Category Archives: economics

Vagabonds of Siberia, 1800s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4293-4327:

A bird’s eye view of the Siberian taiga in the nineteenth century would have revealed a steady trickle of figures, stooped under heavy bundles, trudging westwards either alone or in small groups. The “hunchbacks,” as the peasants called them, were escaped convicts who had fled the marching convoys, the mines, the prisons and the penal settlements and were making their way across the forests in the direction of European Russia. Answering the spring call of the migrant cuckoo and taking advantage of the warmer weather, thawed waterways and thickening vegetation that provided them with camouflage and with food, the fugitives set forth. These were the foot soldiers of what became known as “General Cuckoo’s Army.”

The numbers of fugitives told a sobering tale. Abandoned and imprisoned in penury and squalor and with quite literally nothing to lose, Siberia’s convicts absconded from every single prison, factory, settlement and mine in their thousands. Between 1838 and 1846, the authorities apprehended almost 14,000 male and 3,500 female fugitives in Siberia (figures that probably represented just half of those convicts who were at large). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of escapes only increased as the overall exile population expanded. One government report on the state of exile in Eastern Siberia in 1877 recorded that, in three districts surveyed in Irkutsk province, half of the more than 20,000 prisoners had run away, their “whereabouts unknown.” By 1898, a quarter of the exiles assigned to Yenisei province, 40 per cent of those assigned to Irkutsk province and 70 per cent of those assigned to Primorsk province in Eastern Siberia were unaccounted for. Purpose-built penal labour sites witnessed a similar exodus. Such figures would suggest that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anywhere up to a third of Siberia’s 300,000 exiles were on the run in what ethnographer Nikolai Yadrintsev termed “an endless perpetuum mobile from Eastern Siberia to the Urals.”

The tsarist government was populating Siberia not with industrious colonists but with hordes of destitute and desperate exiles who roamed Siberia as beggars, at best, and petty thieves and violent brigands, at worst. Their victims were the Siberians themselves, both the indigenes and the migrant peasant settlers from Russia. Brutalized by the conditions of their captivity, fugitives visited a plague of theft, arson, kidnapping, violent robbery, rape and murder on Siberia’s real colonists. Seeking strength and protection in numbers, they sometimes formed armed gangs capable of terrorizing not just isolated villages but entire towns and cities. The exile system had transformed Siberia into Russia’s “Wild East.”

Some exiles known as brodiagi, or vagabonds, made for themselves a life of escape, recapture, spells in prison and then escape again. Overwhelmingly male, the brodiagi embraced a semi-nomadic existence in Russia, fuelled by a combination of charity and criminality. Like most pre-industrial societies, the Russian Empire had a rich variety of migratory traditions and a large diaspora encompassing fugitive peasants, Cossacks, peddlers, gypsies, migrant hunters, pilgrims, peripatetic sectarians, travelling merchants and the nomadic tribes of the taiga, steppe and tundra. These migratory peoples had played a significant role in Russia’s expansion across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1823, the state criminalized vagrancy in European Russia, a fact which accounted for a large part of the sudden upsurge in the numbers exiled to Siberia over subsequent decades. Between 1827 and 1846, the almost 50,000 vagrants constituted 30 per cent of all those exiled. Most of those convicted of vagabondage in Russia in this period were deserters from the army and fugitive serfs, and they presented in either case a direct challenge to Nicholas I’s cherished vision of a disciplined society. The numbers arrested for vagabondage declined in European Russia after the abolition of serfdom effectively decriminalized the unauthorized movement of people. In Siberia, however, the exile system gave vagabondage a new lease on life.

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German East Africa Import Substitutions

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3843-3870:

The British blockade of German East Africa—challenged briefly by Königsberg before she hightailed it up the Rufiji—was nearly a complete success. Shortages of basic necessities made themselves painfully felt everywhere. The colonists soon lacked adequate supplies of soap, toothpaste, candles, fuel, beer, booze, rubber, cloth, chocolate, castor oil, and, most important, quinine, without which life in the tropics became impossible for Europeans. One or two blockade runners reached the Swahili Coast after many ha[r]dships—notably the Krönborg-Rubens and the Marie von Stettin—but these were heroic exceptions. The aim of any blockade—complete starvation of the enemy—seemed within reach of the British Royal Navy for the first few months of 1915.

