How much oil left in America? Not much

Preface. If you think we have no worries because we can get arctic oil, think again. We can’t because icebergs mow drilling platforms down in the ocean. On land, massive amounts of expensive new drilling rigs, roads, rail lines, platforms, buildings and other infrastructure need to be built, and maintained every year as permafrost soil bucks and heaves like a bronco trying to shake infrastructure off.

In the first two oil shocks in the 1970s, many intelligent people proposed we should buy oil from other nations to keep ours in the ground for when foreign oil declined. But hell no, Texas, Oklahoma, and other oil states said that we need jobs and CEO/shareholder profits more than national security. Over half of all remaining oil is in the Middle East, which China, Russia, and Europe are much closer to than the U.S.

What saved the U.S. and the world, from conventional peak oil and natural gas decline since 2005 is fracking. But fracking began to decline as early as 2020 according the first report below. The second article is about oil discoveries in the U.S. declining.

This just in: John Hess, CEO of Hess Corporation, told his audience that “key U.S. shale fields are starting to plateau” and will not the next Saudi Arabia. U.S. shale oil production has been a major driver in the growth of world oil supplies. Last year the United States accounted for 98% of global growth in oil production. Since 2008 the number is 73%. so a slowdown or decline in U.S. oil production growth would mean trouble for the whole world. With 81 percent of global oil production now in decline, even a plateau in U.S. production would likely result in a worldwide decline (Kobb 2020).

Peak Fracking in the news:

2020 U.S. Shale Oil Production – All That’s Left Is The Permian And That Won’t Last Forever Either.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Goehring, L. R., et al. 2019. The unintended consequences of high grading. Goehring & Rozencwajg.

…we believe, new underappreciated forces are now at work in the shales. As we progress through 2020, the retrenchment of drilling activity, combined with the inability for drilling productivity to rise because of “high grading” will produce the potential for a significant disappointment in oil production. If rig counts turn much lower or if productivity continues to disappoint, US shale production growth might even start to turn negative as we reach the end of 2020. Most analysts are still very optimistic about US oil growth in 2020. Estimates range from as low as 1.1 mm b/d to as high as 1.7 mm b/d, but we believe these growth estimates are far too aggressive. Several prominent oil industry veterans are calling for growth as low as 400,000 b/d, which could also turn out to be optimistic. Our Oil Markets section will outline our estimates for US shale growth, as well as global oil supply-and-demand balances.

On a longer-term basis, we believe 2019 results are just the beginning. Of the two major shale oil basins, two are showing signs of exhaustion (the Eagle Ford and Bakken). Even the Permian is starting to show its age. Recent comments from Halliburton and Schlumberger reinforce the idea that the shales may be past their prime–something we have been expecting for several quarters. The underlying issues are geological in nature: the industry is running out of high-quality Tier 1 acreage. While there was hope that drilling and completion technologies could overcome these forces, our data suggests this is unlikely.

Philippe Gauthier. May 3, 2019. US Oil Exploration Drops by 95%.

It is well known that oil discoveries are in continuous decline worldwide in spite of ever-increasing investments. What is less known, however, is that spending on oil exploration is fast dropping in the United States. Exploratory drilling has been decreasing year after year and now stands at only five percent of its 1981 peak. In other words, once the currently producing shale oil wells are gone, there won’t be much to take their place.

According to figures derived from US Energy Information Agency (EIA) data by French oil geologist Jean Laherrère, oil exploration has already peaked twice in the United States. The first time was in the mid-1950s, with just over 16,000 wells drilled in a single year. The second major peak dates back to 1981, with 17,573 exploration wells. This number fell to only 847 in 2017.

Another even more revealing phenomenon is the decrease in NFWs. New field wildcats are exploration wells drilled in areas that have never produced oil, as opposed to wells drilled simply to help better delineate already known oil sectors (shown as red and greenlines in the graph). NFWs also declined by 95%, from 9,151 in 1981 to just 450 in 2017. According to Laherrère, this means that the United States have been almost entirely explored for oil and gas since 1859 and that few sites are worth drilling anymore. “There are only a few unexplored areas left offshore”, he notes.

In comparison, the number of operating wells (used to pump oil from previously known fields) was 646,626 in 1985, 597,281 in 2014, and 560,996 in 2017. However, nearly 400,000 of these wells are very old and produce at a marginal rate – fewer than 15 barrels a day and sometimes as little as one. They are described as marginal wells in the graph above.

It should be noted that the number of operating wells – a figure sometimes used to suggest that the oil industry is still running strong – does not account for this sharp decrease in exploration. Once shale oil production starts to decline – and Laherrère expects this to happen within a couple of years – there will remain few reserves to support US production.

The source material for this post is: Jean Laherrère, Updated US primary energy in quad (April 30, 2019)


Kobb, K. 2020. Peak Shale Could Spark An Offshore Drilling Boom.

Posted in How Much Left, Peak Oil | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Native American enslavement

Preface.  This is a book review of “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” by Andrés Reséndez

Slavery is an important postcarbon topic because given our past history, future wood-based civilizations will certainly return to slavery, that’s the kind of species we are. Even hunter-gatherers had slaves.

The main reason we don’t have slavery today is that fossil fuels provide each American with about 500 “energy” slaves each as I write about here.  

It’s clear that slavery has existed since towns and cities began (Scott 2013).  If you read the Old Testament, it is full of slavery (Wikipedia 2020), as I discovered when I tried to read the Bible in High school. I can’t begin to express how sad and angry I was. Plus how women were treated. It’s one of many reasons I became an atheist.

Some key points:

Indian slavery never went away, but rather coexisted with African slavery from the 16th through late 19th century. Until quite recently, we did not have even a ballpark estimate of the number of Natives held in bondage. Since Indian slavery was largely illegal, its victims toiled, quite literally, in dark corners and behind locked doors, giving us the impression that they were fewer than they actually were. Because Indian slaves did not have to cross an ocean, no ship manifests or port records exist.

Slavery had been practiced in Mexico since time immemorial. Pre-contact Indians had sold their children or even themselves into slavery because they had no food. Many Indians had been sold into slavery by other Indians as punishment for robbery, rape, or other crimes. Some war slaves were set aside for public sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Some towns even had holding pens where men and women were fattened before the festivities. All of these pre-contact forms of bondage operated in specific cultural contexts.

In pre-contact North America … Indian societies that adopted agriculture experienced a sudden population increase and acquired both the means and the motivation to raid other peoples. The Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Caribs, Iroquois, and many others possessed captives and slaves, as is clear in archaeological, linguistic, and historical records. Nomadic groups also had slaves. But it is possible to find some nomads who were reluctant to accept even individuals who willingly offered themselves as slaves to save themselves from starvation. For some of these groups, taking slaves was simply not economically viable.

The end of native American slavery

The impetus did not originate in abolitionist groups. Instead it came from that much-maligned institution, the United States Congress.  Although the intended beneficiaries of the 13th amendment were African slaves, the term “involuntary servitude” opened the possibility of applying it to Indian captives, Mexican peons, Chinese coolies, or even whites caught in coercive labor arrangements.

It is clear that the introduction of horses and firearms precipitated another cycle of enslavement in North America.  Read all about it in “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman 2016.

What follows are my kindle notes of passages I found of interest in this book.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Andrés Reséndez. 2016. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Mariner books.

It came as a revelation to many easterners making their way across the continent that there were also Indian slaves, entrapped in a distinct brand of bondage that was even older in the New World, perpetrated by colonial Spain and inherited by Mexico. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the war, this other slavery became a part of Americans’ existence. California may have entered the Union as a “free-soil” state, but American settlers soon discovered that the buying and selling of Indians was a common practice there.

The first California legislature passed the Indian Act of 1850, which authorized the arrest of “vagrant” Natives who could then be “hired out” to the highest bidder. This act also enabled white persons to go before a justice of the peace to obtain Indian children “for indenture.

According to one scholarly estimate, this act may have affected as many as 20,000 California Indians, including 4,000 children kidnapped from their parents and employed primarily as domestic servants and farm laborers.

Americans learned about this other slavery one state at a time. In New Mexico, James S. Calhoun, the first Indian agent of the territory, could not hide his amazement at the sophistication of the Indian slave market. “The value of the captives depends upon age, sex, beauty, and usefulness,” wrote Calhoun.

Mormons bought slaves

Americans settling the West did more than become familiar with this other type of bondage. They became part of the system. Mormon settlers arrived in Utah in the 1840s looking for a promised land, only to discover that Indians and Mexicans had already turned the Great Basin into a slaving ground. The area was like a gigantic moonscape of bleached sand, salt flats, and mountain ranges inhabited by small bands no larger than extended families. Early travelers to the West did not hide their contempt for these “digger Indians,” who lacked both horses and weapons. These vulnerable Paiutes, as they were known, had become easy prey for other, mounted Indians. Brigham Young and his followers, after establishing themselves in the area, became the most obvious outlet for these captives. Hesitant at first, the Mormons required some encouragement from slavers, who tortured children with knives or hot irons to call attention to their trade and elicit sympathy from potential buyers or threatened to kill any child who went unpurchased.

In the end, the Mormons became buyers and even found a way to rationalize their participation in this human market. “Buy up the Lamanite [Indian] children,” Brigham Young counseled his brethren in the town of Parowan, “and educate them and teach them the gospel, so that many generations would not pass ere they should become a white and delightsome people.” This was the same logic Spanish conquistadors had used in the sixteenth century to justify the acquisition of Indian slaves.

With respect to slavery, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no set doctrine. However, Brigham Young, the undisputed Mormon leader, believed that slavery had always been a part of the human condition. “Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and this made a slave of her,” he affirmed in a major speech. “Adam hated very much to have her taken out of the Garden of Eden, and now our old daddy says I believe I will eat of the fruit and become a slave too. This was the first introduction of slavery upon this earth.

Over the next few years, Indians living in Utah made their way to the Mormon settlements, offering captives. These traffickers expected willing customers, but they were prepared to use the hard sell, displaying starving captives to arouse the pity of potential buyers.

Once Young gained more confidence and understood that the Indian slave trade had existed in the region for centuries and was deeply rooted, he changed his mind. By 1850 or 1851, he had become persuaded that the way to move forward was by buying Indians. “The Lord could not have devised a better plan than to have put the saints where they were to help bring about the redemption of the Lamanites and also make them a white and delightsome people,” Young said to the members of the Iron County Missions in May 1851. Other church leaders were no less enthusiastic. “The Lord has caused us to come here for this very purpose,” said Orson Pratt, one of the original Mormon “apostles,” in 1855, “that we might accomplish the redemption of these suffering degraded Israelites.

The passage of the Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners in 1852. The discussions that took place prior to this act reveal that Young and other Mormon leaders did not so much want to do away with Indian slavery as to use it for their own ends. They objected to Indian children and women being left in the hands of Ute captors to be tortured and killed and to allowing them to fall into the “low, servile drudgery of Mexican slavery.” But they were fully in favor of placing Native children and women in Mormon homes to associate them “with the more favored portions of the human race.

In fact, the Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners allowed any white resident of Utah to hold Indians through a system of indenture for a period of up to twenty years—longer than in California or New Mexico. Masters in Utah were required to clothe their indentured Indians appropriately and send youngsters between seven and sixteen years of age to school for three months each year. Other than that, they were free to put them to work.

When the Mormons first reached Utah in 1847, there were an estimated 20,000 Native Americans within the territory. By 1900 the number had plummeted to 2,623. In other words, eighty-six percent of the Indians in Utah vanished in half a century. It would not be until the 1980s that the Indian population there regained its pre-Mormon levels. As usual, it is impossible to disentangle the extent to which biological and man-made factors contributed to this catastrophic decline. But Indian slavery was certainly a major factor.

Historians Juanita Brooks and Michael K. Bennion have established that Native Americans who grew up in Mormon households married at significantly lower rates than the population at large. One would think that in a polygamous society, Indian women would have been readily incorporated as secondary wives, but this occurred rarely. Contemporaries such as John Lee Jones could not hide his astonishment at finding a Mormon man with an Indian wife, calling it “quite a novel circumstance to me.

For Indian males, the situation was dire. Few Native American men are known to have married white women.

Before the Mormons moved to Utah, they never anticipated acquiring Indians and keeping them in their homes as “indentures.” Their curious ideas about the origins of Indians and their impulse to help in their redemption eased their transformation into owners and masters. But even without these notions, they would have become immersed in an extraordinarily adaptable and durable system that had long flourished in the region. In colonial times, Spanish missionaries had acquired Indians to save their souls. In the nineteenth century, the Mormons’ quest to redeem Natives by purchasing them was not too different. Yet both ended up creating an underclass, in spite of their best wishes. Such was the staying power of the other slavery.

Origins of slavery

The beginnings of this other slavery are lost in the mists of time. Native peoples such as the Zapotecs, Mayas, and Aztecs took captives to use as sacrificial victims; the Iroquois waged campaigns called “mourning wars” on neighboring groups to avenge and replace their dead; and Indians in the Pacific Northwest included male and female slaves as part of the goods sent by the groom to his bride’s family to finalize marriages among the elite. Native Americans had enslaved each other for millennia,

Columbus traded in slaves

The earliest European explorers began this process by taking indigenous slaves. Columbus’s very first business venture in the New World consisted of sending four caravels loaded to capacity with 550 Natives back to Europe, to be auctioned off in the markets of the Mediterranean. Others followed in the Admiral’s lead. The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese all became important participants in the Indian slave trade. Spain, however, by virtue of the large and densely populated colonies it ruled, became the dominant slaving power. Indeed, Spain was to Indian slavery what Portugal and later England were to African slavery.

Spain was the first imperial power to formally discuss and recognize the humanity of Indians. In the early 1500s, the Spanish monarchs prohibited Indian slavery except in special cases, and after 1542 they banned the practice altogether. Unlike African slavery, which remained legal and firmly sustained by racial prejudice and the struggle against Islam, the enslavement of Native Americans was against the law. Yet this categorical prohibition did not stop generations of determined conquistadors and colonists from taking Native slaves on a planetary scale, from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to the tip of South America, and from the Canary Islands to the Philippines. The fact that this other slavery had to be carried out clandestinely made it even more insidious. It is a tale of good intentions gone badly astray.

Indian slavery never went away, but rather coexisted with African slavery from the 16th all the way through the late 19th century

Because African slavery was legal, its victims are easy to spot in the historical record. They were taxed on their entry into ports and appear on bills of sale, wills, and other documents. Because these slaves had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, they were scrupulously—one could even say obsessively—counted along the way. The final tally of 12.5 million enslaved Africans matters greatly because it has shaped our perception of African slavery in fundamental ways. Whenever we read about a slave market in Virginia, a slaving raid into the interior of Angola, or a community of runaways in Brazil, we are well aware that all these events were part of a vast system spanning the Atlantic world and involving millions of victims. Indian slavery is different. Until quite recently, we did not have even a ballpark estimate of the number of Natives held in bondage. Since Indian slavery was largely illegal, its victims toiled, quite literally, in dark corners and behind locked doors, giving us the impression that they were fewer than they actually were.

Because Indian slaves did not have to cross an ocean, no ship manifests or port records exist.

Historians working on all regions of the New World have found traces of the traffic of Indian slaves in judicial proceedings, official inquiries, and casual mentions of raids and Indian captives in letters and assorted documents.

If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the 19th century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million slaves.

At the height of the transatlantic slave trade, West Africa suffered a population decline of about 20%.

Native populations were reduced by 70 to 90% through a combination of warfare, famine, epidemics, and slavery. Biology gets much of the blame for this collapse, but as we shall see, it is impossible to disentangle the effects of slavery and epidemics. In fact, a synergistic relationship existed between the two: slaving raids spread germs and caused deaths; deceased slaves needed to be replaced, and thus their deaths spurred additional raids.

Europeans preferred women and children slaves

In stark contrast to the African slave trade, which consisted primarily of adult males, the majority of Indian slaves were actually women and children.  

Indian slave prices from such diverse regions as southern Chile, New Mexico, and the Caribbean reveal a premium paid for women and children over adult males. As noted by the New Mexico Indian agent James Calhoun, Indian women could be worth up to fifty or sixty percent more than males. What explains this significant and persistent price premium? Sexual exploitation and women’s reproductive capabilities are part of the answer. In this regard, Indian slavery constitutes an obvious antecedent to the sex traffic that occurs today. But there were other reasons too. In nomadic Indian societies, men specialized in activities less useful to European colonists, such as hunting and fishing, than women, whose traditional roles included weaving, food gathering, and child rearing. Some early sources also indicate that women were considered better suited to domestic service, as they were thought to be less threatening in the home environment. And just as masters wanted docile women, they also showed a clear preference for children.

Children were more adaptable than grown-ups, learned languages more easily, and in the fullness of time could even identify with their captors. Indeed, one of the most striking features of this form of bondage is that Indian slaves could eventually become part of the dominant society. Unlike those caught up in African slavery, which was a legally defined institution passed down from one generation to the next, Indian slaves could become menials, or servants, and with some luck attain some independence and a higher status even in the course of one life span

Europeans had the upper hand because of their superior war technology—specifically, horses and firearms—which allowed them to prey on Indian societies almost at will. What started as a European-controlled enterprise, however, gradually passed into the hands of Native Americans. As Indians acquired horses and weapons of their own, they became independent providers of slaves. By the 18th and 19th centuries, powerful equestrian societies had taken control of much of the traffic. In the Southwest, the Comanches and Utes became regional suppliers of slaves to other Indians as well as to the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans. The Apaches, who had early on been among the greatest victims of enslavement, transformed themselves into successful slavers. In colonial times, Apaches had been hunted down and marched in chains to the silver mines of Chihuahua. But as Spanish authority crumbled in the 1810s and the mining economy fell apart during the Mexican era, the Apaches turned the tables on their erstwhile masters. They raided Mexican communities, took captives, and sold them in the United States.

The other slavery continued through the end of the 19th century and in some remote areas well into the 20th century. Disguised as debt peonage, which stretched the limits of accepted labor institutions and even posed as legal work, this other slavery was the direct forerunner of the forms of bondage practiced today.

At last count, there were more than 15,000 books on African slavery, whereas only a couple of dozen specialized monographs were devoted to Indian slavery.  It is as if each group fits into a neat historical package: Africans were enslaved, and Indians either died off or were dispossessed and confined to reservations.

Such an oversimplification is troublesome, because Indian slavery actually explains a great deal about the shared history of Mexico and the United States and casts new light on even familiar events. If we want to find answers to such varied questions as why the Pueblo Indians launched a massive rebellion in 1680 and drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico; why the Comanches and Utes became so dominant in large areas of the West; why the Apache chief Geronimo hated Mexicans so much; why article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo prohibited Americans from purchasing “Mexican captives held by the savage tribes”; why California, Utah, and New Mexico legalized Indian slavery, disguising it as servitude or debt peonage; or why so many Navajos appear in New Mexico’s baptismal records in the aftermath of Colonel Kit Carson’s Navajo campaign of 1863–1864, we have to come to terms with the reality of this other slavery.

I focus on some areas that experienced intense slaving. Thus the story begins in the Caribbean, continues through central and northern Mexico, and ends in the American Southwest—with occasional glimpses of the larger context. And even within this restricted geography, I limit myself to examining moments when the evidence is particularly abundant or when the traffic of Indians underwent significant change.

The second caveat concerns the definition of Indian slavery. Who exactly counts as an Indian slave? The honest answer is that no simple definition is possible.  After the Spanish crown prohibited the enslavement of Indians, owners resorted to a variety of labor arrangements, terms, and subterfuges—such as encomiendas, repartimientos, convict leasing, and debt peonage—to get around the law.

They generally shared four traits that made them akin to enslavement: forcible removal of the victims from one place to another, inability to leave the workplace, violence or threat of violence to compel them to work, and nominal or no pay.

Early chroniclers, crown officials, and settlers all understood the extinction of the Indians as a result of warfare, enslavement, famine, and overwork, as well as disease.

King Ferdinand of Spain—no Indian champion and probably the most well-informed individual of that era—believed that so many Natives died in the early years because, lacking beasts of burden, the Spaniards “had forced the Indians to carry excessive loads until they broke them down.

The documentation suggests that the worst epidemics did not affect the New World immediately. The late arrival of smallpox actually makes perfect sense. Smallpox was endemic in the Old World, which means that the overwhelming majority of Europeans were exposed to the virus in childhood, resulting in one of two outcomes: death or recovery and lifelong immunity. Thus the likelihood of a ship carrying an infected passenger was low. And even if this were to happen, the voyage from Spain to the Caribbean in the sixteenth century lasted five or six weeks, a sufficiently long time in which any infected person would die along the way or become immune (and no longer contagious). There were only two ways for the virus to survive such a long passage. One was for a vessel to carry both a person already infected and a susceptible host who contracted the illness en route and lived long enough to disembark in the Caribbean. The odds of this happening were minuscule—around two percent according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by the demographer Massimo Livi Bacci.

If I had to hazard a guess using the available written sources, it would be that between 1492 and 1550, a nexus of slavery, overwork, and famine killed more Indians in the Caribbean than smallpox, influenza, and malaria. And among these human factors, slavery has emerged as a major killer.

The Spanish crown never intended to commit genocide or perpetrate the wholesale enslavement of the Native inhabitants of the Caribbean. These outcomes were entirely contrary to Christian morality and to Spain’s most basic economic and imperial interests. Yet a handful of individual decisions, human nature, and the archipelago’s geography led to just such a Dantean scenario. Christopher Columbus’s life offers us entrée into this tragic chain of decisions and circumstances.

Columbus knew these peoples were intelligent but “weaker and less spirited” than Europeans, making them especially suitable as slaves. “They began to understand us, and we them, whether by words or by signs,” Columbus would later write of these first captives, “and these have been of great service to us.” The return ocean passage also afforded him time to develop his economic plans, which included the wholesale export of Native slaves. In his very first letter after his return, addressed to the royal comptroller, Luis de Santángel, he promised gold, spices, cotton, and “as many slaves as Their Majesties order to make, from among those who are idolaters

The Admiral’s plan to ship Natives to Europe was quite understandable given his ideas about the nature of the Indians, his anxieties about making his discovery economically viable, and the one-tenth of the proceeds of the sale of these captives that he would pocket according to the terms of the capitulations.

But even in its early days, Columbus could observe how a European stronghold on another continent could thrive by trading a variety of products, including humans. There is little doubt that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea intended to turn the Caribbean into another Guinea.

Early in his second voyage to America, Columbus sent dozens of Carib Indians back to Spain with the first returning ships. Accompanying them was a candid letter to Ferdinand and Isabella: “May Your Highnesses judge whether they ought to be captured, for I believe we could take many of the males every year and an infinite number of women. A year later, in February 1495, he sent 550 Indians from Española crammed into four caravels bound for the slave market of southern Spain, his largest shipment thus far. The caravels were filled to capacity. The conditions were extreme. During the passage, approximately 200 Natives perished “because they were not used to the cold weather,” Cuneo wrote, “and we cast their bodies into the sea.” Of the remaining Indians, half were ill and very weak when they finally arrived in Spain.

Slavery was a venerable institution in Spain (and throughout the Mediterranean world). Anyone visiting Seville, Valencia, Barcelona, or any other Iberian city in the fifteenth century would have come in contact with a variety of slaves. Many of these people were Muslims who had lived in Spain for centuries and who had been seized as prisoners during the Reconquista, the Christian campaigns to retake the peninsula. Other captives came from the eastern edges of Christendom—Greeks, Bulgarians, Russians, Tartars, Circassians, and others traded by Mediterranean merchants.

Slaves appeared before a Spanish official, who took the depositions of the captors and—crucially—the captives to determine whether they were in fact “enemies of the Catholic church and of the crown” who had been taken in a “good” or “just” war. Therefore the question before the Catholic monarchs was whether the Natives of the New World met this legal standard of “enemy” and thus constituted an enslaveable people. Ferdinand and Isabella appointed a committee of lawyers and theologians to help them reach a final determination. During those five years, however, the monarchs’ reluctance to enslave Natives intensified.

Isabella and Ferdinand freed many Indians and, astonishingly, mandated that many of them be returned to the New World.

Enslavement & gold in Espanola

Most Indians did everything they could to avoid the tribute, including hiding away in the mountains or fleeing Cibao altogether. After three collection periods, the Indians had provided only 200 pesos’ worth of gold out of an anticipated 60,000. Clearly, if the Spaniards wanted gold from Española, they would have to get it themselves.  

Instead of using valuable beasts of burden, the Spaniards compelled Natives to do all the hauling, carrying 60-90 pounds on their backs; horses and mules were devoted to the tasks of conquest and pacification. The Indians were even forced to carry their Christian masters in hammocks. Any refusal led to floggings, beatings, thrashings, punches, curses, and countless other vexations and cruelties.

Despite Ovando’s well-intentioned administration, the gold rush wiped out the island’s population. The mines destroyed the Taínos working there and in the process doomed those left behind in the villages. Caciques who had ruled over hundreds of individuals saw their dependents shrink to a handful of survivors after ten years of unrelenting work.

Las Casas was one of the 2,500 colonists who had arrived in Española with Governor Ovando, and he had received an encomienda in the goldfields of Cibao, where he observed the cataclysmic decline of the Indians. He believed that three million Indians had died in just a few years.

Another knowledgeable contemporary writing a few years later, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, expressed the same idea. “Let us be strictly truthful and add that the craze for gold was the cause of their destruction,” he wrote to the pope, “for these people who were accustomed as soon as they had sown their fields to play, dance, and sing, and chase rabbits, were set mercilessly to work.

Ovando himself, realizing the depth of the crisis and the failure of his policies, proposed a dramatic and far-reaching solution: bring Indian slaves from the surrounding islands to work in the gold mines and other endeavors of Española. A new chapter in the sad history of the early Caribbean had begun. In the early years of the sixteenth century, Puerto Real and Puerto de Plata were two drab ports on the north shore of Española.

The northern shore of Española opened up to the green-blue waters of the Caribbean and to dozens of islands that were large enough to sustain Native populations but small enough that the people could not hide from Spanish slavers.

The first step for anyone wishing to launch a slaving expedition was to obtain a license. Clandestine slaving was possible, but because captives needed to be certified by crown officials before their legal sale in the markets of Española or Puerto Rico, it was best to get a license. Although King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had prohibited the enslavement of Indians in 1500, their order was followed by what appeared to them to be three judicious exceptions. In 1503 the crown authorized the enslavement of Indians who were cannibals

In 1504 the monarchy also allowed the capture of Indians taken in “just wars,” extending to the New World the doctrine that had long justified the impressment and bondage of enemies in Europe. And in 1506 the monarchs permitted the colonists to “ransom” Indians who were enslaved by other Indians and whom the Spaniards could then keep as slaves—the logic being that ransomed Indians would at least become Christianized and their souls would be saved.

Of the three, they most often used cannibalism to legitimize their raids. Scholars have argued that early Spaniards had perverse incentives to exaggerate, sensationalize, and even fabricate stories of man-eating Indians, given the legal context.

Slave raiders formed compact groups of around 50 to 60 men. They arrived quietly on their ships; waited until nighttime, “when the Indians were secure in their mats”; and descended on the Natives, setting their thatched huts on fire, killing anyone who resisted, and capturing all others irrespective of age or gender. Once the initial ambush was over, the slavers often had to pursue the Indians who had escaped, unleashing their mastiffs or running the Natives down with their horses. If there were many captives, the slavers took the trouble of building temporary holding pens by the beach, close to where their ships were moored, while horsemen combed the island. The attackers literally carried off entire populations, leaving empty islands in their wake.

Unlike the Middle Passage, which required a month of travel, slaving voyages in the Caribbean lasted only a few days. Yet the mortality rates of these short passages surpassed those of transatlantic voyages. Friar Las Casas reported that “it was never the case that a ship carrying 300 to 400 people did not have to throw overboard 100 to 150 bodies out of lack of food and water”—making for a mortality rate of 25 to 50%.


Left to their own devices, the Native peoples of the Caribbean would have limited their exposure to illness, coping like many other human populations before and after them. We will never know how many Indians actually died of disease alone. But even if one-third, or two-thirds, of the Caribbean islanders had died of influenza, typhus, malaria, and smallpox, they would have been able to stem the decline and, in the fullness of time, rebound demographically. In fact, some Indian populations of the New World did just that. But unlike fourteenth-century Europeans, the Natives of the Caribbean were not left to their own devices. In the wake of the epidemics, slavers appeared on the horizon.

A slave woman has “no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death.” The notion that a slave could sue his or her master to attain freedom would have been laughable to most southerners during the first half of the 19th century. Spain’s slaves lived under an entirely different legal regime. The New Laws not only affirmed that Indians were free vassals but also instructed the audiencias, or high courts, of the New World to “put special care in the good treatment and conservation of the Indians,” to remain informed of any abuses committed against Indians, and “to act quickly and without delaying maliciously as has happened in the past.

Because the Spanish legal system was open to Indians, a class of specialized lawyers that became known as procuradores generales de indios served to represent them. These procuradores assisted indigenous clients in building their cases and navigating the Spanish bureaucracy. In stark contrast to the black slaves of the antebellum South, Indians could rely on these lawyers for at least some representation in the Spanish legal system.

Indians may have been “free vassals” in the eyes of the law, but Spanish masters resorted to slight changes in terminology, gray areas, and subtle reinterpretations to continue to hold Indians in bondage. Still, the larger point remains true: the legal regimes under which African and Indian slaves operated were vastly different.

When we think of the Middle Passage, we immediately imagine adult African males. This image is based on fact. Of all the Africans carried to North America from the 16th through 18th century, males outnumbered females by a ratio approaching two to one, and they were overwhelmingly adults. The “reverse Middle Passage,” from America to Spain, was just the opposite: the slave traffic consisted mostly of children, with a good contingent of women and a mere sprinkling of men.

Most slaves held in Italian and Spanish households in the 14th through 16th centuries—whether Slavs, Tartars, Greeks, Russians, or Africans—were women. Females comprised an astonishing 80% or more of the slaves living in Genoa and Venice, the two leading slave-owning cities in Italy.

Adult Native women in Santo Domingo or Havana cost 60% more than adult males.

Spaniards who wished to transport Indians to Europe after 1542 had to demonstrate that they were taking legitimate slaves—branded and bearing the appropriate documentation from the time when slavery was legal—or were accompanied by “willing” Native travelers. Faced with these circumstances, traffickers went to great lengths to procure “willing” Indians, particularly children, who were more easily tricked and manipulated than adults.

Once these Indians were in Spain, their lives revolved around the master’s house. Occasionally they accompanied their masters on errands or were sent out of the house to fetch water, food, or some other necessity. For the most part, however, they were confined to the home, where their chores were never-ending. They swept floors, prepared food, looked after children, and worked in the master’s trade. On duty at all hours of the day and night, they watched as the days turned into months and years. The major milestones in their lives occurred when they were transferred from one master to the next. In return for their ceaseless work, they received no compensation except room and board.

The minute the lawsuit was filed, their relationship with their master turned decidedly hostile. Since slaves had nowhere else to go, they generally continued to live under the same roof with their masters during their trials, which could last for months or even years, giving masters ample opportunities to punish, torture, or somehow make their slaves desist.

Indians taken to Spain when they were very young often could not speak Native languages or remember much about their homelands. So slave owners’ most common strategy consisted of asserting that their slaves had not come from the Spanish Indies but from the Portuguese Indies (Portuguese colonies)—Brazil, northern and western Africa, and parts of Asia—where the enslavement of Natives was legal.

The New Laws did not end Indian slavery in Spain, but they did initiate the gradual eradication of this peculiar institution in the Iberian Peninsula. After 1542 it became public knowledge that the king of Spain had freed the Indians of the Americas. Word about Indians suing their masters and scoring legal victories spread quickly. By the 1550s, Indian slaves living in small Spanish towns were well aware that they were entitled to their freedom.

The Spanish crown also attempted to end Indian slavery in the New World, but the situation could not have been more different there. Indian slaves constituted a major pillar of the societies and economies of the Americas.

Spanish conquerors also acquired slaves, tens of thousands of them. Many were taken from among those who resisted conquest. They were called esclavos de guerra, or war slaves. According to one of Cortés’s soldiers who later wrote an eyewitness account, before entering an Indian town Spaniards requested its inhabitants to submit peacefully, “and if they did not come in peace but wished to give us war, we would make them slaves; and we carried with us an iron brand like this one to mark their faces.” The crown authorized Cortés and his soldiers to keep these Indians as long as the conquerors paid the corresponding taxes.

For the period between January 1521 and May 1522—that is, a few months before and after the fall of Tenochtitlán—Spaniards paid taxes on around 8,000 slaves taken just in the Aztec capital and its immediate surroundings. Thousands more flowed from Oaxaca, Michoacán, Tututepec, and as far away as Guatemala as these Indian kingdoms were brought into the Spanish fold. “So great was the haste to make slaves in different parts,” commented Friar Toribio de Benavente (also known as Motolinía) some years later, “that they were brought into Mexico City in great flocks, like sheep, so they could be branded easily.

Spaniards also purchased Indians who had already been enslaved by other Indians and were regularly offered in markets and streetsTo distinguish these slaves from those taken in war, the Spaniards used a different type of brand, also applied on the face.

Slavery had been practiced in Mexico since time immemorial. Pre-contact Indians had sold their children or even themselves into slavery because they had no food. Many Indians had been sold into slavery by other Indians as punishment for robbery, rape, or other crimes. Some war slaves were set aside for public sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Some towns even had holding pens where men and women were fattened before the festivities. All of these pre-contact forms of bondage operated in specific cultural contexts.

In the 1520s, these slaves were so plentiful that their average price was only 2 pesos, far less than the price of a horse or cow. Spaniards typically traded small items such as a knife or piece of cloth in exchange for these human beings.

In Spain the New Laws produced discontent, but in the Spanish colonies they caused outright rebellion. In Peru a group of colonists murdered the official sent from Spain to enforce the laws and then decapitated him. For a time it seemed that Peru might even break away from the empire.

The Spanish envoy agreed to suspend the New Laws until he received further instructions from the king. Charles and the members of the Council of the Indies considered the situation and eventually consented to the granting of more encomiendas. It was a major victory for slave owners. Encomiendas remained in existence for another century and a half, affecting tens of thousands of Indians.

Thus a new regime emerged in the 1540s and 1550s, a regime in which Indians were legally free but remained enslaved through slight reinterpretations, changes in nomenclature, and practices meant to get around the New Laws.

All over Spanish America, Indian slave owners and colonial authorities devised subtle changes in terminology and newfangled labor institutions to comply with the law in form but not in substance.

Throughout the hemisphere, Spaniards chanced upon Indian villages or nomadic bands and snatched a woman or a couple of children to make a tidy profit. While constant, these spur-of-the-moment kidnappings were narrow in scope. The real slavers, the individuals who truly benefited from trafficking humans, operated on a much larger scale. They planned their expeditions carefully, procured investors and funds for weapons and provisions, hired agents to sell the slaves in mines and other enterprises, and—because Indian slavery was illegal—made sure to exploit loopholes and elicit plenty of official protection. Frontier captains were ideally suited for this line of work, as the empire expanded prodigiously during the sixteenth century. For them, slavery was no sideline to warfare or marginal activity born out of the chaos of conquest. It was first and foremost a business involving investors, soldiers, agents, and powerful officials.

Cape Verde’s specialty was supplying African slaves to Spanish America. Because the Spaniards possessed no slaving ports of their own in western Africa, they had to rely on the Portuguese to obtain black slaves. Cape Verde was ideal for this purpose. The archipelago lay in the same latitude as the Spanish Caribbean and was four hundred miles closer to it than the African coast. As in all forms of commerce, time was of the essence. But this was particularly so in a business in which the length of the passage determined the survival rate. Every additional day of travel represented more dead slaves and lost profits. By virtue of being the part of Africa closest to Spanish America, the Cape Verde Islands developed as the preeminent reexport center for slaves.

Spanish gentlemen and ladies gathered at a garden in Texcoco belonging to the viceroy in order to choose their English slaves. “Happy was he that could get soonest one of us,” Phillips observed. Each new owner simply took his or her slave home, clothed him, and put him to work in whatever was needed, “which was for the most part to attend upon them at the table, and to be as their chamberlains, and to wait upon them when they went abroad.” Like the liveried Africans who waited on their wealthy masters around Mexico City, these Englishmen represented conspicuous consumption, meant to be displayed to houseguests and on outings. Ordinary Indian slaves would not have fared so well. Some of the English prisoners were sent to work in the silver mines, but there too they received favorable treatment, as they became “overseers of the negroes and Indians that labored there.” Some of them remained in the mines for three or four years and, in a strange twist of fate, became rich. The experiences of Miles Phillips and the others differed in important respects from those of Indian slaves, but they were still subjected to the slavers’ methods. They traveled from Pánuco in a coffle, were sold in the slave markets of Texcoco, worked in the mines, and witnessed the living conditions of Indian men and women in bondage.

Like any other slaving system, the one in northern Mexico boiled down to pesos. The expeditions into Chichimec lands were expensive undertakings that required up-front outlays of cash. Each soldier needed to pay for horses, weapons, protective gear, and provisions. Experienced Indian fighters estimated that a soldier could not equip himself adequately for less than 1,000 pesos. Yet the crown generally paid a yearly salary of only 350 pesos (which was increased to 450 pesos after 1581). So the first thing a captain had to do in order to attract soldiers and volunteers was to assure them that the campaign would yield Indian captives. Without being offered a chance to capture Natives, few would risk life or horse. Time and again, Carvajal faced this fundamental economic reality.

Punitive expeditions into the Chichimec frontier were economic enterprises. Investors offered loans or equipment to the volunteers, who would repay them through the sale of captives at the end of the campaign.

Encomienda owners in the north were assigned bands of hunter-gatherers who, unlike the agriculturalists of central Mexico, had little to give but their labor. To profit from their encomiendas, encomenderos had to hunt down their “entrusted” Indians, transport them (often at gunpoint) to an estate, and make them work during planting or harvesting time without pay before releasing them again. This system of cyclical enslavement became widespread and quite characteristic of the encomiendas of Nuevo León. Granting nomadic peoples in encomiendas under these conditions was abusive, but it was entirely legal and well within Carvajal’s powers.

The principal shaft of that mine went down 420 feet, more than the length of a football field. The effort needed to make these tunnels is hard to imagine. Workers dug with simple picks, wedges, moils (metal points), and crowbars, toiling from sunrise to sunset. (Explosives were not introduced until the early eighteenth century.) Some of the tools weighed thirty or forty pounds.

Digging the shafts was a major undertaking, but it was only the start of the operation. Unlike much of the gold of the Caribbean, which could be collected as flecks or nuggets, silver was mostly embedded in the rock and combined with other substances. This geological reality added immensely to the work that was necessary to extract it. In Parral, as in many other silver mines throughout Mexico, Indians and black slaves carried the ore to the surface. Carrying leather bags full of rocks, they had to crawl through low passages and ascend by means of notched pine logs, or “chicken ladders.” Since the carrier’s hands were occupied holding the ladder, the heavy bag—which could weigh between 225 and 350 pounds—dangled perilously from his forehead and was propped against his back.

The main work took place on a central patio, where one could see heaps of ore and crews crushing rock and isolating the silver. Most of the haciendas in Parral used the smelting method. After crushing the ore into coarse gravel, workers shoveled it into blast furnaces and combined it with molten lead to get a

higher yield of silver. The ore was crushed to a fine powder, spread on a courtyard or patio, and sprinkled with mercury. Water was added to allow the heavier metals to sink to the bottom of this sludge. In Parral the worst job consisted of walking in shackles over this toxic mud in order to mix it thoroughly. This job invariably resulted in serious health problems, as the poisonous metal would enter the body through the pores and seep into the cartilage in the joints. The last step of the patio process was to heat the amalgam in order to vaporize the mercury and water and leave only the silver behind. Workers involved in this step absorbed the mercury vapors through their mucous membranes, which generally caused uncontrollable shaking of the limbs and death in as little as two or three years.

There were also “Chinese” slaves in Parral. (“Chinese” was a blanket term used for all Asian people.) Although they were never numerous, their presence revealed a network of enslavement that operated across the Pacific Ocean.

Mine owners therefore regarded salaried work not as an ideal form of labor, but as a necessary evil and a first step toward acquiring a more pliable and stable workforce. One strategy to achieve this goal involved advancing wages in pesos or specie (silver coins) to free workers. Since food, clothes, and many other necessities were outrageously expensive in Parral (and often because of gambling and drinking habits), workers frequently incurred debts. In principle these were free individuals who had temporarily fallen on hard times. But the reality was more ominous. Unable to repay their debts, these workers could not leave the mines until they closed their accounts. We may think of debt peonage as a phenomenon of great haciendas in the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution. Yet two centuries earlier, indebted servants and peons proliferated in Parral.

It is clear that many indebted workers were considered part of the mines’ inventories and more or less permanently attached to them. For instance, when Parral owners put a mine up for sale, they specifically listed the number of indebted workers. Evidently the existence of such workers was a major consideration for prospective buyers. Regardless of the exact sequence of events, mine owners ultimately addressed the problem of insufficient workers by bringing Indians to Parral from even farther away. Coastal Natives were hunted down and transported with great difficulty across the Sierra Madre Occidental to Parral.

In 1598 Juan de Oñate arrived there with his men and in short order took possession of this kingdom. Oñate apportioned Indians who submitted peacefully in encomiendas, but he reserved a far worse fate for those who resisted: all males over age 25 had one foot cut off.

By calling for unprovoked attacks on the Indians, Governor Rosas initiated a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals that resulted in ideal conditions for obtaining Indian workers, some of whom ended their days in his textile shop.

Clearly by the 1650s, the kingdom of New Mexico had become little more than a supply center for Parral. From the preceding examples and many others, it is possible to reconstruct the overall trajectory of the traffic of Natives from New Mexico. The earliest Spanish settlers began by enslaving Pueblo Indians. But they quickly discovered that keeping Pueblos as slaves was counterproductive, as this bred discontent among the Natives on which Spaniards depended for their very sustenance. Although the occasional enslavement of Pueblos continued throughout the seventeenth century, the colonists gradually redirected their slaving activities to Apaches and Utes. The Spaniards injected themselves into the struggles between different rancherías (local bands) and exploited intergroup antagonisms to facilitate the supply of slaves,

By 1679 so many Indians were flowing out of New Mexico that the bishop of Durango launched a formal investigation into this burgeoning business. Bishop Bartolomé García de Escañuela undertook this inquest less out of a sense of moral or religious duty than out of concern about the church’s declining revenues. Ordinarily, the faithful of Nueva Vizcaya—a province that included the modern states of Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, and Sinaloa—had to pay a yearly tithe to the bishopric of ten percent of their animals and crops. But ranchers all over this region discovered that they were able to reduce their herds—and consequently their tax liabilities—by trading tithe-bearing animals for Indian slaves, who were tax-free. In effect, the acquisition of Indians amounted to a tax shelter,

Beyond northern Mexico, coerced Indian labor played a fundamental role in the mining economies of Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, the Andean region, and Brazil. Yet the specific arrangements varied from place to place. Unlike Mexico’s silver economy, scattered in multiple mining centers, the enormous mine of Potosí dwarfed all others in the Andes. To satisfy the labor needs of this “mountain of silver,” Spanish authorities instituted a gargantuan system of draft labor known as the mita, which required that more than two hundred Indian communities spanning a large area in modern-day Peru and Bolivia send one-seventh of their adult population to work in the mines of Potosí, Huancavelica, and Cailloma. In any given year, ten thousand Indians or more had to take their turns working in the mines.

This state-directed system began in 1573 and remained in operation for 250 years.  Although the degree of state involvement and the scale of these operations varied from place to place, they all relied on labor arrangements that ran the gamut from clear slave labor (African, Indian, and occasionally Asian); to semi-coercive institutions and practices such as encomiendas, repartimientos, debt peonage, and the mita; to salaried work.

In the twilight of his life, King Philip came to grips with the failure of his policies as he struggled to save his soul. Yet he died before he could set the Indians of Chile free and discharge his royal conscience.

But Philip was not alone in trying to make things right. His wife, Mariana, was thirty years younger than he, every bit as pious, and far more determined. The crusade to free the Indians of Chile, and those in the empire at large, gained momentum during Queen Mariana’s regency, from 1665 to 1675, and culminated in the reign of her son Charles II. Alarmed by reports of large slaving grounds on the periphery of the Spanish empire, they used the power of an absolute monarchy to bring about the immediate liberation of all indigenous slaves. Mother and son took on deeply entrenched slaving interests, deprived the empire of much-needed revenue, and risked the very stability of distant provinces to advance their humanitarian agenda. They waged a war against Indian bondage that raged as far as the islands of the Philippines, the forests of Chile, the llanos (grasslands) of Colombia and Venezuela, and the deserts of Chihuahua and New Mexico.

In the early days of conquest, European slavers were attracted to some of the most heavily populated areas of the New World, including the large Caribbean islands, Guatemala, and central Mexico. But by the time the antislavery crusade got under way in the 1660s, nearly two centuries after the discovery of America, the slaving grounds had shifted to remote frontiers where there were much lower population densities but where imperial control remained minimal or nonexistent and the constant wars yielded steady streams of captives.

From the coast of Brazil, small parties of bandeirantes—a cross between pathfinders, prospectors, and slavers—also mounted devastating expeditions into the interior. Over the centuries, Brazilians have celebrated the bandeirantes in poems, novels, and sculptures, hailing them as the founders of the nation. Yet the bandeirantes took upwards of 60,000 captives in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, snatching mostly Indians congregated in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay.

The llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, the vast grasslands crisscrossed by tributaries of the Orinoco River, were a third zone of enslavement. Here Spanish traffickers competed with English, French, and above all Dutch networks of enslavement, all of which operated in the llanos. Interestingly, the Carib Indians—whom the Spaniards had long sought to exterminate—emerged as the preeminent suppliers of slaves to all of these European competitors of the Spanish. The Caribs carried out raids at night, surrounding entire villages and carrying off the children. A Spanish report summed up these activities: “It will not be too much to say that the Caribs sell yearly more than three hundred children, leaving murdered in their houses more than four hundred adults, for the Dutch do not like to buy the latter because they well know that, being grown up, they will escape.” The victims of this trade could variously wind up in the Spanish haciendas of Trinidad, the English plantations of Jamaica, the Dutch towns of Guyana, or as far west as Quito, Ecuador, where some of them toiled in the textile sweatshops for which this city was famous.

The last major area of enslavement, and perhaps the largest, was in the Philippines, where Europeans had stumbled on a dazzling world of slaves. “Some are captured in wars that different villages wage against each other,” wrote Guido de Lavezaris seven years after the Spanish had first settled in the Philippines, “some are slaves from birth and their origin is not known because their fathers, grandfathers, and ancestors were also slaves,” and others became enslaved “on account of minor transgressions regarding some of their rites and ceremonies or for not coming quickly enough at the summons of a chief or some other such thing.

Queen Mariana brought renewed energy to the abolitionist crusade. If we had to choose an opening salvo, it would be the queen’s 1667 order freeing all Chilean Indians who had been taken to Peru. Her order was published in the plazas of Lima and required all Peruvian slave owners to “turn their Indian slaves loose at the first opportunity.

In 1672 she freed the Indian slaves of Mexico, irrespective of their provenance or the circumstances of their enslavement.

With the accession of Charles II to the throne in 1675, the antislavery crusade neared its culmination. In 1676 Charles set free the Indian slaves of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo (comprising not only the Caribbean islands but some coastal areas as well) and Paraguay. Finally, on June 12, 1679, he issued a decree of continental scope: “No Indians of my Western Indies, Islands, and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, under any circumstance or pretext can be held as slaves;

In a separate order issued on the same day, el Hechizado freed the slaves of the Philippines, thus completing the project initiated by his father and mother of setting free all Indian slaves within the Spanish empire,

These early crackdowns failed to stop the Indian slave trade, however. Residents continued to buy Indians clandestinely, and slavers continued to supply them. But the crusade certainly made life more difficult for the traffickers.

There were very real limitations of monarchical authority. It worked in places where determined officials such as Governor Roteta and audiencia member Haro y Monterroso upheld the royal decrees. However, in many areas of the empire, the very officials charged with freeing the Indians were also in collusion with the slavers.

It was in the provinces that the situation became truly critical. Native Filipinos faced total ruin, as they had most of their wealth invested in their slaves. Moreover, the slaves supplied much of the rice and other basic foodstuffs of the islands, and now “agitated and encouraged by the recent laws setting them free [they] went to the extremity of refusing to plant the fields.” The greatest threat of all was that “by setting these slaves free, the provinces remote from Manila may be stirred up and revolt,

In the Philippines all branches of the imperial administration, including the governor, the members of the audiencia, the city council of Manila, members of the military, and the ecclesiastical establishment beginning with the archbishop, sent letters to Charles II requesting the suspension of the emancipation decree.

The Spanish campaign also pushed the slave trade further into the hands of Native intermediaries and traffickers, whether in northern Mexico, Chile, or the llanos of Colombia and Venezuela. The crown had some power over Spanish slavers and authorities, but its control over indigenous slavers was extremely tenuous or nonexistent. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed the emergence of powerful indigenous polities that gained control of the trade. The Carib Indians consolidated their position in the llanos as the preeminent suppliers of slaves to French, English, and Dutch colonists, consistently delivering hundreds of slaves every year. In the far north of Mexico, the Comanche Indians came to play a similar role and began a breathtaking period of empire building.

These runners, keepers of accurate information and athletes of astonishing endurance, ran in the summer heat, pushing as far south as Isleta and as far west as Acoma and the distant mesas of the Hopis. In pairs they snaked through canyons and skirted mountains, trying to remain inconspicuous as they covered hundreds of miles with ruthless efficiency. They were sworn to absolute secrecy. And even though they would convey an oral message, they also carried an extraordinary device: a cord of yucca fiber tied with as many knots as there were days before the insurrection. “[Each pueblo] was to untie one knot to symbolize its acceptance,” observed one medicine man from San Felipe who was implicated in the plot, “and also to be aware of how many knots were left.” The countdown had begun.

As the day of the uprising approached, some pueblos around Santa Fe refused to go through with the plot. They had initially supported the plan even though they would bear the brunt of the fighting against the Spaniards residing in the capital city. But during the waxing moon, they began to reconsider the grave consequences of an all-out war against a foe that possessed firearms and horses. With the moon nearly full and only two knots left in the cord, the Native governors of Tanos, San Marcos, and Ciénega fatefully decided to switch sides. They journeyed to Santa Fe to denounce the conspiracy and, in a more personal and insidious betrayal, alert the Spanish authorities to the whereabouts of two Indian runners, Nicolás Catúa and Pedro Omtuá, who were still making the rounds with the knotted cord.

The revolt swept throughout the kingdom of New Mexico on August 10–11, destroying houses, ranches, and churches and killing some 400 men, women, and children, or about 205 of New Mexico’s Spanish population. The rebels did not engage in wanton destruction or indiscriminate killing. Po’pay and the other leaders gave them clear instructions. They were to destroy missions, churches, and all manner of Christian paraphernalia: “break up and burn the images of the holy Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the other saints, the crosses, and everything pertaining to Christianity.

Religion was clearly a flashpoint of the conflict. Throughout the seventeenth century, missionaries had made every effort to suppress “idolatry” and “superstition” and to subdue the Native medicine men, who had become their main competitors and antagonists. For their part, the medicine men had retained their traditional beliefs and clandestinely practiced their religion inside kivas. When Po’pay descended victorious from his perch in Taos and toured the pueblos, he commanded the Indians to return to their old traditions and beliefs, declaring that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary had died.

Near impunity permitted friars to extract unpaid Native labor. Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal (1659–1661) flatly accused the missionaries of exploiting the Indians under the pretense that it was “for the temples and divine worship” and forcing “all the Indians of the pueblos, men as well as women, to serve them as slaves.” Some of the friars also abused their privileged position to procure sex. Oral traditions from the Hopi villages—which are corroborated at least in part by documentary information—detail how some friars at Oraibi and Shungopovi would send the men to fetch water in distant places so that the friars could be with the women during their absence. Most threatening of all was the missionaries’ capacity to torture and kill in the name of God.

When it came to fighting the Devil, Friar Guerra had few peers. Not only did he beat suspected idolaters and hechiceros, but he also soaked them with turpentine and set them on fire.

There is no question that the religious thesis of the Pueblo Revolt explains a great deal. But, like all historical explanations, it hinges on highlighting certain episodes and personalities while de-emphasizing others.  The causes of the rebellion: long-simmering religious animosities, famine, and illness made the mix even more volatile. But rising levels of exploitation, which can be documented in the archival record, belong at the core of this story. In the course of the seventeenth century, the silver economy expanded, and it was New Mexico’s misfortune to function as a reservoir of coerced labor and a source of cheap products for the silver mines. It did not take the bad behavior of too many Spanish governors, friars, and colonists—compelling Indians to carry salt, robbing their pelts, locking them up in textile sweatshops, and organizing raiding parties to procure Apache slaves—to bring about widespread animosity, resentment, and ultimately rebellion.

Native American Slavery

Native Americans were involved in the slaving enterprise from the beginning of European colonization. At first they offered captives to the newcomers and helped them develop new networks of enslavement, serving as guides, guards, intermediaries, and local providers. But with the passage of time, as Indians acquired European weapons and horses, they increased their power and came to control an ever larger share of the traffic in slaves.

The easternmost pueblos of Pecos and Taos befriended Apache bands that lived farther to the north and east, while the pueblos of Acoma and Jemez, in western New Mexico, developed alliances with groups of Navajos and Utes. Before the arrival of Europeans, such interactions had been common. In the period between 1450 and 1600, Pueblo Indians had enjoyed close trading relationships with outlying nomads. In spite of their strikingly different lifestyles, town dwellers and nomads complemented each other well. The Pueblos exchanged corn and ceramics with hunter-gatherers for bison meat and hides: carbohydrates for protein, and pottery for hides. The Spaniards’ arrival in 1598 severely reduced this trade. The Pueblos now had to surrender their agricultural surplus to encomenderos and missionaries and therefore retained few, if any, items to exchange. The archaeological record shows fewer bison bones and bison-related objects among the Pueblos during the seventeenth century. Additionally, the Spaniards launched raids against outlying hunter-gatherers, further disrupting Pueblo-Plains trading networks. With the Spanish exodus in 1680, the Pueblos had a chance to reestablish their old ties with the nomads. This trade appears to have been reinvigorated in a very short time.

After the Spanish retreat following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, nomadic Indian traders with newfound access to horses began to muscle their way into the markets of New Mexico. In 1694, barely two years after the Spaniards had retaken control of the province, a group of Navajos arrived with the intention of selling Pawnee children. The Spanish authorities initially refused to acquire the young captives

But the spurned Navajos did not give up easily. To ratchet up the pressure, the traffickers proceeded to behead the captive children within the Spanish colonists’ sight.

Some years later, in 1704–1705, the Navajos, together with other nomads and Pueblo Indians, increased the pressure even more by threatening an all-out anti-Spanish revolt. Interestingly, it was around this time that New Mexican officials began sanctioning the ransoming of Indian captives sold by these groups. In effect, the Navajos, Utes, Comanches, and Apaches forced New Mexican authorities to break the law and accept their captives. Willingly or not, New Mexicans had become their market. By the middle of the eighteenth century, these commercial and diplomatic relations had become normalized. In 1752 Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín reached peace agreements with the Comanches and Utes. Governor Cachupín understood quite well that the best way to achieve a lasting peace with these equestrian powers was by maintaining open trade relations with them and fostering mutual dependence. Thus New Mexico’s annual trading fairs became choreographed events in the service of diplomacy.

Many servants escaped, banded together, and mustered the courage to ask for recognition and even request land in outlying areas to start new communities.

Many of the signatories were Indians from the plains, including Pawnees, Jumanos, Apaches, and Kiowas. Friar Menchero visited a genízaro community south of Albuquerque in 1744. This crude community called Tomé consisted entirely of “nations that had been taken captive by the Comanche Apaches.” In the 1750s and 1760s, more genízaro settlements came into existence, an indication of the slaving prowess of the Comanches and other providers.

Indian captivity not only transformed New Mexico but also refashioned the Comanches and their principal victims. The quest for loot caused the Comanches to leave the tablelands and mountains of the Colorado Plateau and move to the plains. In the 1720s, merely one generation after having acquired horses, these mounted Indians abruptly shifted their base of operations to the east. They descended onto the immense grasslands, with their rolling hills and abundant herds of bison. But more than the bison, what initially attracted the Comanches to the plains were the isolated Apache villages.

The Apaches already practiced limited forms of agriculture, but the Pueblo refugees introduced new agricultural methods that enabled the Apaches to remain in place all year round. In the fifty-year period between 1675 and 1725—the blink of an eye in archaeological terms—dozens of Apache settlements sprouted up along the streams, lakes, and ponds of the large region between the Rocky Mountains and the 100th meridian, spanning much of modern-day Kansas and Nebraska.

In 1706 a group of Spanish soldiers visited one of these mixed communities of Apaches and Pueblos by the Arkansas River named El Cuartelejo. The residents lived in spacious adobe huts and cultivated small plots of corn, kidney beans, pumpkins, and watermelons, in addition to hunting bison.

In the end, the Comanches prevailed, employing captivity as a primary tool to remake the region. They raided Apache settlements, burning houses and fields, probably deliberately adopting a scorched-earth strategy to permanently dislodge their antagonists. To avoid complications, they generally killed the adult males on the spot, then seized the women and children.

The Comanches took many of their captives to New Mexico, where they exchanged them for horses and knives. In the absence of money or silver, women and children constituted a versatile medium of exchange accepted by Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Pueblos, and many other Indian groups of the region.

Comanche males competed with one another by expanding their kinship networks. The Comanches practiced polygyny, so raids allowed men to acquire additional wives. Successful males could have three, four, five, or up to ten or more wives. Their “main instinct,” commented New Mexican governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín in 1750, “was to have an abundance of women, stealing them from other nations to increase their own.” This was not just about prestige, sexual gratification, and reproduction. In an equestrian society, women provided specialized labor.

