Category Archives: food

Tibetans Take the Great Leap Forward

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 43-45:

The Communist Party had identified feudalism and imperialism as the greatest evils of society. Their dilemma was how to destroy feudalism without becoming imperialists themselves; they couldn’t simply force “reforms” on the Tibetans. In order to live up to their own lofty propaganda, they needed the Tibetans to carry out reforms voluntarily, joyfully. To convince them, they dispatched young Chinese recruits, some of them still in high school, to spread the word. These young Chinese cadres lectured about the corruption of the aristocracy and the monasteries, which also had large holdings of land. Delek remembers their speeches.

“You will be your own master,” the Chinese promised poorer Tibetans. “We will topple the feudal landlords.”

“Nobody will be able to exploit you anymore.”

“Religion is superstition. You are worshipping demons.”

The mass uprising never materialized. But the pitch did appeal to those Tibetans who hoped the redistribution of wealth would improve their lot in life. Tibetans who joined forces with the Communist Party were known as jiji fenzi, which loosely translates from Chinese as “activists.” The Tibetan term was hurtsonchen—the lowest level of enforcers, the collaborators who squealed on and beat up neighbors who resisted Communist rule. As a reward, hurtsonchen were allowed to loot clothing, shoes, and household goods from their wealthier countrymen. But anything of real value went to the Party-controlled communes, which turned out to be far greedier than the worst of the feudal landlords. Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay—’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number. But there are some evocative figures of speech. Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the “collapse of time,” or, hauntingly, “when the sky and earth changed places.”

The “Democratic Reforms” in eastern Tibet roughly coincided with the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s misguided experiment in jump-starting the Chinese economy. Like so many catastrophes, it was the result of ambition run amok. Mao was a utopian who hoped to create not just a new society, but new, improved human beings. He believed that people could transcend their individual desires for the greater good and through collective enterprise boost their living standards and the country’s output. This was to be accomplished by herding 700 million people into cooperative farms.

Even to a child as young as Delek, it was obvious that Mao’s reforms were doomed to failure. The Chinese cadres in charge of the Tibetans had no experience with herding and even less with farming at high altitudes. Most of the Chinese troops came from lower-lying regions; they didn’t realize that barley was the only grain that thrived in the plateau and that the higher altitudes couldn’t support crops at all and were better used for grazing. Giddy from Mao’s exhortations, they denied the expertise of the people who had lived off the land for generations, insisting that the Tibetans were backward. “As the Han are the bulwark of the revolution…any thinking against learning from the Han nationality and welcoming the help given by the Han nationality is completely wrong,” expounded one propagandist at the time. The nomads were made to hand over animals to the collectives that didn’t know how to keep them alive, and to farm land that would never produce crops.

The result was years of failed harvests and dead animals. Grasslands where the crops failed were now stripped bare of vegetation, exposed to the winds that swirled through the plateau spewing dust into the air. The Communist cadres didn’t understand that the Tibetan way of sustenance required both nomads and farmers; in order to obtain enough nutrition, people needed to swap their animal products for grains, and that required markets. Now the markets were closed. Buying or selling grain was forbidden. Internal travel restrictions were imposed so people could no longer barter goods with other villages. When Delek’s mother returned from Lhasa, she would saddle up a horse in the dead of night to visit a cousin in another village with whom she could trade some butter for barley to prevent her family from starving. She only dared make the trip a few times a year.

Unlike Han Chinese, Tibetans had little experience with famine—the exception being the Long March interlude of 1935 and 1936 when the Red Army decimated their food supply. In the past, Tibetans were poor, often poorly nourished because of the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, but they rarely went hungry.

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Tibetans Encounter the Long March

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-23:

The Communists were ensconced 1,200 miles away at the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, where they had formed a mini–Soviet state. When Chiang’s forces launched an attack to dislodge them in 1934, the Communists broke into three armies and escaped in a retreat that would become known as the Long March. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is an epic event, enshrined in revolutionary ballads and operas—roughly the equivalent of the exodus out of Egypt, except it was not Moses but Mao leading the Red Army to safety.

With Chiang’s army in hot pursuit, the Communists fled farther and farther west into China before turning north in Sichuan province. For Tibetans, it marked their first encounter with the Chinese Communist Party. It did not go well.

The Red Army of the 1930s was not yet the formidable fighting machine that it would later become. The Chinese soldiers were short of equipment, food, and local knowledge. The last overlords of the plateau, the Qing, were Manchus, not Han; the envoys they sent to the plateau were usually Manchus or Mongols. Many of the maps and documents were in Manchurian. The Red Army soldiers were mostly Han from the lowlands of eastern and southern China.

