Monthly Archives: June 2008

How Modernism Feeds Tribalism

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 154-157:

African societies of the pre-colonial era – a mosaic of lineage groups, clans, villages, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires – were formed often with shifting and indeterminate frontiers and loose allegiances. Identities and languages shaded into one another. At the outset of colonial rule, administrators and ethnographers endeavoured to classify the peoples of Africa, sorting them out into what they called tribes, producing a whole new ethnic map to show the frontiers of each one. Colonial administrators wanted recognisable units they could control. ‘Each tribe must be considered as a distinct unit,’ a provincial commissioner in Tanganyika told his staff in 1926. ‘Each tribe must be under a chief.’ In many cases, tribal labels were imposed on hitherto undifferentiated groups. The chief of a little-known group in Zambia once ventured to remark: ‘My people were not Soli until 1937 when the Bwana D.C. [District Commissioner] told us we were.’ When local government was established under colonial rule, it was frequently aligned with existing ‘tribal areas’. Entirely new ethnic groups emerged, like the Abaluyia or Kalenjin of western Kenya, formed from two congeries of adjacent peoples. Some colonial rulers used tribal identities to divide their subjects, notably the British in southern Sudan and the French in Morocco. Chiefs, appointed by colonial authorities as their agents, became the symbol of ethnicity.

Missionary endeavour added to the trend. In the process of transcribing hitherto unwritten languages into written forms, missionaries reduced Africa’s innumerable dialects to fewer written languages, each helping to define a tribe. The effect was to establish new frontiers of linguistic groups and to strengthen the sense of solidarity within them. Yoruba, Igbo, Ewe, Shona and many others were formed in this way.

Missionaries were also active in documenting local customs and traditions and in compiling ‘tribal’ histories, all of which were incorporated into the curricula of their mission schools, spreading the notion of ethnic identity. African teachers followed suit. In southern Nigeria, young men from Ilesha and Ijebu who attended school in Ibadan or Oyo were taught to write a standard form of the Yoruba language and to identify themselves as Yoruba – a term previously reserved for subjects of the Oyo empire. As mission stations were largely responsible for providing education, educational achievement tended to depend on their locality and thus to follow ethnic lines.

Migration from rural areas to towns reinforced the process. Migrants gravitated to districts where fellow tribesmen lived, hoping through tribal connections to find housing, employment or a niche in trading markets. A host of welfare associations sprang up – ‘home-boy’ groups, burial and lending societies, cultural associations, all tending to enhance tribal identity. Certain occupations – railwaymen, soldiers, petty traders – became identified with specific groups which tried to monopolise them.

It was in towns that ethnic consciousness and tribal rivalry grew apace. The notion of a single Igbo people was formed in Lagos among the local ‘Descendants’ Union’. The Yoruba, for their part, founded the Egbe Omo Oduduwa – a ‘Society of Descendants of Oduduwa’, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba people; its aim was ‘to unite the various clans and tribes in Yorubaland and generally create and actively foster the idea of a single nationalism throughout Yorubaland’. Ethnic groups became the basis of protest movements against colonial rule.

In the first elections in the postwar era in Africa, nationalist politicians started out proclaiming nationalist objectives, selecting party candidates regardless of ethnic origin. But as the number of elections grew, as the number of voters expanded, as the stakes grew higher with the approach of independence, the basis for campaigning changed. Ambitious politicians found they could win votes by appealing for ethnic support and by promising to improve government services and to organise development projects in their home area. The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. In a continent where class formation had hardly begun to alter loyalties, ethnicity provided the strongest political base. Politicians and voters alike came to rely on ethnic solidarity. For politicians it was the route to power. They became, in effect, ethnic entrepreneurs. For voters it was their main hope of getting a slice of government bounty. What they wanted was a local representative at the centre of power – an ethnic patron who could capture a share of the spoils and bring it back to their community. Primary loyalty remained rooted in tribal identity. Kinship, clan and ethnic considerations largely determined the way people voted. The main component of African politics became, in essence, kinship corporations.

