Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, III: Erik the Red and all that.

(Edit: The risk of posting on a zombie day is that you get even more incoherent than usual. So, some edits here. Besides, I forgot to link to a Paul Anka video.)

So I'm doing my best to be deliberately provocative and even political in this series. Why not? I've just completed a tax return and a census. Soon, I need to deal with the new phone company to which my old phone company just sold me and introduce their annoying-voicemail department with their internet-payments department. I have an identity and the state wants to know what it is. That being said, I am most definitely not allowed to choose an identity that lacks a credit card or a taxable income. Although I know for a fact that people manage to pull that last trick. Somehow, we need as a society to prevent people from choosing "wrong" identities.

We can make fun of them, but as a historian, I'm more concerned with a trick where you tell people stories with a good narrative hook.  Like Vikings. Big, blond barbarians all into the plunder, rapine, and rape? Sexy! What's not to like? Well.... Stories can go bad places.

So I think that it's important for historians to escape the web of narrative. It does our search for historical truth a disservice, and we're  letting people get away with cheating on their taxes! (Page 17ff here.) And things might get worse. Some people ended up on a cotton plantation, and it's not clear that they've escaped yet.

My guide through this tangle of obfuscation is the history of technology and the history of grass. This particular series of posts begins with Susan Ronald's absolutely convincing case that "plantations" started out as fishing camps, in which case the story really does start with the Vikings. Of course, Vikings are themselves a historical construct, and I can't start with the beginning, but rather in the middle of the action. Can what people actually did provide a better guide to history than our grand essentialist narratives? Yes!

So. Sometime in the late summer of 985 (the date is traditional, and contested), Erik Thorvaldsson led a fleet of 14 ships bearing 2000 settlers to the head of Tunulliarfik Fjord in southern Greenland, at 61°14′40″N. Trondheim in Norway, by contrast, is at 63°36'N, Holar in Iceland north of 65.

Stories about how Iceland and Greenland were given deceptive names are often told. But we have the Google Image search! So we know, in fact, that Erik's followers were coming from here.

Via Earthporn.
And going here

Via Wikipedia

This is the kind of wide-bottomed, flat country that fjord dwellers hope they'll find if they push far enough up a sound. It's not the kind of terrain much occupied here on the B.C. coast, being rank and waterlogged and good mainly for growing grass, rather a drug on the modern market. For the kind of folk who followed Erik Thorvaldsson, it was evidently quite satisfactory, a fact worth exploring.

Of course, you've probably never heard of Erik Thorvaldsson. He's "Erik the Red," famous for discovering America without being a greasy wop, but we're talking about real estate, so it is kind of illustrative that we've lost our grip on his family name. If only everyone did that, there's many a real estate tycoon that would breathe a sigh of relief!

So, details: it was Gjunnborn Ulfsson who discovered land west of Iceland, almost a century before Erik, sighting the skerries that lie off what has been called Erik the Red's Land. The Denmark Strait is wide. Assuming that you sail straight westward from around Reykjavik, "Erik the Red's Land" is 15 degrees of longitude west at about 65 north,  two-and-a-half days sail west, and far north of  Cape Farewell. Not until you round the cape and come up through the leads to Qaqortoq do you find a place where sheep and flax can flourish, so that a sedentary population can produce textiles and charcoal enough to live through a Greenland winter. Which, by the way, is not that hard. People have farmed here for most of the last millennium (rather more, if you're crazy), and still farm in these parts. The question, pace Jared Diamond, isn't why they're doing it, but rather why they bother doing it here. Here's a huge map of Greenland to help you orient and make it geographically plausible that Ulfsson's discovery wasn't followed up for another century. That being said, we might want to look at human motivations more.

Now, that century has another meaning for Erik, who was the son of Thorvald, son of Asvald, son of Ulf, son of Oxen-Throrir, brother of Naddodd, discoverer of Iceland, and one of the first followers of Grimur Kambam, first man to set foot on the Faroes, in  825AD. Kambam is not Nordic, and even if we leave aside the lunacy that attaches him to the historic Camerons and Campbells, it's clear enough that at this point in the chain of begats we've stepped out of history into myth.

