Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, IX: The Road to Norumbega

Eben Norton Horsford might deserve to go down in history as the single worst American patent troll of the Nineteenth Century. I know that would be a pretty impressive accomplishment when we look at how much money Andrew Carnegie extracted out of the Bessemer process, or find Linus Yale's patent locks in archaeological sites from before history began, but at least those early locks are made of wood, and, unlikely as it might seem, one can only be skeptical about the American rival patent to Bessemer's on the basis of an absence of evidence. Horsford, on the other hand, managed to make a fortune by "inventing" baking powder well after Oetker and Bird had done the same in Europe.

What's more, although I may be hallucinating a memory, I think that there's a scene in Little Lord Fauntleroy where the intermittently obnoxious Hull is asked to show off American democratic culture in song, and stumbles through a rendition of the "Golden Griddle Song." Memory, fantasy, whatever. The next stop on my personal free-association train finishes off the line of thought.

So perhaps some minor sense of inadequacy with regards to astronauts, or, on the other hand, inanimate carbon rods. And more; for while Horsford was rich, respected, and philanthropic, he was also a Bostoner. And nearby Newport, Rhode Island, had this.

From Wikipedia. Patches of the original plaster finish are still visible. (A much more impressive image here.)

It's a windmill, built by Governor Benedict Arnold of Rhode Island, perhaps some time in the 1670s, and sited on the top of one of Newport's more impressive hills.

The story gets more complicated. Back in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano, an adventurer of Rouen, took a hint of future patonage from the king and made a voyage of discovery along the coast of North America from the Floridas of the Spanish discovery all the way to the fishing grounds of Labrador. And, apparently (really, there's a limit to how much skepticism is appropriate here!) there's a map.

Again from Wikipedia.
  The map, and good luck making this for yourself, shows a tower at the place that ought to be Newport. Verazzano labelled "the Norman villa." Crazy theories could be spun about this fact (for example, it's "Normanville," named for the seat of a Norman patron), but we'll go with the more obvious conclusion. Verazzano encountered Vikings along this coast. Vikings who built the Newport Tower whilst hanging out in New England back in the day.

Well, of course. It's bloody cold in Greenland, after all, and Greenland is geologically part of North America, so it's obviously pretty close to Newport, right?


But where did that leave Boston? Surely Rhode Island didn't get all of the Vikings! Horsford took a quick wander around the streets of the greater Boston area and established the incontrovertible fact that the Vikings had built a city called Norumbega at the point where Stony Creek empties into the Charles. And being a baking powder millionaire, Horsford could give Boston that which it had hitherto lacked: A Viking tower:

Wikipedia. Again. I donated twenty bucks this month. I'm cool.
Now, it might be argued that since it was built by a rich Bostonian in 1889, this isn't technically a Viking tower, but that would be wrong. History is just floating signifiers waiting to be called into a case. In a crucial way, Boston's history had hitherto been lame, and Vikings are the opposite of lame.

So, problem solved! As to why he felt lame (besides the baking powder thing), I can only conjecture that Horsford felt a strong desire to prove that the people who were living in Boston between 1000AD and 1630 were white people. As to why that might have been the case, well, there lies the story.

Because I don't think Eben was entirely wrong. The story of Norumbega  is a little stronger than the Verrazano one. A La Rochelle corsair with Portuguese connections, Jean Fonteneau dit Alfonse de Saintonge, coasted the region in 1542 in connection with Jacque Cartier and Jean-Francois la Rocque de Roberval's attempts to colonise the Saint Lawrence Valley. "Saintongue" reported "Norumbega" as the name of a town/fur depot, probably at the falls of the Penobscot River, where the former mills and current city of Bangor, Maine now stands. Unlike stone towers, we don't have much difficulty with the idea of Eastern Woodland Indians building winter towns, and granted the existence of a fur trade, they would need somewhere to store the furs, somewhere that we don't need to establish as having stably existed for centuries on end, complete with impressive architecture. As long as we ask no more of Norumbega than that it be a fantasy sought by lunatics and opportunists, what we have already will serve. And, chances are, a careful excavation of both Bangor and Boston would yield Indian villages that might well have been called something like Norumbega. So we're done. 

More or less. Because this is a story about white people coming and fur being traded before their time, and I've a story to circle back on. 

I'll start with an end again. For my purposes, that would be a book: Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long And Strange: Rediscovering the New World. According to the dust jacket, Horwitz wrote this book after discovering that he'd mislaid a century of American history between Columbus and Jamestown, a century during which "conquistadors, castaways, French voyageurs, Moorish slaves, and many others" "roamed and rampaged across half the states of the present-day U.S. continent..." 

