Saturday, November 6, 2021

The Bishop's Sea: Train Oil, The Atlantic, and Africa

 As close to Sable Island as to Europe, but not the doorstep of America: The Island of Crows. 

This is such a great shot of Corvo Island in the Azores that I need to give a shout out to the photographer, Dreizung, even though the rights have been signed over to Wikipedia. Corvo is the northern and westernmost of the Azores, and, per Wikipedia and as we now say since the coining of the concept of "Macaronesia," it is the northernmost island of that superfamily of islands. It is fun and appropriate to say "Macaronesia," notwithstanding the Age-of-Sail appropriate ethnic slurs for Mediterranean people out of "macaroni" but also macaque monkeys. It reminds us of "Polynesia" and raises the question, beloved of old time cranks, of when and exactly by whom these islands were first settled and discovered. To this question and as of very late, we have now Pedro Rapeoseiro, et al, "Climate change facilitated the early colonization of the Azores Archipelago during medieval times," 

The climate angle may seem a bit forced at first glance. For the historian, the climate change angle is interesting because it leads to an argument for a reversal in normal weather patterns during the sub-Roman, leading to prevailing winds from the north east that would have made it easier for northerners (let's face it, we're going to say "Vikings" here) to reach the islands in this period. I would not cross a chasm on that argument if I was the slimmest ninja who ever  ninja'd, but it turns out that Rapeoseiro, et al, started out as a paleoclimate study according to the more popular treatment in Science, here. If the mtDNA evidence is to have any relevance, Rapeoseiro, et al, have discovered a continuous population, and not an episode of settlement. It appears that the sedimentary layers are not continuous and cannot rule out a period of abandonment, and indeed that seems to be the consensus reading of the article in the popular press, although rye pollen dated 1100 and 1350 from other islands would seem to narrow any pre-Henrician period of abandonment down to the late medieval. In any case, Henrician scholars are a great deal less convinced of the pristine and uninhabited state of the islands at the time that Infante Henry's captains began claiming them, than the popular press. Notably, the pollen layers were enriched with charcoal and contained relatively little tree pollen, suggesting swidden farming to the authors. 

While remote and small, the Azores are not entirely inhospitable, Terceira, one of the islands where crank archaeology has claimed to find prehistoric grave cisterns, is almost 400 square kilometers and has a population of over 50,000 today. Sao Miguel, almost twice as large and closest to Europe, has a modern population of 140,000. The islands could have supported a typical medieval principality, and that they did not suggests seven centuries of more colonial exploitation. Assuming that that the model of the Newfoundland fisheries holds, with annual fishing fleets leaving "servants" ashore on two-year contracts to tend to the livestock and maintain and restore infrastructure, we're left to wonder what, exactly, these fleets were looking for. 

Without motivating my reasoning, I have been suggesting the island's monk seal population and that "train oil" was the main objective of the fleets. Seals are easily taken onshore at hauling out points, a much less dangerous and capital intensive activity than even inshore cod jigging, and train oil essentially only requires a trying cauldron, flensing knives, and barrels to hold the oil. (Though I suppose that one could take it in an even more basic direction by sewing skin sacks to hold the product.) With small labour forces and a minimal capital requirement, one can easily see how such an industry would escape attention. Bearing in mind that the 1800 Census shows that 5 million Americans were importing almost a million gallons of whale and sperm oil a year in 1805, we can see that there is room in the numbers for a healthy European medieval train oil. 

As if this amount of hand-waving were not enough, I will note that the grubby, commercial basis of the Infante Henry's enterprise was a soap monopoly. Any number of people discover in this Henry's abuse of the Portuguese consumer on the one hand, and of the soap business on the other as he poured his monopoly profits into his search for Asia, or conquest of the Canaries, or crusading on the flanks of Egypt and Mecca, depending on which vision of a morally compromised Navigator one prefers. The only option apparently not allowed is that you need a lot of edible fats to make soap, that soap is industrially important for the processing of woollens, and that delivering the maximum amount of industrial soap to the burghers of Lagos and Lisbon at the lowest possible price might involve an industrious search for seals and whales on the seven seas. For any sensible hunt for sea mammals will seek new haul out points rather than intensifying production at the existing ones, leading to the rapid extinction of the breeding population. In fact, it is harder to think of a better reason for keeping your secret fishing hole, secret. 

So here's the thing. This is the age of the Mesta. After the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba, the taifa of Toledo and Seville were cut loose, and in a three-cornered struggle for supremacy in the southern Meseta, Alfonso VI of Castile annexed Toledo in 1085. With Almoravid power developing quickly, some kind of economic settlement was required, and as the Almohads supplanted the Almoravids and then went into decline themselves, the Castilians formalised the practice of intensive, transhumant sheep farming, and therefore wool production, in 1273. Eventually the Low Countries ended up dominating the processing of this wool rather than the cities of the Iberian coast, but an unslaked demand for oil for soap can be safely assumed. 

Okay, sure, but the transhumant movements of sheep on the Iberian peninsula are dwarfed by a much larger transhumant movement of livestock in a much larger arid inland plateau to the immediate south. But, of course, we are talking about Africa, which has too much  history to study and is therefore better treated as thirty million square kilometers of exotica rather than as a subject of study. (It doesn't help that for our period we're basically trapped by the habit of commenting on Ibn Khaldun with a few European adventurers to season the results.)