Then, with the begrudging help of Governor Schnee, still stewing away at Morogoro, von Lettow organized the colony to produce some of the most needed items. German East Africa, rich in natural resources, mostly lacked the necessary infrastructure—factories, refineries, laboratories, warehouses—to turn these resources into commercial goods. But presently, the colonists took it upon themselves to manufacture a variety of products for both civilians and Schutztruppe—now reaching its peak popularity as patriotic enthusiasm, fueled by the victory at Tanga, swept the colony.

Planters’ wives revived the neglected art of spinning using native cotton; African women, given scratch-built looms, wove bolts of cloth. Between them, they more than made up for the lack of imported fabric. Leather torn from the backs of native buffalo herds and tanned using chemicals extracted from the colony’s plentiful mangrove trees got cobbled into the boots so critical for the Schutztruppe—soon to march unimaginable distances over rough landscapes, much of which could not be traversed barefoot. Candles materialized from tallow; rubber from tapped trees: carefully dripped along rope, the raw, milky stuff was then hand-kneaded into tires for GEA’s few automobiles, including von Lettow’s staff car. A kind of primitive, homemade gasoline called trebol powered these vehicles—it was a by-product of distillates of copra, which also yielded benzene and paraffin. Soap came from a combination of animal fat and coconut oil. Planters and small businessmen eventually produced 10,000 pounds of chocolate and cocoa and 3,000 bottles of castor oil. Meanwhile, new factories sprang up in Dar es Salaam to make nails and other metal goods, including some ammunition. Rope woven from pineapple fiber proved both durable and less susceptible to rot than hempen rope from Germany; cigars and cigarettes rolled from native-grown tobacco made their way into every soldier’s kit. At Morogoro and elsewhere, home brewers distilled schnapps and moonshine. The latter, at 98 proof and optimistically labeled “whiskey,” was issued to the troops as part of their basic rations.

All this ingenuity, however, would be rendered useless without quinine. Before the war, the colony had gotten its supply from distributors in the Dutch East Indies, now cut off by the blockade. Dwindling supplies meant European populations of the colony would have no defense against their greatest enemy—not the British or rebellious natives but the malaria-bearing anopheles mosquito. At von Lettow’s urging, the famous biological research center at Amani turned its chemists to developing a quinine substitute in their laboratories. The chemists researched furiously, tried formulations of this and that, and at last came up with an effective type of liquid quinine distilled from cinchona bark. Called “von Lettow schnapps” by his men, this foul-tasting, much-reviled elixir nevertheless met most of the army’s needs for the next year or so.

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Filed under Britain, economics, food, Germany, industry, Kenya, malaria, migration, military, nationalism, Tanzania, war

Ghana’s Breadfruit Revolution

I only recently heard about this story of a drought-resistant food revolution in Ghana. Modern Ghana reported on 2 August 2012 that “The African Breadfruit Revolution has begun! And it began in Ghana!” Here are a few excerpts.

The Ghana Alliance against Hunger and Malnutrition (HAG) announced to Samoan and Fijian news agencies October, 2011 that 870 Samoan variety breadfruit trees, each about 250 mm tall, had arrived to Ghana from a mass propagation facility outside of Frankfurt, Germany.

Not since the decades after the mutiny on the Bounty has such a large shipment of the Pacific Islands breadfruit arrived to Africa.

HAG made no announcement in Ghana about the project or to where the little trees went for nursery care – the Bunso Agricultural Research Station near Kade – as it was meant to be a bit of a secret until the little trees grew up to field planting size….

The trees are of the Ma’afala and Ulu Fiti varieties of Samoa in the Pacific Islands which produce up to 500 kg of fruit per tree per year and, in Samoa, have complementary fruiting seasons resulting in shorter hungry months. The present Ghanaian breadfruit produces perhaps 250 or 300 kg per year….

