Forwarded from Anthony (part 4 on American capitalism)
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 24 17:57:15 MDT 2003
The European Invasion of North America: salt cod and beaver pelts
This is the fifth in a series of posts dealing with the history of North
America, aimed specifically at addressing the following issues which have
been raised in recent exchanges: the relation of slavery to capitalism, the
relation of small family farming to capitalism, the relations of modes of
production to world systems, the 'primitive accumulation of capital' in
general, and in North America in particular. A list of the previous posts
appears at the end of this note.
Spain's colonies in America were founded on simple plunder, leading to
mining and support for mining. Spain was able to do this because the
indigenous cultures from Mexico south to Bolivia had developed metal
smelting, and also had large deposits of gold and silver.
Unfortunately for the would-be plunderers of the eastern seaboard of North
America, the native American cultures had not yet learned how to smelt
metal - even though there were fairly large deposits of gold available in
North Carolina (where there is still an operating gold mine.) So there were
no already mined and smelted hoards of gold for the Northern Europeans to
steal, not even little trinkets.
Instead, the first, and for centuries one of the most important, North
American resource exploited by the Europeans was the North American
fisheries - especially the Grand Banks.
The second, and for centuries the most important, was the American
population of furry animals.
Neither of these highly profitable commercial activities required military
conquest of indigenous cultures. Nor did either of them require large scale
Prior to the actual invasion of North America Europeans touched on the
shores of North America at various points. All of the exact locations are
not known, and probably will never be known.
Samuel Elliot Morrison's books on this subject point to the Grand Banks as
a key factor in the post-Norse European 'discovery' of America. Salt Cod
-bakala, bacalua, or whatever you want to call it - was a staple part of
15th century winter diets all over Europe, from Italy to Norway. The
richest cod fishing grounds in the world, until recently, were the Grand
Banks, off the Newfoundland coast of Canada.
Precisely when European fishermen found the Grand Banks will probably never
be known, but they certainly had been by 1497 when 'John Cabot' visited
them and reported them to his patron, the King of England. Most probably
Cabot was simply following the directions of fishermen who had been
secretly visiting the Grand Banks for years before his voyages. In any
case, European fishing camps were being established along the Canadian
coast by the early 1500s.
(These were base camps only inhabited during the summer fishing season.
Nevertheless, they almost certainly brought European fishermen into contact
with Native Americans in Canada well before the establishment of the
British colonies farther south. And most likely the tribal peoples of
Canada began to suffer from the epidemic spread of European diseases before
they spread in the areas south of the Great Lakes.)
Very soon, European fishermen were also returning to Europe with furs,
obtained from trading with the coastal tribes.
This was the beginning of a commercial relation which was to become the
dominant geopolitical issue among European nations in America until the
French and Indian (Seven Years) War, and a key issue in the American
revolution and the war of 1812.
While all of the northern European colonial powers in Northern North
America: France, England, Holland, and Sweden in the 17th century, later
Russia, became engaged in the fur trade, France made the fur trade the
center of its colonial policy from the start, and became the dominant power
until its defeat in the Seven Years/French and Indian War.
French fur trading spread into the Saint Lawrence River Valley, and then
down the Mississippi river valley, and into the Missouri and Ohio Valleys.
Although French royal policy tried to encourage colonization in New France,
it was a miserable failure, especially compared to the rapid population of
the British colonies to the south and east of New France. By the time
middle 18th century, New France had about 60,000 French colonists, while
New England had somewhere between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 colonists. (This
fact will be discussed further, in one of the future posts in this series
on colonial modes of production.)
French colonization was very limited, mainly in the Saint Lawrence River
valley, in and around the towns of Montreal and Quebec. Other French
outposts were small military fortifications with fur trading posts
attached. The permanent French populations at these outposts was almost
always less than 100.
However, these outposts effectively reorganized the political economy of
Native American society from the subarctic south to New Orleans, and from
the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian mountains in the 17th and 18th
In the first place they spread European diseases throughout almost all of
In the second place they spread European technology, or at any rate its
products, throughout all of North America. Long before white faces appeared
in Wyoming, small pox, guns, and brandy had arrived.
In the third place, the already well-developed trading system of the Native
Americans was transformed into a two way continental market - pelts were
traded downstream, European trade goods went upstream.
In the fourth place, inter- European competition for control of the fur
trade led to a series of wars into which tribal societies in and near the
Saint Lawrence Valley were drawn, accelerating the trend toward social
class formation, and shaping that trend in a way that could not have
happened without the European invasion.
The main competitors to the French were the British, who by the mid
seventeenth century had taken over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (who
had previously taken over the small Swedish fur trading colony.)
British competition flanked the French fur trading empire: to the north
with the outposts of the Hudson Bay company, and to the southeast with the
string of British colonial settlements on the eastern seaboard of the
France and Britain fought a series of four wars, leading up to the final
French and Indian War (Seven Years War). Control of the fur trade was the
central North American prize in every one of those wars.
Both the French and the British formed alliances with Indian tribal groups:
the French with the Hurons, the British with the Iroquois. French and
British interests fanned the flames of existing frictions, and produced far
bloodier warfare than previous intertribal conflicts. For the first time
tribal wars became transformed into wars of territorial conquest - and the
tendency to form social classes within tribal society was accelerated.
The notion that the Iroquois practiced slavery before the European invasion
comes from accounts stemming from the 17th century and later - the period
in which the Iroquois fought as the frontlines of the British forces
against the Huron and the French. Captured Hurons became slaves - at least
temporarily - during that period. Whether or not slavery was practiced by
the Iroquois before their society was changed by the series of European
inspired wars will probably never be known.
In addition to the far-reaching and devastating changes the fur trade
itself brought to North American tribal societies, it became the opening
wedge of what was to be a far more damaging invasion, the spread of the
British settler state on the Eastern seaboard westward to the Pacific.
The next post will address the different types of colonization which took
place, and the different colonial modes of production that emerged in the
17th century Northern European colonies in North America.
Here is a list of the previous posts in this series.
Subject: Forwarded from Anthony (part 3 on American
history) From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> Date: Wed,
17 Sep 2003 11:57:09 -0400
Subject: Forwarded from Anthony (US history, etc.) From:
Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 08:21:04 -0400
Subject: Forwarded from Anthony (primitive accumulation, etc.)
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003
12:22:03 -0400 Back to the 15th century.
All the best, Anthony
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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