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?

From the northern European perspective, potatoes are the big deal. The archaic results tabulated in my ancient Britannica (11th Ed, s.v. "Agriculture," 403a--b) show a wet harvest of 13,400lb/acre, dry 3360lb for potatoes. The potatoes yield no straw in the fields, but 127lb of ash by the crude use of bombs to estimate calorie content, with 46lb of nitrogenous material measured at this very dawn of attempts to estimate the protein content of food.

 Wheat's yield per acre is 4,958/4183 inclusive of 3158lb of straw. Ash: 30/172; nitrogen: 34/16. Wheat's yield as a people food is vastly lower than an equivalent acreage of potatoes.

Having already adduced the straw production of an acre in wheat, it is interesting to move on to compare these results to ordinary meadow hay, yielding 3360lbs wet, 2822 dry, including 203lb ash and 46lb nitrogen. Since several hay crops can be taken off the land annually, you see demonstrated here a point that a boy out of logger and rancher roots sometimes despairs of making in this day and age. Ranchers aren't necessarily engaged in the ultimate conspiracy against food sustainability. (We'll leave greenhouse gas emissions out of this for a moment.)

Step away from that digression and this also makes a historical point. Potatoes might be a high calorie food source, but they are a very poor source of protein. And as the way the results are couched as late as 1909 suggests, we came late to this insight. What does this mean? That the landlords and philanthropists who detected "resistance" from their dependents when they attempted to substitute potatoes for wheat bread were seeing something a little better-founded than mindless peasant conservatism.

By extension, throw away that notion of conservatism and we can better reconcile the conflicting claims for early and late introduction of the potato into the European peasant diet. The potato could have a transformative effect. But it had to be integrated into a new agricultural economy that delivered protein in some other form. The numbers here suggest the Irish solution of balancing potatoes with dairy, but cod, eggs, a joint for Sunday dinner will also work. Perhaps, if desperate, even beans might work.

What else? Corn is a common food today in southern Europe. In the Milanese and more broadly in the Po Valley, it  notoriously enabled the great landowners who moved into rice farming in the bottoms by letting the labour feed itself on corn grown on the heights. Hence the scourge of pellagra, although as I report this factoid straight from the lectures of Daniel Klang, who tied it to his somewhat negative opinion of Cavour, I take it with a slight grain of salt. The pellagra thing is real, though.

Go east, and you get to the very homeland of the modern potato. Russians certainly don't see any opposition between wheat and potato. But speaking of inner Eurasian potato-stuffed pastries, there's a deep-frying connection, too. And if you know your Russians (or, at least, your Doukhobors) you know the stereotype about Russians and sunflowers. If the sunflower is the symbol of Russian rural simplicity, you'll grant that it has nearly as much historical importance as paprika, right?

Well, how about more? Here's a page that notes that there were 2 million acres in sunflowers in Russia by the early Nineteenth Century. I'm not going to disagree with this factoid, however ill-sourced, because it supports my thesis! And here's the forecast for this year's Russian sunflower harvest. If you're thinking that that's an awful lot of sunflower seeds, the explanation isn't that the sunflowers were crushed for cooking oil with which to deep fry savoury samosas in bazaars from Kashgar to Tashkent. I mean, they were, but that's not why the Russian agriculture ministry cares. It cares because seedcake for animal fodder and raw oil for soap production were huge Russian  industrial export by the mid-Nineteenth Century.* (I was going to link to the Lever Brothers history instead of this, but right there on Wikipedia the Lever is tolerating and perhaps promulgating the notion that they control the patent for the actual, original invention of vegetable oil-made soap in the 1880s. Patent trolls....)

The importance of this is not to be underrated. Russian is never as strong as it seems, but it was once even weaker than it is, before its history sort of explodes in the late 1500s. It's not as though there weren't farming towns along the northern fringe of the steppe going back into history to before the invention of nomadism. They only come to leave little mark because the lifestyle is so  marginal and because they build in timber on acid soils that leave little or no archaeological remains. But something changed at the beginning of modernity, and the margin became a power centre.