You can have your ecoforest and eat it, too!

No other tree holds the promise of carbohydrate security that breadfruit does….

The Bunso shipment is believed to be the first large, new variety breadfruit shipment reaching West Africa’s shores since the 1840s when missionaries brought at least one Tahitian variety from the Caribbean to Ghana and beyond. This was just a few decades after the legendary voyages involving the mutiny on the Bounty when other such breadfruit-dedicated voyages brought Tahitian and other Pacific Island breadfruit varieties to the Caribbean.

 

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U.S. Army Decline, 1870s

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1154-1167:

Even as the Indian Wars intensified, Congress—intent on paying down the massive national debt incurred during the Civil War—repeatedly reduced the rolls of the regular army. From an authorized strength of fifty-four thousand men in 1869, the army would plummet to just twenty-five thousand by 1874. Reconstruction duties siphoned off a third of the army and sucked the institution into partisan politics. As Southern states were readmitted to the Union, their representatives made common cause with the budget balancers in order to emasculate their blue-coated former oppressors, and the frontier army became a skeleton force.

Declining numbers were not the army’s only problem. Gone were the sober and purposeful volunteers who had restored the Union. In their place was a decidedly inferior brand of soldier. Not all were “bummers and loafers,” as the New York Sun alleged. There were also a disproportionately large number of urban poor, criminals, drunkards, and perverts. Few soldiers were well educated, and many were illiterate. Unskilled laborers in search of a steady job flocked to recruiting depots, usually to desert when better-paying work became available. One-third of the frontier army consisted of recent immigrants, mostly German and Irish, some of whom had seen service in European armies and proved an asset, and sprinkled among the American undesirables were good men who had fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, as one general observed, while the army had a greatly improved rifle, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.”

Incentives to enlist were few. By the 1870s, regulars earned just ten dollars a month, three dollars less than had Civil War volunteers a decade earlier.

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Tribe vs. Tribe in the Northern Plains

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 475-495:

The most powerful newcomers before the whites spilled onto the plains were the Sioux, formerly a woodlands people of the present-day upper Midwest. As it shifted west, the Sioux nation separated into three divisions: the Dakotas, a semisedentary people who clung to the Minnesota River; the Nakotas, who settled east of the Missouri River; and the Lakotas, who wrestled their way onto the northern plains. The Lakotas were the true horse-and-buffalo Sioux of popular imagination, and they constituted nearly half the Sioux nation. The Lakotas in turn divided into seven tribes: the Oglalas, Brulés, Miniconjous, Two Kettles, Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs, of which the Oglalas and the Brulés were the largest. In fact, these two tribes alone outnumbered all the non-Lakota Indians on the northern plains.

In their westward march across present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas during the early nineteenth century, the Lakotas gradually allied themselves with the Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who had been pushed onto the northern plains in advance of the Lakotas and had already forged an enduring bond, albeit an odd coupling. Their languages were mutually unintelligible, an impediment they overcame with a sophisticated sign language, and their characters could not have been more dissimilar. The Arapahos tended to be a kindly and accommodating people, whereas the Cheyennes evolved into fearsome warriors. The first contact between the Lakotas and the Cheyenne-Arapaho combination was hostile, because they competed for the game-rich Black Hills country. “Peace would be made,” a Cheyenne chief recounted. “They would hold out the pipe to us and say, ‘Let us be good friends,’ but time and again treacherously broke their promises.” Not until the 1840s did the Lakotas keep their word. By then, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, fed up with the duplicity of the Lakotas and lured by white traders, had migrated south, forming the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes and leaving the Lakotas the undisputed suzerains of the northern plains.

The Lakotas and the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained on the northern plains had the same tribal enemies—the badly outnumbered but hard-fighting Crows of present-day central Montana and northern Wyoming and the semi-agricultural Pawnees who dwelled along the Platte River in Nebraska. The basis of the rivalry was both a relentless drive by the Lakota–Northern Cheyenne–Northern Arapaho alliance to expand their hunting lands and the warrior culture common to all Plains tribes. Geographically separated from each other, the Crows and the Pawnees never formed an alliance, but being badly in need of friends—or enemies of their enemies conceived of as friends—both tribes instead eventually cast their fate with the whites.