Idyllic though Tibet looks in those coffee table books, the habitat is brutal to the uninitiated, the weather perilously unpredictable. You can be soaked through the skin one minute, charmed the next by a magnificent double rainbow, then shriveled by ultraviolet rays of the high-altitude sun. Hailstones big as chicken eggs can kill an adult yak and occasionally humans. The oxygen-starved atmosphere leaves newcomers faint and headachy. Even Tibetans get lost in swirling blizzards and die of exposure.

The Tibetan plateau was terra incognita for the Chinese. “Where are we? Have we left China?” one bewildered young soldier asked his commanding officer as they trekked through grasslands to the east of Ngaba, this according to a book by Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of China’s Founding Myth. The commanding officer admitted that he didn’t know himself. He suggested they wait until they encountered somebody who spoke Chinese. They didn’t. The most pressing concern for the Red Army was a lack of food. The Chinese soldiers started by picking crops from Tibetan fields—some of them unripe—and stealing stockpiles of grain. They captured sheep and yaks for slaughter. Many young Communists were still idealistic about helping the poor, and the memoirs reflect that they sometimes left IOUs after they looted Tibetan larders. It didn’t do much good because there was a limit to how much food could be raised. The plateau couldn’t support a large population, certainly not the thousands of newly arrived soldiers. For the first time in living memory, Tibetans experienced famine conditions.

At some point, the Chinese discovered that the Buddhist monasteries contained not only the treasures of Tibetan civilization, but potential comestibles. Drums were made of animal hides that could be eaten if boiled long enough—a technique the soldiers knew because they’d already consumed their own belts, rifle straps, leather bags, and the reins of horses. They even ate figurines that had been sculpted out of barley flour and butter, according to a memoir discovered by scholars Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester, who have extensively researched this period.

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Bactrian Camel Herding Woes

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 128-130:

Herding sheep, you only had to follow them around slowly, but herding camels required cracking the whip, letting the horse gallop, cursing your ma and cursing your pa, a never-ending contest of wit and brawn.

Camels were an odd bunch, perpetually in a state of discord, forever engaging in separatism; not at all like horses, sheep, or cattle that always traveled in a group.

Besides being members of the free-spirit clan, the camels might also be considered members of the beggar clan. When a flock of camels wobbled their way over, each wearing a patchwork of rags … Oy, it was their fault for being too big—where would you ever find a whole piece of cloth big enough to tailor an outfit for them! The only way was to cobble together a patchwork of old cotton jackets, old felt scraps, and old tekemet. And the camels never took care of their blankets, always rolling around on the ground (where clothes were most likely to tear off) until they were covered in wet cow dung. Then they’d stand and scratch an itch against a friend’s body, soiling the other camel’s blanket too.

Further, camels were supposed to be masters at enduring thirst and hunger, but that’s not what I saw. On our journey south, the camel bull calves without nose pegs always looked like they were starving. They stopped to eat every little clump of grass bigger than a thumb, constantly falling behind, forcing me, the chief organizer, to work my butt off the whole way! Only the pack-laden lead camel knew how to behave, never stopping to eat or drink all day, keeping onward as always.

On the journey south, I was responsible for the camels. For some reason, the lead camel was always grumbling and grim. It had a special trick, which was to shut its mouth and let out a deep rumble from the back of its throat. Even though it was clearly right next to you, the sound it made seemed to come from miles away.

ANOTHER OF THE CAMELS’ mischiefs was to crowd into the middle of the flock of sheep. Especially during the busiest hours of dusk, the wild bunch would try to force their way into the sheep pen! They may have liked the sheep, but the sheep clearly didn’t like them. As the sheep filed orderly inside in a line, they were suddenly disrupted by this “death from above” and chaos ensued, wool stood on ends. The camel tried to play dumb; the more you tried to shoo it, the more comfortably it sat, blocking the entrance to the pen. When you tried harder to push it out, it simply rolled onto its side, playing dead, refusing to budge.

Even though the camels were terrible, they still had their cute side. Specifically, these gargantuan camels had the tiniest ears!

WHEN THEY ATE SNOW, the cattle twirled their tongues around, the horses chomped properly with their teeth, but the camels were most impressive of all, lowering their long necks until the bottoms of their chins lay on the ground, then pushing forward like snowplows, instantly plowing up whole mouthfuls of snow! Then they shut their mouths, swallowing it all in one gulp. My guess was that somewhere among their ancestors, there must have been the genes of the Platybelodon.

