This is a post about asymmetries of power, the globalisation of the grain trade, and the parts of the world where waters flow down to inland seas. It's less polished than I'd like it to be, because I have to go and put Driscoll Farms-brand strawberries out now. They're being shipped from California in big trucks, and since we can't stop the supply pipeline, we have to keep pushing, or they'll fill up our cooler. And we need the space! The Central Valley is, admittedly, not an endorheic basin, but close enough.
Anyway. . .
|Farmer's two-novel "Opar" series has a disproportionately long Wikipedia article, for those feeling nostalgic.|
It's been a long time since I've read Philip Jose Farmer's Hadon of Ancient Opar books, but I do remember that they're a riff on a rationalisation of the lost city of Opar in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Burroughs' Opar is a former Atlantean (the original thalassocracy!) colony stuck in the middle of Africa, somehow. Tarzan goes there from time to time and . . has adventures. Adventures that allow Burroughs to comment on race in America in interesting ways. I'd say more, but I wasn't kidding about the length and detail of the Wikipedia articles on the subject. Nostalgia for the win! Anyway, Farmer's novels explain Opar by proposing that Atlantis was actually a prehistoric civilisation established around inland seas that once existed in two enormous endorheic basins in the interior of northern Africa. Again, I'm a little hazy on the details, but I think that Farmer proposes that the water impounded in the basins eventually found its way to the Atlantic, causing Atlantis to be destroyed, not by flooding, but by having its sea drained away? Something like that is supposed to have happened in the intramontane Great Basin of the American West at the end of the last Ice Age, although, as far as I know, geologists do not currently believe that the Lake Chad Basin and adjacent endorheic basins in northern Africa were ever flooded (Map below the fold). Though eyewitness accounts of pre-50-million-years-ago period are sparse and unreliable.
The endorheic basins of Africa, whether flooded or not, are natural formations rather than largescale geoengineering. There are two reasons that I'm starting out with Farmer, anyway. The first is that it gives me an excuse to have some Roy Krenkel art in the thumbnail. The other is that I'm pretty sure that the first book starts with an historical introduction that describes a conjectured former channel connecting a sub-sea level depression within these larger endorheic basins to the Atlantic. I'm not entirely sure, but this sounds like Donald Mackenzie's 1877 scheme for an artificial inland sea in the southern Sahara, created by dredging out the sand blocking the channel at the coast in the region of "El Djouf." (Like a great many other African geological fantasias of the age, El Djouf barely exists.) I don't know anything about the Mackenzie scheme apart from what Wikipedia has told me, but, again, Roy Krenkel art.
|By Citynoise at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3154822|
Pretty, pretty map. There's something about an endorheic basin. . . Apart from the Valley of Mexico, which is already being used to its full potential, pretty much all of the gray blotches on this map have been subject to grand fantasies of geoengineering to bring water to them, or to connect them to the ocean. (Including Lake Titicaca, where you'd think being in the middle of the Alitplano would be a bit of a check on grand schemes.) The American Great Basin actually leads the way here, with Brigham Young leading the American Chosen People there and building his Promised Land of Deseret on the irrigated flats of old Lake Bonneville from 1847. Young soon learned, long before a young Roy Krenkel discovered it, that a whiff of sex gets you publicity --probably more publicity than even Brigham Young wanted.
|An eccentric detective named Sherlock Holmes recruits a wounder Afghan War veteran to solve a sordid crime involving assorted awful Mormons. (Pictured, the Nauvoo Legion, here understood as the "Sons of Dan" coming out into the open. Shades of the Haganah! Besides the questionable Mormon history, I just wanted to point out that we're getting two romantic endorheic basins for the price of one, since the Afghan War is all about the Russians pushing south into the western part of that big, gray blodge in the middle of Eurasia. On to Bokhara!|
Where was I? Oh, yeah. The Sahara Sea. Mackenzie's 1877 scheme is almost charmingly old fashioned. It involves dredging, not blowing things up (that's the technical part in this intermittently technical appendix), and is intended to connect the markets of central Africa with the wider world, as opposed to conquering places and people and something something profit. Per Wikipedia, he does express the wistful hope that just having a big old sea there will improve the climate and make agriculture possible, but that's secondary to his interest in gaining access to central African trade.