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Retelling the Indian Wars in the American West

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 322-354:

A newspaperman once asked George Crook, one of the preeminent generals in the West, how he felt about his job. It was a hard thing, he replied, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not were in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

That a general would offer such a candid and forceful public defense of the Indians seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth: that the regular army was the implacable foe of the Indian.

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate a changing national conscience.

In the first eighty years following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, which marked the end of Indian resistance, the nation romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers and vilified or trivialized the Indians who resisted them. The army appeared as the shining knights of an enlightened government dedicated to conquering the wilderness and to “civilizing” the West and its Native American inhabitants.

In 1970, the story reversed itself, and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Americans were developing an acute sense of the countless wrongs done the Indians. Dee Brown’s elegantly written and passionately wrought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, later that same year, the film Little Big Man shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt. In the public mind, the government and the army of the latter decades of the nineteenth century became seen as willful exterminators of the Native peoples of the West. (In fact, the government’s response to what was commonly called the “Indian problem” was inconsistent, and although massacres occurred and treaties were broken, the federal government never contemplated genocide. That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive, however, was taken for granted.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still deeply influences the way Americans perceive the Indian Wars and has remained the standard popular work on the era. It is at once ironic and unique that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. Dee Brown gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was severely circumscribed. Several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.

Such a one-sided approach to the study of history ultimately serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of the white perspective as well as that of the Indians. What I have sought to do in this book, then, is bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars. I hesitate to use the word “restore” when speaking of balance, because it is the pendulum swings that have defined society’s understanding of the subject since the closing of the military frontier in 1891.

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China’s Agricultural Revolutionaries

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5314-5338:

The transformation of agriculture in 1978 and 1979 proceeded with little instigation from the top. The peasants sensed the opportunities provided by the loosening of the party’s political control and pushed ahead. It was a process marked by wide regional variation; there seem to have been as many different names for agricultural reform experiments during this period as there are counties in China. It was also very much a matter of trial and error. When the politicians learned what the peasants were up to, they usually waited for evidence of success before they committed themselves unambiguously. Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang could claim credit for letting the farmers do what came naturally. When the experiments of the peasants bore fruit, Deng publicized their success, recognizing a good thing when he saw it. But he certainly could not take credit for giving farmers the idea.

The irony, as American anthropologist Stephen Mosher realized, was that Western scholars at the time regarded the Chinese as incorrigible collectivists. “Group thinking” was considered an indelible part of traditional culture that predisposed the Chinese to Communist ways. As a result, Mosher had come to the countryside expecting to discover evidence that the peasants were fundamentally satisfied with the stability and predictability furnished by the regime. According to scholarly reasoning, the Communist Party had taken power in 1949 largely due to the support of the country dwellers. It had promised to improve the lot of the peasantry, and in this it had surely succeeded. After all, hadn’t the Communists brought schools and basic health care to even some of the most remote villages? Hadn’t they eliminated the corruption and tyranny of the old landlords? Upon his arrival, Mosher carefully noted all the characteristics of a traditional society that skewed visibly to collective ways of doing things.

The rampant cynicism and apathy that he encountered in China’s real-existing countryside thus came as something of a shock, and his account provides a fascinating chronicle of how a preconceived view can disintegrate upon contact with reality. But amid the ruins of Mao’s utopian edifice, Mosher also discovered intriguing evidence of a powerful source of transformative energy: individual initiative. Though they were far from the places where the most important experiments were under way, the people in Mosher’s remote Guangdong village had already picked up on the spread of the household-responsibility system, and he succeeded in capturing a nice snapshot of the spirit that, once unleashed, would soon lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The old entrepreneurial mind-set of the Chinese “flared anew once opportunity presented itself,” Mosher noted. When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch, planting the bushes between the rows of trees on the farm. “You can’t do that now because people are careless when they work,” she explained to the American. “They would step on them when they are spreading mud [as fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I’ll be careful because they’ll be mine.”

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