Tag Archives: Americas

Land of samba

South America largely avoided the all-out international total wars that consumed Eurasia in the twentieth century. (Civil wars are another matter.) But international events made themselves felt even here. Brazil had its own fascist party, the Integralists, with its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. However in Brazil, even the fascists couldn’t quite get into the whole National Socialist racial purity thing; the Integralist slogan called for a “Union of all races and peoples.” The Integralists fought the Communists in the early 1930s, but eventually both sides were suppressed by the dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1937, led by Getúlio Vargas.


In much of the world at the time, liberalism and free trade were out, and nationalism and protectionism were in. In Latin America, this move went under the name of “populism,” favoring urban businessmen and workers at the expense of the old export-oriented land- and mine-owners. This often meant cultural as well as economic nationalism. Brazil today is famous for its Carnival celebrations, including samba parades. Ironically these took much of their current shape during the 1930s, echoing mass rallies in Italy and Germany. The organized samba parades were a means of bringing rowdy public celebrations under official control: from this point on they were officially sponsored, and were expected to march in orderly lines and to celebrate edifying nationalist themes. Early twentieth century samba musicians incorporated a variety of musical styles in their performances; in the 1930s, in the name of “authenticity,” they were encouraged to purge their music of foreign influences, including jazz.


Commerce and coalitions


The theory of comparative advantage is one of the really great theories in the behavioral sciences. It implies that even if country E has an absolute disadvantage at producing every kind of good compared to country P, it can still gain by finding goods for which it has a comparative advantage, and specialize in producing those, and trading for other goods with P.

But the theory of comparative advantage (like another great theory,  the theory of kin selection) needs to be handled with care. Even if a country benefits in the aggregate from international trade, there may be losers as well as winners. As the world came to be increasingly tied together by international trade, conflicts over free trade and protectionism moved to the fore of politics. In nineteenth century England, the free traders, representing industrialists and urban workers, took control, opening the country to cheap imported food. But in the 1870s, both Germany and the United States arrived at political settlements that favored protectionism over free trade.

Germany was unified in 1871. The densely populated country had a comparative advantage in labor and a comparative disadvantage in capital and land. Free trade for Germany would have meant specializing in labor intensive goods, and importing capital intensive goods from more industrialized countries like England, and cheap food from the more thinly populated Americas and Eastern Europe. Instead, Germany put up high tariff barriers to protect her industrialists and landowners – a “marriage of iron and rye.” Germany’s industrial working class was pro-free trade (so was Karl Marx), but their main political vehicle, the Social Democratic Party, was excluded from the government. This political settlement lasted right up to the First World War; on some accounts, the fraying of the protectionist ruling coalition was a factor pushing Germany toward war.

The United States had a different protectionist coalition. In the 1870s the country had an abundance of land, but it was short of labor and still in the early stages of industrialization. Protectionism, supported by Republicans, promoted national industry, and kept high-wage American workers from having to compete with low-wage workers overseas. The agricultural South and West were the big losers under this scheme, but there was a compensating advantage for the South. The compromise of 1876 put the Republican, Hayes, in the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction in the South. White Southerners then had a free hand to set up a one party state under the Democrats, committed to white rule. When the upstart Populists started winning support in the South and West on a free trade platform, they were beaten back by Southern Democrats playing the race card. The condominium between Republicans and Democrats lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In Latin America at the same time period, the free traders were largely in the ascendant. In Brazil, for example, the ruling coalition stood for café com leite – coffee with milk – São Paulo coffee planters and Minas Gerais cattle ranchers committed to an export oriented economy. Brazil had a lot of vacant land that could be opened up for coffee production, and was able to attract European immigrants to help with the harvest.

In Guatemala by contrast, free trade took a more sinister turn. From 1871, a “liberal” government facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands to promote coffee production, all in the name of progress. Indians were recruited to work on the plantations by a combination of forced labor and debt peonage. The country came to resemble a penal colony under the control of a large standing army.

Joseph Conrad spent his early life as a sailor, and had plenty of chance to see the dark underside of globalization, most famously the Congo rubber trade as depicted in Heart of Darkness. In Nostromo, set in a fictional Latin American republic, he wrote

Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavor of folly and murder.

Of cannibals


Three of these men [Tupi Indians from Brazil], ignorant of the price they will pay some day … ignorant of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin … poor wretches …were at Rouen, at the time the late King Charles IX was there [in 1562]. The king talked to them for a long time; they were shown our ways, our splendor, the aspect of a fine city. After that someone asked their opinion, and wanted to know what they had found most amazing. They mentioned three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and I am very sorry for it; but I still remember two of them. They said that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many grown men, bearded, strong, and armed, who were around the king (it is likely that they were talking about the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that one of them was not chosen to command instead. Second (they have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another), they had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could endure such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.

I had a very long talk with one of them. … When I asked him what profit he gained from his superior position among his people (for he was a captain, and our sailors called him king), he told me that it was to march foremost in war. … Did all his authority expire with the war? He said that this much remained, that when he visited the villages dependent on him, they made paths for him through the underbrush by which he might pass quite comfortably.