The formation of one ethnic political party tended to cause the formation of others. In Nigeria the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the first modern political organisation in West Africa launched in 1944, started out with the aim of establishing a broad-based national movement, but after tribal dissension it became an Eastern regional party, dominated by Igbo politicians. Yoruba politicians left to form the Action Group, building it around the nucleus of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. In Northern Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani, while disdaining the nationalist cause which Southerners espoused, nevertheless formed in 1949 the Northern People’s Congress as a political offshoot of a predominantly Hausa cultural organisation, Jam’yyar Mutanen Arewa – Association of the Peoples of the North. In a more extreme example, in the Belgian Congo rival tribal parties were launched by the score. In most countries, political leaders spent much time on ‘ethnic arithmetic’, working out alliances that would win them power and keep them there.

Few states escaped such divisions. In Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere was helped, as he himself acknowledged, by the fact that the population was divided among 120 tribal groupings, none of which was large enough or central enough to acquire a dominant position. He benefited too from the common use of the Swahili language, spread initially by Arab traders, then taken up by the Germans and the British as part of their education system. Other states had to contend with a variety of languages, sometimes numbering more than a hundred. In all, more than 2,000 languages were in use in Africa.

There was a widespread view at the time of independence that once the new states focused on nation-building and economic development, ethnic loyalties would wither away under the pressure of modernisation. ‘I am confident’, declared Nigeria’s first prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, during a 1959 debate over the motion to ask for independence, ‘that when we have our own citizenship, our own national flag, our own national anthem, we shall find the flame of national unity will burn bright and strong.’ Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea spoke in similar terms in 1959. ‘In three or four years, no one will remember the tribal, ethnic or religious rivalries which, in the recent past, caused so much damage to our country and its population.’ Yet African governments were dealing not with an anachronism from the past, but a new contemporary phenomenon capable of erupting with destructive force.

It doesn’t seem all that different in kind, only in degree, from what happened in Europe with the spread of vernacular literacy, Protestantism, historical and comparative linguistics, and the scientific subclassification of everything and everyone on earth—and what continues apace in modern universities, prisons, and other political/protective patronage networks that privilege race/ethnicity over social class, religion, or other more mutable cross-cutting categories.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, democracy, education, Europe, language, nationalism

Baciu’s Memories of Brasov: Birth, Baptism, Spitz Palota

From Praful de pe Tobă: Memorii 1918-1946, by Stefan Baciu (Editura Mele, 1980), pp. 4-5 (my translation):

I was born in Brasov on 29 October 1918, in the last days in which the Austro-Hungarian monarchy gave up its ghost, in other words, at the end of the era that Emil Cioran called “the Time of Franz Joseph.” My birthday was the day Czechoslovakia was declared independent, so the Republic of Czechoslovakia and I are of the same age. Father had just returned from the front and Mother was still living in her parents’ house, located in the center of the city, maybe 500 meters from the Council House. The house in which my grandparents were living—and I know it still exists in 1980—was an old building, with a stairway I remember as dark, at the corner of two streets, Michael Weiss and Prundul Florilor (Rosenanger), but their rooms were upstairs, with windows overlooking both streets. I heard that Michael Weiss was changed—horribile dictu—into Red Army. Of Prundul Florilor I know nothing, but I would not object, nor would I be all that surprised, if some day, even a day certain, this street might bear my name.

I was baptized with the name Ştefan Aurel in the orthodox church in the “Fortress” (Council Plaza) by Father Nicolae Furnică on 19 January 1919, as evidenced in Vol. III, page 75, no. 4 of the Baptismal Registry, my godparents being Dr. Nicolae Popovici and wife, professor at Andrei Şaguna High School, later at the Theological Academy of Arad. (A detail: their daughter Lucia, with whom I used to play as a child, and whom I have never seen since, married Nicolae Aloman, who published a few fragments of very interesting prose in the first series of Biletelor de Papagal [Of the Parrot Tickets?], which fact was later communicated to me by Lucia Aloman in a few letters during the 1930s.)