'U.S. continent.' I like that. It's a clearer intimation of what I was going to find in this book than the excited hopes rising in me as I carried it home. Don't get me wrong; Horwitz is an engaging writer, and if you're willing to drop twenty bucks on yet another breezy account of Columbus,Vikings, Coronado, de Soto and Roanoke, there are worse choices. I can't even disagree with Horwitz's choices of material to cover. He is a journalist rather than a historian, and whatever the dust jacket might imply about a comprehensive account of  the history-before-history of European contact with the 'U.S. continent,' he frames what historical account he gives with encounters with the National Park Service and re-enactors. 

On the other hand, one might wonder why all the good stories aren't attracting more attention. To start with the obvious: by the time that the "leaky pump" is in full oscillation (1510? 1534? 1577?), European travellers in the New World are no novelty. There are perhaps 5000 English crossing the Atlantic each year to participate in the Newfoundland plantation fishery. There are perhaps 6000 Spanish Basque whalers in their own version of the pump, coming to take bowheads in their seasonal migration through the Strait of Belle-Isle. And there are less well-known pumps. Norman French on the south coast of Newfoundland; Portuguese from the Azores on the Georgia and Grand Banks; French Basque in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence. At the other extreme, the Spanish keep trying to establish themselves along the treasure fleet coast up from the Havana to Cape Hatteras, where the flottas turn for Europe. No wonder, then, that successive French kings set their hand behind two (three?) attempts to settle colonies in the Saint Lawrence Valley and one (two?) in Florida

That all of these failed so miserably, or, in the sole case of St. Augustine, limped along so disappointingly, is all the more striking considering just how successful were the set of colonies established after 1605. Typically, people have looked for technological explanations, one of which is tonnage. Nathan Philbrick is convinced that people couldn't export livestock to the New World before the 1630s for lack of shipping capacity (outside of the Iberian peninsula). N. A. M. Rodger, at whose feet I normally worship, has an  involved and striking explanation in which northern European sailing warships evolve into long and lean vessels with plenty of room for bowchaser batteries, useful both for fighting intrusive Mediterranean galleys and reducing insular fortresses. This cuts stowage and reduces their potential to export piratical mischief to the far shore of the Atlantic. At the same time, the Biscayans have no problem shipping plenty of provisions and men to the whaling stations of Labrador because their ventures are reliably profitable, hence well-financed, and because they have plenty of experience planting in the Atlantic (whaling camps out along Galicia, pilchard camps on the west coast of Ireland). Since the east coast of North America trends strongly east-west as well as north-south, however, Labrador is much closer to Europe than New England. Shorter trips mean that more provisions can be carried.

Only let me look a little more closely at the attempts on New France in the 1540s. Not surprisingly given its extent and volume, the Saint Lawrence River attracted attention from Breton adventurers. An easy portage from its sources to a Pacific watershed might well be a game changer. Jacques Cartier, a distinguished man of St. Malo, ascended it on more-or-less his own cognizance twice in the 1530s. Although thwarted by the falls of Lachine, Cartier reported gold and diamonds in abundance ...somewhere around. Make of that what you will. Here's a book that I free associate to when I think about such things, and the slightly later intellectual movement that arises out of approaches that think of gem and bullion mines as indices of a land's general fertility and thus belonging in some complicated nexus of geology, good government, and monetary policy. ("The king and the land are one!")

So Cartier's got the old "Lost Dutchman's Mine" thing going in an early Canadian context. The king opens his purse, and Cartier and the commissioned governor of the new colony, Sieur de Roberval, cross the Atlantic in successive years. Cartier, with by one account five ships and five hundred colonists, has a disastrous three month passage, and does not plant his fields at what is now Cap Rouge until the last week of August. 

The winter is difficult, and Cartier leaves in the spring with a much diminished complement and holds full of iron pyrite and mica, encountering Roberval and three ships carrying an additional 200 settlers outward bound that he declines to join. Roberval has thus managed to arrive in time for a spring planting, but has his own difficulties. A trading expedition up the Saguenay River finds a Basque fishing camp at its mouth building cod-drying racks, and then loses some boats in the Saguenay rapids. Finding no gold, Roberval abandons his colony in its second spring and sails back to France to sell his ships to pay his creditors. Fortunately, the poor colonists aren't amongst his creditors, as they consist of a small number of volunteers in his official family and a larger number of prisoners, many condemned to death, turned out of the jails as good colonising material.