Ha! Ha, I say. This is the kind of nonsense that went out with Henry the Navigator, with Prester John and diverting the Nile to punish Egypt for oppressing the Holy Land. (Good book: I know that I'm gliding over a little bit of the old genocide with the scheme to divert the Nile into the Red Sea, but Fifteenth Century people didn't always plan things through, I think?) You don't want trade! You want big, honking seas on the territory of conquered people and then something something profit!
As the CIA briefing to President Eisenhower put it, "It would be spectacular and peaceful," and would distract President Nasser from "other matters." (Ooh! Shiny!) What else do you need? I mean, apart from a reason for doing this. As with a number of these projects from the last century, this one involves atomic bombs "for peace," which definitely carries on the theme of Nineteenth Century geographic fantasias, but uses a different technology.
Although the initial proposal, it turns out, comes from 1830, and is linked to the Suez and Panama Canal proposals. I'm not sure about that, in that positioning an idea from 1830 as "comtemporary" with the Suez Canal does some injustice to the history; perhaps Wikipedia should be talking about the Erie Canal, instead? I guess my point is the technological one: 1830 comes ahead of a key conjuncture in the history of technology.
In the interest of scholarship.
The "Northern Diversion" page does not, unfortunately, link to this one:
The graphic compares two different plans for diverting North American rivers flowing north into the Arctic to Alberta, the Great Lakes, Oglalla Aquifer, Mexico (including Baja California) and,of course, California. There's a fair amount of Continental Divide hopping going on here (including a "lift" that would just have to be built in one of the more contentious proposed national parks of the era, the Sawtooth Forest), but it's nothing that some pumps driven by six dedicated nuclear power plants can't handle. Debate continues on whether the combined power output of the plants and associated hydroelectric facilities would have been net positive.
Debate also continues, of course, on the related question of whether the proponents were high on peyote. The Wikipedia article details an impressive list of supporters of this mid-century lunacy; but, as far as I'm concerned, that's just a further argument for the urgent necessity of putting benzedrine on the restricted drugs list. Yes, yes, I know, the drug humour probably wasn't funny the first time I did it, but come on.
Besides water shortages and the urgent necessity of identifying an engineering problem that would actually justify "atomics for peace," ,
the key argument, is, as so often, that just having a big old body of water in the middle of an arid region will by itself change the local climate and make agriculture possible --or at least easier. The African schemes are a bit grandiose, and grandiosity is an essential feature of a good "macro-engineering" project. There are less ambitious version that sound more plausible. I almost find myself being seduced by the Bradfield Scheme. For one thing, it has a famous name behind it. Although this by itself doesn't mean very much. The North American Water and Power Alliance was also backed by a respected civil engineering firm.
Just to back up here a bit, the gray blob in Australia is the Lake Eyre Basin. It's quite large, quite dry, and is divided between several Australian states. (Stateriedoos?) While I'm not an expert on Australian federal politics, I think Queensland is the crazy one? Anyway, Nineteenth Century Australians ran into this endorheic lake, a little to the east of where early explorers were hoping to find an Australian inland sea. This was an enormous disappointment for those hoping for an Australian Mediterranean that would create a wet, mild climate around its shores, inasmuch as "rain follows the plow."
|South Australians had a glorious Nineteenth Century fight over how far north to push arable farming and settlement. "North South Australia." Someone should use that, some day. The red squiggle is, I'm told, Goyder's Line, indicating the northern limit of wheat agriculture. The Lake Eyre basin is at the top, so you can see that, if the Bradfield Scheme actually worked, it would change the economic geography of Australia significantly. By Wikimedia projects participant Tentowo (original author) Wikimedia projects participant Donama (secondary author) - Australia South Australia relief location map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48583543|
Bradfield proposed to use a system of pipes, tunnels and dams that would divert eastern Queensland's copious monsoon rainflows into the Eyre basin. It's another north-to-south reversal of "useless" river water. It also looks like an intentional attempt to replicate the Salton Sea, which, boy howdy, should be an episode of the Red Green Show:
In 1900, the California Development Company began construction of irrigation canals to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink, a dry lake bed. After construction of these irrigation canals, the Salton Sink became fertile for a time, allowing farmers to plant crops.
