew, insofar as they're not rooted in the English Reformation, and you get... Well, you get the Columbus of a modern biographer like Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: bad, mad, sad and incompetent to boot.

Whatever; I shouldn't be picking on Fernandez-Armesto. Browsing his catalogue in the course of finding that link reveals a long bibliography if very interesting-looking books. Scholarly biographies tend to go negative. The thing is that Columbus is known for four exploratory voyages to the New World, each masterpieces of organisation, logistics, navigation, and leadership. Take that as your point of departure, and where do you get?

Nowhere surprising, because this was the kind of human achievement for which the great men of the Medieval West looked to northern Italy in the late 1400s. The cockpit of Europe  produced men with the education, experience and connections to conduct great enterprises, which is why we call them Condottiere.  Entrepeneurs are opportunists who shape the world to align their abilities with  profits in search of investment capital. Assume that Columbus was such a man, Medieval in his outlook, and no more. Although perhaps it helps to see Columbus, as many have, as the natural son or gandson of some grand Genoese house, in which case settling Don Diego down with a nice appanage was a favour done that the Spanish monarchy could recoup in its Italian politics.

On the other hand, perhaps we can see a pattern in his advocacy of a westward exploration from Flores in the 1480s when he was in Portugal, and from Gran Canarias in the 1490s, when he was in Madrid. Thus the commonality is less the hope that he would reach Asia, but that someone would fund a major voyage that would turn these places from peripheries to centres and generate profits for their proprietors. This thesis was recently pushed by a historian of science who takes departure from the Admiral's turn south in his first voyage. Whatever Columbus said about the inevitability of finding Asia, he was as ready to be viceroy of an African island as governor of a factory on the coast of Asia; or, for that matter, Admiral of a fishing ground. Unfortunately, I haven't Googled down the book and the historian. So I'll say here only that I'm summarising the beliefs of another scholar, and edit later.

So the first point of the rule of the Admiral is that it is all about profit, and that Columbus' vision is that those profits will come from royal privileges. It's not the only possible scheme,just the one that turns out to work. This means that it will be all about politics, and things could get politically ugly. So, yes, at one point Columbus is shipped home in chains. Defeat? Of course not! Don Diego ends up ruling Hispaniola after him. That's just how these things worked in the middle ages.

So to understand the rule of the Admiral, we have to look at the way that his clan realised the promised profit. In 1954, Pierre Chaunu, a student of Fernand Braudel, presented the most extraordinary dissertation at l'École practique. It was notoriously judged to be an incomplete success, in spite of its heroic scale: 12 volumes in 9 parts, almost 9000 pages, if I recall correctly. (The summary I link to is an early one, before it was completely published in every respect.) I've seen it on the shelf. It is, indeed, awesome. and yet a review that might indicate what original committee thought suggests its limits. Chabert pungently suggests that it would have been better for scholarship if the Chaunus* had simply microfilmed the records they painstakingly abstracted. 

But taking the Chaunus at face value, as I was wont to do before my last Google search, we have an overall conclusion. Between 1504 and 1650, there were 17,967 Spanish sailings for the New World, a big number, but less than 100 per year. Demographically, this has the pleasing result (for me) of capping the total Spanish emigration at a low level, on the calculated average of 21 emigrants per ship, not that all of those ships would have qualified as emigrant ships at all. But, and this is even more striking, we have a pattern indicative of a boom-and-bust cycle, culminating about 1550.  

The Admiral's project turned out to be a pump-and-dump. There was money to be made in the New World, but not nearly in proportion to the capital invested in it. The backwards flow of bullion was pretty much the sole long term return from the empire. Harold Innis, writing above all of Newfoundland, coined the thesis of the development of underdevelopment. Supposedly, staples-exporting regions are doomed to be peripheral economies. James Belich has recently taken Australia as the type case for exactly reversing this thesis. The gold boom was barren; it was not until wheat and refrigerated meat staple exports began that the  Antipodes really took off. It sounds reasonable to me, and highlights the problem with the Admiral's Hispaniola. There was no staple.

Why not? In challenging Fra Bartholomew's thesis, those long centuries ago, Adam Smith suggested that the pre-Contact populations of the New World could not have been as large as he asserted, because wherever in the world there are large rural populations desiring foreign goods, they just start exporting textiles at prices that the metropolis can't sustain. Say what you will about Smith, it's still an insight. (Compare this to this.)

But there's still wheat, right? The problem with the Spanish, it has been suggested, was that they didn't build sturdy agricultural colonies of emigrants, like the British later did in North America. Except, of course, that the Spanish tried and failed to do exactly that; So did the British. Colonists were recruited and sent, and some places they took, and some places they didn't. Why?

Another question is, what could farmers from Castile possibly contribute in Hispaniola? Certainly not their familiar farming techniques, because they weren't transplantable? It has been noticed by many that the Europeans introduced pigs, cattle, and horses, more in Cuba than Hispaniola. But now that archaeologists have found that Caribbean agriculturalists were raising guinea pigs, I find it hard to believe that they won't find peccaries as well. Pigs are more efficient domestic animals than either, which is why they've tended to replace them; but the agronomy of the Caribbean was probably less thoroughly disrupted than some would have us believe. The hard fact is that you can't grow grain for export in the Caribbean. And it would be crazy to export salt meat and fish from places so hot. And cassava has never been a very big export crop. The local labour draft is big enough to pan for such gold as flows in the rivers, but the very fact that those rivers haven't been impounded for mills and irrigation suggests the very limited extent to which agricultural intensification had occurred here.