Well. Here's a nice juncture of the two meanings of plantation: there is, on the one hand, the evidently perfectly routine fishing plantation in the lower Saint Lawrence, conducting its largely anonymous and routine business. And there's two fleetloads of people-that-we'd-call-slaves-if-they-weren't-White-people plopped on the fertile soil of the Eastern Townships and finding themselves unable to make a return on their investment because they can't find gold.      

And this, I think, explains the failures of the 1500s easily enough. When there's a return on investment in the form of cod and whale oil, you get quite successful plantations. When there isn't, in spite of massive logistical efforts, you get failure. 

Expected ROI is the story. And if it is, then where does that story lead us? Interesting places, I think. One more minor diversion here, via Captain James Cook, who had so much success by hiring an interpreter from amongst the learned shamans of Tahiti on his first voyage that he took on a likely young aristocrat named Omai on his second. Omai wasn't anywhere near as useful as Doctor Tupaia, but he also managed not to die  on his voyage, and ultimately returned to the South Pacific and set himself up well. But not without some reluctance, because as is noted in Richard Hough's recent life of Captain Cook, Omai got himself laid in London. A lot. 

Now, in some sense, this is just payback for the behaviour of European sailors in the Pacific. I'm not going to make moral judgments on the erotic appeal of exoticism, but if I were, I'd link to this, which seems to borrow its title from some old folk saying that's not showing up on Google search. If you do want to moralise, and, oops, I seem to have opened the back door to it, I would only add that snagging the wandering sailor as a stay-at-home husband/ marrying the princess and daughter inheriting half the kingdom? Now that's really parlaying "erotic capital" (what an odious phrase) into social. Young, single travellers have their options. 

Now, Omai is just an anecdote, but here and there in this blog I've already cited Andrew Sherratt's arguments that long-distance exchange networks are formative in the emergence of agricultural civilisation. I'll have more to say about that next time --my excuse for not rounding up the links now-- but there was a big archaeological theory-meets-current-data-type monograph of a few years back that went even further. Travel, transmission, intermarriage, and interchange via well-established trade routes are absolutely central to the function of European societies at the Mesolithic/Neolithic boundary and vital to the transition to the Bronze Age. I'm entirely persuaded, but you have to admit that that's a pretty big claim to make from old bones and potsherds. In general, archaeology and protohistory remain deeply divided about just how much interchange between distant cultures you're going to allow into your narrative.

So back up for a second and think about the plantation coast of North America in the light of Kristiansen and Larrson's theorising. Do we have a long distance coastwise exchange network such as would be running into fishing plantations all along the coast in the 1500s, archaeologically attested? We do. Ramah island and some other spots along the northern Labrador coast produce distinctive cherts, a particularly beautiful tool stone of the kind that was highly attractive to Mesolithic people. It has been found in Newfoundland, in a very early context in Vermont, in Prince Edward Island, even at the Goddard site in Maine where a probably-"salted" Viking penny was found in a pre-Columbian context. Of course we could still be talking about "down the line" trading here, but an English explorer off the coast of Maine reported encountering a Basque-style challop headed for Placentia Bay with a cargo of furs in 1593. The Indians aboard could communicate with the English, knew where they were going, and were about fairly routine business. 

So here we have one more piece of the puzzle: the Ramah Island Chert Exchange Network is still functioning in the 1590s, reinvigorated by a demand for furs emanating from the European fishing plantations. Why not? A few extra beaver pelts would make up for a disappointing year on the fishing grounds, and the whole basis of the plantation business is the export of capital resources such as axes, nails, and food that might not even be consumed in the summer fishing season. Why not exchange them for such furs as were to be had. I'm hoping to find specific confirmation of idle fishers making fur-trading expeditions westwards in the 1500s, but I don't have it to hand.

So I think I've got confirmation here of another potential way in which the fishing business might realise a return on investment as the 1500s draw to a close. We're seeing some evidence that a long standing coastwise prestige-building/social capital-generating exchange network is mutating into real business. That will depend on the availability of furs, and they might have had to be managed to that yield. Now the bombshell that brings us back to Eben Horsford: David Ingram. 

The beginning of David Ingram's story is fairly well known. Young, well born and well-connected, especially for a West Country youth, John Hawkins was able to get a series of letters of marque and charters commissioning him to sail and privateer and take and sell slaves and what have you. As Admiral Mainwaring told us and the Sieur de Robeval's recruiting reminds us, when you have money on the one hand, ships on the second, and desperate young people driven to crime by empty stomachs on the third, you have the makings of an adventure on the corrupting sea. On his third voyage,he got into a spot of trouble in a Mexican port just north of Veracruz. It's a neat little tale, involving a young Francis Drake, who is apparently so enraged by oily perfumed treacherously superstitious dandyish Papist Spanish treachery (Also, they're girly men!) that he dedicates his Calvinistically heroic life to defeating the evil Hispanics.* It's especially sad because Hawkins can't even get all of his men to safety, and ends up marooning one hundred of them on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

So what kind of men were these? Poor and desperate, Henry Mainwaring says. Fair enough, but they also had some skills, and according to this very dubiously applicable bit of evidence, weren't precisely the social dregs.  Call them downwardly mobile young men of some native ability and a warlike habit,and I doubt that  you'd be wrong. The kind of guy who could probably get a girl, if they weren't so downwardly mobile.