Soon after my birth, my parents moved into rooms on a street that begins right at the Council Plaza, reaching as far as the Promenade, strada Vămii [Customs Street]. The house was the second or third on the left as you headed toward the Promenade. You couldn’t see it from the street, as it was a large building at the back of a paved courtyard, reached by way of a long corridor or gang. It was named, solemnly, Spitz Palace (Spitz Palota) after the name of the owner (Spitz-bácsi), a gentleman who seemed to me very old (how old could he have been?), with white mustaches and a bowler hat [gambetă]. The apartments opened onto long balconies on the right, perhaps three stories high, overlooking the courtyard. The building also had an exit at the back, which gave onto the Graft Valley, through a gloomy corridor, along which were aligned some cellars that seemed immense to me, in which they stored wood for the winter, which used to be cut with a machine that made a monotonous sound by Mr. Stroescu, from the Gypsy quarter.

From Spitz Palace, I remember the concierge Borescu, typographer in the workshop of the Hungarian newspaper Brassoi Lapok, which had a boy of about my age, Puiu, with whom I used to play in the courtyard. Puiu used to suffer massive beatings from time to time with a belt that Mr. Borescu used to pull from his waist, yelling as loud as his mouth could bear while his father would administer the beating: “Father, daddy, mother, mommy, grandma, dear mama!” Then one day he fell sick, I think from tubercular meningitis. I see from our balcony the black umbrella under which they used to lay Puiu in the sun, stretched on blankets, until one day the umbrella no longer appeared, and I found that Puiu had died. He was the first death of my childhood.

On the same floor as us, in rooms overlooking Customs Street, used to live Wilhelm and Emilie Schreiber, a pair of sad and withdrawn millionaires (I think their only child had died while still a baby), the co-owners of the factory Scherg. “Onkel Willi” used to come and go from the factory by carriage, which seemed to me fabulous, and “Tante Emilie” would sometimes play on the piano melodies as melancholic as she was, looking after the flowers in the pots on the terrace, which in their absence I used to water with an immense watering can, receiving as recompense a book with a dedication written in impeccable gothic calligraphy, which I can still see. At Easter, I used to go “watering” (darf ich spritzen?), receiving from her the first chocolate eggs and mandarin oranges, which had been brought the day before, in large packages, from the Hessheimer grocery.

NOTE: Baciu’s adjective describing the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, chezarocrăiască, gave me a lot of trouble. I couldn’t find it anywhere until I tried its masculine singular form, which is more commonly rendered as cezaro-crăiesc, equivalent to German kaiserlich-königlich, lit. ‘imperial-royal’, respectively describing the Austrian and Hungarian thrones. As an educated Transylvanian, Baciu’s Romanian is sometimes Germanified. For instance, he says that in high school his friends called themselves ştudenţi, with a German sh, and not studenţi as in standard Romanian. That may be why he rendered cezar ‘caesar, emperor’ as chezar ‘Kaiser’. The Romanian translation of königlich in this construction comes from crai, a Slavic term for ‘prince’ that is nowadays especially common in fairy tales (basme), as is its feminine equivalent crăiasă ‘princess’.


Filed under Hungary, literature, Romania

Baciu’s Memories of Brasov: Introduction

From Praful de pe Tobă: Memorii 1918-1946, by Stefan Baciu (Editura Mele, 1980), pp. 3-4 (my translation):

From the Bank of Flowers to the Sandwich Archipelago

I write this autobiographical sketch in my study in Honolulu, in a spot on the globe where I would never have been able to imagine that I would live thirty years ago, when I was living in what the Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva would call “the Romania of my birth.”

At this moment as I look outside, I hear a parrot sitting on a branch of the lemon tree in front of my window, while on the facing hillside one can see two Chinese cemeteries, their gravestones low and gray, hardly visible in the grass. Only occasionally, at the odd burial or religious ceremony, can one hear crackles and pops of devices designed to drive away bad spirits. In back of the hill rises a volcano long extinct—called Punchbowl in English, Puowaina in Hawaiian—in the crater of which lie the heroes fallen in battles in the Pacific, the Punchbowl National Cemetery. To the left and right of the cemetery stretch the infinite waters of the Pacific.