So what have we left? John Elliott turned up some nice letters home from early Spanish colonists. Some emphasise that emigrants will live a life of leisure, supported by Indian slaves. Others declare that hard work will make a man rich in the New World. How do you reconcile the two, Elliott asks? Simple: the colonists are saying what they think their correspondents want to  hear. Nothing that one hears of the Caribbean during the Admiral's tenure can be taken at face value, because it is all a big pump-and-dump.

Yes, the colonists frequently treated the Indians miserably. That's the medieval era's reputation, and it's frankly deserved. It's still hard to believe that the Indians were treated any worse than some Catholic recusants were in sixteenth century England, and very much not the point. Sure, the Dominicans and Fransciscans had hard things to say about the way that colonists treated Indians, but when we find opposed orders competing to deliver the most stinging sermon, it seems to me that one has long since left the realm of objective forensic inquiry and re-entered the world of medieval politics. If what the priests have to say to each other when they are arguing most fiercely concerns the way that Indians come to the Sacraments, then this is the most politically and economically important question. Don't care about pneumatology? Unfortunately, that attitude will just leave you evading the key issue.

Why? Not because I've suddenly turned into a historian of theology, but because in the creation of a transatlantic proletariat, what counts in the end are the instruments of inclusion and appropriation. Call me an apologist all you like, but while I admit the role of coercion in creating forced labour pools, it does not seem to me that they will be all that useful unless there is motivation as well. Columbus had five condemned prisoners amongst his less-than-a-hundred followers in his first expedition because municipal authorities were at their wit's end dealing with vagrants and criminals, and the crown's only solution was to put them aboard outbound ships as pressed crew, hopefully to find their own fortune, or at least work experience. The point is that for these desperados, if they live, and work, and succeed, there will be a home and a place in society for them in the place from whence they were exported as slaves. 

I know that there is a school of historian who doesn't want there to be slaves in the north of Europe. But look at the Icelanders abducted by Bristolmen and taken back to England in the 1400s. Icelandic authorities thought that they were taken as slaves. The fact that they didn't want to go back to Iceland later is taken as evidence that they weren't. But, dude. Iceland.

Still, concede a point to the apologists. Imagine these Icelanders as indentured servants or apprentices. True, this is a status that they shared with many native Britons; arguably with all children and women and even upper class "premium apprentices." Although that admission just makes me suspect that we've radically underestimated the role of "slavery" in normal labour relations in late-medieval northern Europe. A more important point is that while they will emerge from their periods of service as "free" inhabitants of Bristol, they will also emerge as the clients of mighty patrons and of parishioners of well-endowed churches. They will never be radically free. They will always be clients. In that sense, radical freedom is only available to those who own slaves clients. 

so I've thrown in some italics up there because I don't think it can be emphasised enough that clientage is incorporation into an essentially Christian community. Incorporation is complete when first you take the Eucharist before the parish. In a sense, that's where you get the diversion between the English and Andalusian experience. Andalusians worry about backsliding. That's why they have the Inquisition,and the Dominicans and Franciscans are arguing about that. Later, the New England of the era of Say's Rebellion will be arguing about the precise salvific mechanism working through the Lord's Supper. And yet, amazingly enough, while the theology is different, the argument is the same. Should there be immediate baptism followed by immersion into the community, or a long period of tutelage? It might be the founding argument of modern society in the Americas. 

Can I bring all of this together, make some sense out of this crazy concatenation of evangelism, economy, and half-baked climatological determinism? Hmm: throw out racial essentialism; forget "Indians" and "Tainos"and especially the fetishistic fever dreams of half-mad voyagers, elaborated by would-be slavers, that invented the supposedly cannibalism-mad Caribs out of precisely those populations that were economically non-productive in situ, and thus had to be brought in by force to be incorporated into the bullion production. What one is left with is a reasonably self-sustaining economy. It will produce in proportion to its demand for European goods,and to the extent that it can buy those goods, it will participate in the enterprise of the Indies. In short, it will Christianise to the extent that it buys European goods, and hence to the extent that it produces for European markets.

But there's hardly anything to produce in the Caribbean! Bullion is the only thing that works, yet even though there are no big veins of precious metal on the islands, still such mines as were dug were reaching the limits of the local labour supply by 1510 or so. The locals thus appealed to the Crown, perhaps as much because local power was interested in making money off a slave import, and got permission to find forced labour where it could: Africans, Europeans, whatever. If you could buy the labour and employ it in New World mines, go for it.   

What about patronage and clientage? Well, it has to be to some kind of institution, and, thanks to the Admiral bringing the crown into it, that institution will be the municipality, or perhaps the missionary abbey. The spread of these institutions will be held in check by the amount of useful export production. "Development" in the Caribbean will be retarded. If you bring in more slaves than natural economic growth will sustain, you will not force more rapid growth. The slaves will just defect to a lifestyle that will support them in the New World. The "Indian" lifestyle. Import slaves from the Old World and, far from replacing "Indians,"  you'll make more.

That's the Caribbean. Much of what I have said so far will also apply to Newfoundland. Except that the plantations of Newfoundland didn't turn into assimilating municipalities for quite different reasons. Here, we have precisely a situation in which it might make sense for entrepeneurs to "export Indians to the New World."  

Which, I suspect, is exactly what happened: next stop, Norumbega.

 *As was the way of things in the day, Madame Chaunu assisted her husband with research and writing. As was somewhat less the way of things in the day, she got co-author's credit. One might wonder, in the case of some academic careers, which member of the marriage really deserved being left out of the authorial credits in the published version of the dissertation. 

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