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Passing Long Nights in Winter Pasture

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 41-42:

Come evening, even when it was already late, we were reluctant to sleep. By the dusky yellow light of a solar-powered bulb, Kama embroidered, Cuma read old Kazakh-language newspapers aloud, Sister-in-law spun wool, I read and took notes, and the cat pounced here and there practicing its hunting moves. The kettle had been whistling for a long while when Cuma sighed, “Let’s drink some tea.” Sister-in-law put down her handiwork, laid out tablecloth and bowls, and everyone gathered in a circle to sip in silence. The light grew dimmer and dimmer. Suddenly, Cuma screamed while pointing to my feet. I looked down—to pour the tea more easily, I had put the milk bowl by my feet instead of on the tablecloth. In my carelessness, the pink kitten, Plum Blossom, had snuck over and was lapping up the contents of the bowl with relish. I screeched as I swiped at the cat, much to everyone’s amusement. The last of the milk was ruined by the kitty, what a shame! But no one seemed to mind. They kept ladling the milk into their tea as usual. Indeed, how could that little pink mouth be considered dirty? He was still just a kitten after all.

Our tea drunk and newspapers read, Cuma pondered for a moment before retrieving his iron box from the nightstand. Then, for the hundred and first time, he made an inventory of his little treasures. Inside the iron box was everything of value the family owned: superglue, a spare light bulb, nuts and bolts of different sizes, as well as a stack of wrinkled papers, forms, notes, debt receipts, and the like. I grabbed a sheet to take a look. It turned out to be a prepaid phone plan receipt. What use is that? Rummaging some more, I discovered a plastic bag sealed with several tight knots on top. When I finally managed to untie it, I found a packet of Mohe tobacco! Cuma rejoiced, grabbing it and hugging it tightly. He barked, “Mine! It’s mine!” And so, it was a fruitful inventory check after all.

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Sheep Manure for Fuel and Shelter

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 23-24:

Inside the sheep pen, there was a layer of especially thick and hard manure. Cuma said that every month, it would rise by half a foot, and so it needed to be cleaned out several times over the course of the winter. The first cleaning, upon arrival, and the final cleaning, before departure, were the most important and most laborious. The first cleaning meant digging out a layer of mostly dry manure. The final cleaning happened during the warmth of spring, when a thick layer of soft, wet manure is dug up and spread around the sheep pen to dry for the following winter. Once dried, this manure is black and pure and just the right size. There is no better fuel for the winter.

The lowest layer of manure is close to the earth. Mixed with sand and soil, it becomes hard and clumpy. After a whole summer exposed to the sun and air, it can be dug up in slabs as straight as concrete. These manure slabs can’t be used as fuel, but they are the desert’s most important building material. The Chinese national anthem goes, “Use our flesh and blood to build a new Great Wall.” For the sheep, it’s “Use our poop to build a shelter from the wind and cold.” A sheep pen built from manure slabs is both neat and sturdy. What else could you use to build it with anyway? In the desert, there are no trees, soil, or rocks, only tufts of brittle grass jutting out of soft sand.

Even the place where we humans eat and live—our burrow—requires sheep manure. A burrow is a six-foot-deep pit. In the sandy desert, its four walls would easily collapse if not for the manure slabs. A few logs are laid on top of the manure-lined pit, some dry grass is spread on top, then smear some manure crumble on top of that and you have a “roof.” Finally, dig a sloping passage to enter the sealed cave. Of course, the passage walls must be tiled with manure slabs as well.

Even the wide platform on which we slept was built with manure slabs. Basically, we lived in sheep manure.

“Living in sheep manure” might sound unappealing, but in reality, it’s great. Not only is sheep manure the sole building material available in the desert, it is also incomparable—in the dead of winter, only animal feces can magically, continuously radiate heat. This was never more apparent to me than on the coldest nights when we herded the sheep into their pen. The northern winds howled. It was so cold, I could barely open my eyes and the pain was like I had just been punched in the face. But the very moment I came near the thick manure wall, the cold vanished and a feeling of warmth washed over me.

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Same Brand, Different Food Quality East and West

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 14-15:

In 2017, Slovakia’s consumer association tested a selection of food from supermarkets in eight EU member states: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In some products they found small differences—in any case, the products were not identical—but there were much bigger differences in others. They tasted different and the content was different as well, from Knorr soup to Iglo fish sticks (the latter had 58 percent fish instead of 65 percent). Slovakia’s Ministry of Agriculture drew similar conclusions when comparing twenty-two same-brand products bought in Bratislava and in two Austrian towns across the border. Half of them tasted and looked different and had different compositions. For instance, a German orange drink purchased in Bratislava contained no actual juice, unlike the same product sold in Austria, which had some amount of juice.

When other countries followed suit, they found roughly the same differences. Hungary’s food safety authority examined twenty-four products sold in both Hungary and Austria. It found, among other things, that the domestic version of Manner wafers was less crunchy (and crunchiness is just about the most important “ingredient” they offer!), and the local Nutella not as creamy as the Austrian one….