From below, in Pauoa Valley, where children play baseball and football, one hears the shouts of those leaping into the swimming pool, but the houses are all lost in the gardens of abundant greenery, especially in this year full of heavy and frequent rainfall.

I note these summary facts of a possible autobiography of tomorrow, not to rediscover my old self of yesterday and the day before, of Brasov, Bucharest, Bern, Rio de Janeiro and Seattle, because that I can do more easily through poetry.

I want, on the one hand, to fix certain guideposts for a possible autobiography sometime later, and—more importantly—I do it in order to avoid errors, omissions, misunderstandings or interpretations to which might be subjected the life of a man whose life unfolded over the last decades (1946–1980), in such countries and regions, in such terrains and latitudes, that any confusions could be explained as due primarily to lack of information.

In a world in which even some “experts” say that Mexico lies in “South America,” and in which it is seldom realized that the city of Honolulu is situated on the island of Oahu, it would not be remarkable some time in the future (and perhaps not all that long into the future) for legends to arise that I wish to prevent, at least to the extent I am able.

NOTE: I’ve translated Prundul Florilor, the former name of a street in Brasov, as ‘Bank of Flowers’, since the primary meaning for prund seems to be ‘gravel’ or ‘gravelly bank of a river’. But the German name for the same street in Brasov was Rosenanger ‘Rosemeadow’ (or ‘Rosedale’?). Better suggestions are welcome.

UPDATE: By coincidence, the Brasov country library has just started hosting a literary exhibit entitled Ştefan Baciu între Ulise şi Don Quijote.


Filed under Hawai'i, literature, Romania

Chinese Prisoners in Nagasaki, September 1945

From First into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, by George Weller (1907-2002), ed. by Anthony Weller (Three Rivers, 2006), pp. 56-57 (reviewed at length in Japan Focus and more briefly at HNN):

Omuta, Japan—Wednesday, September 12, 1945, 0100 hours
Allied Prison Camp #17, Omuta, Kyushu

American and Chinese prisoner coal miners emerging from underground darkness in central Kyushu are discovering for the first time that their prison camps are adjacent.

For nearly one month since the surrender the Chinese have been going foodless because their Japanese guards have departed from the camp. Their serious medical condition was discovered today by two parties headed by American doctor Captain Thomas Hewlett, of New Albany, Indiana, and Crystal River, Florida, who was captured on Corregidor, and Australian Captain Ian Duncan, of Sydney, captured in Singapore.

B-29s today dropped the Chinese their first food supplies since the surrender.

Hewlett reported that the nearest Chinese camp commander is a remnant of a party under American-trained Airman Lieutenant Colonel Chiu, which left North China two years ago, then numbering 1,236. Three hundred men died on reaching Japan. The Japanese never provided a camp physician and the Chinese have none. Thus in the Chinese camp every man regardless of condition has been considered by the Japanese fit for underground work. Fifty are seriously ill, about half of these with deficiency disease.

This Chinese camp counted 70 men killed by Japanese guards in two years, plus 120 dead of disease, with 546 still living.

The other coal miners’ camp of Chinese consists of what remains of 1,365 who left China eighteen months ago; 54 have been executed or otherwise beaten to death by the Japanese, and 60 died of mining injuries.

Many of the surviving Chinese are ”as thin as skeletons,” with bandages made of rags or newspapers. The camp has one Chinese doctor who possesses neither a scalpel, forceps, thermometer nor stethoscope.

Both those Mitsui mines worked by Americans and those worked by Chinese are defective, “stripped” mines, dangerous to operate because their tunnels’ underpinnings have been removed to obtain the last vestiges of coal.

Another Chinese camp is known to exist somewhere in Kyushu and is being sought by a party headed by Medical Warrant Officer Houston Sanders, of Hartwell, Georgia.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Japan, U.S., war

A Bad Omen: Nkrumah vs. Cocoa Farmers, 1954-57

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 24-27:

After winning the 1954 election, Nkrumah seemed set to make rapid progress towards independence. But he encountered unexpected resistance centred on his conduct of government. In the final stages of colonial rule, the Gold Coast, once a model colony, was riven by such bitterness, division and violence that it appeared in danger of breaking up.