For instance, a skilled male hunter could bring down several bison in just one hour. But once the exhilaration of the chase was over, hunters faced the daunting task of processing dead animals spread over great distances. Each carcass could weigh a ton or more. Flaying open a bison, cutting the choice meat from the back and around the ribs, removing the inner organs, cleaning the hide, and severing the legs and head required not just skill but above all untold amounts of labor. Captive women spent endless hours stooping over these large carcasses, withstanding the heat, stench, and exhaustion involved in preparing the hides for their many uses; looking after the horses; and doing the myriad chores of life in an encampment and on the move. Circumstances could vary, but enslaved women usually began at the bottom of the hierarchy of wives and were given the most taxing and unpleasant tasks. They were subordinate not only to their Comanche husbands but also to the “first wives,

Captive children faced different circumstances. Older boys, because they could not readily identify with their captors and had difficulty learning the language, were frequently excluded from the Comanche kinship system. These unlucky captives sometimes remained slaves for life. In contrast, younger captives were often adopted into a family and regarded as full-fledged members of it. Comanches showed a marked preference for boys over girls.

They were in high demand primarily because of the relative scarcity of males in Comanche society. Constant battles and raids took a heavy toll on the male population. Reportedly, relatively few Comanche warriors reached old age. The marked preference for boys may also have been a result of the growing number of horses the Comanches came to control. Breaking horses and looking after them became major occupations in Comanche society, and boys were deemed more appropriate for such tasks than girls. At the height of their power in the nineteenth century, the Comanches owned so many horses that each boy was responsible for a herd of as many as 150 animals,

Looking after the horses was the first task assigned to these young captives; it was a way of testing their loyalty to the group. The boys also had to recognize their captors as their parents, learn the ways of the society, and earn sufficient trust to receive more difficult assignments. In the fullness of time, they were allowed to take part in bison hunts and eventually were invited to accompany the warriors in raids against other Indians, including their former kinsmen.

Camps consisted of as few as ten people and seldom exceeded fifty. Atomization was a necessity, given the scarcity of food. These small bands moved from one campsite to another in carefully planned circuits to procure grasses, pine nuts, and other food resources that were available in different locales at different times of year.

The sparse conditions of the Great Basin limited the ability of the Paiutes to acquire horses. Horses consumed great amounts of grass, the very food on which the Paiutes depended for survival.

Thus the Paiutes ate horses instead of keeping them as beasts of burden. As a result, unlike other Numic speakers such as the Utes and Comanches, the Paiutes remained a horseless people, moving on foot in small groups, carrying simple tools, and eking out a living by digging roots and catching animals. Without giving a second thought to the environmental constraints to which the Paiutes were subjected, newcomers to the Great Basin simply assumed that the local Indians were exceedingly backward:

New England explorer Thomas J. Farnham remarked that many of the slaving victims were Paiute and Shoshone Indians living on the Sevier River of Utah—“poor creatures hunted in the spring of the year, when they are weak and helpless . . . and when taken [they are] fattened, carried to Santa Fé and sold as slaves during their minority.” Farnham noted that all ethnicities were already involved in this trade: “New Mexicans capture them for slaves; the neighboring Indians do the same; and even the bold and usually high-minded old [Anglo-American] beaver-hunter sometimes descends from his legitimate labor among the mountain streams, to this mean traffic.

In pre-contact North America, the diffusion of agriculture had given rise to an earlier cycle of enslavement. Indian societies that adopted agriculture experienced a sudden population increase and acquired both the means and the motivation to raid other peoples. The Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Caribs, Iroquois, and many others possessed captives and slaves, as is clear in archaeological, linguistic, and historical records. Nomadic groups also had slaves. But it is possible to find some nomads who were reluctant to accept even individuals who willingly offered themselves as slaves to save themselves from starvation. For some of these groups, taking slaves was simply not economically viable.

It is clear that the introduction of horses and firearms precipitated another cycle of enslavement in North America.  

The mission was Spain’s first frontier institution. In the early years of colonization, friars boldly ventured into unsettled areas, established contact with Indians, and acted as diplomats, spies, and agents of the crown.  Missions proved inadequate to secure the unsettled frontier. Working alone or in pairs, friars simply lacked the means to control territory or enforce a European-style regime. Missionaries depended on Native leaders to decide whether it was to their peoples’ advantage to live within a mission. In many instances, Indians found that life under the mission bell was too regimented for them and ultimately abandoned their missions. As the friars were powerless to retrieve absconding Indians, they had to rely on Spanish soldiers to help them carry out their work of religious instruction.

The Utes, Comanches, and Apaches, refused to allow missions into their territories. These nations wanted nothing to do with the meddlesome robed men bent on monogamous marriage, a sedentary way of life, and other strictures, and there was nothing the missionaries could do about it.

For the Indians, the presence of missions and presidios represented both opportunity and danger. Indians preferred to engage these outposts intermittently and on their own terms—perhaps to procure goods or food or even to gain temporary employment, but nothing more. However, their very existence made life risky for Natives living in the vicinity, as they increased the Indians’ vulnerability to European labor demands. This was especially true for small nomadic or seminomadic bands that had little else to offer but their labor. The alternatives were stark for them. They could either take to inaccessible areas beyond the pale of Spanish control or strike a bargain with the Devil, so to speak, by joining a mission or presidio while negotiating the best possible arrangement.

The Seris did receive the Jesuit missionaries peacefully, but one important reason was that the padres gave away food liberally. As one missionary noted, it was necessary to win over the Seris “by their mouths.

Out of a total population of around three thousand in the early eighteenth century, perhaps ten to twenty percent chose to settle down. The majority pursued the opposite strategy, avoiding contact with Europeans and retreating deep into their environmental refuge. Tiburón, the largest island in Mexico, lies only about a mile and a half from the continent and is clearly visible from much of the central coast of Sonora. But to get to this island, one has to cross the treacherous Strait of Infiernillo. The Spaniards needed good boats to negotiate the strait’s strong currents, but the desert coast of Sonora had no trees and therefore no wood for boats. The closest sources of wood would have been the Sierra de Bacoachi or Cerro Prieto. But hauling logs for even a medium-size vessel would have been a formidable task. The Seris were well aware of the Spaniards’ difficulties in getting to Tiburón and to the even more remote island of San Esteban, and thus headed there to escape their control.

Negotiating between these two worlds, many Seris chose to straddle them. They would stay in the missions for some time, performing the arduous work of the agriculturalist/stockman, but also frequently flee. Sometimes they would plunder a neighboring mission or nearby ranch, then abscond to the islands. Seri bands also would raid one another’s settlements, “hunt” mission cattle as if they were deer, and plunder corn as if it were a wild plant. Ancient animosities, multigenerational vendettas, and rivalries—exacerbated by the emergence of agricultural/ ranching oases in the middle of the desert—motivated some of these attacks. They also discovered that they could extend their traditional hunting and gathering activities with the resources recently introduced by Europeans.

The padres may have thought that they were “civilizing” the Seris, but the opposite was equally plausible: the Seris had incorporated the missions into their way of life, as they continued to move, hunt, and gather.

The ineffectiveness of the missions eventually prompted Spanish planners to attempt a more forceful approach. As the eighteenth century unfolded, military garrisons and soldiers superseded the missions as the lynchpins of Spain’s efforts to stabilize the frontier.

With the new approach came new forms of coercion. The word “presidio” captures the dual purpose of garrison and prison. Presidial soldiers were professionals who drew a salary from the crown, but they were underpaid. Thus garrison commanders and soldiers supplemented their earnings by catching Indians and selling them to the Spanish colonists or by turning presidios into supply centers based on coerced labor.

The Natives, once inside the presidio, were compelled to work from dawn to dusk. Twenty-two Indians labored in shackles, while the remaining sixty-six did not wear chains but were constantly monitored. Since many of the prisoners were married, their wives and children also lived at the garrison. They made tortillas, ground pinole (a course flour made of corn and seeds), and fetched water in return for food and clothes. Discipline was extreme. Minor infractions such as being late for work could result in forty or fifty lashes. Some guards were sadistic, beating Indians to unconsciousness, burning their armpits with hot wax, and hanging them from their feet with their heads dangling over a fire. Three Indians accused of being hechiceros at the pueblo of Onavas died after suffering horrifying head burns as presidial soldiers attempted to extract their confessions.

Several inmates had been accused of being hechiceros, or sorcerers, and had been sent to the presidio by express orders of the missionaries.

The presidio’s commanders had used the inmates’ labor for private gain. Pitic had been established right next to a large hacienda that belonged to the governor of Sonora and Sinaloa, Agustín de Vildósola. Since the beginning, most of the inmates had been sent to work on his property, building a dam, digging an irrigation ditch, installing fences, and tending the cornfields and wheat fields. Other prisoners had been hard at work carding, spinning, making cloth on looms, and fermenting mescal from the agave plant. Yet others had toiled in the nearby mines.

Rodríguez Gallardo’s solution was to deport all Seri Indians to a place from which they would never return. Rodríguez Gallardo believed that it was possible to remove the entire Seri nation of around three thousand people. All male and female Seris over the age of eight would be sent away, preferably by sea, because “once secured in a boat they will only be able to seek their freedom in their own shipwreck and ruin and without seeing the lay of our continent they would not understand how to return.” Given that the textile sweatshops of central Mexico had not been able to keep the Seris from returning home, Spanish officials decided to ship the Indian prisoners to the “ultramarine islands,” a vague formulation that probably meant the Caribbean islands and quite possibly the Philippines,

The only Seris who would not be shipped away—children younger than eight—would be marched to the Apache frontier to be used as reinforcements.

Spanish colonists and their Opata allies had been clinging precariously to their communities in the face of Apache raids in places such as the Valley of Bacanuchi, Terrenate, and San Francisco Xavier de Cuchuta along the headwaters of the San Pedro River. The Seri children would add to their numbers. The governor of Sonora predicted that “the Spaniards or people of reason among whom they intend to place the Seri children will not only agree to it but wish for the children to help them contain the enemy Apaches.

Adult Seris were led away in ropes and chains, not quite to the Caribbean islands, as originally proposed, but to Guatemala. Even then, some of the men returned.

The extirpation strategy ultimately failed, however. Many Seris remained in their homeland and had even more reason to rebel. Three years after the expedition to Tiburón, a Seri leader named Chepillo had a frank conversation with a missionary. When the Spanish friar urged the Indian leader to surrender, Chepillo replied, “I know that if we continue fighting we are damning ourselves, but there is no other way. We are accustomed to living with women. We do not know where our wives are, whether they are living or dead. You would not marry us to others, and if we take others, you will order us whipped.” Chepillo’s reasoning was unassailable. The Seri mission program, which had lasted for more than seventy years, had given way to extirpation and enslavement.

To prevent disruptions and to keep the silver flowing, Spanish officials subjected the Apaches to some of the same policies tested earlier on the Seris. According to the estimates of historian Paul Conrad, between 1770 and 1816 some three to five thousand Apaches and other Indians from the north were led away in chains, bound for central and southern Mexico. The most dangerous were shipped to Cuba.

Soldiers had an incentive to give the prisoners as little food as possible, in order to profit from the budget set aside for food. They also forced the Indians to walk for hours on end in order to wear them down and prevent any escape attempts. Terrible abuse arose from the fact that the majority of the prisoners were women and children, at the mercy of male soldiers.

These drives moved people living in regions of low demographic density to major urban agglomerations such as Mexico City and Veracruz, which were rife with disease. But it is remarkable that even in the midst of this outbreak, the colleras continued: one in 1780 and three more in 1781. These Indian drives, moving dozens of susceptible indigenous hosts and requiring soldiers to move back and forth between central and northern Mexico, would have been excellent carriers of the disease.

By the early 19th century, Indian slavery had nearly disappeared on the east coast of North America.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the traffic of Natives was replaced almost completely by that of African slaves. Only a few vestiges of the old trade networks remained, notably in Florida.

 The Seminoles took Africans as slaves.

Captives like Abelino sometimes tried to escape while they were still close to their home communities and in relative proximity to other Mexican towns. That is why Indians often bound captives with ropes before going to sleep or even while riding. After crossing the Rio Grande and especially after having reached the Comanchería, such precautions became unnecessary. Lacking horses, weapons, and provisions, it was extremely risky for captives to set out on their own in the immense southern plains.

Captive Fernando González singled out the Yamparicas (a band of Comanches), the Kiowas (a group closely allied with the Comanches), some Apache bands (Lipanes, Mescaleros, and Gileños), and the Sarigtecas (or Sarituhkas, a generic term for Plains Indians used by the Comanches) as the principal captive takers in northern Mexico. These bands often traded their prisoners away, but they also retained many captives who were incorporated into their respective bands and came to comprise significant proportions of their overall populations.

“At least one fourth of the whole number have more or less of captive blood . . . chiefly Mexicans and Mexican Indians, with Indians of other tribes, and several whites taken from Texas when children.” In a census of Comanche families conducted in Oklahoma Territory in 1902, fully forty-five percent turned out to be of Mexican descent.

From published and unpublished sources, Rivaya-Martínez has identified 470 captives taken by Comanches from the 1820s to the 1860s. It is impossible to know how many cases went unrecorded. From this sample, however, it is clear that most of the victims were Hispanics (75%), followed far behind by other Indians (14%) and Anglo-Americans (10%).  Proportionally, the Comanches took few Anglo-American captives, and the ones they did take were often ransomed and released as soon as practicable.

Humble Mexicans, whose lives were changed in an instant when they were captured, and who frequently remained with the Natives for several years, if not forever. Lacking the necessary means and connections, the families of these captives were unable to ransom their children and wives and were otherwise powerless to demand their return.

One-fourth of all Kiowa Indians and nearly half of all Comanches were of Mexican descent, and many of them surely participated in raids against fellow Mexicans.

After independence, Mexico extended citizenship rights to all Indians residing there and abolished slavery. In the absence of slavery, the only way for Mexicans to bind workers to their properties and businesses was by extending credit to them. As a result, debt peonage proliferated throughout Mexico (and in the American Southwest after slavery was abolished there in the 1860s) and emerged as the principal mechanism of the other slavery.

The Indian did not know the amount he still owed or how much money he and his family had earned during their twelve years of forced servitude. But he was certain that peonage was worse than slavery because unlike the Africans with whom he toiled, he was not allowed to wander the streets freely even on Sundays. Over the centuries, debt peonage spread.

States throughout the country enacted servitude and vagrancy laws. The state of Yucatán, for example, regulated the movement of servants through a certificate system. No servant could abandon his master without having fulfilled the terms of his contract and could not be hired by another employer without first presenting a certificate showing that he owed “absolutely nothing” to his previous employer.

In Chiapas the state legislature introduced a servitude code in 1827 allowing owners to retain their workers by force if necessary until they had fulfilled the terms of their contracts.

Peonage in neighboring Nuevo León may have been just as common and was especially galling because it was customary to transfer debts from fathers to sons, thus perpetuating a system of inherited bondage. In these ways, servitude for the liquidation of debts spread all over Mexico.

“We do not consider that we own our laborers; we consider they are in debt to us,” the president of the Agricultural Chamber of Yucatán told Turner. “And we do not consider that we buy and sell them; we consider that we transfer the debt, and the man goes with the debt.

One year ago the price of each man was $1,000.” Obviously, the reason the going rate was uniform was not that all peons were equally in debt, but that there was a market for them irrespective of their debt. “We don’t keep much account of the debt,” clarified one planter, “because it doesn’t matter after you’ve got possession of the man.” After paying the price, Turner was told, he would get the worker along with a photograph and identification papers.

Turner asked candidly about how to treat his workers. “It is necessary to whip them—oh, yes, very necessary,” opined Felipe G. Canton, secretary of the Agricultural Chamber, “for there is no other way to make them do what you wish.

“Peons, you are aware, is but another name for slaves as that term is understood in our Southern States,” he explained in a letter to the commissioner of Indian affairs, adding that the main difference was that the peonage system was not confined to a particular “race of the human family,” but applied to “all colors and tongues.

Indians purchased other Indians, and Mexicans bought other Mexicans, and yet no one seemed to have the slightest objection to being purchasers of their own “kith and kin.

Foreign visitors who ventured out of Don Guadalupe’s home and onto his nearby Rancho Petaluma were able to gain a great deal more insight. At its peak in the early 1840s, this 66,000-acre ranch was tended by seven hundred workers. An entire encampment of Indians, “badly clothed” and “pretty nearly in a state of nature,” lived in and around the property and did all the work.

Faced with dwindling resources and loss of land, former mission Indians had little choice but to put themselves under the protection of overlords like the Vallejos.

Especially after the secularization of the missions in 1833, Mexican ranchers sent out armed expeditions to seize Indians practically every year—and as many as six times in 1837, four in 1838, and four in 1839.

Mexican ranchers pioneered the other slavery in California, but American colonists readily adapted to it. They acquired properties of their own and faced the age-old problem of finding laborers. Their options were limited.

Although the indigenous population of Alta California had been cut by half during the Spanish and Mexican periods—roughly from 300,000 to 150,000—Indians still comprised the most abundant pool of laborers. Short of working the land themselves, white owners had to rely on them.

A Massachusetts doctor named John Marsh offered clearer guidance on how to treat Indian workers: “Nothing more is necessary for their complete subjugation but kindness in the beginning, and a little well timed severity when manifestly deserved.” And even when the latter method became a necessity, Dr. Marsh reassured his readers, the California Indians “submit to flagellation with more humility than the negroes.

Chico’s Bidwell

On one end of the spectrum were the decidedly paternalistic patrones (landowners), such as John Bidwell.  Bidwell regarded Indians as children of nature—credulous, superstitious, and gullible—and sometimes resorted to manipulation. To intimidate them, he carried the paw of a very large grizzly bear and showed it to them, knowing that they viewed grizzlies as especially powerful, and even evil, spirits.

Bidwell regarded Indians as children of nature—credulous, superstitious, and gullible—and sometimes resorted to manipulation.

Bidwell’s need for Indian workers became critical during the gold rush years. He was among the lucky few who struck gold and was able to establish a productive gold-mining camp on the Feather River. During the frantic mining seasons of 1848 and 1849, he and his partners managed to recruit between twenty and fifty Natives from the Butte County area. Bidwell paid his workers with food and clothing rather than cash, but to his credit, he did not use debt or coercion to get his way.

When he served as alcalde at the mission of San Luis Rey a few years earlier, he specifically refused to return fugitive workers to their Mexican masters because of unpaid debts.

Bidwell’s peculiar blend of pragmatism and paternalism was perhaps best expressed at Rancho del Arroyo Chico, a 22,000-acre property east of the Sacramento River and north of Chico Creek (encompassing what is now the town of Chico) that he had acquired with his mining wealth. When he first moved onto the ranch in 1849, there were no Indians on the premises. Therefore his first goal was to convince the Mechoopda Indians living immediately to the south to come to his ranch.

Bidwell gave them work and asked them to stay. He offered the ranch as a refuge where they could hunt, fish, gather acorns, conduct communal grasshopper drives, and generally maintain their way of life and culture at a time of rapid change throughout California. A couple of hundred Mechoopdas resettled in a new ranchería barely one hundred yards from Bidwell’s residence. One visitor commented that Bidwell had found these Indians “as wild as a deer and wholly unclad,” but through his protection and employment, they had built “happy homes with their own gardens, fruit trees, and flowers.

Sutter’s enslavement

Such experiences paved Sutter’s way into the slaving business. But what really pushed him into that traffic was the need to punish hostile Indians and the realization that this could be done in an economically advantageous manner. Sutter’s presence by the Sacramento River had polarized the indigenous inhabitants. Some Miwoks and Nisenans were his allies and laborers—however reluctantly—but many others refused to submit and attempted to steal from Sutter and even murder him. In 1844–1845, when Sutter’s political influence was on the wane and huge payments to the Russians were due, he opted to use an iron fist on the Natives. “I see now how it is,” Sutter wrote to his most trusted agent, who was in the process of developing a new farm; “if they are not Keept strickly under fear, it will be no good.” Sutter’s personal army came alive in those years, persuading unreliable laborers, breaking up bands of hostile Indians, and punishing cattle rustlers. All of these activities became potential sources of slaves. Unguarded private letters reveal the deliberate way in which Sutter approached this line of business. “I shall send you some young Indians,” Sutter wrote to his neighbor and creditor Antonio Suñol in May 1845, “after our campaign against horse-thieves, which will take place after the wheat harvest.


Finally they reached the Kam-dot Indians, who organized a great council in a temescal, or sweathouse, to which Vallejo was invited. The Indians began gathering in the conical structure, about the size of a circus ring, by the lake. The building was completely enclosed except for a small hole at the top to let out the smoke. The only way in or out was through a narrow tunnel that could be used by only one person at a time. The participants set a fire in the middle of the structure, and once they were sweating profusely, they would escape through the tunnel to plunge into the lake. According to Vallejo’s own version of events, he believed that the sweathouse invitation was a ruse. So with half the Indian men inside, naked and unarmed, he and his men set the building on fire while blocking the tunnel. Then the rest of the men and “the squaws and children were made prisoners and driven down into Napa Valley and there compelled to go to work”—a prize of three hundred Indians, young and old, male and female. The American takeover of California forced the Vallejos to consolidate their holdings.

Americans who stayed with Kelsey and Stone reported that their hosts flogged Indians for entertainment and even shot random Natives just for the fun of seeing them jump. Thomas Knight, an American who settled in the Napa Valley in 1845, said that one of the preferred methods of punishment was to hang Indians by their thumbs in the adobe house for two or three days, allowing their toes to just touch the floor. Kelsey and Stone also raped young Indian women. Indeed, according to another white Napa Valley resident, one of their motivations for relocating to remote Clear Lake was to gain the freedom to satisfy “their unbridled lusts among the youthful females.

One morning in December 1849, the Indians charged the adobe house, killing Kelsey and Stone with arrows and striking their heads with rocks.

Although the two American partners may have been unusually (even pathologically) cruel, they were able to enslave these Indians because such activities were common throughout the region and there was a thriving market for Indian slaves. Indeed, their deaths did not stop the trafficking of Clear Lake Indians. The trade resumed in 1850.


The next step in the process of formalizing the peonage system was to give teeth to Montgomery’s proclamation, which is exactly what Henry W. Halleck, secretary of state of California, did by introducing a certificate and pass system in 1847. All employers were required to issue certificates of employment to their indigenous workers. If these workers had to travel for any reason, such as to visit friends or relatives or to trade, they also had to secure a pass from the local authorities. These certificates and passes allowed employers and local officials to monitor and control the movements of Indians.

“Any Indian found beyond the limits of the town or rancho in which he may be employed without such certificate or pass,” Halleck ordered, “will be liable to arrest as a horse thief, and if, on being brought before a civil Magistrate, he fail to give a satisfactory account of himself, he will be subjected to trial and punishment.” This system accomplished a number of goals. It allowed ranchers to hold Indians in place, as the certificates typically listed the “advanced wages” that had to be repaid before the certificate bearer would be free to go. This was the very cornerstone of the peonage system. The certificate and pass system also sought to minimize conflict among employers. Understandably, Indians often fled from ranches and mines and took up work with other employers.

With these documents, prospective employers could determine at a glance if an Indian seeking employment had any outstanding debts. And finally, the pass system went beyond previous ordinances in distinguishing between Natives gainfully employed and all others—regardless of where they lived—who were automatically considered vagrants or horse thieves and therefore subject to the labor draft.

The Indian Act of 1850 was like a piñata with something for everyone who wished to exploit the Natives of California. For instance, section 20 stipulated that any Indian who was able to work and support himself in some honest calling but was found “loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging, or leading an immoral or profligate course of life” could be arrested on the complaint of “any resident citizen” of the county and brought before any justice of the peace. If the accused Indian was deemed a vagrant, the justice of the peace was required “to hire out such vagrant within twenty-four hours to the best bidder . . . for any term not exceeding four months.” In short, any citizen could obtain Indian servants through convict leasing.

Another section established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).

The apprenticeship provision worked in tandem with yet another section of the Indian Act of 1850 that gave justices of the peace jurisdiction in all cases of complaints related to Indians, “without the ability of Indians to appeal at all.” And “in no case [could] a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian, or Indians.” Understandably, these provisions gave considerable latitude to traffickers of Indian children. In northern California, this trade flourished, especially in the mid-1850s, and became so important that some newspapers began writing about the inhumanity of it. In 1857 the newspapers launched what one witness described as “an agitation against the California slave trade

Carson forwarded an extraordinary request to Carleton: It is expected by the Utes, and has, I believe, been customary to allow them to keep the women and children and the property captured by them for their own use and benefit, and as there is no way to sufficiently recompense these Indians for their invaluable services, and as a means of insuring their continued zeal and activity; I ask it as a favor that they be permitted to retain all that they may capture. Carson made this request as a concerned commander who wished to retain his Indian scouts.

The end of native American slavery

The impetus did not originate in abolitionist groups. Instead it came from that much-maligned institution, the United States Congress.  Although the intended beneficiaries of the 13th amendment were African slaves, the term “involuntary servitude” opened the possibility of applying it to Indian captives, Mexican peons, Chinese coolies, or even whites caught in coercive labor arrangements.

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A book review of “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman

Preface. This is a book review of “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman 2016.

I found this book hard to put down.  It should be read because it tells the role guns played in the decimation of Native Americans, how initially European colonization was mainly able to succeed by trading guns for fur (beaver, otter, buffalo, deer), how guns played a huge role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans over the next 200 years, and a new and darker view of the history of America.  This book makes the case that perhaps as many Indians died in gun battles between tribes and colonists as died from small pox and other diseases.

Native Americans were brave, strong, clever, and strategic in how they used guns to transform their culture.  Perhaps if they’d had a greater population they could have fended off colonization, though disease, fighting among themselves, the immigration of millions, and enormous birth-rate of colonists almost certainly doomed them.

It’s an enormous tragedy that Indians used guns to kill and capture slaves from other tribes to swell their own numbers (lost to battles and disease) to gain wives and children (men were killed), as well as exchanging captured natives to the European slave trade in exchange for guns.  The one time Native American leaders had the vision to try to unite tribes against European colonization failed (i.e. Pontiac’s War in 1763.)

This is an extensive history of the role guns played in hundreds of thousands of Native American deaths.  Another book on this topic is “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West” which covers the U.S. Army wars against Native American tribes after the Civil War.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Excerpts from Thundersticks:

From the early days of Atlantic coast colonization in the 17th century, through the end of the Plains wars in the late 19th century, one group of Indians after another used firearms to revolutionize their lives.

The first groups to adopt these weapons sought a military advantage over their rivals.

Those who managed to seize temporary control of an emerging gun market transformed themselves into predatory gunmen, terrorizing entire regions to seize enemy Indian captives, plunder, land, and glory. In the face of such gun-toting expansionist powers, neighboring peoples had little choice but to respond in kind. They could plainly see that the groups most at risk of subjugation, forced adoption, enslavement, displacement, and death were the ones who failed to provide their warriors with guns and ammunition.

All of the tribes quickly learned that access to guns could lead to their rise or fall. The result was the eruption of regional arms races across the continent for over 200 years. This predatory raiding would not subside until a rough balance of power was achieved through a widespread distribution of guns.

For every force like the Five Nations that rose on the strength of its armament, there were numerous other groups on whose fall that rise was predicated. This added up to tens of thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of eastern woodlands Indians killed, captured, tortured, forcibly adopted, and maimed over the course of the seventeenth century.

Innumerable others suffered the misery of losing loved ones over and over again and living in constant fear. Even the Iroquois eventually had their own tactics turned against them as their rivals acquired their own arms and fine-tuned their defenses. The region had degenerated into a running gun battle in which no one was safe.

For some Natives the gun became an important and even necessary tool for hunting. This was especially the case among deer-hunting peoples east of the Mississippi River and for caribou/moose hunters near Hudson Bay. It took only a generation or two before Indians claimed that their young people had become so accustomed to hunting with these weapons, and so out of practice at using and manufacturing bows and arrows, that they would starve without ammunition and gunsmithing services.

The centrality of guns to Native warfare and hunting made them symbols of Indian manhood, for these were the most basic male responsibilities. Men went to war for a variety of reasons:

  • kill enemy warriors to expand or defend territory
  • seize women and children for enslavement and adoption
  • negotiation of tributary relationships between communities
  • revenge of insults
  • protection of kin from outside aggressors
  • plunder enemy wealth

The people’s destiny hinged on these goals, and therefore their cultural practices emphasized war as a foundation of male identity. Almost any man who aspired to social esteem, a favorable marriage, and political influence first had to prove himself as a warrior and hunter. As the weapons market spread, achieving this status required him to become a capable gunman as well. Firearms grew so essential to masculine achievements that, in many times and places, an Indian man was rarely, if ever, seen out on the hunt or on the warpath without a musket and an ammunition bag slung over his shoulder.

Among the Blackfeet of the northwestern Plains, capturing an enemy warrior’s gun became the greatest honor a man could accomplish in battle, which he then memorialized in ceremony and art.

It is equally telling of the role guns played in Indian constructions of gender that Native women rarely used firearms, even when their lives were in peril. The general rule was that women gave and sustained life but did not take it. This principle held firm even when the threat of enemy gunmen was imminent and the community at risk had enough resources to put muskets in the hands of adults of both sexes. It did not seem to matter that women faced special dangers from enemy raiders and armies, since Indian war parties usually killed their adult male opponents but marked able-bodied women for forcible adoption or slavery.

Women were prizes for gun-toting enemy warriors, restricted by their people’s gender conventions from wielding arms to defend themselves. Women who made it out of an enemy attack alive but captive would serve the captor’s people for a greater or lesser time as slaves before being adopted with the expectation of marrying and producing children—that is, if no one killed them beforehand. Child captives suffered similar ordeals. The misery of untold numbers of women and children fitting this description, and of thousands of men who also died along the way, were among the legacies of the arming of the Native Northeast, where in the end “there really were no winners … only survivors.

