Monday, December 28, 2009

The Island of the Seven Cities

Another book that has my attention this Christmas is ‘The Island of the Seven Cities’ by Paul Chiasson.  He has built up the evidence and argument for Cape Breton Island been that legendary island that figured heavily at the very beginnings of the European discovery of the Americas.

He reports on his discovery of one such town on Cape Dauphin and picks up on additional evidence for other locales toward the end.  He gained significant publicity when he presented at the Smithsonian in 2005 and also some coverage since.  It appears that several towns were built primarily to exploit gold occurrences on the island by Chinese operators at least during part of the fifteenth century.

This is presently highly controversial but competent archeology will certainly shake out the truth.  The extent of the operations suggests a large labor force and possibly a sustained period of exploitation.  Also the finite nature of gold mining activity strongly suggests that as the resource was mined out, that the settlers merely packed up and went home.

Chinese exploration may have ended with Zheng He , but long initiated operations were self contained and unlikely to just shut down while there was gold to bring back to the Emperor.  The treasure fleet may well have been broken up but merchant ships could still make the trip.  We also have evidence of shipbuilding capacity at the towns.

The work force was large, so extraction of easily accessible alluvial gold would have been completed within a couple of generations.  In short, it was a planned industrial mining operation.  If it was discovered by Zheng He then the turn around would have been immediate because the new Emperor had ended exploration and ordered the ships destroyed.  What better way than to launch a mining expedition?

In such a case, the swift building of full communities, apparently fully fortified is not too surprising.  That they then operated as long as the gold lasted is a natural expectation as everyone returning home would be well staked.   My guess, if John Cabot’s report is correct, is that operations lasted to 1497 at least.  I also think that they packed up and left shortly thereafter.  

Portuguese fishermen and others were invading the offshore fishery and quickly developing the capacity to slave out the communities and this would have driven protection costs sky high.  Recall that for the next century, there were two sources of revenue available to seamen.   The easy one and the main business was salted and dried cod for the European market.  The other was slaving out coastal communities of natives for resale in Lisbon.  That is the main reason the Eastern Seaboard was depopulated by the early seventeenth century when colonization began.  

In fact Eastern North America continued to be slaved out even into the eighteenth century.  I am no longer convinced that disease was anywhere near the factor claimed in most histories.  A healthy woman can produce a dozen children so long as the crops can be brought in.  This only becomes impossible if the able bodied men and women are grabbed and sold into the slave islands of the Caribbean. 

The effect is very easy to underestimate.  At any time, a community of 200 has less than a third as able bodied men able to participate in war.  Capturing half those in a season which is about thirty men is recoverable in several years.  Yet the community is weakened and unable to withstand a similar attack the next year.  From this it can be seen that even moderate slaving for transportable slaves will swiftly collapse populations.

My point is that even moderate pressure exerted over a century will sooner or later induce a collapse of organized societies.

No comments: