Category Archives: migration

Vietnam Retrospective, 2007

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 273-274:

Visiting Vietnam, even the Cu Chi Tunnels, is not like visiting Antietam or Verdun (and if you don’t know what those places represent, shame on you). The country is beautiful; there are few marks of war and the people, arguably the best looking on earth, are intelligent, friendly, and interesting. But there is another level, another dimension, to life in Vietnam. The country you see was paid for in blood.

Hanoi is not really about opera or folk art performances. Basically, Hanoi is about politics. Hanoi will always be to Saigon as Washington is to LA.

To understand the price ordinary Vietnamese paid for a Communist victory, visit the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. Despite the name, this is a museum of Vietnamese history and culture.

In a gallery containing examples of Vietnamese living quarters, there is one recreated room showing a truly Spartan lifestyle. The label on this exhibit read: “1975–1986 was a dramatic period and a profound lesson about the laws of social development.”

This is a profound understatement.

During that period after the end of the war, an individual without party connections was rationed to five meters of cloth per annum. The sandals worn by most people were made from old American tires and called “Ho Chi Minh Nikes.” Rice was also strictly rationed because of the failure of collective farming. Hunger was routine. People sat on wooden crates and looked into their empty rice bowls for entertainment because chairs and TV were only for cadres.

And this was the life of the politically acceptable. Hundreds of thousands of the politically tainted were put through reeducation camps. Many died in these camps. Millions had died in the war. There were reminders everywhere of those who were gone.

For years, Vietnam went nowhere spiritually or economically. It was one of the poorest countries on earth.

Over time, younger Vietnamese came to realize that such a life was not endurable. The older party leaders were sidelined. The younger ones cozied up to capitalism, just as in China.

Since 1993 [his last visit], Vietnam has gone through doi moi or economic openness. The boom that started in Saigon has spread to Hanoi. Much of the Hanoi Hilton prison, where John McCain was held, has been torn down for a real estate development. Corruption is rampant and is known as “lubricating oil.” There is a thriving stock exchange and over two hundred listed companies. GDP per capita has more than doubled since 1993. Many women have started tiny businesses.

Officially, Vietnam is a “market economy with a socialist orientation.” Just like Norway or The People’s Republic of Vermont.

The population of Vietnam is among the youngest on earth. They appear optimistic and have good reason to be. Writing and music and art have revived. Vietnam is rich in resources and well placed geographically. A promising future lies before it.

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How Tok Pisin Came to Gapun

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 31-33:

Tok Pisin entered Gapun in around 1916. A year or so before the outbreak of the First World War, word spread from the coast that white men were in the area searching for young men to work for them. These white men were German labor recruiters, and the men they recruited were to be shipped off to the copra plantations that the Germans had established along the Rai Coast of eastern New Guinea (at that time, it was German New Guinea) and on various distant islands. Two Gapun men, Ayarpa and Waiki, went to the coast to find those white men. They resisted the protests of their relatives, who believed that the white men wanted to lure them away from the village to kill them. The two men were itching for an adventure. They ignored their relatives, found the recruiters, and left with them.

Ayarpa and Waiki joined the scores of men from various parts of the mainland who were taken to a copra plantation on Kokopo near the German settlement of Rabaul, on the faraway island of Neu-Pommern (“New Pomerania”). They remained on this plantation for at least three years, and they apparently witnessed the Australian occupation of Germany’s New Guinea territories at the outbreak of World War I (at which time “New Pomerania” was imperiously changed to “New Britain”). My language teacher in Gapun, old Raya, recalled Ayarpa—who was Raya’s father—describing how the inglis (that is, the Australians) rounded up the Germans and “put them into big crates. They put them all inside the crates, nailed them shut, and sent them back to their country.”

Sometime after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea in 1914, Ayarpa and Waiki came home. The stories that survive them recount how they arrived triumphantly in the village, carrying with them the fruits of their labor. Each man had a small wooden patrol box filled with “cargo”: steel knives, machetes, axes, bolts of factory-made cloth, European tobacco, saucer-sized ceramic plates that looked like seashells. (Villagers throughout New Guinea regarded such flat seashells as valuable items, and knowing that, the Germans mass-produced counterfeit ones in white ceramic to pay their laborers.) But just as impressive and even longer lasting than the goods they brought with them were the stories they told about working on the plantation. And most impressive of all was the new language the men had acquired while working for the white men.

As most people in New Guinea did at the time, Ayarpa and Waiki assumed that Tok Pisin was the language of white men. And like the steel axes and fake seashells that entered the village’s redistributive networks, so did the white men’s language: Ayarpa and Waiki immediately set about sharing the language with their peers.

A few years after Ayarpa and Waiki returned to Gapun, a group of Australian labor recruiters suddenly appeared in the village. This was the first time any white person had actually come to the village, and panic ensued. Most of the terrified villagers fled into the rainforest. Only Ayarpa, Waiki, and a few old people who were too frail to run fast enough to escape were left. Seeing the village thus deserted, the Australians resorted to what was presumably a time-tested technique of persuasion: they gathered together the old people who remained and prevented them from leaving, and then they waited until their anxious cries brought back a few young men. At that point, Ayarpa and Waiki did the recruiters’ work for them: they told the men that if they went off with the white men, they would go to where the two of them had gone, and they would learn Tok Pisin. “We’ve taught you some of the white man’s language,” they are said to have told the men, “but you don’t know it well. If you go away to the plantation, you’ll learn it well.”

Five men left with the recruiters.

And so a pattern of learning Tok Pisin became established. Young men acquired a basic knowledge of the language in the village. They then went off to work as contracted laborers to learn Tok Pisin “well.” Later, when they returned to the village, they taught the language to the young men.

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Filed under Australia, Germany, labor, language, migration, Papua New Guinea

Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Filed under Caribbean, Cuba, migration, North America, Spain, travel

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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Spanish Women Pioneers in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 52-55:

ALONGSIDE THESE THREE caballeros [including Cabeza de Vaca], a microcosm of Spanish society was to travel to Florida. The expedition must have included a full complement of letrados, physicians, merchants, artisans, sailors, all the way down to lowly peasants seeking a fresh start. Five Franciscan brothers were to introduce the Indians to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

The Florida expedition included women as well. Women were a fixture of early voyages of discovery and settlement. According to one estimate, they comprised around 10 percent of all licenses issued to departing passengers from Seville during much of the sixteenth century. In certain years they accounted for as much as 20 percent and even close to 30 percent of all European migrants to the New World. The majority of these pioneering women were married to members of the expeditions, but unmarried women traveled too, including the daughters of families, female servants, and prostitutes.

The lure of the Americas was all too evident for those women interested in marriage. In Spain there was an overabundance of women due to male migration and early death from war. According to the ambassador of the Republic of Venice, in the 1520s Seville appeared to be “very nearly under the control of women,” many of whom earned their living in manly occupations like peonage, masonry, and roofing. The situation was the exact opposite in the Indies, where European women were notoriously scarce and greatly appreciated by affluent but lonesome conquistadors.

Not surprisingly, most women traveled to parts of the New World already settled by Europeans; they were far less likely to risk voyages of exploration and conquest headed for unknown lands. Some expedition captains refused to take females altogether. But Narváez was not among them. The first European women in Mexico had traveled with Narváez in the imposing armada that was to confront Cortés. In the Florida expedition there were ten women, all of whom were married and traveling with their husbands.

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Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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Filed under democracy, economics, France, industry, labor, Mexico, migration, nationalism, Spain, U.S., war

George Simpson’s Legacy at HBC

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 335-337:

Suspicious by nature, Simpson nosed his way into every aspect of the business looking for things others might have missed. The overarching theme of his governorship was control, and he believed that improving the Company’s efficiency involved not merely optimizing its operations but cutting expenses. Over the years, Simpson gradually phased out the use of transport canoes—apart from his own enormous and speedy executive canoe—and replaced them with the heavy but large York boats that the Company had been using on certain routes for decades. In keeping with Simpson’s philosophy of economy, it was just a matter of math. The inelegant and tubby boats had a greater manpower-to-cargo ratio. They were also cheap to make and maintain and required less skill to use. The real clincher for Simpson was that he could have the boats made larger while the number of men to crew them was kept the same. One of his devious schemes to cut wages was to pressure labourers and officers to renew their contracts during the winter, when, because of their isolation, they had no idea what the prevailing rates and wages were, and they usually agreed to less in the absence of a competitive market.