At the core of the crisis was cocoa money. To protect cocoa farmers from price fluctuations, the colonial authorities had established a Cocoa Marketing Board (CMB) which each year fixed a guaranteed price for farmers and acted as the sole buyer, grader, seller and exporter of cocoa. Once in office, Nkrumah instructed the CMB to keep the price as low as possible, aiming to raise funds for development projects. But the CMB soon became notorious for corruption and mismanagement; it was regularly exploited to distribute credit, contracts, commissions, licences and jobs to CPP [Convention People’s Party] supporters. An official investigation revealed that the CPP used a CMB subsidiary to enrich the party’s coffers, to coerce farmers into joining the party and to control petty commerce.

Soon after the 1954 election, Nkrumah announced that the price paid to farmers would be fixed for a period of four years at a level less than one-third of ruling world prices. This decision provoked a surge of anger across Asante, the central forest region where half of the country’s cocoa crop was grown. Not only farmers but cocoa traders, merchants and businessmen based in the Asante capital, Kumasi, resented the loss of income. A new opposition party, the National Liberation Movement (NLM), sprang up, proclaiming to defend Asante interests and culture against a central government it portrayed as corrupt, dictatorial and bent on undermining the beliefs and customs of the Asante people. With the blessing of the Asante paramount chiefs and backed by fervent support in the Asante heartland, the NLM demanded a federal constitution prior to independence, giving Asante and other areas that wanted it a substantial measure of local autonomy.

Nkrumah saw the issue as a struggle between a modern democratic government and the feudal power of traditional chiefs trying to protect the old order. But he misjudged the extent of popular support for Asante institutions. As the NLM and Nkrumah’s CPP struggled for ascendancy, violent disturbances broke out. A bomb attack was made on Nkrumah’s house in Accra. Alarmed by the disorders, the British government refused to set a date for independence and eventually insisted on resolving the issue by calling another general election. At the polls in July 1956, Nkrumah’s CPP won an outright majority, 72 of 104 seats, though only 57 per cent of the votes cast. While the CPP received 398,000 votes, the opposition tally was 299,000 votes. Satisfied with the result, Britain finally pronounced a date for independence: 6 March 1957….

No other African state was launched with so much promise for the future. Ghana embarked on independence as one of the richest tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class. Its parliament was well established, with able politicians in both government and opposition. The prime minister, himself, then only forty-seven years old, was regarded as a leader of outstanding ability, popularly elected, with six years of experience of running a government. The country’s economic prospects were equally propitious. Not only was Ghana the world’s leading producer of cocoa, with huge foreign currency reserves built up during the 1950s cocoa boom, but it possessed gold, timber and bauxite.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, Ghana

A Whirlwind Visit in the Wisconsin Dells

Car & cabin at Cedar Crest LodgeThe Far Outliers spent last weekend in the stormy Wisconsin Dells, celebrating my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a small family reunion in a cabin at Cedar Crest Lodge on the Wisconsin River, just off Sauk County Highway A, barely half a mile from where Lake Delton cut a new path (or widened an old path) across the highway into the river. When we tried to drive out down Highway A last Monday, we were turned back by policemen at the floodpath who told us to head back uphill to Bunker Drive, which we had heard was partially washed out the previous night when part of the family drove back to Madison.

The Wisconsin River near Lake DeltonWe got away at 6 a.m., stopped in tiny DeForest, WI (home of the Pink Elephant), to refill our rented Camry’s near-empty gas tank for $57.50 (@ $3.96/gal., the cheapest we found) and to have a good, meaty breakfast at DeForest Family Restaurant, and managed to return the car to O’Hare by 10:30 a.m., in ample time for our flight out. That one full tank took us from O’Hare to the Dells and back, and from the Dells to Dane County Regional Airport and back to pick up our daughter on Saturday, the day when all hell broke loose.