Within two years, the Imperial Canal became filled with silt from the Colorado River. Engineers tried to alleviate the blockages to no avail. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to swell, overrunning a set of headgates for the Alamo Canal. The resulting flood poured down the canal, breached an Imperial Valley dike, and ran down two former dry arroyos: the New River in the west, and the Alamo River in the east, each about 60 mi (97 km) long. Over about two years, these two newly created rivers sporadically carried the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink.
The Southern Pacific Railroad tried to stop the flooding by dumping earth into the canal's headgates area, but the effort was not fast enough, and the river eroded deeper and deeper into the dry desert sand of the Imperial Valley. A large waterfall formed as a result and began cutting rapidly upstream along the path of the Alamo Canal that now was occupied by the Colorado. This waterfall was initially 15 feet (4.6 m) high, but grew to 80 feet (24 m) high before the flow through the breach was stopped. Originally, it was feared that the waterfall would recede upstream to the true main path of the Colorado, becoming up to 100 to 300 feet (30 to 91 m) high, at which point it would be practically impossible to fix the problem.
As the basin filled, the town of Salton, a Southern Pacific Railroad siding, and Torres-Martinez Native American land were submerged. The sudden influx of water and the lack of any drainage from the basin resulted in the formation of the Salton Sea.
The U.S. Navy conducted a preliminary inspection of the Salton Sea in January 1940, and the Salton Sea Test Base (SSTB, run by Sandia Labs) was initially commissioned as the Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Salton Sea, in October 1942 . . .
The continuing intermittent flooding of the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River led to the idea of the need for a dam on the Colorado River for flood control.
I like the idea of Sandia Labs having an experimental station on the shores of the Salton Sea. In a perfect world, they'd hold Iron Ring ceremonies there.
In fairness to the would-be mega-engineer, I've singled out projects that haven't been built (excepting the Salton Sea, obviously), and probably won't be built, in some cases, I can only conclude, because of the above-mentioned benzedrine issue. The Nineteenth (and early Twentieth) Century was transformed by several mega-projects, including the Suez Canal, Panama Canal, and Mr. Mulholland's efforts on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, which don't have a single name, unfortunately. Arguably, we're still digesting the consequences of these changes. (Here, I'm thinking of the disruptions to the economy of the Middle East;* and not California water politics, which I wouldn't touch with a ten foot oar.)
II. Bombs, Clothes, That Kind of Stuff
I think that it's safe to say that nitroglycerin and Dynamite(TM) are pretty securely entrenched in popular culture. (Guncotton and cordite, rather less so.) We all know that they are dangerous, except for road runners, that Alfred Nobel invented one or another, and something about plungers? Notwithstanding, I had to look them up to get a sense of the chemical engineering context.
It turns out that nitroglycerin was first synthesised by Ascanio Sobrero in 1847, by reacting glycerine with nitric acid. Alfred Nobel found a way of stabilising it, more or less, by mixing it with diatomaceous earth, a variety of soft silicate powder used for various industrial purposes, discovered first in Germany in 1837 and then very much in vogue. (I suspect that the Fuller's earth people would have sued under modern intellectual property rights law.) This gets you your dynamite, your Nobel fortune, and your Nobel Prizes, except for Economics, which isn't a real Nobel. Dynamite was in widespread manufacture from the late 1860s, so just ahead of the completion of the Suez Cana. I think that, because it was usually manufactured under license in individual countries (it would have been an entertaining material to export to Egypt!), it's a little unclear as to exactly when "Nobel's Blasting Power/Dynamite" became available to individual construction industries. Especially as it was replacing black powder, rather than introducing the idea of blasting.