One of the myths is the bit about discovering the Faroes, because there is no way at all that the Faroes were first settled in 825AD. In the past that has led people to conjure stories of populations of monks or Culdees (that is, married secular clergy) heading out into the wilds of the ocean, only to be followed up on by murderous Vikings. In reality, agricultural populations were present in the Faroes and Iceland from somewhere within a 430--700AD window, with the best dates converging on rough simultaneity with an agricultural intensification in western Ireland in the 500s AD. This is a broad-based pickup in north Atlantic economic activity. That being said, I'd go with a "wave of advance" thesis and put putative Celtic farmers on Iceland for no great length of time before the land-taking. It just seems more intuitively logical.

Another way of dealing with ghosts in the family tree is to climb it in the other direction to find out who put them there. Do that with Erik the Red, and, as Kirsten Seaver has established, one finds the economic and political elite of Iceland's far north in the period from the writing of the histories of Greenland down through the Reformation. Which would seem like an odd distinction given the area's modern status as the backwoods of a backwoods country until one realises that the far north was one of Iceland's two main power centres in Viking days. Erik the Red isn't just the founder of the Greenland colony. Somehow his lineage reaches back to Iceland and recombines with stay-at-home cousins to become the stem of the Icelandic elite of c. 1450 --bishops of Holar and governors of the whole island. It is they, of course, who give us our history of "Erik the Red." Skeptics take note!

Also, again, this huge internal Icelandic demographic redistribution south towards the Denmark Strait shore. Why? Or, rather, why Holar, first?  It's cold up there! 65 degrees north cold! And it isn't even a windward shore, like Erik the red's new estate, with a moderating onshore wind.

Well, back to the "landtaking" of the Faroes. What happened? Perhaps it was all a great Viking conquest, of unresisting monks. It was a violent era, after all. But consider this study of the Undir Junkarinsflotti site on Sandoy. On best interpretation, this looks like a fishing camp, producing salt cod for export. Cod is an inshore or shoaling banks fishery, best taken either in the late winter spawning season if you're man enough to go out and take them, but more usually in the old days with an inshore fishery during better weather. This makes the human population pattern as seasonal as that of the cod. You need a great deal of labour fishing and onshore to process salt cod for export, but the ecology and economics of the Faroes, as of all the North Atlantic islands and indeed practically any island, is a bit marginal for supporting large populations. They need something to do during the winter, and while the default is always textile work, islands have a tightly-capped maximum fibre (and food) production. I suppose that you could import both, but the much more reasonable approach is to import the people instead. That requires a grand organising personality to "plant" them ashore in a successful "plantation." (See, I told you that Susan Ronald was a paradigm-shifter!) This, like the procurement of the necessary salt, implies considerable capital --or, more likely, credit. I'll point you to Captain Sir Henry Mayhew, Bart.'s memoir, to which I linked half-whimsically, above. Notice the way tha the conjures with the figures of the Dey of Tunis, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is vital to understand this as the way that business is doing. This is how Captain Mainwaring establishes that he has the line of credit he needs to establish plantations. Where we find larger-than-life Atlantic figures with ships, we may suspect that we have found the kind of "planter" who managed such things. I'm going to come back to this when I talk about Admiral Penn, but Erik the Red and his notable descendants will stand in here.

That straight path leads towards the plantation era, but it's more complicated than that. Salt cod is produced by cutting off the head and tail of the fish, filleting and flattening it, drying it, and salting it heavily. (While boiling the liver to produce train oil, the other major cash product of the fishery.) This is why a planter has to be big; big labour, big return. But it is not the only way to go about things. There is also stockfish. In this processing technique, cod are cut up, but not filleted or salted, at significant saving of labour and capital. They still have to be preserved, but this is accomplished by drying them at very low temperatures in maritime conditions, so that the product neither rots nor freezes.