Oh. And they're marooned on the Texas coast, 400+ years before the beginnings of civilisation there. So what to do now? Most decide to head south and throw themselves on Spanish mercies. Two dozen men under the leadership of David Ingram (by his own account) continue north with the Indians.

Three months and three thousand miles later, David Ingram, Richard Twide and Richard Browne presented themselves to a Norman captain in what is now Nova Scotia. As is the way of things, the captain is free to dispose of some space in his ship to carry passengers, and no-one ever said that he couldn't carry passengers who didn't come over to fish! (Which is very much another story for another day...) Back to England, where they look up Hawkins to relate their tale. Hawkins, who had obviously been carrying some guilt over the episode, breaks down in tears and pays each man a bounty in good silver for their troubles.

This would be all that we would know of this story were it not for the fact that Hawkins subsequently became involved in Humphrey Gilbert's attempt to establish a colony in America, perhaps at Norumbega, wherever that was. Twide and Browne having died in the intervening years, Hawkins arranged to have Ingram brought before the investors to share his old sailor's tales, which are of pretty dubious merit, Berkeley School nonsense about how he confirms that the population density of eastern North America was as high as contemporary Europe's aside. To be fair, it was fourteen years gone, and his observations were made during a three month journey of 3000 miles. I'm frankly amazed that he had anything more coherent to report than that long distance travel in canoes is hard on the legs, and that blackflies suck. And since those were probably his actual impressions, it is perhaps not too surprising that he made up stories about gigantic rubies for the gentlefolk who suddenly wanted to hear his tale.

Perhaps because the story commissioned from David Ingram was an account about how awesome and yet how harvestable were the riches of the Eastern Woodlands, the forty-five hundred word deposition that he gave to the committe, contains not a word about the 21 companions that didn't make it back to Europe.  An old buddy, however, picked up the story, I assume because Hawkins had asked the same question back in 1569, and got the same answer, which helps account for his tears. The others, Ingram said, had dropped out by the wayside and married Indian woman.

Now that's marrying far and breeding tall, strong sons. Or parlaying your erotic capital into social. Whatever. Men without prospects in Europe could be hot commodities in a new environment. Of course, this implies that they abandoned life in the Christian community, and most of the very few people who write about David Ingram pause to wonder about why his deposition didn't get into the first edition of Hakluyt  without even considering that this devout Protestant apologist might have been embarrassed.

I know who would have been embarrassed about it in the Nineteenth Century, though: Eben Horsford. Nothing in Ingram's information tells us that any of his companions made it as far north as Boston, before giving up. That being said, the shortest way from Texas to Nova Scotia would be either the inland river route (Shenandoah-Potomac-Susquehanna-Hudson-St. Lawrence) or the coastwise route, which would have detoured over Cape Cod, and so involved portaging from Newport to Boston, so it's not entirely out of the question that one of David Ingram's companions had a Metis child who was waiting on the beach to greet the Pilgrims.

And while David Ingram's experience is unique, so is the line of transmission that brings his story down to us. A lot of people were marooned on the east coast of North America between 1492 and 1607. Mostly, we erase them from history --sometimes in quite bizarre fashion.** Taking what we know happens from an archaeological context when new goods and new knowledge enters a long distance exchange network, I propose that something quite different is happening here: the Eastern seaboard of America is reorganising itself socially, linguistically and economically around new lifeways. No need for kings and courtiers here, or, rather,the time for them is not yet. All we need are travellers like David Ingram (only sexier!).

Eben Horsford was right, and wrong, in the way, I suspect, that his worst fears of the corrupting sea intimated.

*Typical reinvention here. Hey, David Drake: think up your own plots. And I don't mean like this!

**They were eaten! By cannibal Indians! Nom nom! And this doesn't even come to us from an emotionally disturbed comic book writer, but rather from the Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel at Harvard. As to why an archaeologist of Israel would have an opinion about how all the Roanoke colonists came to be eradicated,without any interbreeding whatsoever, no sir, I cannot even guess. Or, rather, I can guess, but choose not to.

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