Naively, I once believed that this was a demographic event. That was before I got off onto this "ethnogenesis" kick, and before I got to review some books on early modern Russian military institutional history and got a look in at documents that rather more honestly told the story of the Russianising of marginal peoples as the Russian state pushed out into the borders and absorbed the powerless while pushing out groups that resisted through the creation of new military-ethnic identities and religious practices. Someone should really study American history, and the history of American frontier policy through the lens of these things that were actually happening  at some point.

But enough about Russia; other places sort of explode into history in the 1500s, too. It can't all be about the Columbian Exchange. Modernity is a disease that's catching, mainly by infection from people from the more virtuous north!

Or maybe not. Opuntia, the prickly pear, isn't even on the Wikipedia list.I first encountered the African prickly pear  in a book about the Tunisian campaign! I suspect that the page clarifying that they are grown in great seasonal plantations is somewhere else in Atkinson. It isn't precisely a forage plant, because cattle and camels will eat it down to the root. What it is, is a magnificent summer resource. Looked at one way, the Sahara trade routes are a great seasonal transmigration. Animals are driven from the winter ranges of the Tibesti and Air up to the pear plantations. How long has this been going on? I don't know, but I do note that if you're going to be a great pirate base, you need to be able to provision pirate ships. Whatever else is going on in the world to make former one-horse towns like Algiers and Sale into pirate towns, a sudden increase in agricultural production of wheat for biscuit and salt meat is going to be important. You're going to hear more about this connection as I move on with the Plantation of the Atlantic.

So that's a possible Maghrebi tie to world history, actualised by the Columbian exchange. What else? Notice the peanut in the Wikipedia list? Peanuts are a nice snack food and stuff. It's also a massively produced crop. Which is a little odd, because you can only eat so much peanut butter. Besides, peanut allergies are, like, the world's biggest problem.** However, peanuts are not only a staple food in some places. They're a main Southeast Asian wet-season crop; are intercropped, especially in orchards; are a major fodder crop; and even promote rural gadgetisation through manual shelling  machines. (Fortunately, no Eli Whitney to come along and claim credit for this one. Yet.) Southeast Asia is another of those places that sort of explodes into  modernity. Looking at population numbers for some of the native states encountered by the Dutch, I suspect a major demographic impulse from the introduction of the peanut --and, of course, corn. That will be true for China, too.

Though here one might also note the sweet potato.

What else? There's the common bean, but I'm reluctant to attribute too much importance to this. Generally there's more enthusiasm for growing legumes, due to their soil-regenerating properties, well-known in Antiquity, than for actually eating them. That is, processing and transport were the true bottlenecks in the way of human legume consumption well before the bean was transplanted, and I'm not sure how much the new species helped.

There's tobacco, a huge blessing for the farmer in many regions looking for a convenient cash crop. I'd say something controversial about its potential value for managing psychological disorders before the development of modern psychotropics, but that's a hugely controversial issue in current social policy, as I understand these things. It's also a good anti-insect border, if that's not more tobacco industry pleading. So, mainly, the cash crop thing.

*Oilseeds! Neglected historical subject and all-round awesome gift of nature!
**Sadly, she's a bit of a fraud.

1 comment:

  1. This is only missing a link to Neal Stephenson's classic essay on submarine cables and Kew Gardens. Harden your heart and ignore the tedious postmodern furniture, and remember that the Empire was in some ways a massive bio-industrial complex. Kew is the Farnborough of the 18th Century.

    I presume that you're going to argue that there was a significant agricultural intensification in North Africa, this both enabled the growth of piracy and also helped fuel the Portuguese effort to conquer the pirate states, and that via the logistical system you characterised earlier in the series (Madeira and all that) this had a major impact on the Newfoundland fishery, early modern immigration to North America, and all that sprang from it for good and evil?