Taken as a whole, Simpson’s actions, including his preoccupation with the minutiae of people’s lives, confirm the conclusion that he wielded an unwholesome authority over those who lived in his domain. He enjoyed knowing that he held power over people, that they could be kept in check by having no agency over the bread-and-butter aspects of their lives. Displaying deference and loyalty to him was the surest way of securing a promotion—that and not being Indigenous or of mixed heritage. Simpson rarely promoted the sons of his officers and their Indigenous wives above the position of labourer or interpreter, preferring to bring in Scots from overseas for officer ranks. By the 1830s, many of his officers fumed at this discrimination against their children and sought alternative opportunities for them. “It appears the present concern has stamped the Cain mark upon all born in this country,” wrote trader Charles Mackenzie regarding his mixed-heritage son Hector. “Neither education nor abilities serve them. The Honourable Company are unwilling to take natives, even as apprenticed clerks, and the favoured few they do take can never aspire to a higher status, be their education and capacity what they may.” But native-born people—whether Indigenous or of mixed heritage—were the ones who best understood the Company’s operations and responsibilities, and they chafed at being relegated to positions of subservience beneath imported managers. It was an uphill battle, and by the 1860s the “half breeds” made up only a third of the officer ranks.

Simpson didn’t care if he was liked or hated—he worked for his own benefit and to keep the London Committee satiated with profit. Beneath the surface, his was an information empire as much as a fur empire. The more profitable and secure things seemed, the less anyone was inclined to interfere with his methods or his personal life. Seeing in Simpson an uncommonly astute operative who appeared content to dwell in the hinterland, the Company promoted him to be in charge of both the Northern and Southern Districts in 1824. Simpson became the head of a personality cult that ran a complex commercial, and increasingly political, empire. He was the boss of the only general store for half a continent.

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First American Mountain Men, 1820s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 358-359:

WILLIAM ASHLEY, AN ASTUTE ENTREPRENEUR, gunpowder salesman and later politician based out of St. Louis, changed the fur trade forever in the Pacific Northwest and set in motion events that would change its politics as well. In the spring of 1823, Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry organized a band of one hundred ragged and unruly ramblers—some wastrels, some thugs, some adventurous youths from the east, and quite a few former Nor’Westers disgruntled after the amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Ashley’s small band, based out of the ramshackle tavern town of St. Louis, poled their unwieldy flat-bottomed barges upriver along the mud-coloured Missouri River and into the mountains. From there they filtered into the valleys and gulches of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to set traps for unwary beaver. They were the first American “Mountain Men,” and during the 1820s and 1830s they expanded their operations westward toward the Pacific, nibbling at the fringes of McLoughlin’s domain and encroaching on the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples.

Ashley’s “One Hundred Men” were not hauling into the wilderness back-breaking burdens of trade goods to exchange with the Indians for their furs. Instead they were laden with beaver traps and personal supplies. They had no intention of constructing a trading fort in the mountains. Ashley’s scheme was to have his men do the actual trapping—a role in the fur trade that had previously been the exclusive domain of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of traditional territories did not help relations between the two peoples. The various tribes didn’t appreciate hundreds of foreigners wandering around their territory trapping all the beaver. Within a few years, a more or less constant low-level war existed between the new trappers and the natives. Both the Mountain Men and the Indigenous warriors proudly displayed the scalps of their vanquished foes, sometimes wearing strings of the shrivelled flesh and hair as accoutrements to their outfits. The American senator Thomas Benton suggested that nearly five hundred American trappers perished in combat with the Rocky Mountain peoples by the close of the 1820s. He made no estimate of the Indigenous peoples that they had killed. The life expectancy of a “free trapper” could be short, and so for mutual protection as they invaded the traditional lands of proud and sometimes militant nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Snake (Shoshoni) or Nez Perce, the free trappers travelled in brigades, or companies, of twenty men or more. Two of the greatest of these brigades were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company, although both were later absorbed by the American Fur Company as John Jacob Astor tightened his grip on the American fur trade in the 1830s. Astor rapidly increased the trade along the upper Missouri River with the use of steam-powered ships. By the time the demand for fur had petered out by the 1840s, Astor had sold his interests in the fur trade, and the industry slipped into decline—the age of the Mountain Men was between 1822 and 1840. But the American Fur Company continued to flourish in the decades to follow, beginning the lucrative trade in bison hides that eventually drove the thundering herds to near extinction later in the century.

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