All this is not too bad – but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.

Of Cannibals. Essays of Montaigne

Brave New World


Columbus’s discoveries overthrew the Medieval conception of Earth’s place in the cosmos. No, he did not discover that the Earth was round. Educated Greeks had known that two millennia earlier. But he also did more than just discover new lands.

The standard, educated medieval view of the cosmos was a synthesis of Aristotle and Christian theology. The universe consisted of larger and larger spheres of more and more rarefied elements: a sphere of earth, a sphere of water, a sphere of air, a sphere of fire (the sublunary sphere, home of meteors), and successive quintessential spheres for the planets, the fixed stars, and heaven beyond. The first two spheres were not concentric, obviously – otherwise the earthly sphere would have been underwater. Instead, Providence had set the earthly sphere sufficiently off-center that some of it – including the whole inhabited world – stuck above the water.


Here’s a representation of the old view, still surviving just after Columbus (from David Wooton’s fine recent book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution). At the very center of the chart, inside the wavy lines representing the sphere of water, is a funny shape: a T-and-O map of the inhabited world. The East, and Asia, are the white area above the horizontal crossbar of the T. The vertical bar of the T is the Mediterranean, with two further horizontal black lines separating Iberian, Italian and Balkan peninsulas to the North (left). Africa is South (right) of the Mediterranean. Not shown on this map, at the very crux of the T, is the holy city of Jerusalem, site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. T-and-O maps aren’t much use for navigation, but they were popular for a long time because they showed a Higher Truth.

It’s hard to square this conception of the universe with the discovery of a whole New World sticking up on the opposite side of the watery sphere. Columbus tried out various theories. At first he imagined that he had reached the (East) Indies. Later, he started thinking that the earthly “sphere” might be pear-shaped (shaped like a woman’s breast, he put it) rather than strictly spherical, and you could reach the site of earthly Paradise (the nipple) by sailing up the Orinoco.

The generation following Columbus, beginning with Amerigo Vespucci, abandoned the nested spheres idea, at least as far as earth and water were concerned. When Medieval writers wrote about “the Earth” they almost always meant just the earthly sphere, minus the Ocean. After Columbus, “the Earth” would come to refer to the whole terraqueous globe.


The Waldseeemüller map (1507) is one of the first to show the Old World and the New. Copernicus almost certainly saw a copy of the map. It spurred him to imagine that the Earthly globe – land and water – could revolve around its own axis, and – even more radically – might revolve around the sun.

Tales of the South Pacific

1) News flash: Melanesians may be carrying DNA from a fourth species of humans, not H. sapiens, Neanderthals, or Denisovans.

2) Polynesians in America

Before the great Western voyages of exploration, the Austronesian expansion settled new lands all the way from Madagascar to Polynesia. And Polynesian sailors probably got even further east than Polynesia. Scholars have long been aware of archaeological evidence for contact between Polynesia and America. For example, the Chumash Indians who lived around the Channel Islands in Southern California built distinctive sewn-plank canoes unlike anything in the rest of Pacific North America, but very much like Polynesian vessels. And it’s hard to explain how sweet potatoes could have gotten from the New World to the Pacific islands without human contact – floating in salt water isn’t very likely. A recent scholarly review of a wide range of evidence for contact – linguistic, technological, biological – is here.

Ultimately DNA may provide definitive answers, although a report from several years ago that some New World chickens are genetically close to Polynesian chickens now seems questionable.

3) The Statues That Walked.

Easter Island was settled around 1200, based on the most recent carbon-14 dates. There are two very different accounts of the subsequent history of the island. Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale of ecological overshoot and collapse. After the initial settlement, the island’s population boomed. Without Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to advise them, the islanders cut down all their palm trees.


With no more wood for sledges or rollers, the famous moai statues could no longer be moved from their quarries. And with no more wood for boats, fishing and inter-island trade became impossible. The loss of forests also led to soil erosion. A famine-stricken population rebelled against the hierarchical social order, and wound up resorting to cannibalism in the midst of a population crash. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

But Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, anthropologists who have worked on the island, differ on almost every part of this account.


They suggest that the deforestation of the island resulted from the introduction of rats, accompanying the first colonists. Rats, with no natural enemies to limit them, ate tree seeds. This wouldn’t have had noticeable effects at first, but eventually led to the forests not replacing themselves. Hunt and Lipo also dispute the claim that pre-contact Easter Island experienced a population crash; they argue that the crash came later, with European contact and the introduction of diseases to which the population had no resistance. They also see little evidence of over-exploitation of the environment. Locals were doing the best they could to make a living under marginal conditions. And as to how the moais got from one place to another, well … the islanders said they walked.

This video shows they could be right.

And some back-and-forth between Diamon and Lipo and Hunt is here.



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

For more Vikingness, the traveling exhibition “Vikings: Beyond the Legend” is well worth checking out. It’s at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City until the end of the year.

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.