Tree felled by storm windsSoon after Miss Outlier and I returned, the sky darkened, the wind kicked up, the power went out, and the manager came around to announce a tornado warning and advise us to seek shelter in the exercise lodge, which had windowless concrete block walls in two long, narrow restrooms on the ground floor. That warning period lasted about an hour. Not long after it ended, we heard sirens again, and spent another half hour watching tree branches fall to the ground and getting to know our few neighbors a bit better. Fortunately, the wind and rain let up a little and the power came back on by the time the last of our party arrived from Madison for dinner, which featured brats, burgers, grilled veggies, salad, and a birthday cake with 80 candles (unfrosted except for some residue of candlewax on top).

Aloha Beach Resort, Lake DeltonFriday had been clear enough for us to drive down through Baraboo to Devil’s Lake and hike halfway up a rock face to a balanced rock. And Sunday was clear enough for me to walk a mile or so up Highway A to take a picture of the now rather beachless Aloha Beach Resort & Suites. The highway was crisscrossed with trails for Wisconsin Ducks, vehicles that have aided rescue efforts in many flood conditions, including yeoman work in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For much of our time around the cabin, the Ducks would pass us going up Hillside Drive, but we saw one or two rush back downhill just after the tornado warnings.

UPDATE: On the way to and from Aloha Beach Resort, I passed some interesting gateways and an historical marker, which I’ll reproduce here.

Dawn Manor historical plaque

Here on the Wisconsin River the lost village of Newport was begun in 1853, planned for a city of 10,000. Assuming that the Milwaukee & Lacrosse Railroad would cross the river here, over 2,000 settlers quickly came to Newport, causing a lively land boom. When the bridge and dam were ultimately located a mile upstream after an alleged secret moonlight survey, Newport was almost completely deserted in favor of Kilbourn City (today Wisconsin Dells). Only Dawn Manor, with its servant quarters, remains. Dawn Manor was completed in 1855 by Capt. Abraham Vanderpoel, friend of Lincoln and a signer of the Wisconsin Constitution. The home is built of Potsdam sandstone, white mahogany, and white pine, put together with brass screws and wooden pegs. Dawn Manor houses the art collection of George Raab, one of Wisconsin’s famous artists.

More on Dawn Manor and the aftermath of the flooding and drainage of Lake Delton can be found at random blonde thoughts.

Leave a comment

Filed under family, U.S.

Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire

From Frank McLynn’s review of The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale University Press, 2008) in Literary Review:

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Comanches were a small tribe of hunter-gatherers in New Mexico. Once they acquired the use of horses, in three generations they evolved into the ‘Spartans of the plains’ and provided the fiercest of all Native American resistance to the Anglo-Hispanic conquest of the American West. For a hundred years from 1750, the Comanches dominated New Mexico, Texas and even parts of Louisiana and northern Mexico. As Amerindians, the Comanches were even more impressive than the Aztecs or the Iroquois, for until the American Civil War they largely forced Europeans to bend the knee, and did so moreover when the European imperialist impulse was at its height. Although the word ’empire’ may be author’s hyperbole, the Comanches ruled an extensive domain that worked on a melange of kinship ties, trade, diplomacy, extortion and violence….

So why were the Comanches so exceptional among American Indians? Pekka Hämäläinen, a Finnish scholar of the American West, currently at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that, like the Iroquois, the Comanches were fortunate geographically, since their heartland was at once central and peripheral, and at the intersection of Spanish and Anglo spheres of influence. They were inventive and flexible, using a nuanced division of labour in everyday life and operating a dual economy of hunting and pastoralism; they had a unique ability to make use of the horse; and their culture enabled them to incorporate change better than other Indians. They depended on two animals, the horse and the bison, which in the early days were present on the Great Plains in vast numbers. They had 120,000 horses in their herds and access to another two million wild ones.