Guncotton's early history is a bit more complicated. The fact that cellulose fibres of various kinds, when treated with nitric acid, become explosive, as well as plasticised, was repeatedly discovered between 1838 and 1847, although it was the rash of 1847 discoveries that led to its hesitant industrialistion, a process almost immediately set back by a disaster in the first guncotton plant in England, in the Faversham Marsh gunpowder industry, a subject of some interest in itself. (I was particularly taken by the story of the Crown's gunpowder mills, first established in 1759, in the heat of the Seven Years War, then sold off by Regency privatisers, only to be bought back for WWI. It's like there's some kind of object lesson here. I wonder what it could be?) Because guncotton is less inclined to blow up due to shock than nitroglycerin, it was, eventually, chosen for filling shells and replacing gunpowder as a propellant. This was, however, more than a generation later, and required the discovery, by Paul Vieille, of a way to reliably produce flaked powder by partially dissolving it in acetone and then drying it. This, in turn, made the Lebel Rifle possible.
(Don't read the comments. Instead, have ambiguous feelings as you watch a militia regiment of middle-aged Zulu reservists getting ready to die heroically, defending their homeland from foreign invasion.)
Since the Lebel Rifle comes up frequently enough around here, I'll take a moment to justify my lapidary comments. At the time, everyone thought the Lebel was awesome because of its superior ballistics, which deepened the beaten zone and made it a more lethal fire superiority weapon.
|I've included some text, because I still have a bee in my bonnet about how military history tends to misrepresent musketry practice|
A previous generation of military historians, some of whom had carried rifles in modern war and enjoyed the dubious pleasure of being pinned down by enemy small arms fire, were more impressed by smokeless powder and the concealed battlefield. Meanwhile, as a post-PC modern liberal, I can argue that the real point of the Lebel Rifle and its peers was that it could be carried deep into remote territories and used to shoot locals in great numbers because it used 8mm ammunition fired by a much lighter propellant. It is just simply a lot easier to bring your mission civilisatrice to Tuaregs, Sioiux and Ashantis when a .68 Civil War-era Minie ball weighed, with powder, 900 grains, vice 232 grains (15g) for the Lebel 8mmx50. There is, I think, some correlation between this fact and late-century grand macro-engineering schemes for transforming other people's territory.
On a more serious note than schemes for flooding the Sahara, the strange and brief collapse of the world into acquiescence to First World ambitions at the end of the Nineteenth Century, sometimes after centuries of giving as good as they got, may find its explanation here.
I also hope that everyone's hair has been appropriately raised by the thought of these Nineteenth Century chemists creating high explosives by pouring fuming nitric acid on random samples of cotton fabric, wood pulp and edible fats. Mine certainly was! I'm pretty sure that modern chemical engineering would frown on the use of non-homogeneous plant and animal material as a feedstock in this kind of chemical process, and the phrase "factory blew up" comes up surprisingly often in the Wiki discussions.
The point is, there wasn't that much else to use. The first "industrial" explosive, TNT, which used coal gas byproducts as feedstock, came generations later. And even then, industry promptly started diluting it with ammonium nitrate, made from Chilean guano, to make amatol. More importantly, after some thought, it occurred to me just how much these pioneering chemical explosives industries derived from contemporary textiles. It's not just that cotton is cotton, or that glycerine is used as the basis of soap. It is the use of reagents to treat the raw material, whether it is the ammonia mixed with gylcerine, or the use of acids to bleach fabrics and prepare them for dying. The common thread in the histories of discovery is the use of copious quantities of high-molar nitric acid, which I assume wasn't because of a new departure of the contemporary heavy chemical engineering industry, although I cannot confirm that since my copy of Mialle seems to have gone missing, but rather some kind of consequence of heavier demand for nitric acid (for gold mining?) and of the wider availability of ammonia thanks to the guano craze. The classic explosives thus emerge as a way station on the chemical engineering industry's evolution from its messy beginnings treating dyestuffs, wool and hides with various and usually disgusting forms of organic waste to its modern, stainless-steel palaces.