As Indians’ need for munitions grew, they developed economies to secure supplies of arms, gunsmithing services and restrict their rivals’ access to them.

Indigenous political economies of guns followed a common pattern across the continent over the course of 250 years. Repeatedly, Indian polities harvested resources sought by gun suppliers, and then cultivated trade with more than one weapons dealer to ensure dependable flows of munitions at low costs, even in the event of war with the societies of the arms merchants. Indians used their arsenals to cut off indigenous enemies from the arms trade and seize hunting grounds, slaves, and horses from them which could be converted into more guns. Sometimes the Indians’ gun dealers hailed from different nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, or Spain, or different colonies of the same nation, in the case of the English provinces of the Atlantic seaboard. At other times (or simultaneously), munitions came from one or more Native groups playing the role of middlemen between colonial markets and Indians of the interior. The point of opening so many trade lines was to prevent foreigners from turning the people’s dependence on firearms into political and economic weakness.

Middlemen accumulated earnings and allies by trafficking guns to people isolated from the Euro-American arms market. Generally the middlemen came from small communities unable to compete independently with the most formidable tribes and confederacies. They made themselves valuable to these groups by delivering munitions and other goods to them from remote colonial sources.

On the return trip they carried indigenous commodities such as beaver pelts, otter pelts, slaves, horses, and bison robes for trade to Euro-American merchants, which began the cycle anew. Serving as the conduit between distant markets enabled the middlemen to build political and economic alliances with peoples at both ends of the transaction, thus giving them influence disproportionate to their numbers and military strength. This role also gave middlemen a cut of the profits, thereby enhancing their own ability to purchase foreign weaponry. Indian polities used commercial and military leverage to shape these relationships to their advantage. They threatened gun dealers that they would take their trade elsewhere unless they received gunsmithing, powder, and shot at reduced prices or even for free. They also required gunrunners who did business with them not to supply their rivals. Traders who bent to these demands often found themselves with customers so loyal that they could be trusted to repay large extensions of credit, even in the absence of a formal legal system to enforce these agreements. By contrast, traders who ignored the Indians’ conditions suffered a loss of business, at best, and sometimes the loss of their lives.

Indians never possessed the technological ability to manufacture guns and gunpowder, but attempts to prevent guns traded for good usually failed because the Indians’ made sure they had multiple sources of supply. At no point in time did any one colonial or imperial polity control enough of the continent or even one region to cut off Indians completely from guns, powder, and shot.

The widespread success of Indians at building and maintaining large arsenals of firearms reveals the extent of indigenous economic and political power, the limits of state authority, and the high degree of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans. This interdependence stemmed Indians  being the main suppliers to colonists of beaver pelts, otter furs, deerskins, and buffalo robes. The fur trade was central to the economy of nearly every colony in its opening decades.

Indians insisted on high-quality, low-cost firearms, gunpowder, shot, and gunsmithing services for furs, though they demanded other types of goods, especially woolen blankets, linen, shirts, metal tools, and liquor. But they could make do without cloth or tools if they had to, whereas guns and ammunition became a military necessity, a matter of life and death. The Indians’ Euro-American trade partners could either supply these wares or lose their Native customers and risk turning them into enemies.

The main concession of Euro-American governments and even major trade firms to Indian demands was to make gifts of guns, powder, shot, and gunsmithing a routine part of their diplomacy with Indians. Presents of these goods and services were so common that powerful Indian groups no longer had to pay for them to any significant degree. In the diplomatic gift economy, the quality, quantity, and timeliness of arms-related gifts became the symbols of the health of the relationship between giver and recipient. Price was taken out of the equation. The fact that Europeans delivered these presents in ritual settings structured by Indian customs of feasting, smoking, dancing, singing, and speeches, reflected the leverage Indians exercised over colonial states even as they needed European guns to defend themselves.

Their dependence on the technology of Europe did not translate into political subservience to particular empires, colonies, or nations. The lengthy condition of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans, and the Indians’ cultivation of multiple sources of supply beyond the control of any particular government, meant that indigenous peoples’ reliance on guns rarely made them captive to a single Euro-American state. Euro-American states were never able to exploit the Indians’ need for munitions to force them to cede their land or extradite their people to colonial jurisprudence. What those states could do with varying degrees of effectiveness was reduce, but rarely halt, the arms trade during periods of Indian-colonial warfare and thereby pressure enemy Indians to end their campaigns. Additionally, they could use their trading policies and gift diplomacy to influence Native people toward peace or war with other tribes or colonies and to deliver warriors to imperial military campaigns.

The Indians’ dependence on Euro-American weaponry did not make them tools of Euro-American governments. Euro-American polities, including the United States, always struggled to control the arms trade to Indians. In the founding years of colonies, when they were most vulnerable, and during periods of war with Indian peoples, Euro-American governments typically banned the sale of munitions to Indians, but usually to little effect. There were always traders who refused to honor such restrictions. Most alarming were examples of government officers and military men who turned to the black-market trade with Indians to line their own pockets. The arms trade to Indians was one of the prime examples of American “rogue colonialism,” in which colonists of all ranks pursued their own interests, often illegally, in opposition to the directives of central authorities and even against the interests of their neighbors.

The most common element in the sequential collapse of Indian military resistance to Euro-America was starvation and war-weariness stemming from the enemy’s scorched-earth tactics and killing of women, children, and the elderly. Another key factor was their harassment at the hands of other indigenous people who allied with Euro-Americans in the hopes of dealing a blow against their intertribal rivals and gaining supplies of munitions. More generally, Indians lost a numbers game, with their own ranks thinned by repeated bouts of epidemic disease and warfare, while Euro-Americans were strengthened by centuries of high birthrates and large-scale migrations to North America. To the extent that Indians held back this tide, it was in no small part because of, not despite of, their adoption of firearms.

The Atlantic coast was the strongest base of the arms trade, and in broad strokes the gun frontier tended to move from east to west, but firearms arrived in Indian country from multiple directions along the twisting routes of rivers and ancient pathways. Throughout the 18th century, munitions flowed south from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s base in Canadia into the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. Weapons unloaded at French ports on the Gulf of Mexico circulated north, west, and sometimes east, often for hundreds of miles.

In a striking reversal of the east-to-west movement associated with the traditional American frontier, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries shipboard traders sold guns to indigenous people along the Pacific Northwest coast, who then carried these weapons eastward to Natives of the interior. Most Indians in the continental Southwest did not possess guns in significant numbers until the mid- to late 19thcentury, because Spanish policies and economic underdevelopment stifled the arms trade out of colonial New Mexico and Texas. Nevertheless, munitions reached the hands of the Comanches of the southern Plains through their eastern neighbors, the Wichitas of the Arkansas and Red River Valleys, who in turn had obtained them from French, British, and American sources based along the Mississippi.

This history of the movement of guns to Native Americans across the continent over the span of more than two centuries demonstrates how indigenous people used guns to reshape their world. This development was one of the essential features of their history with colonialism. Some Indians used guns to accumulate wealth, power, and honors to become ascendant.

Their stories offer an important counterpoint to the long-standing assumption that Indians generally plunged into a downward trajectory of death, land loss, and impoverishment at contact with Euro-Americans. They also challenge the notion that a disadvantage in arms somehow accounts for indigenous people’s ultimate subjugation to Euro-American authority. Native economic power, business sense, and political savvy ensured that was not the case.

However, it is equally critical to acknowledge that gun-toting Indian groups nearly always arose at the expense of other Natives, sometimes many others. Just as the story of the United States should not be told simply as the triumphant rise of a democratic nation-state of liberty-loving people, neither should the advantages Indians wrested from colonialism overshadow the costs.

Indians became so well armed that they were capable of inflicting incredible damage with surprise attacks on colonial settler societies. Most of them were so resourceful in preparing for war and cultivating multiple supply lines that colonial authorities could not disarm them simply by declaring bans on the weapons trade. Yet if arms embargos could not starve Indians of supplies, they could induce hunger for them. These boycotts gave colonial authorities, particularly the English, an influential, albeit not a decisive, weapon to use, but only if they could manage to control their own traders. The problem, of course, was that colony governments exercised weak authority over their own people and none at all over those of neighboring colonies. Given these conditions, the colonists’ most powerful weapon, aside from their artillery, was the lure of arms to recruit Indian warriors to fight for their side.

Overall, long-term Indian success in war against colonial states required stockpiles of arms, dependable avenues of supply, regional alliances of tribes to prevent the colonial strategy of divide and conquer, and forts at remote locations where colonial forces could not haul their artillery guns.

There is no way to calculate the exact number of Indians killed and captured during the gun violence of the late 17th and 18th centuries, but the figure certainly ran into the high tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. To make matters worse, smallpox stalked the routes of slave raiding and gunrunning, preying on populations that were malnourished and traumatized by the predatory violence and clustered into defensive fortifications, which rendered them more vulnerable to communicable diseases. The overall effect was a population decline of some two-thirds between 1685 and 1730, from an estimated 199,000 people to some 67,000.


Many Native North Americans believed that thunder was produced by the flapping wings of a giant bird streaking across the sky. That same Thunderbird shot lightning bolts from its eyes, which then crystalized on the ground into such forms as mica and ancient stone arrowheads. Calling guns Thundersticks or Metal-Lightning was a way of saying that they embodied the awesomeness of the Thunderbird. Clearly these peoples associated the noise, flash, smoke, and lethality of guns with some of the most fearsome natural elements and their spirits.

During thunder and lightning storms, southeastern Indians fired their guns toward the sky to show the Thunderbird “that they were warriors, and not afraid to die in any shape; much less afraid of that threatening noise.” They were also demonstrating that they wielded the power of the elements no less than the spirits of the upper world.

The role of native Americans in the slave trade

The arming of the Indian Southeast took place through the trade in Indian slaves.

Indian captors and their colonial customers robbed as many as 50,000 people of their freedom during the heyday of this enterprise from 1660 to 1720, and killed many more along the way.

The scale of this commerce and the devastation it unleashed was infinitely greater than in the trade of Native people for arms that was developing in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River Valley during the same period. Southeastern slave raids wiped out numerous communities and dislocated others from the Virginia-Carolina Piedmont, deep into Florida, and all the way west to the Mississippi River Valley.

South Carolina’s profits from the labor of Indian slaves and their resale to the West Indies produced much of the seed money for the development of the colony and emptied indigenous people from territory that would later host plantations run on the toil of African slaves.

The danger of slave raiders forced survivors to band together in defensive confederacies and take up slave raiding themselves, for one was either an aggressor or a victim in this terrifying new world. This was a new type of warfare, focused less on satisfying revenge or obtaining captives for adoption than on acquiring people to sell. The southeastern slave trade was fundamentally a trade of humans for munitions in which marauding Indian slavers grew ever more formidable by selling captives for arms, while previous victims became raiders themselves in order to obtain guns for protection and predation. The slave trade and the gun frontier marched hand in hand.

The kind of cascading gun violence that marred the Southeast during this period has obvious parallels to the Northeast and Great Lakes regions between the 1630s and early 1700s. Competition for captives (albeit largely for slaves instead of future adoptees) and control of European markets galvanized intertribal arms races in the Southeast as they had in the North. Rivalries between English Virginia, English South Carolina, Spanish Florida, and French Louisiana involved using trade and gifts of military hardware to bid for Indian trade partners and allies, as was the case among New France, New Netherland, and the various English colonies of the Northeast. Most of the Southeast colonies proved just as incapable of policing gunrunners as their northern counterparts had been, and few of them made much of an effort in the first place. The raids of indigenous groups boasting a temporary advantage in arms forced their enemies to seek political alliances and trading relationships to build up their own arsenals. As in the North, within a few decades guns were more or less evenly distributed throughout the region, which ended runs of dominance of predatory raiders in favor of a balance of power maintained by the fur/deerskin trade and diplomacy with rival European powers. In many critical respects, then, the gun frontier looked similar in the northern and southern woodlands.

Human actors connect the stories of these regions, too, demonstrating the long reach of colonial violence in Indian country. The Chichimecos, as some Indians and the Spanish called them, first appear in the records of Virginia during the 1650s under the name of Rickahockans. By the 1670s the English referred to them as Westos. These Rickahockans/Westos were none other than the Eries, who had retreated from the Great Lakes to the falls of the James River to escape Iroquois gunmen. They then continued their migration into what is now South Carolina. Within a few years their neighbors included a portion of the Savannahs (or Shawnees) from the Ohio Valley, who had left the region seeking European trade and escape from indigenous slave raids out of Virginia and then Five Nations attacks, before settling on the southern river to which they gave their name. Given that the Westos were an Iroquoian-speaking people (though not a member of the Iroquois League), in all likelihood they had their own “mourning war” tradition of adopting enemy captives into their population. But that was not the primary motive of their raiding in the Southeast. Their most compelling reason to relocate this far south was the opportunity to arm themselves by trading people, deerskins, and furs to the colonies of Virginia and then South Carolina. The Westos and Savannahs knew through hard experience that guns were the key to their defense as long as rival groups had access to the colonial weapons market. Seizing captives from southeastern tribes to exchange for arms and adopt into their ranks was their way of ensuring that no one would overawe their people ever again. In this they became the same kind of menacing force that Iroquois gunners had formerly been to them. And they too, like the Five Nations, forced one group after another to build up their munitions and turn these weapons against others, part of the thunderous storm rumbling across Indian country.

The Eries’ relationship with Virginia did not get off to a good start, but eventually the parties established a mutually beneficial exchange of slaves and deerskins for munitions. When Virginia learned in 1656 that 700 strangers called Rickahockans (or Richahecrians) had suddenly appeared at the falls of the James River, its initial response was to attack them. Little did Virginia know that this group was battle tested and, judging from the Rickahockans’ victory in the subsequent fight, perhaps better armed than one might have expected, possibly via the Susquehannocks and that tribe’s weapons trade with Maryland and New Sweden. Thinking the better of entering yet another Indian war with such a formidable opponent, Virginia sued for peace and by 1658 had authorized an open trade in guns, powder, and shot with any “friendly Indians.” A year later there were reports out of St. Augustine of “northern” Indians wielding English muskets, sometimes accompanied by Englishmen, terrorizing the missions of Guale, the northernmost province of Spanish Florida on what is now the Georgia coast. These raiders were certainly the Eries, seeking captives to sell as slaves to Chesapeake tobacco planters and probably also to buttress their population, thinned by war with the Iroquois. Virginians even began referring to the Eries by the name “Westos

The Westos’ prey were the bow-and-arrow Indians of the Florida missions, Carolina coast, and adjacent Piedmont. Spain’s southeastern mission system was extensive, consisting of 35 stations along what today is the shoreline of Georgia and northeast Florida and across the Florida panhandle. Yet it was also vulnerable. One of the principles of the missions was that the Spanish would provide military support and European goods to uphold the authority of local chiefs. However, that protection and trade did not include firearms in any appreciable volume, not because the Spanish refused to trade guns to Indians, but because the Spanish crown invested few resources in the marginal Florida colony and tightly restricted its economy. Additionally, in the 1670s the number of Spanish soldiers stood at just a few hundred men out of a Spanish population of less than 1,000. Such a small, concentrated, poorly armed population was precisely what raiders wanted. Indians elsewhere in the region were also relatively easy targets. The South Carolina coast was inhabited by various Siouan-speaking communities of just a few hundred people each, weakened by successive outbreaks of epidemic disease and war. Even the large, town-dwelling Muskogean-speaking groups west and south of the Savannah River enticed Westo slavers because they were easily reached and defended only by bowmen. The Westos viewed them all as potential slaves.

The Westos’ advantage in arms enabled them to devastate these populations. In the fall of 1659, news arrived in St. Augustine from the interior province of Apalachee that villages 80 leagues to the north had suffered “much damage” by an army of up to 1,000 men consisting of “some striped [painted] Indians, and with them white people, and that they bought some firearms and among them two campaign pieces [or artillery guns].” Coastal Guale was next, suffering an invasion in June 1661 by “a great number of Indians” estimated at 2,000 men, “who said they were Chichimecos and among them some Englishmen with firearms

It was probably no coincidence that half a dozen or so villages of a previously unknown group called the Yamasees appeared just north of the Guale missions shortly after these reports. Though the origin of the Yamasees is cloudy, they seem to have been comprised of various peoples displaced by Westo gunmen. Soon the Yamasees would move directly into the mission districts and begin contributing to Spanish labor drafts in the hope of receiving protection. Their retreat was part of a larger diaspora of peoples throughout the Piedmont and lower Southeast, including Tutelos, Saponis, Yuchis, and Coushattas, seeking refuge from the slavers.

Other Piedmont nations responded to the Westos by acquiring firearms from the Virginia trade forts and especially from pack trains that were probing deeper into Indian country.

By the 1660s the Occaneechis inhabiting the confluence of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers along the major Piedmont trade path had established themselves as middlemen between Virginia gunrunners and indigenous slave raiders and deerskin hunters, a position they jealously guarded. Their town became known as “the mart for all the Indians for at least 500 miles.” The Tuscaroras of the North Carolina coastal plain and Piedmont carved out a similar niche for themselves, transforming one of their towns into “a place of great Indian trade and commerce.” By 1670 firearms had become so common in the region that Monacans by the falls of the James and the Saponis of Otter Creek (by modern Lynchburg, Virginia) greeted English traders with celebratory “volleys of shot” and other signs that “guns, powder, and shot, etc., are commodities they will greedily barter for.” If the Westos wanted to maintain their superiority in arms over their neighbors, they had to find a new home. Consequently, less than a decade after arriving in Virginia, the Westos had relocated to the Savannah River, the modern border of South Carolina and Georgia, within easier striking distance of their intended victims.

Even as the South Carolina–Westo alliance was thriving, elements within the colony were working to undermine it. The eight lords proprietor, who technically governed Carolina from England, claimed a monopoly on the interior Indian trade, including that with the Westos, but colonists, even the proprietors’ own appointees, had little respect for their authority. A faction of councilors soon to be known as the “Goose Creek Men,” led by James Moore, Maurice Mathews, and Arthur Middleton, began encouraging the so-called Settlement Indians and Savannahs to raid the Westos for captives to sell into slavery. When the Westos retaliated, as predicted, the Goose Creek Men used it as an excuse to have the assembly declare war, despite the proprietors’ orders to stop. In this the Goose Creek Men simultaneously dealt a severe blow to proprietary authority and weakened the most threatening indigenous power in the region. Details of the war are murky, but by 1682 the Westos were said to be “ruined” and “not 50 left alive and those Divided.

With the Westos shattered, the Goose Creek Men partnered with Indians near and far to expand the hunt for slaves. The Savannahs (or Shawnees) were the first group to step into the Westo vacuum, relocating to the Savannah River and then raiding interior peoples such as the Cherokees. The Yamasees followed, abandoning the Spanish missions for territory just east of the Savannahs, after concluding that it was better to go slaving for arms than to remain the prey of armed slavers. Even Indians who thought of themselves as allies of Carolina were vulnerable to slave raiding. Shortly after the Westo War, the colony used a trumped-up excuse to declare war on the Winyaw community of Settlement Indians, then successfully urged the Savannahs to conquer and enslave them.

The slave traders’ control of the assembly gave them leeway to pursue their criminal interests under the color of law. The proprietors accused Goose Creek Men in the legislature of banning the sale of arms to Indians only to apply the rule selectively against their commercial rivals while they “brook it themselves for their private advantage and escaped the penalty.” Worse yet, the slavers provoked wars with Indians not as a matter of public good but “as best suited their private advantage in trade.” Indians cooperated in these schemes, the proprietors charged, because “you induce them through [their] Covetousness of your guns, powder, and shot and other European commodities to make war upon their neighbors, to ravish the wife from the husband, kill the father to get the child and to burn and destroy the habitations of these poor people.” It could only have deepened the proprietors’ sense of scandal that much of their colony’s importation of guns and export of Indian slaves appears to have flowed through pirates. Coastal Carolinians, including authorities, thought of pirates less as terrors than as partners in their black-market trade. From 3,000 miles away the proprietors were toothless, given that the colony’s lawmakers and lawbreakers were one and the same.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, slavers and gunrunners marched together deeper into the continent, their power channeled by the political reorganization of their home societies. Within South Carolina, the Goose Creek Men had effectually neutered the lords proprietor, taken over the Carolina government, and thrown open the Indian trade to anyone connected with their faction. Commerce in slaves and deerskins from the Indians, and munitions and other manufactured goods from Europe, became the key to riches at a time when the colony was still searching for a cash crop. For their part, Indians in an area extending for hundreds of miles were coming to the realization that unless they did business with South Carolina, they would lack the weapons to defend themselves from the growing ranks of marauders.

Autonomous communities, their populations thinned by epidemic disease and foreign attacks, began to confederate to protect themselves from the slavers and to man their own armies to go slaving. By the early eighteenth century, two of the most significant of these coalitions were known as the Catawbas and the Creeks. These groups incorporated people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Their cohesion was in its tentative early stages as the turn of the seventeenth century approached, contributing to the sense of regional upheaval.

Competition between militant slavers meant that even groups raiding for Carolina might themselves become captives. The Westos had been merely the first group to fall victim to this trap. The Savannahs were next. In the early 1700s Catawbas attacked the Savannahs’ main town, killing a reported 450 people. The survivors retreated to the Susquehanna River Valley of Pennsylvania, then sent warriors on revenge raids against Carolina’s Indian protectorates. The colony encouraged the Catawbas to retaliate by giving them a gift of fifty guns, 1,000 flints, 200 pounds of gunpowder, and 400 pounds of bullets. Any Catawba who brought in a Savannah scalp or captive could keep the gun without charge, an arrangement premised on the assumption that repeat Indian customers would hold true to the bargain. Carolina was developing a pattern of turning on its friends as soon as it was profitable, but Indians facing the threat of enslavement could not resist the pull of its arms market.

The imperial politics of Europe also shaped these American dynamics. South Carolinians had always been driven by profits to sponsor slave raids, but they got an additional spur in 1688 with England’s Glorious Revolution and the ascension of William and Mary to the throne. By securing England’s Protestant succession, this event inaugurated more than a century of on-again, off-again warfare between Britain and the Catholic powers of France and Spain. In turn, Charles Town gained political cover to enslave the Indian allies of England’s imperial enemies. Queen Anne’s War (or the War of the Spanish Succession), stretching between 1702 and 1713, was especially critical in this respect. It legitimized and incentivized South Carolina’s long-running, de facto state of war with Florida. Furthermore, it permitted the slave traders to justify slave raids against Indians far to the west who had become associated with the young French colony of Louisiana.

The Choctaws’ partnership with the French gave Carolina slave merchants a convenient excuse to direct slave raids against them. When authorities in London demanded an explanation, the slavers easily maintained that they acted in the interest of the empire. After all, they expounded, South Carolina was “a frontier, both against the French and Spaniards,” and enslaving the Indian allies of those powers “serves to lessen their numbers before the French can arm them.

Like a hurricane feeding off the warm waters and winds of the Caribbean, the slave raiders gathered political capital, manpower, and weapons, and then slammed into Florida with irresistible force, pummeling it mercilessly from the mid-1680s into the early 1700s until they had practically emptied the entire peninsula of indigenous people.

There was no mistaking that this slave trade was primarily an exchange of people for guns. A fresh opportunity to put those guns to use arose when the start of Queen Anne’s War coincided with the appointment of none other than the slave trader James Moore to the governorship of Carolina, after the sitting governor died. Moore saw his term as the Goose Creek Men’s chance to deal a fatal blow against the Spanish while accumulating a windfall in slaving profits.

For Carolina’s Indian trade partners, it was an opportunity to build up their musketry. Between 1703 and 1705, armies of up to 1,000 Yamasee, Creek, and Cherokee gunmen marched against the missions of Apalachee and Timucua, carrying away upward of 1,300 captives in just one expedition. The only way mission Indians escaped these attacks alive and unshackled was to “agree” to relocate to the Savannah River under the supervision of the Ochese Creeks. By the time this campaign was over, Spanish Florida and its once extensive mission system were reduced to the fort at St. Augustine, small indigenous villages within range of its guns, and the garrison of Pensacola. These losses, combined with deaths from a vicious smallpox epidemic beginning in 1696, which tore through the Southeast along the routes of slaving and the arms trade, meant that by 1711 slavers had to extend their raids all the way to the Florida Keys to find populations large enough to make the effort worth

The slavers’ superiority in arms was the critical factor in their conquest of the missions. Florida officials complained endlessly that enemy raiders were “being aided by the English with guns, ammunition, cutlasses, and pistols” and “have become so expert in the handling of arms that they use them as if they were born in this service.” Mission Indians were no match. To be sure, some military hardware reached the Apalachees through a black-market trade with Cuban fishermen working Florida’s Gulf Coast and sailors docked at St. Augustine, and a handful of warriors received Spanish weapons in recognition of exemplary military service. However, the overall number of guns among the mission Indians was small and their effectiveness was diminished by shortages of powder and shot.

Florida governor Joseph de Zúñiga’s report on the fall of Apalachee concluded that “for lack of munitions, my people were defeated.” Indians agreed. When a band of Apalachees fled to Louisiana in the wake of the 1704 attacks, they explained that the Spanish “did not give them any guns at all but that the French gave them to all their allies.” It had become a matter of life and death for Indians in the slaving zone to have a European partner willing and able to arm them.

The strikes against Florida’s interior missions began a phase of significant growth in the number of militant slavers and the geographic reach of their attacks. Indeed, these developments were reciprocal, for as more communities acquired guns for defense and slaving, slavers directed their attacks farther west and south against people with weak or nonexistent armaments and became even better armed in the process. Initially the Cherokees suffered slave raids by the Savannahs, Catawbas, and Esaws, but once the Cherokees began trading with Carolina in the late 1690s that became a more dangerous proposition. Muskogean-speaking communities on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, which would later become known as Upper Creeks, were also hosting Carolina traders by at least 1704. “The English were in those nations every day,” Louisiana officials brooded, “and they take pack horses burdened with clothing, guns, gunpowder, shot, and a variety of other goods … the greatest traffic between the English and the savages is the trade of slaves … each person being traded for a gun.” By 1715 most Tallapoosa and Alabama warriors wielded firearms and the Alabamas were said to have a warehouse containing 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. Slave raiders were wise to bypass communities with such weaponry in favor of more vulnerable targets deeper in the interior, far from the gun frontier.

With the destruction of the Florida missions by Yamasee, Creek, and English slavers, the gravitational center of slaving shifted west, driven by the fears and ambitions of the Chickasaws of what is now northern Mississippi. For years the Chickasaws had suffered intermittent attacks by gunmen from the Iroquois, Great Lakes tribes, and southeastern slavers without the ability to respond in kind because those same nations blocked their access to eastern arms markets. However, eventually the gunrunners found their way to the Chickasaws.

Carolina pack trains had reached the Chickasaws as early as 1686, and by the early to mid-1690s their visits were becoming routine, much to the chagrin of neighboring peoples

Chickasaws had killed more than 1,800 Choctaws and enslaved some 500 over the previous decade, and the problem was only growing worse. In 1706 a Chickasaw army said to have numbered as many as 4,000 men (almost certainly an exaggeration unless this force included many foreign allies) attacked the Choctaws and seized more than 300 women and children. Underlying the ferocity of these campaigns was the Chickasaw determination “never to return” to the days when they were defenseless against enemy gunmen.

The ringleader of the 1706 raids on the Choctaws, recalled advancing the Chickasaws 300 muskets in exchange for the promise of just fifteen slaves. Almost overnight the Chickasaws became capable of marshaling an army of gunmen.

Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, estimated that 700 to 800 out of 2,000 Chickasaw fighting men possessed firearms and that they killed three Choctaws for every one they enslaved. Their raids, combined with those of the Creeks, threw the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi River Valley into turmoil, leaving towns destroyed, hundreds of people killed and carried into captivity, and the survivors fleeing their home territories to congregate near the French. But nowhere was safe. By the early eighteenth century, slavers sometimes ranged as far as 150 miles west of the Mississippi River.

Louisiana’s relations with area Indians hinged on arming them against this threat. The most important group in this respect was the Choctaws of the Pearl, Leaf, Pascagoula, and Tombigbee River watersheds, just south of Chickasaw territory. Unlike small Gulf Coast nations, the Choctaws, with more than 1,000 households and an estimated 4,000 warriors, had more than enough population to contend with the Chickasaws, who were less than half their number. What they needed were muskets, powder, and shot, “the most precious merchandise that there is for them,” in the judgment of Diron d’Artaguette, Louisiana’s commissary general. Yet the French were incapable of outdealing English gunrunners. Louisiana’s supply lines from Europe and Canada were just too long, its support from the crown too scanty, and its economy and population too small, to compete on the basis of free trade.

Louisiana then offered payment of a gun for every enemy scalp and 400 livres in goods for enemy captives, an incentive program that had produced 400 scalps and a hundred slaves by 1723. The cumulative effect of these measures was to give Louisiana’s Indian allies a fighting chance against foreign raiders, a point of which the French never tired of reminding them.

The slaves-for-guns trade was inherently unstable amid its remarkable growth because the spread of firearms made raids ever more costly to the aggressors while continuing to increase indigenous demand for munitions. The trade in deerskins, which always operated alongside the slave trade, was an uncertain fallback because deerskins had far less purchasing power than slaves. As colonial traders pressured Indian customers to make good on their debts, sometimes even threatening them with enslavement, tensions mounted. At the same time, English and French settlements encroached on Indian communities already bitter over their losses to the slave trade and epidemic disease. The mix proved explosive, and between 1710 and 1730 Indians throughout the Southeast began rising up against the colonies.

The Tuscaroras of the Carolina coastal plain and Piedmont were the first to rise after years of serving as both perpetrators and victims of the slave trade. Though the immediate spark of this war was North Carolina’s founding of a Swiss-Palatine settlement on the lower Trent and Neuse Rivers, followed by land surveys auguring further expansion into Tuscarora territory, the Tuscaroras’ fear of land loss was indelibly tied to their fading economic power and the risk of enslavement. Tuscarora returns on the slave trade had been declining for years as the region’s other Indians grew better armed and Virginia began importing ever greater numbers of African slaves. As the Tuscaroras brought in fewer Indian captives, colonial traders began dealing ever more sharply to collect on debts the Tuscaroras had accumulated by buying European goods on credit. Tuscaroras knew, and traders probably threatened, that if these debts remained unpaid, colonists would not hesitate to enslave their people and seize their land. North Carolina’s encroachment on their territory suggested that the time was nigh. Unwilling to brook these conditions any longer, the southern Tuscaroras and neighboring Coree Indians began attacking colonial settlements along the Neuse on September 22, 1711, killing 130 people in a matter of days and sending the survivors in a panicked flight to the safety of New Bern.

The southern Tuscaroras had built up a substantial arsenal before their attacks and then resourcefully exploited every avenue of supply as the war continued. Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood understood that the Tuscaroras “were better provided with ammunition than we ourselves” when the conflict began.

Tuscarora prisoners of the English confessed that the Senecas had counseled their people not to worry about running out of ammunition because they “would come twice a year, and furnish them with it.” What the Tuscaroras could not obtain from such outlets, they robbed from Virginia pack trains heading out to western nations like the Cherokees. The Tuscaroras had the means to fight a long campaign. During the war the Tuscaroras constructed several impressive forts that maximized their firepower. On a high bluff above Catechna Creek was “Hancock’s Fort,” so-called after the Anglicized name of its teetha (or chief). Surrounded by a trench and an embankment lined with sharp river cane, the fort’s thick log palisade contained upper and lower firing ports and bastions at the corners mounted with “some great guns,” probably meaning swivel guns or light artillery pieces. Inside was “a great deal of powder, and 300 men.” Another nearby fort, Nooherooka, was even more formidable.

“The enemy says it was a runaway negro who taught them to fortify thus,” seethed Barnwell. The Tuscaroras’ use of this slave, as in their employment of firearms, was another stinging example of them appropriating the colonists’ strengths to mount their own resistance to colonialism. Over the course of two years of fighting, both of these forts fell to large armies comprised of South and North Carolina militia and hundreds of Indian allies, but not because the Tuscaroras lacked munitions, and being  unaccustomed to European siege warfare.

Hundreds of Indians fought alongside the English in this war, less out of enmity for the Tuscaroras than with an eye toward obtaining slaves to pay off their debts.

Indeed, the roster of Indians in this force reads like a roll call of slaving nations, including Yamasees, Apalachees, Cherokees, and Catawbas. Though they returned home triumphantly with dozens, even hundreds, of Tuscarora captives, they could not escape the haunting realization that they shared many of the same problems that had driven their victims to war.

The Carolina traders’ rough treatment of Indian debtors, who they mistakenly believed had become their pawns, was the main grievance behind the subsequent Yamasee War. As Indians fell behind on their payments, traders began confiscating their property and even seizing members of their communities as slaves.

Such aggression, combined with mounting cases of traders perpetrating sexual assaults, drunken brawls, and property thefts, increasingly made traders intolerable to the people with whom they dealt. Amid this acrimony Carolina made an ill-timed decision to take a census of its Indian allies, which the Indians thought to be in preparation for their enslavement. It took only a matter of weeks for Indians who did business with Carolina—Yamasees, Lower Creeks, Cherokees, and Catawbas—to kill nearly all of the one hundred traders in their towns and begin attacking outlying English settlements.

The Cherokees were the first to break, less out of fear of attack by the English than out of a need for munitions to fend off raids by the Iroquois and other indigenous enemies. To that end, in December 1715 they negotiated a peace in which Carolina restored trade and they took up arms against the Creeks. This decision, followed by a Cherokee slaughter of a Creek political delegation, inaugurated 40 years of warfare between the nations and also opened an unprecedented flow of Carolinian arms into Cherokee country and a decades-long Cherokee-British alliance. Carolina promptly sent the Cherokees 200 muskets and ammunition to keep up the fight, followed in July 1716 by a present of 300 guns, 900 pounds of powder, and 750 pounds of shot. It also redressed long-standing Indian complaints about trader abuses and high prices by forming an oversight body called the Commissioners of the Indian Trade

Each colonial power wooed the Creeks as if they carried a royal dowry. The Spanish and French in particular, knowing that they could never compete with English trade, bent over backward to conform to Indian protocol and showered the Creeks with gifts to the best of their ability. South Carolina countered with a pledge not to settle south of the Savannah River, though that promise was broken in spirit with the founding of Georgia in 1733. Yet even as the Creeks prohibited the English from their territory, they permitted the French to build Fort Toulouse on their western boundary at the headwaters of the Alabama River, and the Spanish to open Fort San Marcos on Apalachee Bay. Through this arrangement the Creeks were assured that no single European nation could dictate to them by threatening to sever the trade.

Even as far west as the Mississippi River Valley, Indians’ decisions about whether and how to resist colonial expansion had become deeply influenced by the strength of their military stockpiles and supply lines and those of their indigenous enemies. The Natchez of the lower Mississippi River Valley had endured a decade of French encroachment and violence when, on November 29, 1729, they launched a surprise attack on Fort Rosalie and its surrounding settlement, killing at least 238 French and capturing some 300 African slaves and 50 colonists. They were prepared for a drawn-out conflict, having amassed a “great deal” of powder and shot through their trade with the English via the Chickasaws, to which they added plunder from Fort Rosalie and a convoy of four French pirogues (supply boats) they had ambushed along the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw-English connection promised to keep the Natchez armed throughout this conflict. Additionally, the Natchez boasted two palisaded forts along St. Catherine Creek near their Grand Village, replete with bastions and loopholes. Atop they mounted cannons seized from Fort Rosalie, which might have been manned by captive African slaves who had joined their resistance. The Natchez armament and these structures were capable of meeting all the force the French and their Indian allies could muster.

After the carnage of the slave wars and the wars of resistance, most Native people in the Southeast tried to avoid conflict with colonial powers in favor of a play-off political system and the deerskin trade.

A thriving deerskin trade partially filled the gap caused by the decline in Indian slaving after the Yamasee War. These developments might very well have been connected, as the elimination of so many thousands of Indian people through slaving, warfare, and related diseases opened up new habitat for deer, which likely produced an explosion of deer population.

The number of deer skins exported out of the southeastern English and French colonies climbed from 53,000 per year between 1698 and 1715, to 177,500 a year between 1758 and 1759, to 400,000 a year in 1764. These skins had less purchasing power than slaves, but they could make ends meet. Guns from English traders cost ten skins in 1735 and sixteen skins in 1767, and three-fourths of a pint of gunpowder cost one skin in 1767. By comparison, the price of French goods in 1721 was set at twenty deerskins for a gun and two-thirds of a pound of powder or forty bullets for one skin. An Indian hunter trading thirty to sixty skins a year (as appears to have been typical) had more than enough to cover the costs of his arms while leaving extra for other goods.

Indians also addressed the decline in slaving by extracting gifts of munitions and gunsmithing from colonies courting their allegiance, in what amounted to the second phase of the gun frontier. South Carolina’s public expenditure on Indian gifts climbed from 4 percent of the colony budget in 1716 to 7 percent in 1732. Carolina also rewarded Indians with arms for capturing runaway slaves and servants, paying out a gun and three blankets for every fugitive in the 1770s.

The relative calm—relative, that is, to the maelstrom of the slave trade—after the Tuscarora, Yamasee, and Natchez Wars, should not be romanticized. In all likelihood the reason the Indians stopped going slaving for Carolina was not that they saw the inhumanity in it or that they feared the slave merchants would double-cross them like the Westos, Shawnees, or Yamasees. Instead, the spread of firearms throughout Indian country had made this enterprise too dangerous.

There was yet another factor in the decline of the Indian slave trade, reflecting the sinister forces of colonialism at work. Colonial buyers shifted their preference in slaves from Indians to Africans. In 1716 only 67 Africans entered South Carolina. Within a decade Carolina was importing 1,700 Africans a year and in 1736 that figure climbed to over 3,000. Efficiencies in the transatlantic African slave trade were making those unfortunate souls cheaper and more available than ever before in the North American market.  These captives also came without the risk that their people an ocean away would rise against the colonies in which they toiled. In western Africa, the havoc unleashed by this trade became almost a mirror image of what had been wrought in the Indian Southeast for two generations. By the late 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade in western Africa often was an exchange of humans for guns in which some indigenous polities faced the choice of either slaving for the market or becoming slaves sold in the market. This devil’s bargain had become a basic feature of colonialism throughout the Atlantic World.

The Iroquois

[ Iroquois domination of neighboring tribes through greater gun ownership, and their downfall when enemy tribes gained guns is a pattern that will be repeated across the entire United States for more than two centuries. ]

Certainly the Iroquois were astonished by the pyrotechnics of gunfire, but they also had more practical matters on their minds. Ever since the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas of what is now upstate New York had formed their League sometime between the 14th to late 16th centuries, they had been at war with indigenous neighbors near and far.  Most of this time the main purpose of these campaigns had been to seize captives for adoption (the fate of most women and children) or death by torture (the fate of adult men) to sustain the Iroquois. Such wars were probably responsible for the disappearance of large indigenous communities at the sites of modern Quebec and Montreal that had been visited by French explorer Jacques Cartier during his explorations of the Saint Lawrence River during the 1530s and 1540s. Seventy years later, when the French returned to the area to found a permanent colony, there was no trace of them.

As European fishermen, explorers, and then fur traders began to appear along the lower Saint Lawrence with greater regularity after the mid-sixteenth century, this warfare also began to focus on controlling access to European goods. The Iroquois appear to have enjoyed the upper hand in these conflicts initially. With the founding of French Quebec in 1608, the balance of power had begun to shift to the League’s enemies, the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Hurons, because of their trade and military alliance with the French.

When Dutch flintlock muskets became available in the 1630s, League nations began trading for munitions with a fury. By the mid-17th century, this armament had enabled the Iroquois to transform themselves into the preeminent military power of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions as far west as the Mississippi River. Bands of their gunmen fanned out over this range to capture foreign women and children for adoption, sometimes followed by armies of several hundred and even a thousand men to crush the enemy once and for all.

The story goes that Europeans blasted their way into the North American woods, overawing Indians with their technological prowess. The Natives, fearful of getting shot, then abandoned their customary open-field clashes in favor of ambushes, to make themselves more difficult targets. The ironic result of the colonists’ superiority in arms, then, was the Indians’ so-called skulking way of war, which plagued Euro-American society throughout the colonial era.

But this obscures the fact that it was the threat of Iroquois, not colonial, gunmen that galvanized an arms race throughout the Native Northeast, involving new technologies, stratagems, and politics. By the mid- to late 17th century, arms traders had reached the Five Nations’ rivals in the Chesapeake, New England, and the Great Lakes, enabling them to answer the Iroquois musket for musket. In turn, gun violence erupted across this vast geographic zone.  Indigenous people facing enemy gunmen avoided open-field battles because of the risk of getting shot, and abandoned customary wooden armor because it reduced a warrior’s mobility without protecting him against bullets and metal-edge weapons.

Sieges of fortified villages were on the rise because an invading force with an advantage in firearms and steel-cutting tools possessed the means to breach its enemy’s defenses. Indigenous people answered this threat by replacing their circular palisades with straight-wall fortifications that gave defensive gunmen clearer shots at attackers. Sometimes they even mounted cannons atop their bastions. Politically, their decision making increasingly focused on securing their people’s access to arms and directing arms away from their rivals. To these ends they entered multilateral alliances with shifting lineups of indigenous and colonial polities and even relocated their people closer to gun entrepôts. These innovations constituted a new epoch in Indian life.

The results were terrible, with intertribal wars and related outbreaks of epidemic diseases dramatically reducing the population of nearly every Native group in the region. Some groups were completely wiped out. In the long term, however, the growing balance of power, and recognition of the high cost of gun warfare, produced something of a détente. By the end of the century, people who expected their young men to prove themselves as warriors would have to look outside the region for victims among the poorly armed tribes of the continental interior. As they did, the gun frontier spread with them, leaving a trail of devastation that was becoming a signature of colonialism in indigenous North America.

Politically the 1620s and early 1630s witnessed a renewal of Iroquois warfare against the so-called French Indians (the Algonquins and Montagnais) of the Saint Lawrence River and the Mohicans of the Hudson River Valley. The Five Nations found themselves in a biological war as well. Between 1633 and 1634, smallpox tore through Indian communities along the New England coast and Connecticut River Valley and then up into Iroquoia. The Mohawks alone might have lost two-thirds of their population, with their absolute numbers dropping from an estimated 7,700 to 2,800 people. As the death toll mounted, the cries of mourners built into an irresistible call for the people’s warriors to raid their enemies for scalps and captives. Only then would the ghosts of the dead and the hearts of their survivors find peace.


Fortunately for the Iroquois, their Dutch trading partners were able and willing to supply them with Europe’s best firearms technology. The Dutch were not only Europe’s greatest manufacturing and trading nation, boasting supply lines of raw materials from the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Asia, they were also the continent’s main producer and exporter of weapons of every sort, including shoulder arms. The Netherlands’ long war for independence from Spain (1569–1648) had stimulated its gun industry, while the demand for military wares elsewhere in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and subsequent conflicts sustained it into the early eighteenth century. By the time of New Netherland’s founding, the Dutch Republic was manufacturing an estimated 14,000 muskets annually, most of them for export, a figure that grew larger by the year. No other European nation came close to this production level until decades later. Furthermore, Dutch gunsmiths were introducing technological innovations to their weapons that made them even more attractive to Indian customers, the Iroquois foremost among them.  By the 1660s it appears that the Dutch were manufacturing guns specifically for the Indian market, especially the Iroquois. These Indian trade muskets were lighter (about 7.5 pounds) and shorter (50 to 67.5 inches) than most European guns (which often weighed as much as 16 pounds and extended more than five feet in length) in order to facilitate use in the bush and long-distance travel.

The primary reason for this demand was that the gun was remarkably effective in Iroquois warfare, particularly as a first-stage weapon in ambush. Small parties of warriors would station themselves at places where enemy travelers were most vulnerable, such as river narrows, portages, bends in the road, or places where cliffs, tree stands, and swamps provided cover for the attackers and blocked the retreat of their targets. The goal in these assaults was to unleash one or two volleys, raise a bloodcurdling war cry, and then rush on the enemy for hand-to-hand combat with tomahawks and clubs. Such ambushes must have been common before the advent of firearms, but the new weapons encouraged the tactic.

Unlike arrows, which needed a clear path to their target, bullets could pass through the camouflage of tall grasses and even thickets without being diverted. Whereas arrows shot from long distances could be dodged, musket balls could not. The damage inflicted by a bullet wound was far greater than that of an arrow. Killing an enemy with an arrow shot required hitting a vital organ. For the most part, minor arrow injuries would heal with proper treatment, at which Native medical practitioners were masters. By contrast, when a lead ball struck its victim, it carried roughly six times more kinetic energy than an arrow, expanded to the size of a large fist, and left behind a medical disaster of shattered bone, mangled soft tissue, and internal and external bleeding many times greater than an arrow could cause. Even when the victim managed to survive the initial impact, there was a high risk of death by infection. At especially close range, gunners could load their weapons with small shot (or grape shot) consisting of several small lead balls instead of a single bullet. What this approach sacrificed in terms of accuracy and kinetic energy, it compensated for in the large, cloud-shaped area covered by the blast, which could injure and even kill more than one person at a time.

The Iroquois further displayed their confidence in guns by using them to hunt deer through the same ambush technique of lying in wait and firing at close range.

Iroquois hunters appreciated that a musket ball would drop a deer in its tracks, whereas an arrow wound might require pursuing the wounded game for long distances. The slow rate of reloading and firing a gun was not an issue because a hunter was not going to get the opportunity to fire more than once at a deer before it bounded away,

Seventeenth-century guns were often undependable at distances of more than 50 yards because of a variety of issues; these included the condition of the barrel (such as whether it was bent or dented or clogged with powder residue), the fit of the musket ball to the barrel (sometimes shooters used bullets of smaller caliber, causing them to brush along the inside of the barrel before exiting and thus sending them off-target), and whether the shooter had properly loaded the weapon (particularly the main charge). Yet long-range accuracy was not much of an issue in ambushes in which the unsuspecting enemy was usually just a stone’s throw away. Another challenge was that firearms required routine cleaning to prevent them from getting clogged with black powder, which reduced bullet velocity and ran the risk of the barrel bursting, with attendant injuries to the shooter such as burns and mangled fingers and hands. Tending to the maintenance of guns on the trail was difficult unless there were Indian villages, colonial settlements, or trade posts along the way where the warriors were welcome. In the mid-seventeenth century, such issues were probably of minor concern to Iroquois war parties because the raiders usually returned straight home after one or two engagements to deposit their captives, scalps, and plunder, and tend to other responsibilities. By the early eighteenth century, when they were often away for several months at a time on raids against distant peoples, warriors learned to make their own minor fixes and negotiated with colonial authorities to receive blacksmithing services at forts and villages along their route of travel.

It took only a few short years before firearms became a part of Iroquois rituals. By at least 1642 it was Mohawk ceremony to fire salutes at the coming and going of foreign delegates, a courtesy that surrounding nations promptly adopted as well. Volleys in honor of “the Sun” also marked the celebration of military victories. A minority of male burials began to contain grave goods of firearms, powder, shot, and flints for the spirit to carry on the journey to the afterworld. Though this practice never became widespread because the living needed the weaponry, its symbolism was poignant. Firearms had become fundamental to the operation of Iroquois society.

Dutch authorities realized the danger inherent in their arms trade to Indians, but there was little they could do about it because the economy and security of New Netherland depended on the Mohawks in particular, and the Iroquois in general. During the 1630s the colony exported as many as 15,000 furs a year (mostly beaver pelts), including almost 30,000 in 1633, a disproportionate amount of which came from the Iroquois. There were only about 300 people in the colony at the time.  Another incentive for the Dutch was that the Iroquois “gave everything they had” for firearms, reportedly paying 20 beaver pelts for a single weapon in the early days of this commerce. To put these figures in perspective, whereas muskets cost the Dutch about 12 guilders each, twenty beaver pelts could be sold in Europe for as much as 120 guilders.

Iroquois military might and commercial leverage meant that their customs shaped trade and diplomacy with the Dutch. The Iroquois expectation was for the Dutch to keep the price of trade goods low regardless of market conditions and for bartering to be preceded by a series of indigenous protocols. To the Iroquois, trade was not an impersonal business transaction in which one side tried to extract maximum profit from the other. They likened commerce to family members meeting each other’s needs out of affection and the pursuit of mutual well-being. It followed that political conferences began with an exchange of gifts between leaders, a historic recounting of the two people’s relationship, feasting and smoking together and addressing each other as metaphorical kin, all in the Mohawk language. Hard-driving, time-conscious Dutch businessmen and officers would have preferred to skip such ceremony but realized they had little choice. Their concessions included accepting that politics with the Iroquois “must be carried on chiefly by means of gunpowder.” In 1655 Dutch officers presented the Mohawks with a gift of 25 pounds of powder, followed in 1659 by another gift of 75 pounds of powder and 100 pounds of lead. The latter came in response to Iroquois complaints that the Dutch practice of charging them for gun repairs and making them wait too long while the work was done was “unbrotherly.” By 1660 Iroquois spokesmen had raised their demands to include the Dutch outfitting League warriors with free powder and lead in times of war.

From the late 1630s well into the 1650s, the Iroquois put Dutch firearms to use in ambushes up and down the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers connecting New France and Huronia. The usual pattern was for Iroquois armies to break into bands of 10 to 50 men and take positions at various points of ambush along the rivers, sometimes on both sides. When enemy boats passed by, or canoeists unloaded at portages, hidden Iroquois gunners would open fire until they had driven their victims to shore, where they would set upon them with hatchets and clubs, killing some and capturing others.  In addition to captives, these raids netted the Iroquois plunder in furs that they could then trade to the Dutch for more firearms.

French Jesuits, from their close vantage living daily alongside the Hurons, were certain that Iroquois superiority in firearms was what made these assaults so lethal. Even when the Hurons, Algonquins, and Montagnais carried guns, Five Nations attackers seemed to possess twice as many.

By the early 1640s, Iroquois attacks had nearly choked off the French fur trade to the point that some Frenchmen began lobbying for an invasion of New Netherland to punish Dutch gun merchants.

Throughout the late 1630s and early 1640s, the Hurons redesigned their forts to give their meager force of gunmen a fighting chance against an Iroquois invasion that seemed to grow more imminent by the day. The village of Ossossane erected a squared palisade with bastions at opposite corners to permit clear shots along two entire lengths of the walls. Other communities followed with diamond-shaped fortifications. The reason, as Father Jean de Brébeuf put it, was that “we have told them … henceforth, they should make their forts square, and arrange their stakes in straight lines; and that, by means of four little towers at the four corners, four Frenchmen might easily with their arquebuses or muskets defend a whole village.

Beginning in the summer of 1648 and lasting into late 1649, Iroquois armies of up to 1,000 men invaded Huronia repeatedly, overrunning the forts, torching the communities, and killing and capturing thousands of people. Battered, demoralized, and starving, the remaining Hurons scattered in all directions. Some retreated northwest to the Straits of Mackinac and Green Bay, and others eastward to the protection of French guns near Quebec or even to Iroquoia to join their captive relatives. Those who sought refuge among the Hurons’ close neighbors to the west, the Tionnontatés, absorbed yet another blow in December 1649, as 300 Iroquois warriors struck the village of Etharita or St. Jean, killing and capturing a large but indeterminate number of people. It had taken less than two years for the Iroquois to conquer one of the largest Indian confederacies in North America.

Muskets were critical to the Iroquois victory. First and foremost, years of ambushes by Iroquois gunmen had set the stage for the invasion by making the Hurons prisoners in their own towns, too afraid to venture beyond their fortified walls to patrol their country, raise food, or protect their confederates, at least not to any effective degree. By the time the invasion began, Iroquois bands moved almost freely throughout Huronia. As for the campaign itself, the thousand-man force that devastated Huron country in 1649 was reportedly “well furnished with weapons,—and mostly with firearms, which they obtain from the Dutch, their allies.” By contrast, the Hurons were poorly armed, to which at least one Jesuit directly attributed their defeat. With the Jesuits having watched their charges and colleagues die in heaps from gunshot wounds, it was difficult to conclude otherwise. The Hurons reached the same judgment, demanding the Jesuits to “speak to the Captain of France, and tell him that the Dutch of these coasts are causing our destruction, by furnishing firearms in abundance, and at low price, to the Iroquois, our enemies.

During the early 1650s the Iroquois also rode their advantage in guns to a series of victories over the remaining tribes of the eastern Great Lakes, most of which harbored displaced Hurons. In quick succession the Iroquois shattered the Petuns in 1650 and the Neutrals in 1651, the latter with an invasion of 1,500 men. Their next target, beginning in 1653–1654, was the Eries (or Cats), a people some 2,000 strong. As they did with the Hurons and Neutrals, the Iroquois systematically broke down the Eries’ perimeter with gunfire ambushes to prepare for a large-scale invasion. The Eries, who had “no firearms,” nevertheless had a fearsome reputation because of their arsenal of poison arrows, which they could fire “eight or ten times before a musket can be loaded.” The Iroquois neutralized this weapon during their sieges of Erie forts with a combination of thick wooden shields (or mantlets), large portable wooden walls, and even canoes, which they carried over their heads to approach enemy fortifications, then used as ladders to scale the palisades. Collectively these campaigns had netted the Iroquois thousands of captives, produced the deaths of thousands of others, and effectively cleared the region of rival nations.

The Five Nations’ neighbors and rivals to the south and east, particularly the Susquehannocks of the Susquehanna River Valley, the Mohicans of the Hudson and Housatonic River Valleys, and the so-called River Tribes of the Connecticut Valley (Pocumtucks, Norridgewoks, and Squakheags), learned the lesson before it was too late and built up arsenals that gradually tipped the scales away from the Iroquois.

Even when colonial magistrates actually tried to police the flow of arms (or claimed to try), they confronted the limits of their authority on the Delaware. After the Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655, Swedish gunrunners shifted from English to Dutch suppliers, then carried the weapons inland to Susquehannock country for sale, far from inspectors stationed along the river. The Delaware was an even greater river of rogues than was the Hudson. The real blame or credit for the renegade character of the Delaware Valley gun frontier belonged to the Indians themselves, who exploited the competition at every opportunity.

Maryland had concluded that it was more politic and profitable to seek alliance with the Susquehannocks through the arms trade than to continue trying to resist them. It was the Susquehannocks, not any colonial polity, who were the most formidable power in this region. Given the Susquehannocks’ many options when it came to obtaining European wares, weak colonies like Maryland had the choice to supply them with guns or face their guns. The Susquehannocks, for their part, placed newfound value on Maryland as a trade partner, having lost New Sweden to Dutch conquest in 1655. Peace with the Chesapeake colony was a means of keeping their trade options open.

The Susquehannocks were well prepared by the time the western Iroquois nations turned their raids back against them in the early 1660s. Though the Mohawks and Susquehannocks remained at peace during these years, perhaps because neither of them wanted to imperil their relations with the Dutch (who counted both groups as fur trading partners), the western Iroquois had no such scruples. Their populations (and the Susquehannocks’) had suffered enormously from a recent smallpox epidemic, and, following the destruction of the Lake Erie and Ontario peninsula tribes, there were no major Iroquoian-speaking peoples left to raid for replacements other than the Susquehannocks.

The Five Nations’ Algonquian-speaking rivals to the east, the Mohicans of the Hudson and Housatonic River Valleys and the Sokokis of the Connecticut River, also began to close the arms gap through multilateral trade. Dutch Fort Orange, with its brisk market in arms and ammunition, anchored this commerce in the western portion of the Algonquins’ territory. To the north were the French on the Saint Lawrence, who, after witnessing the Iroquois dispatch the Hurons in the 1640s, opened up the gun market to Christian and non-Christian Indians alike. The Abenakis of what is now Vermont exploited this policy to become middlemen between the French on the Saint Lawrence and the Connecticut River tribes.

This multifront gun frontier set the stage for a failed Iroquois attack on a Sokoki fort at Fort Hill at the site of modern Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in December 1663, just months after the Susquehannocks repulsed the Senecas. From the safety of their palisade, Sokoki gunmen warded off a daybreak assault by the Iroquois, including extinguishing a fire the Iroquois had set to the enclosure with a rudimentary bomb comprised of a lit bag of gunpowder. Ultimately the invaders decided to retreat after suffering a hundred or more casualties. It was their second major setback in just a matter of months at the hands of enemies who had caught up to them in the regional arms race.

Without the advantage in firearms, the Iroquois no longer enjoyed the lopsided victories they had come to expect and that were their measure of a successful campaign. There was little purpose in raiding foreigners for captives to buttress the League’s population if that meant losing large numbers of valuable fighting men along the way and inviting reprisals on the home front.

The Five Nations’ French and Indian enemies to the north and west were building up their arsenals, too, after decades of suffering the attacks of Iroquois gunmen. Not only had the French loosened their restrictions on the weapons trade, but they began to manufacture their own gun for the Indian market to answer the light, durable arms of the Dutch.

Despite suffering five epidemics between 1668 and 1682 and losing some 2,200 people, the Five Nations’ forcible adoption of captives permitted them to man a steady stream of war parties against the Susquehannocks, who appear to have suffered even worse from these diseases.

A few years later, mutual exhaustion and political pressure from New York led to peace between the Iroquois and the New England Algonquins. Five Nations warriors in search of captives, plunder, and glory now had to pursue their ambitions elsewhere. One of those directions was westward against the Algonquian-speaking Miamis and Shawnees of the Ohio River Valley and the Illinois of the upper Mississippi River Valley, to take advantage of those people’s weak armament.

In September 1680 the Iroquois successfully intimidated the Miamis into joining them against the Illinois, creating an army reportedly 900 men strong, “all Fusiliers [or gunmen]; these two nations being well provided with Guns and all sort of ammunitions of war.” This force inflicted steep losses on an Illinois army and overran the town of Tamaroa to seize an estimated 800 captives. Some Iroquois warriors remained in the area for several more months, raiding up and down the Mississippi and even west of the great river.

The Iroquois also redirected their attacks southward along the Great Warrior Path running along the east side of the Appalachian Mountains into the Virginia and Carolina Piedmont,

Eventually their circle of targets grew to include the Cherokees of southern Appalachia, the Catawbas of the Piedmont, and other groups ever farther afield. There were several reasons for this shift. Certainly the Iroquois wanted their raids for captives to avoid poisoning relations with New France and northeastern English colonies, as had so often been the case during the 1660s. Also they were pulled southward by their adoptees from the Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and various Maryland and Virginia tribes. Each time Iroquois warriors ventured south, they risked armed encounters with area tribes that could easily descend into a cycle of revenge warfare.

Yet too often one of the most important factors has been overlooked: the southern Indians’ weak armament, the same kind of consideration that influenced League attacks in Illinois country. Elsewhere the cost of victory had become too great.

By the turn of the century the Iroquois found themselves in the same predicament that had plagued them in the 1660s. Once again their enemies had caught up in the regional arms race, with the French outfitting nations in the western Great Lakes with 700 to 1,000 guns a year, and the southern nations accumulating munitions through the trade of indigenous slaves and deerskins to South Carolina and Virginia. Iroquois deaths mounted in turn. Renewed warfare against New France, extending largely from Iroquois attempts to keep French arms out of the Illinois country, proved even less successful than in the recent past. In 1687, 1693, and 1696 the French and their Indian allies subjected Iroquoia to scorched-earth campaigns, which, though claiming few lives directly, produced famine after famine. The people could not endure this pressure indefinitely. It was time to seek security through diplomacy, not war.

New France’s Indian allies enjoyed many benefits as the French expanded their fur trade and military posts into the western Great Lakes in the late 17th and early 18th century.  In 1716 New France’s governor-general, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, recommended to Paris that “to maintain peace with the Indians and to prevent them trading with the English” the colony needed an annual distribution of Indian presents in the amount of 600 guns, 40,000 pounds of powder, and 60,000 pounds of lead. By the early to mid-18th century, these presents constituted 5 to 10% of imperial spending on New France.

Indians were less grateful for these gifts and subsidized trade than insistent on them as conditions of friendship. In 1693 Five Nations headmen turned down a large gift of muskets from New York, finding them too heavy, whereupon Governor Benjamin Fletcher immediately placed a rush order in London for 200 light guns. “They will not carry the heavy firelocks,” he explained, “being accustomed to light, small guns in their hunting.” A year earlier Iroquois delegates had asked Captain Richard Ingoldsby of Albany what he expected them to do with New York’s gift of powder and shot in lieu of guns. “Shall we throw them at the Enemy?

Then they turned the screw: “It is no wonder the Governor of Canada gains upon us, for he supplies his Indians with guns as well as powder.” The practice of contrasting one imperial power’s stinginess with the other’s generosity, and emphasizing that the people’s friendship had to be earned, was the normal Indian response when gifts were scanty or of poor quality, when gunsmiths were in want, and trade goods were in short supply or too expensive. Sometimes these warnings also contained barely veiled threats of war, with headmen observing that a colonial power that failed to arm its Indian allies would be seen as conspiring to weaken and then destroy them. Almost invariably, presents of arms and ammunition followed.

European technologies and even European gunsmithing did not translate into domination of Indians by colonies or imperial governments. It took until the mid-18th century for the number of Anglo-Americans to eclipse that of Indians in the trans-Appalachian West, and even then whites did not begin wresting serious land cessions from the Iroquois until after the American Revolution. In the lightly populated French and Spanish colonies, that day never came for Native people. One reason is that Indians almost always possessed the weaponry to defend their claims.

In the early stages of the trade, a number of factors contributed to Indians’ maintaining a steady supply of arms and ammunition at reasonable rates. These included colonial-Indian interdependence in trade, politics, and war, as well as an expansive, multidirectional gun frontier permitting Indians to do business with traders from different polities. Indian political decisions had as much to do with these conditions as any directives from colonial and imperial powerbrokers. Another important influence was rogue colonialism, with colonial regimes exercising little control over their gunrunners. In the era of French-English warfare beginning in 1688, indigenous people added to this list an imperial play-off system in which colonial authorities competed for Indian favor with gifts of guns, powder, shot, and gunsmiths out of fear that failure to do so would tip Indian loyalties toward their imperial rival and, with this, shift the North American balance of power. The results for Indians were decidedly mixed.

Women and children suffered tremendously along the way. Men were the ones who wielded firearms, who cut the deals with colonial gunrunners and governors, who planned the invasions and ambushes, who took to arms to defend their people, and who garnered the honors when their side was victorious.

Certainly women were critical parts of political decision making in many communities, including whether to send young men on revenge raids, though there is little trace of this role in colonial documents; women also reaped the benefits of the plunder and captives their men brought home. They processed the beaver pelts that men traded not only for arms and ammunition but for clothing, pots, scissors, needles, beads, and innumerable other things that made women’s lives easier and more fulfilling.

One might conclude that guns had transformed Indians, but a more accurate way to explain this history is to say that Indians had used guns to transform their lives and those of their neighbors. Putting the matter this way highlights Native people making choices for their own futures instead of suffering as passive victims of colonial decisions, abstract economic forces, or foreign technology.

Yet the point can be pushed too far. The fact of the matter is that the rise of Native gunmen, beginning with the Iroquois, dramatically circumscribed the choices of other indigenous people. They could either obtain arms by engaging in trade and diplomacy with colonial states, or become easy targets of marauding indigenous gunmen. This was an Indian-directed transformation, to be sure, but that point probably would have come as cold comfort to many of the people caught up in it. For them the colonial era and the gun age were one and the same, a period of terror and high-stakes gains and losses.

How the Native Americans played the English, French, and Spanish off against each other to gain multiple sources of guns

The French used gifts of smithing, gunpowder, and shot, and a “judicious application” of other presents, to compensate for their inability to match the English supplies and low prices of military hardware. The French sent subsidized gunsmiths to live in key Creek and Choctaw communities, which, the English fumed, then led Indians to expect the same of them. Initially the French refused to repair English arms, much to the irritation of Choctaw leader Alibamon Mingo, “because almost all the warriors of his village are armed with these guns.

Writing in 1755 about the imperial rivalry, Carolina trader Edmond Atkin stressed that free gunsmithing gave the French influence with the Indians well beyond the monetary value of the service. “We furnish the Indians with guns enough in exchange for their deer skins and furs,” he recognized, “but the French mend them and keep them in repair gratis.” Smithing was doubly important because when an Indian saw his damaged gun “suddenly restored to its former state, and as useful as before, it gladdens his heart more than a present of a new gun would,” probably because the fix doubled as a gesture of friendship. The French also cultivated Indian alliances through gifts of munitions, particularly gunpowder. French gunpowder set the European standard, and Indians were eager to obtain it, even when they acquired their muskets from the English. Moreover, French powder and shot were available in high volume because the French were able to ferry their goods to Louisiana and its inland posts by water, whereas English traders were reluctant to burden their pack trains with heavy ammunition on journeys that ran hundreds of miles.

Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Valley Indians extracted enormous amounts of free munitions from the French and Spanish by the mere possibility that they would throw in their lot with the British. In 1732 Mobile’s commander put in an order for Indian gifts in the amount of 80,000 pounds of gunpowder, 14,000 pounds of lead, 25,000 gunflints, and 600 trade guns with brass mountings. The post already owed 120 muskets to Indians who “ask for them daily.” The French showed even greater generosity in wartime, as in 1759 amid the Seven Years’ War when Louisiana earmarked 900 guns for presents and 600 guns for trade. Spanish Florida was unable to keep pace, but episodically it too provided Indians with munitions as presents, as in 1736 when it hosted over a hundred unidentified Indians in St. Augustine and gave each one a gun, powder, and shot. All this was enough to make South Carolina merchant Sam Everleigh fume that “the Indians have been so used of late years to receive presents that they now expect it as a right belonging to them, and the English, French, and Spanish are in some measure become tributary to them.

The uninterrupted flow of arms even after the decline of the slave trade enabled Indians in the Southeast to develop a gun culture much like the one that had taken shape in the Northeast in previous decades. Southeastern Indians preferred the gun over the bow and arrow for hunting deer because they could drop their kill with one shot. It was the opinion of John Stewart, a Scottish trader from Charles Town, that Indian hunters with firearms could “get more hides and furs in one moon than formerly with bow and arrow in 12 moons.

If the hunter intended to trade the skin from his hunt, he would have to aim his shot at the head so as not to damage the hide, which attests to both the accuracy of smoothbore muskets when fired at close range and the skill of Native gunmen. Lawson’s impression was that North Carolina Indians used the bow and arrow only for hunting small game like turkey and ducks, “thinking it not worth throwing powder and shot after them,” probably because a single arrow could easily bring them down.

The same deerskin trade and play-off politics that underwrote this gun culture carried the danger of civil strife as young men on the make circumvented established chiefs to open their own trade lines and drum up foreign recognition of their claims to leadership. There was a built-in tension in many Indian societies between established leaders and young aspirants. The former’s leadership rested on their age, maturity, elite lineages, and accomplishments. Such men tended to favor peace and stability. Young men pursuing their own leadership credentials often provoked conflict with foreign peoples in order to prove themselves as warriors. With the onset of European trade, they obtained an additional route to influence, for if a young man managed to bring outside trade into the community, or convince a colonial government that he was a person worthy of receiving chiefly honors, he might actually acquire that status. This dynamic might help explain why one Upper Creek chief in the mid-eighteenth century went by the name of Gun Merchant. The problem was that making a power play by becoming a gun merchant usually involved the young man promising his people’s allegiance to one colonial state exclusively, regardless of the will of the chiefs and the reactions of the other colonial powers.

The Choctaws suffered just this sort of strife after the Natchez War as a result of the ambitions of a warrior named Red Shoes and the draw of English trade. Red Shoes had developed a warrior following by virtue of his exploits against Chickasaws, but he aspired to even greater heights. Throughout the 1730s Red Shoes pursued English trade over the Franco-centric foreign policies of the established leadership, including his hometown’s Mingo Tchito, the so-called “French Great Chief.” One source of discontent for Red Shoes and his men appears to have been the lack of guns provided by the French and the chiefs’ control over this meager stockpile. Generally the chiefs kept firearms given to them as presents by Louisiana and then loaned them out to hunters and warriors, thus strengthening their influence. Red Shoes contended that this system not only put too much power in the chiefs’ hands, but gave the French too much leverage over the chiefs and the people. The chiefs’ response was the English were so far away that if Red Shoes prevailed, the people “would see themselves forced to take up their old arms, the bow and arrow, again,” that is, “unless they wanted to load their guns with [English] limbourg [cloth].” Red Shoes would not be swayed, and thrice during the mid- to late 1730s he arranged for Carolina pack trains laden with trade guns to enter Choctaw country. In return Charles Town awarded him a medallion and proclamation naming him “King of the Choctaws.” Red Shoes also tried to broker peace with the Chickasaws, Carolina’s main indigenous trade partner in the region, first in 1739, then again in 1745.

It was time for the Francophile chiefs and Louisiana to intervene, for Red Shoes was on the verge of achieving a political and commercial realignment that would rob them of power and perhaps threaten the very existence of the French colony. The chiefs tried to limit the internecine violence by killing a visiting Chickasaw diplomat and his wife, but there seemed to be no other choice after Red Shoes retaliated by killing three Frenchman. With Lousiana governor Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil threatening to institute a trade embargo and throw French support to the Choctaws’ longtime enemy, the Alabamas, the Francophile chiefs assassinated Red Shoes

It was the beginning of two years of bloody civil war in the nation. This dark chapter in Choctaw history came to an end only after the French-leaning eastern Choctaws, outfitted with French guns, powder, shot, and even cannons, managed to subdue the English-leaning western towns, which found their Carolina supply lines less reliable in wartime than they had hoped. Eight hundred of Red Shoes’s followers lost their lives in this struggle, their scalps sold to the French for bounties double that offered for Chickasaw trophies. The expense to the French was some 62,000 livres in presents per year to a roster that by 1763 counted over 600 men. Play-off politics, like the adoption of guns, was full of opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, but also loaded with danger.

To be sure, gun violence created even as it destroyed. Survivors formed new coalitions like the Yamasees, Creeks, and Catawbas, in part to protect themselves from slave raiders and organize their warriors into militant slavers. The Indians’ quest for firearms led to political relations with a host of new colonies and empires, and trade lines that connected them to a burgeoning global commerce. Consequently their material life was richer than ever before, marked not only by munitions but brightly colored cloth, tailored clothing, exotic pigments, metal tools, and much more. It is apt to call this change in Indian life a consumer revolution, but it was one in which there were far fewer people to enjoy the goods.

King Philip’s war

Wiki overview: King Philip’s War was an armed conflict between Native American inhabitants of present-day New England and English colonists and their Native American allies in 1675–78 which arose due to   

European settlers’ continued encroaching onto Wampanoag lands and demand by colonists that they  sign a new peace agreement that included the surrender of Indian guns. When officials in Plymouth Colony hanged three Wampanoags in 1675 for the murder of a Christianized Indian, they launched a united assault on colonial towns throughout the region.  By the end of the conflict, the Wampanoags and their Narragansett allies were almost completely destroyed.  The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in 17th century Puritan New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of European settlement in North America in proportion to the population. In little more than a year, 12 of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more damaged, the colony’s economy was all but ruined, and its population decimated, losing 10% of all men available for military service. More than half of New England’s towns were attacked by Native American warriors.

For all the colonists’ anxieties about salvation and wolves preying on their sheep, they were also haunted by the fact of being surrounded by indigenous people with superior armaments. Equally unnerving was the danger of the Natives using these weapons to redress their grievances against the colonial order.

These fears materialized in King Philip’s War of 1675–1676. For 9 months, Indian gunmen lured colonial militia into devastating ambushes, sacked outlying English towns, and terrorized the roadways. It seemed within their grasp to push the line of English settlement back to the outskirts of Boston and even into the sea. What made the Natives’ guerilla strikes so effective was that the warriors seemed to blend into the thick New England woods until the very moment they opened fire.

Throughout King Philip’s War, the English possessed the advantage of being able to import large quantities of firearms, gunpowder, and lead from the mother country. Yet they were the ones who felt under siege by Native enemies.

Of all the morals King Philip’s War had to teach, among the most significant was this: It was dangerous, even suicidal, for Indians surrounded by the expanding English colonies and dependent on English munitions to go to war against them unless they had reliable trade alternatives among other European powers. Whereas interior groups like the Iroquois, Creeks, and Chickasaws were encircled by a gun frontier giving them relatively dependable access to multiple colonial markets, by the 1670s east-coast nations like the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Nipmucs had only tentative lines beyond the English.

During King Philip’s War the English closed ranks and showed unprecedented respect for laws banning the trade of guns and ammunition to Indians.

The warring Indians in King Philip’s War suffered the loss of thousands of their people to violent deaths and disease. The English captured hundreds and perhaps even thousands of others and sent them into the hell of Caribbean slavery. Most of those lucky enough to survive and escape captivity fled the region for good to take refuge in the Saint Lawrence or Hudson River Valley or places beyond. Even those who sided with the English wound up suffering, for after the war the colonies immediately seized hundreds of square miles of Indian land and began the long but indelible process of acquiring most of the rest, largely through underhanded means.

New England in the mid-17th century was as favorable an arms market as Indians could hope to find, because of numerous divisions within the colonial ranks. Though all of the English colonies in the region were established by reformed Protestants (or Puritans) opposed to Catholic elements in the Anglican Church, several rifts emerged when it came to building their own ecclesiastical order in America. The subsequent hiving off of dissidents and fortune seekers from Plymouth and Massachusetts produced the colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Haven, the independent plantations of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and several semiautonomous English towns on eastern Long Island.

Competition among the English colonies and between the English and Dutch allowed Indians to choose among multiple traders from the two most commercially minded and important arms-producing nations of Europe.

Crazy Horse

On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse, the great warrior chief of the Oglala Lakotas, finally surrendered to the United States, effectively symbolizing the end of his people’s quarter century of resistance to white American hegemony along the upper Missouri River and Great Plains. Though the Lakotas had welcomed the trade goods accompanying U.S. expansion, practically everything else about it constituted a disaster. Even before the invasion of white ranchers and farmers, the Lakotas had been plagued by an unending succession of American transients, some of them violent, nearly all of them wasteful. First there were the overland migrants, tracing rutted trails from Missouri to the golden fields of Oregon and the gold strikes of California and the Rocky Mountains. These travelers and their livestock stripped precious river bottoms and grasslands of materials the Lakotas needed to build and heat their homes, construct their tools, and feed their horses. Their long wagon trains disrupted the buffalo’s normal migrations, which sometimes forced the Lakotas to go hungry. Close behind them were white hunters, who slaughtered the buffalo wantonly, usually only for their robes, leaving their carcasses to rot on the Plains. It was as if they were eager to starve Indians who relied on these animals for practically everything. At least the overland migrants and hide hunters tended to only pass through Lakota territory. The railroad-building and mining industries delivered some of the roughest, most lawless, and environmentally destructive segments of American society directly into the Lakota heartland, including the sacred Black Hills. Whenever Lakota warriors drove them out, it seemed only to entice more of them to return, with blue-coated soldiers in tow for their protection.

Lakota warriors could handle U.S. cavalry in anything resembling a fair fight, but they could not cope with their relentless hounding of civilian camps, including the massacre of women, children, and the elderly, and the destruction of the people’s horses and food stores. This punishment came when the Lakotas were already suffering acute hunger because of the dwindling buffalo herds, and a population freefall as epidemic diseases accompanying the Americans tore through their tents season after season. By 1877 the people could take no more. One by one, desperate Lakota bands came to the wrenching conclusion to move onto the reservations that the federal government had assigned them, where, its agents promised, at least there would be something to eat and the soldiers would stop pursuing them. Probably no one felt more anguish over this decision than Crazy Horse, who as a mature man in his mid-thirties had spent his adult life battling to avoid just this moment.

In the long term, the U.S. government planned to force the Lakotas to adopt a sedentary, agricultural life, hemmed in by farm fences and the lines of the reservation. This prospect was especially bleak for the men. Lakota men had been hunters and warriors since time out of mind. That was how they defined themselves as individuals, as men, and as Lakotas. To them it was the sacred order of things. Fulfilling these roles also meant a life full of excitement and glory, played out across an expansive territory of beautiful, powerful places. All of this would change under American rule. A man’s life would be reduced to the monotonous routines of tilling the soil and tending to livestock, day in and day out on the same tract of land. Crazy Horse could see little that was good and meaningful in this future, so what could he say in yielding to it after years of fending off the blue coats? What words could possibly capture the worry, humiliation, and sadness of this event?

Hours later, after the people had erected their teepees and refreshed themselves, the men gathered in the center of camp to conclude their surrender. First Crazy Horse, then other chiefs such as Little Big Man, He Dog, and Little Hawk, and finally fifty more men of lesser rank, placed 147 guns in a pile, most of them “first-rate sporting rifles or else Springfield carbines, caliber .45, the same as now issued to United States troops.” Crazy Horse himself relinquished “three fine Winchester rifles,” a repeating gun that held between ten and fourteen rounds. Clearly, a lack of weapons had nothing to do with the Lakotas’ capitulation to the Americans. Clark, however, refused to believe that these were all the arms they had. Rejecting the offer, he calmly but directly explained that he would accept only their complete arsenal, “and to save trouble they had better go out and find those guns at once.

To restore calm, Crazy Horse accompanied the reservation’s Indian guard as it went tent to tent gathering weapons, sometimes in exchange for horses in the case of an unwilling donor. An additional 50 rifles and muskets and 31 pistols surfaced, making 120 rifles and muskets and 75 pistols in all—probably still less than the absolute total, but enough to satisfy the lieutenant.

The ceremonialism of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at the time of their surrenders captured a lesson that has too often been lost and even denied in accounts of North American Indian history.

More on the slave trade

Sometime during the 1670s a young woman from the Yuchis of what is now the Tennessee/North Carolina/Virginia border region experienced the horror of being captured and sold into slavery by a band of gun-toting warriors from the Chichimecos, a group her people barely knew. Whether her ordeal began during an attack on her village or an ambush along the trail is unknown, but what came next probably followed what was becoming a well-worn pattern. The Chichimecos, after keeping her in a holding pen until they had accumulated enough captives for the colonial market, would have attached a leather collar around her neck connected to cords tying her wrists behind her back, and then tethered this restraint to a long leash guiding other similarly bound prisoners, most of them women and children. Marched in this constrained position throughout the day and staked to the ground at night, eventually she found herself some 300 miles east to the coast. The destination was the young English colony of Carolina, anchored by the community of Charles Town along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Carolina was an offshoot of the Caribbean colony of Barbados, which already had developed an insatiable appetite for cheap bound labor to do the grueling work of growing, harvesting, and processing sugarcane to satisfy Europe’s sweet tooth and thirst for rum. Carolinians hoped one day to discover their own cash crop, but in the meantime they saw their most lucrative opportunity in the export of Indian slaves to Barbados and other island plantations. The Chichimecos were their first supplier, enticed by deals such as the one they got for the captive Yuchi woman: they “sold her for a shot gun.” This woman’s name remains a mystery. Nevertheless, some details of her story survive because she managed to escape the English and make it back to her people. Her chief then used her story to alert Spanish authorities to the Chichimeco threat. Her fellow captives were less fortunate.

[  Although this is a rather long extract, it is just a small part of the book and I hope you’ll buy it to understand the enormous role guns played in American history.]

Posted in Guns, Human Nature, Slavery, Social Disorder, Violence, War | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on A book review of “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman

Book Review of “Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States”

Preface. is ultimately about the rise and fall of civilizations, although I didn’t know that when I first started writing this as an energy and resource blog.  Our civilization too will fail as fossil fuels decline, and then we’re back to the civilizations of the past, based on wood, and the eternal dance between sedentary city-states and the barbarians outside the gate, both with them with main goal of raiding for slaves rather than extending territory. 

I have to admit I am always shocked and dismayed that slaves have always played such a huge role in human society. Even Native Americans had slaves.  Read all about it in “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” by Andrés Reséndez. What a species we are.

This is not so much a book review as an organization of my kindle notes into the various topics that interested me.  There is a sampling, there is much more to be learned, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Scott, J. C. 2017. Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press.

The Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

The lives of hunter-gatherers are orchestrated by a host of natural rhythms of which they must be keen observers: the movement of herds of game (deer, gazelle, antelope, pigs); the seasonal migrations of birds, especially waterfowl, which can be intercepted and netted at their resting or nesting places; the runs of desirable fish upstream or downstream; the cycles of the ripening of fruits and nuts, which must be collected before other competitors arrive or before they spoil; and, less predictably, appearances of game, fish, turtles, and mushrooms, which must be exploited quickly.

The list could be expanded almost indefinitely, but several aspects of this activity stand out. First, each activity requires a different “tool kit” and techniques of capture or collecting that must be mastered. Second, we should not forget that foragers have long gathered grains from natural stands of cereals and had, for this purpose, already developed virtually all the tools we associate with the Neolithic tool kit: sickles, threshing mats and baskets, winnowing trays, pounding mortars and grinding stones, and the like.

Botanists and naturalists have been continually amazed by the degree and breadth of knowledge hunters-gatherers have of the natural world around them. Their taxonomies of plants are not classified in Linnaean categories, but they are both more practical (good to eat, will heal wounds, will make blue dye) and quite as elaborate. Codifications of farming knowledge in America, by contrast, have traditionally taken the form of the Farmers’ Almanac, which suggests, among other things, when maize should be planted. We might, in this context, think of hunters and gatherers as having an entire library of almanacs: one for natural stands of cereals, subdivided into wheats, barleys, and oats; one for forest nuts and fruits, subdivided into acorns, beechnuts, and various berries; one for fishing, subdivided by shellfish, eels, herring, and shad; and so on.

Hunter gatherers shared land with each other, and with no ability to accumulate wealth, there was no incentive to produce beyond the level of subsistence and comfort, to engage in the drudgery of agricultural production.

Wetland settlements

The earliest large fixed settlements sprang up in wetlands, not arid settings; they relied overwhelmingly on wetland resources, not grain, for their subsistence; and they had no need of irrigation in the generally understood sense of the term. Insofar as any human landscaping was necessary in this setting, it was far more likely to be drainage than irrigation. The classical view that ancient Sumer was a miracle of irrigation organized by the state in an arid landscape turns out to be totally wrong.

Exclusive emphasis on the superabundance of marshes and riverine settings overlooks a further crucial advantage of coastal and river locations: transportation. Wetlands may have been a necessary condition of early sedentism, but the development later of large kingdoms and trading centers depended on an advantageous positioning for waterborne trade.

The advantage of waterborne transport compared with overland cart or donkey travel is almost impossible to exaggerate. A Diocletian edict specified that the price of a wagon load of wheat doubled after 50 miles. Because it reduces friction dramatically, movement by water is exponentially more efficient.

Whether in ancient China, in the Netherlands, in the fens of England, in the Pontine Marshes finally subdued by Mussolini, or in the remaining southern Iraq marshes drained by Saddam Hussein, the state has endeavored to turn ungovernable wetlands into taxable grain fields by reengineering the landscape.

A last and more speculative reason for the obscurity of wetland societies is that they were, and remained, environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. They were based on what are now called “common property resources”—free-living plants, animals, and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed. Subsistence in these zones was so diverse, variable, and dependent on such a multitude of tempos as to defy any simple central accounting.

A culture might well develop in such areas, but the likelihood was small that such an intricate web of relatively egalitarian settlements would throw up great chiefs or kingdoms, let alone dynasties. A state—even a small proto-state—requires a subsistence environment that is far simpler than the wetland ecologies we have examined.

Sedentary towns

The domestication of plants and animals made possible a degree of sedentism that did form the basis of the earliest civilizations and states and their cultural achievements. It rested, however, on an extremely slender and fragile genetic foundation: a handful of crops, a few species of livestock, and a radically simplified landscape that had to be constantly defended against a reconquest by excluded nature.

Despite general ill health and high infant and maternal mortality compared to hunters and gatherers, it turns out that sedentary agriculturalists also had unprecedentedly high rates of reproduction—enough to more than compensate for the also unprecedentedly high rates of mortality.

Nonsedentary populations typically limit their reproduction deliberately.  The spacing of children of hunter-gatherers is on the order of four years, a spacing that is achieved by delayed weaning, abortifacients, and neglect or infanticide.  Some combination of strenuous exercise with a lean and protein-rich diet meant that puberty arrived later, ovulation was less regular, and menopause arrived earlier.

The greater value of the children as a labor force in agriculture is enhanced. By virtue of sedentism, menarche is earlier; with a grain diet, infants can be weaned earlier on soft foods; and by virtue of a high-carbohydrate diet, ovulation is encouraged and a woman’s reproductive life is extended.

Given enough time, the small reproductive advantage of farmers was overwhelming.

Humans stayed in one place a long time before plants and animals were domesticated at least four millennia before agricultural villages appeared.

Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states. It turns out that both are, instead, usually the product of wetland abundance. We thought that sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation, yet states pop up only long after fixed-field agriculture appears. Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case.

Whether the grain in question is wheat, barley, rice, or maize—the four crops that account, even today, for more than half of the world’s caloric consumption—the patterns display a family resemblance. The early state strives to create a legible, measured, and fairly uniform landscape of taxable grain crops and to hold on this land a large population available for corvée labor, conscription, and, of course, grain production. For dozens of reasons, ecological, epidemiological, and political, the state often fails to achieve this aim, but this is, as it were, the steady glint in its eye.

The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

It is simply assumed that weary Homo sapiens couldn’t wait to finally settle down permanently, could not wait to end hundreds of millennia of mobility and seasonal movement. Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control. Many Native American peoples were confined to reservations only on the heels of military defeat

Inconveniently for the narrative, sedentism is actually quite common in ecologically rich and varied, preagricultural settings—especially wetlands bordering the seasonal migration routes of fish, birds, and larger game. There, in ancient southern Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”), one encounters sedentary populations, even towns, of up to five thousand inhabitants with little or no agriculture. The opposite anomaly is also encountered: crop planting associated with mobility and dispersal except for a brief harvest period.

That people couldn’t wait to abandon mobility altogether and “settle down”—may also be mistaken.

Long before the deliberate planting of seeds in ploughed fields, foragers had developed all the harvest tools, winnowing baskets, grindstones, and mortars and pestles to process wild grains and pulses. For the layman, dropping seeds in a prepared trench or hole seems decisive.

Does discarding the stones of an edible fruit into a patch of waste vegetable compost near one’s camp, knowing that many will sprout and thrive, count?

One can perhaps see this early period as part of a long process, still continuing, in which we humans have intervened to gain more control over the reproductive functions of the plants and animals that interest us. We selectively breed, protect, and exploit them. One might arguably extend this argument to the early agrarian states and their patriarchal control over the reproduction of women, captives, and slaves. Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.

On a generous reading, until the past four hundred years, one-third of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists, while states, being essentially agrarian, were confined largely to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. Much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector. Many, perhaps a majority, were able to move in and out of state space and to shift modes of subsistence; they had a sporting chance of evading the heavy hand of the state.

One way of determining whether a woman who died 9,000 years ago was living in a sedentary, grain-growing community as compared with a foraging band was simply to examine the bones of her back, toes, and knees. Women in grain villages had characteristic bent-under toes and deformed knees that came from long hours kneeling and rocking back and forth grinding grain. It was a small but telling way that that new subsistence routines—what today would be called a repetitive stress injury—shaped our bodies to new purposes, much as the work animals domesticated later

One might argue that the spread of sedentism transformed Homo sapiens into far more of a herd animal than previously. Unprecedented concentrations of people, as in other herds, provided ideal conditions for epidemics and the sharing of parasites. But this aggregation was not a one-species herd but an aggregation of many mammalian herds who shared pathogens and generated entirely new zoonotic diseases by the mere fact of being assembled around the domus for the first time.