Hämäläinen’s most detailed scholarly labours concern the eighteenth century: he claims that by 1730 the Comanches had all their people on horses and had reached what he calls ‘the critical threshold of mounted nomadism’. The narrative, firmly based on admirable scholarship, shifts from warfare to diplomacy and back in the Comanche’s dealings both with the colonial Spanish (for in those days the white-occupied American West was wholly Hispanic) and with the other Indian tribes of the Great Plains – principally the Utes, Navajos, Apaches, Osages, Pawnees and Wichitas. With the exception of the Lakota (Sioux) and the Blackfeet, every western Indian tribe was linked to the Comanches’ informal ’empire’. Far from being bit players in the drama of the Spanish colonial empire, the Comanches, especially after obtaining guns from French traders in the 1740s, had the edge in the continuing conflict with ‘New Spain’. One single statistic is eloquent on the Comanches’ rise to dominance in the American Southwest. Their population, 15,000 in 1750, had ascended to 45,000 by 1780 because of their superior diet and plentiful food supply. Their heartland was the so-called Comancheria – an area covering the valleys of the Arkansas, Cimarron, Canadian and Red Rivers, plus all the plains of northern Texas, especially the Llano Estacado in the Panhandle….

Hämäläinen’s great achievement is to force a rethink about Mexican history from its independence from Spain in 1821 to its defeat by the United States in 1846-8. Every September the Comanches sent a major raiding force into northern Mexico, and some of these bands of plains Indians ended up exploring tropical jungles and snow-covered mountains. Their penetration of northern Mexico was astonishing, since they raided as far south as Guadalajara and Queretaro, just 135 miles north of Mexico City and one thousand miles away from the centre of Comancheria….

By some indices the Comanches reached the apex of their power at just the moment, in the 1840s, when they began to collide with the US expansion westwards. Actually, smallpox and other diseases had already brought the Comanche population down to 20,000. And a whole host of factors seriously weakened them even before they inevitably came to blows with white settlers and the US government. Essentially the Comanches were overstretching their resources and habitat. They were killing more than 280,000 bison a year – the maximum loss the herds could sustain without imploding – and at the very time the great drought of 1845-50 was exacerbating the situation. Even worse, bison and horses were in competition for the same pasture and water, and if the bison moved farther west to new grasslands, they found these occupied by the sheep and shepherds of New Mexico. On the other hand, if the Comanches cut their horse numbers, they also cut down their military capacity. As everyone except a handful of Native American fundamentalists now accepts, the bison herds were in terminal decline even before the arrival of white hunters. There had originally been seven million ‘buffalo’ on the southern plains but by the 1860s, before the frenzy of the white bison hunters, half of these had already been killed by the Indians. Put simply, by the end of the 1840s there were too many Comanches raising too many horses and hunting too many bison on too small a land base. The writing was on the wall in other ways, too. While Comanche numbers had declined to 10,000 by 1850, the population of white Texas rose from 140,000 in 1847 to 600,000 by 1860s. Meanwhile, Arapahos and Cheyennes, pushed west by the expanding power of the Lakota, began encroaching on the Comanche heartland.

The end came suddenly. Faced with a shortage of bison, having lost access to firearms, maize and garden produce, and been forced to relinquish control of the long-distance trade routes into Mexico and across the Great Plains, the Comanches began literally to starve to death and in their weakened state to become prey to cholera, smallpox and other deadly diseases. In this terminal crisis, at the end of the 1850s they were engaged in warfare on three fronts, against the Fox Indians, the Texas Rangers and the Spanish buffalo hunters of new Mexico. Driven out of Texas by 1859, the Comanches were abruptly handed a lifeline when the American Civil War erupted. By 1865, with Texas on the losing side, the end of the drought on the Great Plains and a short-lived increase in bison numbers, the Comanches were able to enjoy a (literal) Indian summer. A new era of raiding in Texas partially restored the Comanche position there; in two years of devastation Texas lost 4,000 horses, 30,000 cattle and hundreds of human lives. But in 1871 the United States finally unleashed its military might on the Comanches. The US Cavalry wore down the enemy by dogging them so that they had no time to pasture and tend horses, hunt buffalo, dry meats or prepare hides. The coup de grace came when white buffalo hunters poured onto the plains. In just two years they slaughtered 3.3 million bison. The once proud Comanches ended up on tacky Indian reservations.

Sounds a bit more impressive than the Yapese Empire, though probably shorter-lived.

via Arts & Letters Daily

Leave a comment

Filed under Mexico, U.S.