Now, I'll grant you that the idea that Hokkaidan wheat exports would pay for the modernisation of Japan is clearly now one more of the many, many bad ideas that have featured in this post. But it has a pedigree! I. M. Cullen points (213) out that Harry Parkes was just repeating the "century old error of Honda Toshiaki." Mr. Honda, it turns out, was a ship's captain who had learned something of the ways of the world (colour me surprised, too). His plan for turning Japan into the "greatest country in the world" turned on establishing a gunpowder, shipbuilding and metal industries, planting colonies, and, says Christopher Howe, eventually importing food, paid for with exports. I assume that a preliminary phase of exporting food, driven by a growing domestic agricultural sector, would precede that it the Honda plan, or Cullen's comparison of Honda to Parkes doesn't make much sense.
|Harry Parkes' visit to the Meiji Emperor meets a mixed reception, 1868. On the other hand, his eldest daughter married into Jardine Matheson, so it's all good, East Asia-wise.|
Cullen ends his digression into the Hokkaidan wheat boom that was never to be, with an aphoristic summary of the real reason that the Meiji Era Open Door policy worked. It wasn't wheat, or rice, or, for that matter, silk or cotton. It was the fact that the American domestic market expanded to the Pacific slope and gave Japanese exports an outlet. American and Japanese expansion were symbiotic.
Also, Californian wheat. (I've checked the links, and they're working right now.)
[B]y the late 1870s, between ¼ and ¾ of the grain shipped from the United States to Great Britain each year originated in California, a situation that persisted for nearly two decades.4 In the 1880s, the state produced more than a 1 000 000 tons of wheat per year, and exports to Great Britain had become "a potent factor in European food supplies".5 By 1890, California was second largest wheat producing state in the nation.
The sheer scale of the Californian wheat boom is amazing when it is put in those numbers. Now, I cannot say that trolling a few months worth of The Economist from the summer of 1860 in search of rude comments about Abraham Lincoln and taking photos of interesting charts along the way counts for very much as research, but I did it, so let's look!
Here's the "American grain" situation in the summer of 1860, assiduously collated by the staff of The Economist, who are not doing much, by modern standards. (Although I have to admit to being a little surprised by the weekly list of names of declared bankrupts. Shame, shame!)
You get a sense of the scale --and of just how completely the American export market is dominated by exports via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. Unless the staff haven't access to numbers from New Orleans. And, as to that:
|(Michael Atkins, The World Grain Trade (Cambridge: Woodbead, 1991): 17.)|
Pursuant to "sea power" and grain,
it turns out that there was an enormous increase in foreign shipping coming into the United Kingdom after the revocation of the Navigation Acts in 1849, but that at first there was enough business for everyone, due to the Californian and then Australian gold booms, and the simultaneous increase in grain imports from those farflung places that is so difficult to explain in simple macroeconomic models. This led to a shipping construction boom, followed by an even more frenzied rise in shipping rates due to the Crimean War. Boom was followed by slump, at the same time that even more foreign shipping was sent into British ports carrying cheap exports competing with West Indies sugar. British shipping interests were down-at-mouth, which he Economist ignored, for ideological reasons. The chart above, which illustrates an article about the report of a Royal Committee on Shipping, is The Economist coming back to crow, as a turnaround finally emerges in the data.
Grain and gold --Interchangeable commodities? I mean, at the end of the year, your big farmer can have gold and grain in hand, and can bury either in the Earth. If there's deflation, the gold will give a yield; if there is inflation, it will be planting grain that pays. According to the Wiki version of the story, which sounds . . . naive at best, the Grandin brothers were descended from Huguenot emigrants to Pennsylvania, who made money in lumber and then oil, before losing it all in Jay Cooke's bankruptcy during the Panic of 1873. Or, they would have lost it all, had they not quixotically accepted the only collateral available to them, Northern Pacific railway land in North Dakota that turned out to be along the Red River Valley of the North.