“Barbarians” were simply the vast population not subject to state control. I will continue to use the term “barbarian”—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—in part because I want to argue that the era of the earliest and fragile states was a time when it was good to be a barbarian. The length of this period varied from place to place depending on state strength and military technology.

If the barbarian realm is one of diversity and complexity, the state realm is, agro-economically speaking, one of relative simplicity. Barbarians are not essentially a cultural category; they are a political category to designate populations not (yet?) administered by the state. The line on the frontier where the barbarians begin is that line where taxes and grain end.

One is reminded in this context of Owen Lattimore’s admonition that the great walls of China were built as much to keep Chinese taxpayers in as to keep the barbarians out.

As sedentary communities, the earliest states were vulnerable to more mobile nonstate peoples. If one thinks of hunters and foragers as specialists at locating and exploiting food sources, the static aggregations of people, grain, livestock, textiles, and metal goods of sedentary communities represented relatively easy pickings. Why should one go to the trouble of growing a crop when, like the state (!), one can simply confiscate it from the granary? As the Berber saying so eloquently attests, “Raiding is our agriculture.” The growth of sedentary agricultural settlements that were everywhere the foundation of early states can be seen as a new and very lucrative foraging site for nonstate peoples—one-stop shopping, as it were.

As Native Americans realized, the tame European cow was easier to “hunt” than the white-tailed deer. The consequences for the early state were considerable. Either it invested heavily in defenses against raiding and/or it paid tribute—protection money—to potential raiders in return for not plundering. In either case the fiscal burden on the early state, and hence its fragility, increased appreciably

While raiding’s spectacular quality tends to dominate accounts of the early state’s relationship with barbarians, it was surely far less important than trade. The early states, located for the most part in rich, alluvial bottomlands, were natural trading partners with nearby barbarians. Ranging widely in a far more diverse environment, only the barbarians could supply the necessities without which the early state could not long survive: metal ores, timber, hides, obsidian, honey, medicinals, and aromatics. The lowland kingdom was more valuable as a trade depot, in the long run, than as a site of plunder.

There is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life for non-elites inside civilization.

To states, they are uncaptured and a threat that must be exterminated like the birds, mice, and rats eating crops. They were undomesticated.

For millennia barbarians were perhaps the single most important factor limiting the growth of states.  Not just the Mongols and Huns, many bands gnawed relentlessly with raids on sedentary, grain-farming communities. An irresistible site for concentrated gathering.  Their range with camels, horses, or swift boats extended the range and effectiveness of their marauding.

It was hard for the state to retaliate, since these bands were mobile and dispersed, melting away in to hills, swamps, and trackless grasslands, where state armies followed at their peril.

Sea pirates also preyed on Mediterranean trade like land tribes preying on overland caravans.

Since too much predation kills the goose laying the golden eggs, raiders often adopted a protection racket strategy.  In return for goods, the raiders protected the towns and cities.   That still didn’t fully protect a town, raiders without such an agreement might attack, though the barbarians who had an agreement were expected to defend the town.

These agreements were probably more common than the historical records show, because they were likely to be secrets of the state that they wanted to keep quiet to maintain their public façade of an all-powerful state.

Many raiding nomads like the Mongols thought of sedentary populations as herds, with the major booty to be gained by war was slaves, the same racket city-states were engaged in.

Barbarians also grew wealthy from trade with states, trading cattle, sheep, and slaves for textiles, grain, iron and copperware, pottery and more.  Barbarian groups that controlled major trading routes, especially navigable rivers to major lowland cities could reap large rewards.

When people fled the state because of war, epidemics and so on, they often became barbarians.

The nomadic barbarians often conquered states and became the new ruling class.  This happened at least twice in China resulting in the Yuan and Manchu/Qing dynasties.

Or barbarians became the cavalry and mercenaries of the state to keep other barbarians in check.


What is also absolutely clear is that domesticated grains and livestock are known long before anything like an agrarian state appears—far longer than previously imagined. On the basis of the latest evidence, the gap between these two key domestications and the first agrarian economies based on them is now reckoned to stretch for 4,000 years.

Cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.

States sometimes fell because they got too greedy, taking too much grain as taxes, leaving subjects to starve, because they didn’t have enough fine-grained knowledge to appropriate the appropriate amount.  The tax collectors themselves often stole some of the grain. The core farmers bore the brunt of taxation, since outlying areas tended to have worse soil and higher transportation costs.

The peasants along the Nile were especially hard-pressed because they had nowhere to run to.


Statelets rose and fell in rapid succession. Collapse was commonplace. Constant warfare and competition for manpower made states even more fragile by diverting manpower to wall building, defensive works, and fighting that might have been employed producing food.  Constant warfare forced cities to be placed where military defense triumphed over material abundance, making them economically more precarious.

A state losing a war also lost men fleeing elsewhere, especially the slaves and conscripted foreigners,  reminiscent of the massive desertions of poor whites in the confederacy towards the end of the Civil War.

Internal wars could also bring down a state from battles for succession, civil wars, and insurrections.

With the rise of states cities became great prizes, not only of potential slaves, livestock, and grain stores, but the walls, canals, defensive works, storehouses, and usually a great location near soil, plentiful water, and trade routes.

States were also vulnerable to deforestation, limiting their size and longevity.  The zone with the best land and access to trade was also where the major shrines, markets, administrative staff, and praetorian guards were.


I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.

I and others are virtually certain that disease was a major factor in the fragility of the early states. Its effects, however, are hard to document, since they were so sudden and so little understood, and because many epidemic diseases left no obvious bone signature.

There are nonetheless good reasons for supposing that a great many of the sudden collapses of the earliest centers of population were due to devastating epidemic diseases. Time and again there is evidence of a sudden and otherwise unexplained abandonment of previously well-populated sites. In the case of adverse climate change or soil salinization one would also expect depopulation, but in keeping with its cause it would be more likely to be regionwide and rather more gradual. Other explanations for the sudden evacuation or disappearance of a populous site are of course possible: civil war, conquest, floods. Epidemic disease, however, given the entirely novel crowding the Neolithic revolution made possible, is the most likely suspect, judging from the massive effects of disease that appear in the written records once they become available.

Epidemics affected domestic animals and crops that were also concentrated in the late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp. A population could as easily be devastated by a disease that swept through their flocks or their grain fields as by a plague that menaced them directly.

Mesopotamians lived in the ever-threatening shadow of fatal epidemics. They had amulets, special prayers, prophylactic dolls, and “healing” goddesses and temples—the most famous of which was at Nippur—designed to ward off mass illness. Such events were poorly understood at the time.

The first written sources also make it clear that early Mesopotamian populations understood the principle of “contagion” that spread epidemic disease. Where possible, they took steps to quarantine the first discernible cases, confining them to their quarters, letting no one out and no one in. They understood that long-distance travelers, traders, and soldiers were likely carriers of disease.

Soldiers returning from a campaign and suspected of carrying disease were obliged to burn their clothing and shields before entering the city. When isolation and quarantine failed, those who could fled the city, leaving the dying and deceased behind, and returning, if ever, only well after the epidemic had passed. In doing so, they must frequently have brought the epidemic to outlying areas, touching off a new round of quarantines and flight.

Virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past 10,000 years, many of them perhaps only in the past 5,000. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture. Until very recently they collectively represented the major overall cause of human mortality. 

A measles epidemic brought by sailors devastated the Faroe islands in 1781, and, given the lifelong immunity conferred on survivors, the islands were free of the measles for 65 years until 1846, when it returned, infecting all but the aged folks who had survived the earlier epidemic. A further epidemic 30 years later infected only those under 30. For measles specifically, epidemiologists have calculated that at least 3,000 newly susceptible hosts would be required annually to sustain a permanent infection and that only a population of roughly 300,000 could provide this many hosts.

Estimates vary, but of the 1400 known human pathogenic organisms, between 800-900 are zoonotic diseases, originating in nonhuman hosts. For most of these pathogens, Homo sapiens is a final “dead-end” host: humans do not transmit it further to another nonhuman host.

We humans share 26 diseases with poultry, 32 with rats and mice, 35 with horses, 42 with pigs, 46 with sheep and goats, 50 with cattle, and 65 with the dog. Measles is suspected to have arisen from a rinderpest virus among sheep and goats, smallpox from camel domestication and a cowpox-bearing rodent ancestor, and influenza from the domestication of waterfowl some 4,500 years ago.

Little wonder, then, that southeast China, specifically Guangdong, probably the largest, most crowded, and historically deepest concentration of Homo sapiens, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and wild animal markets in the world, has been a major world petri dish for the incubation of new strains of bird and swine flu.

It was not until the late 19th-century discoveries of the founders of microbiology, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, that it became clear what a heavy price in chronic and lethal infections Homo sapiens was paying for the absence of clean water, sanitation, and sewage removal.

It is quite likely that the crowding diseases, including especially zoonoses, were largely responsible for the demographic bottleneck of the early Neolithic 12,000 years ago. In time—how long is uncertain and varies with the pathogen—crowded populations developed a degree of immunity to many pathogens, which in turn became endemic, signifying a stable and less lethal pathogen-host relationship.

Once a disease becomes endemic in a sedentary population, it is far less lethal, often circulating largely in a subclinical form for most carriers. At this point, unexposed populations having little or no immunity against this pathogen are likely to be uniquely vulnerable when they come into contact with a population in which it is endemic. Thus war captives, slaves, and migrants from distant or isolated villages previously outside the circle of crowd immunity have fewer defenses and are likely to succumb to diseases to which large sedentary populations have become, over time, largely immune.

Repeated annual cultivation provided, in effect, a permanent feedlot for insect pests and plant diseases—not to mention obligate weeds—which built up to population levels that could not have existed before fixed-field monocropping. Large sedentary communities necessarily meant many arable fields in close proximity, growing a similar variety of crop; this promoted a commensurate buildup of pest populations.

Crops not only are threatened, as are humans, with bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, but they face a host of predators large and small—snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals, as well as a large variety of evolving weeds that compete with the cultivar for nutrition, water, light, and space. The seed in the ground is attacked by insect larvae, rodents, and birds. During growth and grain development the same pests are still active, as well as aphids that suck sap and transmit disease. Fungal diseases are especially devastating, including mildew, smut, bunt, rusts, and ergot

And once the harvest is in the granary it is still subject to weevils, rodents, and fungi.  It is common enough in the contemporary Middle East for several crops in succession to be lost to insects, birds, or disease. In an experiment in northern Europe, a crop of modern barley, fertilized but not protected with modern herbicides or pesticides, was reduced by half: 20% due to crop disease, 12% to animals, and 18% to weeds. Threatened by the diseases of crowding and monoculture, domesticated crops must be constantly defended by their human custodians if they are to yield a harvest.

It is largely for this reason that early agriculture was so dauntingly labor intensive. Various techniques were devised to reduce the labor involved and improve the yields. Fields were scattered so that they were less contiguous; fallowing and crop rotation was practiced; and seed was procured at a distance to reduce genetic uniformity. Ripening crops were closely guarded by farmers,

Collapse and Dark Ages: not so bad

First, let’s enumerate all the many ways a state could collapse. The unprecedented concentration of crops, people, and livestock led to a whole series of effects—soil exhaustion, siltation, floods, salinization, epidemics, fire, malaria and other epidemics.

In focusing our attention on the exceptional places where the earliest states appeared, we risk missing the key fact that in much of the world there was no state at all until quite recently.  In most cases, interregna, fragmentation, and “dark ages” were more common than consolidated, effective rule.

Collapse can be seen as the abandonment or destruction of a monumental court center, a loss of social complexity, the dispersion of the populace to smaller settlements and villages, monumental building activity ceases, literacy for administrative and religious reasons gone, trade reduced, craft production gone.

But not necessarily a decline of regional population, health, well-being, or nutrition. Indeed, a collapse may be a huge improvement for its enslaved and poor peasantry.

Here again, we—and the historians as well—are likely to be mesmerized by the records of a dynasty’s founding or its classical period, while periods of disintegration and disorder leave little or nothing in the way of records. Greece’s four-century-long “Dark Age,” when literacy was apparently lost, is nearly a blank page compared with the vast literature on the plays and philosophy of the Classical Age.

When a city is burned to the ground, it is often hard to tell whether it was an accidental fire such as plagued all ancient cities built of combustible materials, a civil war or uprising, or a raid from outside.

This is entirely understandable if the purpose of a history is to examine the cultural achievements that we revere, but it overlooks the brittleness and fragility of state forms. In a good part of the world, the state, even when it was robust, was a seasonal institution. Until very recently, during the annual monsoon rains in Southeast Asia, the state’s ability to project its power shrank back virtually to its palace walls. Despite the state’s self-image and its centrality in most standard histories, it is important to recognize that for thousands of years after its first appearance, it was not a constant but a variable, and a very wobbly one at that.

It appears that flight from the early state domains to the periphery was quite common, but, as it contradicts the narrative of the state as a civilizing benefactor of its subjects, it is relegated to obscure legal codes.

The causes are typically multiple, and it is arbitrary to single out one as decisive. As with a patient suffering many underlying illnesses, it is difficult to specify the cause of death. And when, say, a drought leads to hunger and then to resistance and flight of which, in turn, a neighboring kingdom takes advantage by invading, sacking the kingdom, and carrying off its population, which of these causes ought we to prefer? The sparse written record rarely helps. When a kingdom is destroyed by invasion, raids, civil war, or rebellion, the deposed scribes rarely remain at their posts long enough to record the debacle.

Three fault lines are by-products of state formation itself. The first are the disease effects of the unprecedented concentrations of crops, people, and livestock together with their attendant parasites and pathogens. Epidemics of one kind or another, including crop diseases, were responsible for quite a few sudden collapses. Evidence, however, is difficult to come by.

More insidious are two ecological effects of urbanism and intensive irrigated agriculture. The former resulted in steady deforestation of the upstream watershed of riverine states and subsequent siltation and floods. The latter resulted in well-documented salinization of the soil, lower yields, and eventual abandonment of arable land.

All it took to fail were too many harvests lost to drought, flood, pests, or diseases.  For humans to succumb to or flee a pandemic, invasion, civil war, deforestation, and so on.

The early state’s appetite for wood was nearly insatiable and far exceeded what even a sizable sedentary community might have required. In addition to clearing land for agriculture and grazing, and the need for wood for cooking and heating, house construction, and pottery kilns, the early state required huge quantities of wood for metallurgy, iron smelting, brick making, salt curing, mining supports, shipbuilding, monumental architecture, and lime-plaster—this last requiring huge amounts of fuelwood to prepare.  Given the difficulties of transporting wood any appreciable distance, a state center would have very quickly have exhausted the modest supplies close to its core settlement. Located as virtually all early states were, on a navigable waterway, it could take advantage of the buoyancy of wood, and if on a river, cut timber to float down to the city.

Logging and transportation required trees be cut as close to the river as possible to minimize labor. As nearby upstream banks were deforested, the wood had to come from farther and farther upstream and/or from smaller trees that could more easily be gotten to the bank to float downstream.

There is abundant evidence of deforestation from the Athenian quest for naval timer in Macedonia and the shortage of timber in the Roman Republic.  Much earlier, by 6300 BCE in the Neolithic town of Ain Ghazal, there were no more trees within walking distance of the settlement, and fuelwood had become scarce.  As a result, the community dispersed into scattered hamlets, as did a good many other Jordan Valley Neolithic settlements when they exceeded the carrying capacity of their local woodlots.

A nearly infallible sign that a city-state faced a shortage of firewood were the amounts of charcoal supplied, essential for high-temperature applications such as firing pottery, lime slaking and smelting. It isn’t used in homes unless there’s no firewood.  But charcoal has a lot more heat value per weight or volume and can be transported for greater distances than firewood.

Deforesting upstream causes problems.  Too much erosion and siltation result.  If the city depended on irrigation, the silt might clog the canals, requiring much labor to dredge them.  Deforestation also helped to prevent floods, and floods with a lot of silt were especially violent and damaging.  China’s Yellow river has killed millions with its massive floods.  Floods can also cause a river to change its course, leaving a city-state and its crops high and dry, marooned from transportation as well.  Silt also creates malarial wetlands.


The extent of slavery, bondage, and forced resettlement is hard to document as, in the absence of shackles, slave and free-subject remains are indistinguishable. All states were surrounded by nonstate peoples, but owing to their dispersal, we know precious little about their coming and going, their shifting relationship to states, and their political structures.

Then there was another plague: the state plague of taxes in the form of grain, labor, and conscription over and above onerous agricultural work. How, in such circumstances, did the early state manage to assemble, hold, and augment its subject population? Some have even argued that state formation was possible only in settings where the population was hemmed in by desert, mountains, or a hostile periphery.

Unfree labor was particularly important in building city walls and roads, digging canals, mining, quarrying, logging, monumental construction, wool textile weaving, and of course agricultural labor. The attention to “husbanding” the subject population, including women, as a form of wealth, like livestock, in which fertility and high rates of reproduction were encouraged, is apparent. The ancient world clearly shared Aristotle’s judgment that the slave was, like a plough animal, a “tool for work.

Formal slavery in the ancient world reaches its apotheosis in classical Greece and early imperial Rome, which were slave states in the full sense one applies to the antebellum South in the United States. Chattel slavery on this order, though not absent in Mesopotamia and early Egypt, was less dominant than other forms of unfree labor, such as the thousands of women in large workshops in Ur making textiles for export. That a good share of the population in Greece  and Roman Italy was being held against its will is testified to by slave rebellions in Roman Italy and Sicily, by the wartime offers of freedom—by Sparta to Athenian slaves and by the Athenians to Sparta’s helots—and by the frequent references to fleeing and absconding populations in Mesopotamia.

Up to two-thirds of Athenian society were slaves, and in Sparta, an even greater portion.  Slaves in Athens were often war captives from non-Greek speaking peoples, Spartas were mostly indigenous cultivators conquere in place and made to work for “free” Spartans.

Every Roman military campaign used slaves.  The soldiers expected to become rich by selling or ransoming captives they’d personally captured.

You could almost view wars more as slave raids than conventional warfare, since the goal was to obtain captives.  Rarely do chronicles mention taking territory, rather accounts emphasize the value of the plunder in livestock and prisoners, whose towns and villages were usually destroyed so they’d have nothing to return to.  Often wars were fought when grain was ripe so that it too could be seized.

Even as late as 1800, about 75% of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage. 

States liked to take working age captives to be slaves, after all, they had been raised at the expense of another society, and could be exploited by the slave state for their most productive years.  Often conquerors went out of their way to capture people with particular skills, such as boat builders, weavers, metal workers, armorers and so on, men the slave state hadn’t had to spend time or money on to develop such skills.

Women and children were especially prized, with women becoming wives, concubines, or servants.  Women were especially needed to produce children since infant and maternal mortality were high. Unlike in America, where slavery was inherited forever, most slaves were incorporated into society. 

Slaves were often given the most brutal and dangerous work in mining, stone quarrying, logging, and pulling oars in galley ships, and many other unpleasant tasks, all vital for the military and wealth of the state.  They were usually far from town and easier to control and less of a threat to public order.  This spared the proletariat from degrading drudgery which might provoke a rebellion. 

Slaves were often the ones forced into mass resettlement of land that might have been decimated from an epidemic, and were easier to control away from town.  Many were moved, as many as 200,000 Babylonians at one point, with a whole cadre of deportation officials in charge of getting them fed on the way to their new location.


The term “domesticate” is normally understood as an active verb taking a direct object, as in “Homo sapiens domesticated rice . . . domesticated sheep,” and so on. This overlooks the active agency of domesticates. It is not so clear, for example, to what degree we domesticated the dog or the dog domesticated us. And what about the “commensals”—sparrows, mice, weevils, ticks, bedbugs—that were not invited to the resettlement camp but gate-crashed anyway, as they found the company and the food congenial. And what about the “domesticators in chief,” Homo sapiens? Were not they domesticated in turn, strapped to the round of ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, grinding, all on behalf of their favorite grains and tending to the daily needs of their livestock?

Domestication ought to be understood in an expansive way, as the ongoing effort of Homo sapiens to shape the entire environment to its liking. Given our frail knowledge about how the natural world works, one might say that the effort has been more abundant in unintended consequences than in intended effects.

How were we also domesticated by the domus, by our confinement, by crowding, by our different patterns of physical activity and social organization?

Wild grain heads are typically small and shatter easily, thereby seeding themselves. They mature unevenly; their seeds can remain long dormant but still germinate; they have many appendages, awns, glumes, and thick seed coats, all of which discourage grazers and birds. All these features are selected for in the wild and selected against by the farmer. It is diagnostic that the major weeds that plague wheat and barley—one can think of them as hitchhiking, feral commensals—have precisely these characteristics. They like the tilled field but escape the harvester and grazer alike.

“Fully domesticated” means simply that it is, in effect, our creation; it can no longer thrive without our attentions. In evolutionary terms a fully domesticated plant has become a super-specialized floral “basket case,” and its future is entirely dependent on our own.

We can surely understand how dogs, cats, and even pigs have been attracted to hunters and to the domus for the food, warmth, and concentration of available prey they promised. They—some of them at any rate—appeared at the domus more as volunteers than as conscripts. Much the same could be said for the house mouse and the house sparrow, which, though perhaps less welcome, came while evading full domestication.

If Homo sapiens is judged the most successful and numerous invasive species in history, this dubious achievement has been due to the allied battalions of domesticated plants and livestock it has taken with it to virtually every corner of the globe.

Among the characteristics that pre-disposed species to domestication are: above all, herd behavior and the social hierarchy that accompanies it, the capacity to tolerate different environmental conditions, a broad spectrum diet, adaptability to crowding and disease, the ability to breed under confinement, and, finally, a relatively muted fright-and-flight response to external stimuli. While it is true that most major domesticates (sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs) are herd animals, as are most domesticated draft animals (horses, camels, donkeys, water buffalo, and reindeer), herd behavior does not guarantee domestication.

While guarded and tended by their human masters, the domesticates, like plants in the field, were spared many of the selective pressures (predators, competition for food, battles for mates) of the wild but were subject to new selection pressure, both deliberate and unintentional, imposed by their “owners.

The hallmark behavioral difference between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species—including Homo sapiens. The likelihood that such traits are in part a “domus effect” rather than entirely due to conscious human selection is, once again, suggested by the fact that uninvited commensals such as statuary pigeons, rats, mice, and sparrows exhibit much the same reduced wariness and reactivity. Selection, for example, favored smaller, less obtrusive rats and mice better adapted to living off human refuse and avoiding detection and capture.

We have, for the past 8,000 years, been selecting among sheep for tractability—slaughtering first the aggressive ones who broke out of the corral.

More diagnostic than the overall reduction in brain size are the areas of the brain that seem to be disproportionately affected. In the case of dogs, sheep, and pigs, the part of the brain most affected is the limbic system (hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary, and amygdala), which is responsible for activating hormones and nervous-system reactions to threats and external stimuli. The shrinkage of the limbic system is associated with raising the threshold that would trigger aggression, flight, and fear. In turn, this helps explain the diagnostic characteristics of virtually all domesticated species: namely the general reduction in emotional reactivity. Such emotional dampening can be seen as a condition for life in the crowded domus and under human supervision, where the instant reaction to predator and prey are no longer powerful pressures of natural selection. With physical protection and nutrition more secure, the domesticated animal can be less intently alert to its immediate surroundings than its cousins in the wild.

The stress and physical trauma of confinement, together with a narrower spectrum diet and the ease with which infections can spread among individuals of the same species packed together, make for a variety of pathologies.

We are as much a product of self-domestication in both intended and unintended ways as other species of the domus are products of our domestication.  The process of self-domestication had begun long before (some of it even before “sapiens”) with the use of fire, cooking, and the domestication of grain.

The new crops became “basketcases,” which could not survive without our constant attentions and protection. Much the same was true for domesticated sheep and goats, which became smaller, more placid, less aware of their surroundings.

Why Grain States and not some other crop?

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana republics” don’t qualify!) My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. Taxing herders was quite difficult, nomads were always on the  moe and could escape.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years. If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dig up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported. If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the premodern “tax man,” the major grains (above all, irrigated rice) would be among the most preferred, and roots and tubers among the least preferred.

Famers tried to surreptitiously harvest their grain before the tax-man came, so states often mandated a planting time to prevent that.

One might imagine that ancient domesticated legumes, say—peas, soybeans, peanuts, or lentils, all of which are nutritious and can be dried for storage—might serve as a tax crop. The obstacle in this case is that most legumes are indeterminate crops that can be picked as long as they grow; they do not have a determinate harvest, something the tax man requires.

Grains were standards of measurement and the currency of trade and labor.  The daily food ration of the lowest laborers in Mesopotamia was 2 liters of barley measured into beveled bowls that are the most common archaeological find.

Grain was easy to transport, which could expand the boundaries of a state.  Rome shipped grain from Egypt rather than overland on the Italian peninsula.  The territory of the Roman Empire didn’t extend much beyond the grain line.


Contrary to some earlier assumptions, the state did not invent irrigation as a way of concentrating population, let alone crop domestication; both were the achievements of pre-state peoples. What the state has often done, once established, however, is to maintain, amplify, and expand the agro-ecological setting that is the basis of its power by what we might call state landscaping. This has included repairing silted channels, digging new feeder canals, settling war captives on arable land, penalizing subjects who are not cultivating, clearing new fields, forbidding nontaxable subsistence activities such as swiddening and foraging, and trying to prevent the flight of its subjects.

Formation of Early States

A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a “state” in the strong sense of the term. Such states come into existence in the last centuries of the fourth millennium BCE

While fixed settlements and domesticated grains can be found earlier elsewhere (for example, in Jericho, the Levant, and the “hilly flanks” east of the alluvium), they did not give rise to states. What is required is wealth in the form of an appropriable, measurable, dominant grain crop and a population growing it that can be easily administered and mobilized. Areas of great but diverse abundance such as wetlands, which offer dozens of subsistence options to a mobile population, because of their very illegibility and fugitive diversity, are not zones of successful state making.

If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined.

The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation. If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster. Evidence for the extensive use of unfree labor—war captives, indentured servitude, temple slavery, slave markets, forced resettlement in labor colonies, convict labor, and communal slavery (for example, Sparta’s helots)—is overwhelming.

The earliest states were historically novel institutions; there were no manuals of statecraft, no Machiavelli rulers could consult, so it is not surprising that they were often short-lived. China’s Qin Dynasty, famous for its many innovations of strong governance, lasted a mere 15 years. The agro-ecology favorable to state making is relatively stationary, while the states that occasionally appear in these locations blink on and off like erratic traffic lights.


Once the development of coastal shipping allowed for more long-distance trade, the volume of this trade exploded.

Two aspects of this trade, however, were both melancholy and fateful. Perhaps the main commodity traded to the early states was the slave—typically from among the barbarians. The ancient states replenished their population by wars of capture and by buying slaves on a large scale from barbarians who specialized in the trade. In addition, it was a rare early state that did not engage barbarian mercenaries for its defense. Selling both their fellow barbarians and their martial service to the early states, the barbarians contributed mightily to the decline of their brief golden age.

To take the example of firewood, a variety of sources (before railroads and all-weather roads) advise that a cartload of firewood cannot be sold profitably at distance beyond roughly 9 miles (15 km).  In rugged terrain, even less. The importance of charcoal, though it is massively wasteful of wood, is exclusively due to its superior transportability; its heat value per unit weight and volume is far superior to “raw” firewood.

In the premodern era, no bulk goods—timber, metallic ores, salt, grain, reeds, pottery—could be shipped over appreciable distances except by water.


Our ancestors could not have failed to notice how natural wildfires transformed the landscape: how they cleared old vegetation and encouraged a host of quick-colonizing grasses and shrubs, many bearing desired seeds, berries, fruits, and nuts. They could also not have failed to notice that a fire drove fleeing game from its path, exposed hidden burrows and nests of small game, and, most important, later stimulated the browse and mushrooms that attracted grazing prey. Native North Americans deployed fire to sculpt landscapes favored by elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, ruffed grouse, turkey, and quail, all of which they hunted. The game they subsequently bagged represented a kind of harvesting of prey animals they had deliberately assembled

The evidence suggests that long before the bow and arrow appeared, roughly 20,000 years ago, hominids were using fire to drive herd animals off precipices and to drive elephants into bogs where, immobilized, they could more easily be killed.

What this slow-motion landscape engineering accomplishes over time is to concentrate more subsistence resources in a smaller and smaller area. It rearranges, by a fire-assisted form of applied horticulture, desirable flora and fauna in a tighter ring around the camp(s) and makes hunting and forging easier. The radius of a meal, one might say, is reduced. Subsistence resources are closer at hand, more abundant, and more predictable. Wherever humans and fire were at work sculpting the landscape for hunting-and-gathering convenience, few nutrient-poor “climax” forests were allowed to develop.

The chemical disassembly of raw food, which in a chimpanzee requires a gut roughly three times the size of ours, allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it.

Food storage as the rationale behind grain civilizations

The breathtaking four-millennia gap between the first appearance of domesticated grains and animals and the coalescing of agro-pastoral societies we have associated with early civilization commands our attention. The anomaly of such a stretch of history, when all the building blocks for a classic agrarian society are in place but fail to coalesce, begs an explanation.

The Mesopotamian alluvium, along with the Levant, is characterized by larger variations in rainfall and vegetation over shorter distances than almost any other place in the world. Seasonal variation in rainfall was also exceptionally high. Although this diversity put different resources fairly close at hand, it also required a large repertoire of subsistence strategies that could be deployed to deal with the variations.