In Poland, Leibniz biscuits contain 5 percent butter and some palm oil, while those sold in the company’s home market of Germany contain 12 percent butter and no palm oil, a cheap alternative to butter. The Slovene consumer association examined thirty-two products sold in Slovenia and Austria and identified ten where there was a difference in quality. The point is that the inferior version of the product was always placed in an Eastern European country and never in a Western country.

Drakulic doesn’t mention the different currencies still used in most of the Eastern European countries, nor the relative price differences between countries inside and outside the Eurozone.

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Potage and Reportage in Vietnam, 1966

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 139-140:

Cubello took a bunk in a corner of the tent next to Bob Gaylord, a career soldier, former short order cook, and petty thief. Bob found or stole a one-burner kerosene stove and then began to filch food from the mess hall and cook it for us. So we all liked Gaylord despite personal hygiene deficiencies on his part, such as never changing his green army T-shirt.

Army food wasn’t bad as long as the army cooks had nothing to do with it. Gaylord mixed jars of stuffed green olives and anchovies—yes, from somewhere he got dozens of those small flat cans of anchovies—with a stolen gallon can of army beef stew and heated it to tepid on his stove. We craved salty food because of our constant sweating. With enough Tabasco, we thought the salty, fishy stew was delicious.

Time magazine claimed on several occasions that GIs in Vietnam had shrimp cocktail, steak, and ice cream on a regular basis. I suppose that you have to expect a certain level of bollocks from a mass audience magazine, as Time used to be. Time was printed on a useful quality of paper, though. In Vietnam, if you saw a soldier walking in a purposeful manner with a rolled-up copy of Time, you knew where he was going.

Time’s reporting of Vietnam had a more basic flaw. Time’s main local correspondent, Pham Xuan An, had remarkable sources of information. In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam described An as the linchpin of his “small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists. Halberstam thought that An “had the best military contacts in the country.”

In claiming this, Halberstam was certainly correct. An was a colonel, and later a general, in the North Vietnamese Army. An sent invaluable reports about American activities to North Vietnam via the Cu Chi tunnels.

A full description of An’s role is in The New Yorker of May 23, 2005.

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Russia’s Military Manpower in 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 98-99:

The war’s economic effects had caused the food supply crisis. Its impact on the army lay behind the mutiny. Although Russia had boosted military spending between 1909 and 1914, during the previous decade spending had stagnated. The 1914 army in some ways resembled the British rather than the French or German as, although composed of conscripts (in contrast to the British), it was relatively small and well equipped. The reverse of the coin was that barely a third of each age cohort had done service, so when casualties proved far higher than expected Russia ran out of trained men. Despite its bigger population than France or Germany, it called up similar numbers of conscripts: during the war it mobilized only 5 per cent of its population for active duty, against France’s 16 per cent and Germany’s 12 per cent. By 1917 14.6 million men had enlisted and over 5.5 million become casualties, 2.4 million of them as prisoners. At least 1 million returned to service after being wounded, and fatalities may have totalled 1.6–1.85 million. In 1914 the government sent to war the standing army and those who had served between 1904 and 1910. Subsequently it called up all the trained men of the 1896–1910 cohorts and many untrained members of the 1914–18 cohorts, but by 1916 it was recruiting men who were not only untrained but also in their forties, with jobs and families, and resistance mounted, leading in Central Asia to open revolt against being enlisted in labour corps. Even so, during the Brusilov offensive and its follow-on attacks Russian casualties may have reached another 2 million, of whom 1 million lost their lives. From the autumn the army was calling up its last reserve, including previously exempted sole breadwinners. Recruiting them led to riots in the villages and to wives mobbing induction points, and to mass protests in Petrograd.

Military censors read the soldiers’ letters, whose mood was ugly. By 1916 they betrayed deep hatred of the war and despair about winning it, condoned fraternization and mass surrender, and were desperate for a speedy peace, the Brusilov offensive exacerbating the discontent. Repeated defeats and superior enemy weaponry had dashed any early confidence, and the authorities were held to have betrayed their men. By the autumn, moreover, the army ate less and poorer-quality food. Daily bread rations were cut by a third or even two-thirds, or replaced by unpalatable lentils. Brusilov complained that on his South-Western Front the miserably inadequate provisions demoralized his troops, and between October and December over twenty mutinies broke out, including refusals to attack or to move up. Troops called out to quell a disturbance at Kremenchug refused to shoot, and the French ambassador learned to his dismay that during a strike in Petrograd soldiers had fired on the police. The authorities no longer placed their most reliable units in the cities, whose garrisons included the middle-aged and convalescents. Since 1916, moreover, strikers had been conscripted. Yet although the Petrograd commanders knew some men held revolutionary views, they had no plans to replace them.

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Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

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Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

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