The Grandins proceeded to secure ownership of almost 30,000 acres (nbd; it's well under a thousand square kilometers), divided it up into 1500 acre farms, hired Oliver Dalrymple to run them, and set about establishing steam boats on the river and a grain shipping facility in Fargo to extract upstream profits to go with their downstream rents. As grain prices began to stabilise, the Grandins sold off their holdings, one 320 acre section at a time, to the sturdy American yeoman farmers who established the settled and thickly populated urban civilisation of the modern Dakotas.
Just kidding! Actually, the Dakotas are all but depopulated, along with the rest of the Great Plain and Rocky Mountain states. Oh, well, at least they remember their debt of gratitude to the GOP, the political party that turned them into states in an attempt to counter the senatorial dominance of the Democratic "Solid South." Funny how that worked out. Ha ha --Actually, I'm not really laughing that hard. It turns out that this is a bit of contentious issue in the United States, where the descendants of the settlers originally stranded on these lands have flocked to buy Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert and assiduously watch the PBS documentary series based on it. Or flocked to Breitbart for the Benghazi stories and stayed for the anti-semitic comment threads, if PBS isn't to their tastes. Whatever. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.
Because the populations involved are so small and ephemeral, the "bonanza farm" phenomena was, inevitably, left a small trace on the ground. It has been pretty much erased from California's Central Valley by subsequent agribusiness fads, the only one of which that's likely to be remembered in the long run being Steinbeck's cotton boom, notwithstanding some of the bizarre, modern business successes there that I just cannot believe are actually happening. (I don't know the numbers well enough to be more than impressionistic, but I'm pretty confident that I can say that these guys ship more strawberries, by weight, and by truck than Britain was receiving in grain by steam and sail in 1870.) In the Dakotas, the memory is kept alive by that one National Historic Landmark dedicated to a late-era bonanza farm that doesn't even begin to touch on the weird history of the 1870s and 1880s.
Or did it? The transformation of the Punjab continues to have world-historical significance, but these are not "bonanza farms." Perhaps there is another case study along the shores of the Indian Ocean that is --in all of its ultimately catastrophic implications for modern politics.
Having gone in for talking about the effects of the opening of the Suez Canal on Iraq, let me end by promoting the asterisked footnote I originally used to discuss sources and make parenthetical comments into the main body of the text. (Sorry about that: at least the "*" material is still at the bottom!) Rather to my surprise, the linked book (John Roberts, Iraq: A History, emphasises the positive effects of the Canal due to increased Iraqi exports of dates.
Then he adds, grain: via the Suez Canal. He even points out the positive consequences of this. The Ottoman authorities became interested, and intervened to promote Baghdad at the expense of the other Iraqi vilayet capitals of Basra and Mosul.
So, interesting. My go-to for this is the introductory chapters of General Moberly's official history of the Indian Army campaign/British official history of the Mesopotamian Campaign. Moberly is an old-fashioned racist, but he's a child of the age of grass, and an eyewitness to living, and old, Iraqi history, when it sometimes seems as though the entire era is seen through a foreshortened lens interested, at best, in Arab nationalist politics. I know, even if I can't confirm on Google, that the Persian Gulf-Mediterranean caravan trade was very important to the economy of the early Nineteenth Century Middle East. Camel breeding would have been a big thing. And so I find, in Moberly as well as in Roberts, an account of the late-Nineteenth Century Ottoman authorities in Baghdad displacing the primitive, nomadic, Arab tribes flourishing on the flooding ground of "Mesopotamia," rehabilitating the canal networks, and drying the land out for extensive wheat cultivation.
Hmm. Hmm. Nomads in marshes, or an agro-pastoralist up-and-down husbandry cycle that balances camel production with industrial crops and grain? The wonderful thing about being a self-important, colonialist asshole is that you don't have to care which is which! And since everything worked out for the best, in this best of all possible worlds. . .