The result of this is a very durable food product that undergoes fermentation as it dries. By all accounts, a  maritime delicacy made even more delicious by turning it into lutefisk.

And my tongue is as far into my cheek as it can get as I write these words. I know people say that these are acquired tastes, but, seriously, sea food is a minority taste. I've known people from beyond the outer coasts to "acquire" a taste for fish and even oysters. If you can get over the smell and the weird aftertastes, they can be tasty. I think I'll even do fish and chips takeout this evening.

The thing is, with hakarl and flipper pie and lutefisk, modern consumption is pretty much limited to alcohol-related festivities. The best that can be said of them these days is that the nice people who are threatened with them instead flee in terror, and end up in places like Vancouver, where I am, and not in Newfoundland, where I'm not. I understand that that's a very personal definition of utility, but then, this is a blog. What I should say, as a historian, that the historic stockfish trade has been positioned as a luxury exchange. I'm going to go out on a limb and call it a staples trade.

Our medieval ancestors dealt with seasonal starvation and a distinct lack of refrigeration. Stockfish is a durable, high protein food. It was fetching up in the Mediterranean even in very early times, implying a solid logistical basis to the trade. The inference I draw is that the chain was sufficient to get a food to people who were hungry when they were hungry. So money was made on volume of demand, rather than their being basically a static pool of demand for luxury goods of all kinds in which stockfish had to compete with Chinese silk and Venetian glass.

And stockfish, unlike salt cod, could only be produced in the most northerly and unpleasant of the already unpleasant climates of the North Atlantic.So where was the stockfish of the medieval trade made? My reading of Seaver is a little confused on this, but I'm getting that as well as in the far north of Norway, it was also produced in Holar --and in Erik the Red's new home country, what came to be called the Eastern Settlement of Greenland.

So here's the story of the Vikings in Greenland that we need to tell: not the story of people who wandered off the edge of the world in search of one last, marginally inhabitable farm, but of wealthy and well-connected people who did not cease to be well-connected, because they were plugged into the stockfish trade. This is a staples trade that pushed to the limits of the Atlantic world because that was where cod could be turned into a staple most cheaply. Behind them, in less extreme climates, we find salt cod fisheries, that I am going to infer, at least for now, were exploited to the limit of demand, a limit that (on the argument that there was so little activity in south Iceland) fell far short of the potential of the fishery. It remained, of course, to be discovered that the Eastern Settlement could be leapfrogged in turn, that beyond it, beyond it lay vast new salt cod fisheries. Because there wasn't the demand!

Each of the two upticks in high Atlantic settlement that are attested on the Faroes is indicative of a general intensification of the Atlantic basin economy, an intensification in supply of marine goods and in demand, too. No-one eats salt cod like Norwegians, who are known to butter two slabs of salt cod and make a sandwich of it. That being said,  the earliest Faroes settlement is primarily a subsistence settlement, which conforms to a picture of one producing luxury goods such as walrus tusks. The second, a cod fishing camp, directly implies  a transient population, a literally floating proletariat. From the moment, not too long after Erik the Red, that the first sighting of North America is made, the defining problem of the North Atlantic economy is matching labour to demand. Here is where we need entrepeneurs.

So the final stage of our story comes in backfitting facts to the ethno-cultural narrative. What do we know about the Vikings? This: that the families that dominated the stockfish trade couldn't be anywhere other than northern Iceland, Norway, and Greenland, because that's where stockfish could be made, and its production controlled. But, by the same token, they were dependent on ships made on the Scandinavian peninsular, because stockfish-producing country is short of wood. And these people, in the course of the 1300s, patronised stories in which the Atlantic was colonised and its land taken by people who spoke a language that was very close to Icelandic, and whose family ties were to Norwegians and to north Icelanders.

Are the stories true? Of course they're true, for a certain value of true. What would it change if Erik the Red was known by a Gaelic name in Irish ports, or even that he spoke Gaelic at  home? Nothing in history; everything in the way that we try to use history to prevent moves like this.

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