So let's leave the Sahara aside for a moment and look at the Atlantic coast of Morocco, Mauretania, and, depending on one's political commitments, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Spanish held onto the territory in the first place because of its importance to the commercial fishery based in the Canary Islands, which is quite rich due to the upwelling Canaries Current. The fishery in turn supports monk seal populations, notably in Macaronesia and the Bay of Arguin, and it is a famous fact in the narrative of Infante Henry that one of the most important of his expeditions "beyond Cape Bojador" was a seal hunting voyage commanded by Antao Goncalves, which took slaves in the country behind what is now Dakhla in 1441. Dakhla, like Ifni and Tarfaya ("Villa Bens" on this map), seems to have had some shadowy existence as a particularly flyblown taifa in the days of the Infante, but owes its prominence since the Nineteenth Century to the more industrial scale of cod, seal and whale fishing that developed during that century to supply train oil on an industrial scale. Though I am probably being a bit judgmental when even Agadir's history is so sparse in this early period. 

The traditional narrative is much more interested in situating these distant regions in the larger sweep of the Islamic world. In this narrative, the centuries-long peace of Islamic Africa, established in the wake of a long-ago Berber Revolt that suffices to explain how the rule of Islam could have been extended to the boundaries of the Sahel in the first wave of conquest, only to be rolled back to the Mediterranean shore and, above all, the old Byzantine Theme of Africa (Ifriqiya) and the Idrisid and Cordoban emirates so quickly thereafter. It seems from coin and seal evidence that we could afford to be more skeptical about everything else we are told about these early states in the west, including, regrettably, the romantic story of the establishment of the Umayyad lineage and caliphate at Cordoba. What is not at issue, although again it is seen through an Islamic lens, is the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate in Ifriqiya in 909. The idea of a generations-long secret conspiracy of Fatimids culminating in the takeover of a province at the fringe of the Islamic world seems a bit Boy's Own to me, which is great, because it opens up space for the Fatimid Caliphate to be an endogenous North African development, a view to which the contributors to The New Cambridge History of Islam seem congenial. 

This brings me to an even bolder claim. The traditional historiography, which is heavily dependent on Ibn Khaldun, has the Fatimids becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the conduct of their viceroys in Ifriqiya after their translation to Egypt, and accordingly unleashed the Banu Hilal on Ifriqiya in 1057, triggering a dissolution of this centuries-old political entity into indigenous, Almoravid and Norman statelets.  Sweeping all of this aside in his typically small-print, authoritative Cambridge History contribution, Michael Brett tells us that it is all a myth. The Banu Hillal are as much a legend as the founding-theologian-leaders at the head of both the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties. That is, they simplify a process which was nothing less than the establishment of the modern economic system of camel herding and oasis agriculture in the central Sahara, a process that brought extensive Arabisation.  

I am not quite sure what to make of this. Is this something that happens west of the Fezzan? Or is it transformation there and in the Western Desert, as well? It seems as though it would have  a huge impact on the trans-Saharan trade, which seems to be what the Normans were after, as well. (It is a little inconvenient that the historic centre of that trade, Djerba, has been so thoroughly eclipsed by Tripoli and Tunis.) Ibn Khaldun, unfortunately, seems more interested in telling stories of sternly fundamentalist theologians clashing with fractious North African tribesmen and tracing genealogies back to the Arabia of the Prophet's day, but he does bring his head down from the clouds to the more relevant (to us) world of salt bushes and stinky fish oil long enough to tell us about the foundation of Marrakesh and of endless strife over the trade and allegiances of Sikilmasa, on the Ziz river, but connected via a short land bridge with the  Draa valley, geologically an eastern extension of the better known Sus, which runs east into the desert from its sources in the passes across the high Atlas before turning to the south to fall into the Atlantic at Tan Tan on the border between old Morocco and the Western Sahara, Not surprisingly considering a population of 225,000 in 8300 square kilometers, it is a bit of a backwater with a sparse local history that sheds frustratingly little light beyond its traditional role as a hotbed of regional revolts, not least those of the Almoravids and Almohads themselves.

If we drag our eyes back far to the north and the age of Almohad ascendancy at the other end of their vast domains, we're brought to an age of, surprisingly enough, seapower. The rising power of a cadet house of the Burgundian monarchs of Leon, ensconced at Oporto, hit the big time in 1147 by capturing Lisbon with the aid of a fleet of 200 ships of crusaders bound directly from southwestern England to the Holy Land, in itself a remarkable insight into what was going on in the Atlantic at this time. Lisbon was then a reasonably loyal although not overly-heavily populated province of the Almoravids, unfortunately for them as they were being eaten alive by the Almohads over in Morocco. Almohad armies arrived in the Algarve shortly after, and signalled a turn towards the Atlantic by moving the capital of Andalusia from Cordoba to Seville. As far as one can make out patterns in the endless wars, as long as the Almohads were engaged with controlling Andalusia and, in particular, with rolling back the Portuguese, coastal Morocco, which revolted under the leadership of Sale in the early days of the caliphate, was quiescent. Spending heavily on sea power will do that in port cities, although it is no doubt significant that the Almohads established a town at Rabat, opposite Sale, to support their naval arsenal, rather than building in the old town. (Although no-one attributes sinister motives to the expansion of Woolwich  at the expense of the Tower of London, as far as I know.)

At this point one could ask how states can raise and dismiss navies (and crusading fleets) at will, and answer by embedding a version of North Atlantic Squadron that I thought you couldn't post on Youtube, just in way of resting the eyes on an image. 

In other words, it seems like these campaigns were an epiphenomena of a sealing economy extending from Hampshire to Safi, that this is the best explanation of what we're seeing in the Azores, and that intensification is, or might be, linked to the development of a commercial husbandry in Iberia and Sahara. In which case the Parry thesis might be modified. The expanding Atlantic trade was not so much in rivalry with the trans-Saharan trade as an attempt to meet its growing demand for fats for industrial detergents. It is clear enough that the Grand Banks fishery drove the Plantation of the Atlantic in the north. Where I'm taking a flyer here is in seeing sealing as driving the trans-Atlantic moment in the tropics. 

(Berber carpet weaving somewhere in Morocco)


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