A common answer has been that cereal grains can be harvested, threshed, and stored in a granary for several years and represent a dense store of starches and protein if, by chance, there is a sudden shortage of wild resources. Despite its cost in labor, so the argument goes, it represented something like a subsistence insurance policy for hunter-gatherers who also knew how to plant. This explanation, in its cruder forms, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It assumes, implicitly, that the harvest from a planted crop is more reliable than the yield from wild stands of grain. If anything, the opposite is more likely to be the case, inasmuch as wild seed will, by definition, be found only in locations where it will thrive.

The cruder versions of the “food-storage hypothesis” are also singularly myopic about the great variety of food storage techniques simultaneously practiced in the alluvium and elsewhere. Storage “on the hoof” in the form of livestock is the most obvious.

The general problem with farming—especially plough agriculture—is that it involves so much intensive labor. One form of agriculture, however, eliminates most of this labor: “flood-retreat” agriculture in which seeds are broadcast on the fertile silt deposited by an annual riverine flood. The fertile silt in question is made by the erosion of upstream land. This form of cultivation was almost certainly the earliest form of agriculture in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain, not to mention the Nile Valley. It is still widely practiced today and has been shown to be the most labor-saving form of agriculture regardless of the crop being planted.

Civilization started out of desperation

The dominant explanation until fairly recently was what might be called the “backs-to-the-wall” theory of plough agriculture associated with the great Danish economist Ester Boserup. Starting from the unassailable premise that plough cultivation typically required far more work for the calories it returned than did hunting and gathering, she reasoned that full cultivation was taken up not as an opportunity but as a last resort when no other alternative was possible. Some combination of population growth, the decline in wild protein to hunt and nutritious wild flora to gather, or coercion, must have forced people, reluctantly, to work harder to extract more calories from the land they had access to.

If so, one would expect cultivation to be adopted first in those areas where hard-pressed foragers had reached the carrying capacity of their immediate environment. Instead, it seems to have arisen in areas characterized more by abundance than by scarcity.

Also the argument that cultivation requires great toil may well be invalid. Finally, there appears to be no firm evidence associating early cultivation with the disappearance of either game animals or forage.

I am tempted to see the late Neolithic revolution, for all its contributions to large-scale societies, as something of a deskilling (see Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle above).  A contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life.

Why would foragers in their right mind choose the huge increase in drudgery entailed by fixed-field agriculture and animal husbandry unless they had, as it were, a pistol at their collective temple?

The domestication of plants as represented ultimately by fixed-field farming, then, enmeshed us in an annual set of routines that organized our work life, our settlement patterns, our social structure, the built environment of the domus, and much of our ritual life. From field clearing (by fire, plough, harrow), to sowing, to weeding, to watering, to constant vigilance as the crop ripens, the dominant cultivar organizes much of our timetable. The harvest itself sets in train another sequence of routines: in the case of cereal crops, cutting, bundling, threshing, gleaning, separation of straw, winnowing chaff, sieving, drying, sorting—most of which has historically been coded as women’s work. Then, the daily preparation of grains for consumption—pounding, grinding, fire making, cooking, and baking throughout the year—set the tempo of the domus. These meticulous, demanding, interlocked, and mandatory annual and daily routines, I would argue, belong at the center of any comprehensive account of the “civilizing process.” They strap agriculturalists to a minutely choreographed routine of dance steps; they shape their physical bodies, they shape the architecture and layout of the domus; they insist, as it were, on a certain pattern of cooperation

The “pistol at their temple” may have been the cold snap of the Younger Dryas (10,500–9,600 BCE), which reduced the abundance of wild plants, together with hostile adjacent populations, which restricted their mobility. This explanation is hotly contested in terms of both evidence and logic.

Or perhaps the transition was brought about in the Fertile Crescent by the growing scarcity (by overhunting?) of the big-game sources of wild protein—aurochs, onager, red deer, sea turtle, gazelle—the “low-hanging fruit,” to mix metaphors, of early hunting. The result, perhaps impelled as well by population pressure, forced people to exploit resources that, while abundant, required more labor and were perhaps less desirable and/or nutritious. Evidence for this broad-spectrum revolution is ubiquitous in the archaeological record as the bones of large wild animals decline and the volume of starchier plant matter, shellfish, small birds and mammals, snails, and mussels begin to predominate.

About the development of agriculture proper, some three or four millennia later, however, the jury is in. There was growing population pressure; sedentary hunters and gatherers found it harder to move and were impelled to extract more, at a higher cost in labor, from their surroundings, and most large game was in decline or gone. Planting techniques were long known and occasionally used; wild plants were routinely gathered and their seeds stored; all the tools for grain processing were at hand, and even a captive animal or two might be held in reserve. Nevertheless, planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects, and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a mono-cropped field. The tilled agricultural field was not only labor intensive; it was fragile and vulnerable.

The first state: Uruk

We think of states as institutions that have strata of officials specialized in the assessment and collection of taxes—whether in grain, labor, or specie—and who are responsible to a ruler or rulers. We think of states as exercising executive power in a fairly complex, stratified, hierarchical society with an appreciable division of labor (weavers, artisans, priests, metalworkers, clerks, soldiers, cultivators).

By such standards there is no doubt that that the “state” of Uruk is firmly in place by 3,200 BCE.

Estimates of its population range from 25 to 50,000; the number of inhabitants tripled over 200 years, an increase unlikely to have come from natural population growth, given the high mortality rates. The bas reliefs depicting prisoners of war in neck shackles suggest another means by which the population was augmented.

Uruk’s walls appear to have enclosed an area of about a square mile (250 hectares) twice the size of classical Athens nearly three millennia later.

One convincing explanation for how this cultivating population might have been assembled as state subjects is climate change. Nissen shows that the period from at least 3,500 to 2,500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decline in the water volume in the Euphrates. Increasing aridity meant that the rivers shrank back to their main channels and the population increasingly huddled around the remaining watercourses, while soil salinization of water-deprived areas sharply reduced the amount of arable land. In the process, the population became strikingly more concentrated, more “urban.” Irrigation became both more important and more labor intensive—it now often required lifting water—and access to dug canals became vital.

The shortage of irrigation water confined the population increasingly to well-watered places and eliminated or diminished many of the alternative form of subsistence, such as foraging and hunting.

Climate change, then, by forcing a kind of urbanization in which 90% of the population lived in settlements of 75 acres (30 hectares) or more, intensified the grain-and-manpower modules that were ideal for state formation.  

It is hard to determine how burdensome grain taxes were since they varied over time and between polities. To judge from agrarian history in general, the tax in grain is unlikely to have been less than a fifth of the harvest. Cultivators walked, in effect, closer to the subsistence precipice: a crop failure that, without taxes, might mean hunger could, after the state took its taxes, mean utter ruin.

One account of warfare among the peer polities of the alluvium asserts that the population lived at the subsistence level except when a victorious army returned with loot and tribute. The gains of the winner were offset by the losses of the vanquished. Warfare itself meant the burning of crops, the seizure of granaries, the confiscation of livestock and household goods—one’s own army was as likely to be as big a threat to livelihood as the enemies. The early state, rather like the weather, was more often an added threat to subsistence.

The Making of a State

Archaic states, in the crudest material terms, were all agrarian and required an appropriable surplus of agro-pastoral products to feed nonproducers: clerks, artisans, soldiers, priests, aristocrats. Given the logistics of transport in the ancient world, this meant the concentration of as much arable land and as many people to work it as possible within the smallest radius. Only the richest soils were productive enough to sustain a large population in a compact area to produce taxable surplus.

Only well-watered soil with reliable rain or irrigation water was suitable for state making.

No states were self-sufficient, they relied on products originating from far away that could be brought by water, for the most part, no water transport, no state.  Ships are much faster and can carry far more goods.  States are more likely to arise on flat land as well.

Walled States

Food storage and other goods had to be protected despite the difficult and long labor needed to construct walls.  Walls also kept farmers from escaping and continuing to pay taxes.  Movement was severely restricted as well.

Peasants have always known the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine that results in conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, and new taxes.  This is why the first act of many peasant rebellions was to burn down the local records office.  Recording such data was what drove writing 500 years earlier than using the written word for literature, religious texts and more.

Maximizing population was an obsession to create producers, solders, and slaves for the state, which needed constant updating of inventories of people and land.  At times the state forced people and war captives to settle newly conquered land.  In some states women and their families were given tax breaks for each child.

The state with the most people was usually the richest and likely to win battles with smaller rivals.  The prize of war was more often captives than territory, whose lives were spared usually. Often it wasn’t large urban centers that fought each other.  A town might rather go after small communities on the edge of its territory.  Soldiers were also sent out to capture escapees.

Posted in Collapse of Civilizations, Historically, Human Nature, Life Before Oil, Slavery | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Reforestation can cause rivers to disappear

Preface. We’ll need a lot of forests in the future when wood once again becomes our may source of energy and infrastructure as it was before fossil fuels. But care needs to be taken on where trees are planted.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Bentley, L., et al. 2020. Partial river flow recovery with forest age is rare in the decades following establishment. Global Change Biology.

River flow is reduced in areas where forests have been planted and does not recover over time, a new study has shown. Rivers in some regions can completely disappear within a decade. This highlights the need to consider the impact on regional water availability, as well as the wider climate benefit, of tree-planting plans.

“Reforestation is an important part of tackling climate change, but we need to carefully consider the best places for it. In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes,” said Laura Bentley, a plant scientist in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and first author of the report.

Planting large areas of trees has been suggested as one of the best ways of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, since trees absorb and store this greenhouse gas as they grow. While it has long been known that planting trees reduces the amount of water flowing into nearby rivers, there has previously been no understanding of how this effect changes as forests age.

The study looked at 43 sites across the world where forests have been established, and used river flow as a measure of water availability in the region. It found that within five years of planting trees, river flow had reduced by an average of 25%. By 25 years, rivers had gone down by an average of 40% and in a few cases had dried up entirely. The biggest percentage reductions in water availability were in regions in Australia and South Africa.

“River flow does not recover after planting trees, even after many years, once disturbances in the catchment and the effects of climate are accounted for,” said Professor David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, who led the study.

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the research showed that the type of land where trees are planted determines the degree of impact they have on local water availability. Trees planted on natural grassland where the soil is healthy decrease river flow significantly. On land previously degraded by agriculture, establishing forest helps to repair the soil so it can hold more water and decreases nearby river flow by a lesser amount.

Counterintuitively, the effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. When trees are drought-stressed they close the pores on their leaves to conserve water, and as a result draw up less water from the soil. In wet weather the trees use more water from the soil, and also catch the rainwater in their leaves.

“Climate change will affect water availability around the world,” said Bentley. “By studying how forestation affects water availability, we can work to minimise any local consequences for people and the environment.”

Posted in Agriculture, Deforestation, Wood | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Will life after peak oil be like the middle ages?

Preface.  Winston recreates what life was like from the 5th to the 15th centuries — from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance. shows why hydrogen, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, fusion, and other alternatives to fossil fuels can’t replace them. So it is worth knowing how people lived before fossils if we’re doomed to go back to Wood World after peak oil, where biomass was the main source of heat and infrastructure.

If only peak oil, rather than climate change, had been understood as the main problem facing us, we could have prepared for the future much better. We could have had civil engineers figuring out how to insulate homes better, build roads to last as long as the Roman ones still around today, and other infrastructure for future generations. Organic farming would start in earnest, horses be bred to replace tractors, materials scientists would find ways to preserve knowledge that lasted longer than paper.  Stone fences built since barbed wire will rust away. Social structures like guilds, who enforced high standards lest all of them not be trusted put in place.  Tens of thousands of small granaries to keep pests from devouring crops post-harvest.

I’m sure as you read this you can think of ways to prepare now for the future, and most of all, a social system that doesn’t make most of us poor peasants.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Richard Winston. 2016.  Life in the Middle Ages. New Word City.

A beautiful world – we are painfully conscious of our distance from it and of the hopelessness of wishing it back. Nor are we so sure we would like those preindustrial patterns. We would hardly want to be plunged into the insecurities of medieval life. In a scarcity economy, famine was inescapable. In the absence of scientific knowledge, there was no defense against disease. Although medieval wars were minor operations by our standards – the armies small, the weapons simple – the battlegrounds were entire countries and the devastation was cruel enough, in terms of human suffering. We cannot help shuddering at the harshness of the legal system. We shudder also at the guilt and terror instilled in the medieval psyche in the name of religion. No, we cannot fall into the illusions of the 19th-century romantics who thought they could take the good of an agrarian world and leave out the bad. We have some idea of how all these things hang together.

The peasant lived in a low house of not more than two or three rooms. The main room was used for cooking, eating, and household industries. The family slept in the next room. If there was an overflow of children, a third room would be built on. That was easily done, for the building was generally made of wattle and daub, built with a double palisade of sticks around a frame of stout timber. The space between the sticks was filled with straw and rubble; the outside was plastered with clay. Rafters were made with heavier branches, then covered with thatch. There were few window openings, and these were small. Window glass was a luxury beyond the peasant’s means; the windows were closed against the cold by wooden shutters. There was a hearth at one end of the main room for cooking and heating, but a chimney presented a complicated construction problem and might be absent from the average peasant dwelling. The smoke would simply accumulate up near the eaves and find its way out through the thatch. The peasant built with what he could procure from the forest, river bank, and stubble field. He used a minimum of worked lumber and hired no carpenters.

The inside of the peasant’s house was not as cheerless as it is sometimes represented. There were pieces of household furniture: a bed for the parents, perhaps with a carved wood headboard, a cradle for the youngest, and a bed in another room for the rest of the children. Peasants slept on straw, but they could supply themselves with goose-down bolsters or woolen coverlets. They had tables, stools, benches – homemade pieces, stout and utilitarian, the wood polished from hard use. There were a number of chests and cupboards for storing clothes and foodstuffs.

A few shelves mounted on the wall held the family dishware. It is often assumed that the peasant family did without plates. This is not true. Earthenware dishes of the common, unglazed type were locally produced, and any peasant could afford them, as well as bowls and jugs. He also had wooden platters, bowls, and drinking cups. Horn spoons and wooden ladles were in use. Though metal was scarce and expensive, each family owned a few iron pots, as well as an iron trivet and a spit for roasting meats.

Loosely grouped around this dwelling were the outbuildings. These were built of the same materials as the house, except for a small granary made of stone to keep out rats and mice.

There was space enough around each house for a patch of vegetables, a few vines, fruit trees, a hay rick. Paths and lanes led to the village center, to a water source, and to the small stone church flanked by its cemetery. Larger roads led to the fields.

The peasant lived close to his neighbors; hamlets and villages rather than farmhouses were the rule. These had been shaped by the earlier form of feudal society, where the serfs lived clustered around the manor house for protection.

Historians have surmised that the feudal manor was born, in the dark reaches of the past, from the union of two distinct institutions, the Roman estate and the Celtic-Germanic village. The Roman system was based on slavery. Its agricultural techniques were highly advanced, and it produced considerable surpluses intended for sale elsewhere. It presupposed a complex urban society. The Celtic-Germanic village was a far more primitive unit. There, a rude agriculture was combined with hunting and animal husbandry. The tribe was an association of equals under a (perhaps elected) chieftain, bent on the humble but not so easily attained goal of self-sufficiency. It also functioned as a military unit, defending its territories against incursions of other bands. Elements of both institutions can be seen in the early medieval manor. In the course of a millennium, slavery had disappeared, to be replaced by serfdom. Like the slave, the serf did not own the land he tilled. Possession of the land was vested in the lord or in some arm of the Church. The serf, however, owned himself – he was no longer a chattel to be bought and sold.

However, he was obligated to his lord for a great deal, and this indebtedness conditioned his entire existence. In a sense, the lord was his “state” from whom fundamental blessings flowed: the right to share in the land, on which the serf’s physical continuance depended; a place in a stable community, so important for his social continuance.

During many turbulent centuries in which these relationships were forged, the lord was often the only visible organizing power. The prerogatives that fell to him were not due to sheer brutal usurpation, but resulted from consent and sometimes even a clear agreement between ruler and ruled. The lord kept his part of the bargain in various ways. He was supposed to maintain some military force to deter and repel attacks. He provided a fortified area where the serfs and their animals could take refuge in times of danger. He built a communal cellar for storing wine. He kept the breeding stock that serviced the village animals. He took over the management of roads, bridges, and ferries. He acted as a judge, settling quarrels and enforcing morality. In times of want, he gave succor to his people from his own surplus.

In return, the serfs of a manor maintained the lord on a scale befitting his rank. They worked on the lord’s private fields, which were, in any case, the most productive. Tending these took priority over their own planting and harvesting. They cut the firewood he needed to heat the castle or manor house where he lived with his retinue of hangers-on and attendants. They themselves acted as such personal attendants or sent their children to serve in the lord’s kitchens and stables. They might also be assigned tasks in the lord’s workshops, for the manor was a largely self-sufficient unit, like the serf’s own household.

In addition to these obligatory labors, which claimed half his time and strength, the serf had to deliver some of his own produce to the lord’s storehouse. There were various fees to pay – for the right to marry outside the manor, for instance. A death tax was collected, usually in the form of a sheep or a cow, before a serf’s heir could step into his father’s tenure. In addition, in theory, the lord could call on his people for all kinds of special donations. These were known as aids and came up when the lord needed special revenues – for his daughter’s marriage, for his son’s knighting, for a military expedition or an improvement to his property. The aids were in a sense half-voluntary; on the other hand, the lord could ask for them as he pleased. Such ambiguities were typical of these medieval arrangements.

When they acted as a group, serfs had considerable bargaining power.

The lords holdings were to a great extent parceled out among the peasants, although peasants rarely worked a large, solid block of property. Because of the fortuitous ways in which peasant holdings accumulated, the individual peasant was apt to farm bits and pieces all over the estate or the village. A strip here or a strip there would be inherited from father or mother, acquired as dowry, bought in a good year, or – privately, without too much concern for legality – hewed out of the forest or the wasteland. Once such a piece had been plowed and harvested for a number of years, the peasant’s right to it was beyond dispute.

There were advantages to this seemingly chaotic fragmentation of the land. It afforded a fair distribution of good soil and bad soil among the peasants of a community. Then, too, the variegated nature of the crops grown on different strips in a field provided a primitive form of control of pests and diseases.

Another time-honored practice was the rotation of crops. In some parts of the country, particularly the south, where fields were stony and rainfall sparse, half the land would be left to idle every year, reverting to wild plants that came in on unused cropland. In the north and east, with deeper topsoil and a wetter climate, the three-year cycle was normal. A field was planted to wheat or rye in the fall. The seed sprouted in the abundant autumn rains, wintered under the snow, and made good growth again in the spring. By July, it was ready for cutting. The field then rested until the following spring, when another crop – oats, barley, or peas – was planted. This was harvested in its season, and the field then lay entirely fallow for a year, until it was plowed for winter wheat again. With land so important, this deliberate restriction on its use seems curious. In fact, it was an ingenious way of making the most of the available land while maintaining its fertility. There were no artificial fertilizers to replenish what had been taken from the soil – only the manure from the livestock, and there was never enough of that for all the peasant’s purposes. The virtue of compost was certainly understood, and along the coast, seaweed was collected and spread on the fields. Of course, no cabbage leaves or turnip tops went to waste about a peasant’s household; everything that was not eaten by people was thrown to the pigs or poultry. But labor was a major factor in the medieval agricultural equation. The peasant instinctively sought ways to make nature work for him with a minimum of assistance. Rotation of crops was a great ecological principle, and it continued to be practiced until the beginning of scientific agriculture.

A portion of the village lands was set aside as a hay meadow. This was apt to be a wet, low-lying area, perhaps a former marsh that had been ditched and drained. Sometimes, it was hayed collectively. With 10 to 35 households participating, the sharing-out of the hay was bound to be complicated, but the peasant took cooperative arrangements for granted. If he wanted to augment his hay supply on his own, he might know of some patch of grass up on a steep hillside or at the edge of the woods and send a half-grown son out with a scythe after it. But such patches were rare. For the village livestock was out for much of the year, roving over all the rough and marginal land, and little that was edible would escape the meticulously cropping sheep, the venturesome goats, or the indiscriminate donkeys.

For the winter, however, the animals needed hay, and the meadow was the only significant source of it. The natural perennial grasses, those that took hold when the meadow was first reclaimed from the waste, were the only ones known. The meadow was never turned over and reseeded, as is done today. Again, there were no artificial fertilizers to enrich the sod. But from time immemorial, agrarian man had observed the affinity of grass for limestone. The application of ground chalk, where it was available, was one of the ritual tasks of the medieval peasant. The chalk pits might well be a great distance away. The peasant would hack the chalk out of an iron bar, shovel it into his ox cart, transport it over rough trails to the field, pound it into fragments, and spread it around with his scoop-like wooden shovel. Where chalk could not be had, the peasant used marl, a natural mixture of sand, clay, and lime found along river banks.

The yields, by modern standards, were pitiful. In the case of the grains, a three-fold to six-fold increase over the seed was the best that could be expected. The labor and skill involved in securing such yields were staggering. Furthermore, when we consider that upon these yields depended the survival not only of the peasant but also of the whole social pyramid of which he formed the base, we realize on what slender margins civilizations can be built.

In those great checkered fields, no space was wasted on fences or other signs of ownership. A few stakes or stones sufficed to mark off boundaries. The peasant knew to a furrow where his land began and ended. Measurements, when required, were by paces – rehearsed each time the section was sowed – or by the planting time: a morning’s plough or a three-day ploughing.

Attempts were made to consolidate the small holdings, for the subdividing of land sometimes reached ridiculous extremes. The same piece, as it passed along through succeeding generations, might be apportioned to sons by halves, quarters, eighths, and even thirty-seconds. There are records of peasants plowing as many as fifty strips, some no longer in their own village. Nevertheless, it was not easy to change the system. Familiarity with one’s bit of land bred affection and possessiveness. The peasant knew the contours of his plots and the composition of his soils, what could be done with various strips when the weather was favorable, how well this parcel or that stood up to drought. Knowledge of this kind afforded security. He naturally hesitated to trade off a good piece for another perhaps not so good but more conveniently located. Private bargains could be reached, for the peasant had plenty of experience in trading. But wholesale redistribution was centuries away.

A considerable variety of crops was grown on the peasant holdings. Foremost, of course, was grain. Cereals were central to the peasant’s diet and also provided the surplus with which he paid his debts. Moreover, of all food products, they were the least perishable and the most suitable for storage and shipping. Only the best land would do for wheat, the queen of the grains. Rye was grown on rougher land and in harsher climates – the peasant called it black wheat, and his own bread was generally made from it. Oats and barley were commonly grown, as well as millet, as much a staple then as the potato was later to become. There were also feed crops, such as sorghum and vetch, which sustained the peasant’s animals through the winter.

Fruits of all sorts were grown for home consumption and for market: apples, pears, cherries, peaches, and plums throughout France; in the south, figs, almonds, and olives.

The noblest fruit of all was the grape, and the growing of wine grapes was honored above all other forms of cultivation. Special land was set aside for the vines, for the grape has rather peculiar requirements as to soil chemistry, sun, and drainage. Nevertheless, vineyards were planted even in northern, moist, and cool climates like that of Normandy, since wine was considered a necessity of life for everyone, and agriculture aimed first of all at providing for the local market. The best wine districts, then as now, were the fertile, sunny slopes of Burgundy and the marshes and gravelly regions of the Bordelais. From here came the wines that were shipped abroad – then as now – and formed a principal article of commerce.

Perhaps because of the central importance of the grape, perhaps because it lent itself better than other crops to outside control, the lord levied a tax on the grapes grown on his land, thus prefiguring our present-day excise taxes on alcoholic beverages. Many large vineyards had been planted on the outskirts of towns, where the wine would be conveniently close to its eventual buyers. In such cases, the municipal authorities claimed the tax. To prevent evasion, the harvest could not begin until an official day had been set for it. This announcement was cried abroad – there was no sense posting a notice, since the peasant could not read.

Access to a mill should have seemed a blessing to the peasants. But there is no record of their warmly welcoming the new installation, and they used it only under compulsion.  The miller is consistently represented as a swindler and thief. Instead, the peasant clung obstinately to the toilsome hand mill that had been part of the equipment of every household from earliest times. The amount of equipment he owned was, in fact, formidable.

The peasant needed a wheelbarrow. He needed a cart, in fact, several carts for different purposes. If he owned a horse, still other types of tack – bits, bridles, one of those newfangled horse collars that so increased the work a horse could do. But horses were as yet a luxury beyond the reach of most peasants – they required too much hay and fell sick all too easily. For the most part, the peasant managed with a team of oxen for the heavy work and a donkey for the light loads like firewood or going to the market. There was the plow, of course. By now, the progressive peasant also owned a harrow whose heavy wooden frame studded with iron prongs did a much better job at breaking up the clods than what he had earlier used – perhaps only a thorn tree weighted with stones that would be dragged over the field. He needed scythes and sickles – the former for cutting hay, the latter for grain. A flail for threshing the grain and a winnowing fan for blowing off the chaff. Any number of receptacles: baskets, sacks, buckets, and tubs; sieves for flour and clabber; cheese presses and feed troughs. Hoes and shovels, hay rakes, pitchforks, axes, mattocks. Knives of various sorts – for pruning vines, grafting fruit trees, shearing sheep, butchering pigs, castrating bullocks, and doing miscellaneous whittling. Whetstones to keep blades sharp.

Sheep belonged in the self-sufficient peasant economy; their wool provided for the family’s clothing. The wool was spun and woven at home – in any moment not claimed by other work, the peasant woman would be plying her distaff. Any surplus of wool could be sold, for the French clothing industry was growing. Excess lambs and aging ewes provided meat; the hides could be sold to be processed into vellum or parchment. But the most practical meat animal of all was the pig, whose medieval aspect was somewhat different from the present-day swine’s. A lean animal with long tusks and a ferocious temper, it could be expected to fend for itself much of the year. In the autumn, bands of such pigs ranged the woods, fattening on the wild nuts – chestnuts, walnuts, acorns, and especially beechnuts.

The sheep, too, would be allowed to wander, though under the care of a shepherd to protect them from the wolves, who, despite a long war of extermination, were common enough in the countryside. The cows were led to and from their grazing grounds by the village children. Once the hay was taken, the cows were allowed into the meadow. They grazed in the fallows and in the stubble of the cut-over grain fields. Wherever they went, they left behind their dung, a valuable contribution to next year’s fertility. In the south, animals were even allowed to browse on the grapevines after the vintage, for the grape grew so luxuriantly down there that it could stand such trimming. Elsewhere, any patch of vines would be tightly fenced. But steep banks, river edges, the rough land it did not pay to plow – in all these, the animals had free range.

The necessity of letting livestock wander in a herd for much of the year inevitably gave a communal cast to peasant life. That the children of each family took turns tending the animals also affected the emotional tenor of the village. A man would not openly quarrel with a neighbor whose child would be supervising the cows or goats in a week or two. The mutual suspicion and sharp feuds that characterize country life in other places and periods seem to have been absent from the French medieval village. People were not above filching a bit from each other – the many regulations forbidding peasants to go alone to the fields at harvest time between the hours of sunset and sunrise testify to that. But pasturage was shared, and while one peasant might have more land than others, a relative equality prevailed in the possession of livestock.

The forest, too, was considered common property. Woods still abounded – vestiges of the primeval forests described by Julius Caesar. The woods were not uninhabited: There was a whole race of folk who built their huts in the depths of the forest and were, therefore, looked upon with suspicion by the peasants, whose domain was the open land. There were charcoal burners, iron smelters, bee men who spied out the haunts of wild bees and collected the honey and wax. There were gatherers of bark, an ingredient vital to the tanning trade. There were also professional hunters and trappers, for hunting was far from a casual sport. Besides providing meat, it furnished leather, a highly saleable commodity wanted for a multitude of products: shoes, saddles, harnesses, the protective jerkin worn by soldiers, binding for books.

The peasant still thought of the woods as his own and held firm to his rights over them. He went there regularly for firewood, the only heating material there was. As other needs arose, his first thought was to go to the woods to see what he could find – pine knots for torches, branches for building material, lighter brush for weaving into wattle fences, stakes for vine supports, a chunky piece of wood to be carved into sabots, or a curved piece that would make a good plow handle. He also carted away moss and dried leaves for use as litter in his cow shed. He filled the basket with beechnuts for his pig. The children were sent to collect chestnuts, a delicacy when boiled with milk and honey and a hearty food when converted into soup or roasted in the embers. When the wild berries ripened or the mushrooms pushed through the forest floor, the children were once more sent out with their baskets. Wild fruit trees were noted and visited yearly. Some might be dug up to be transported into the home orchard, to be grafted with improved stock. Now and then, a trap was set for rabbits and pheasants.

With all this bounty of nature, the peasant’s diet was not monotonous. The remarks sometimes made about the scurvy medieval peasants fell prey to are nonsense. They were by no means restricted to cereal foods and meat. Each household had its own vegetable garden close to the dwelling, fenced to keep out the livestock, watered faithfully, and apt to receive a lion’s share of the precious manure. The medieval vegetables were onions, garlic, leeks, parsnips, spinach, peas, beans, lettuce, fennel, beets, pumpkin, and various member of the cabbage family. Pungent herbs were also grown – parsley, savory, marjoram, and sage. With all this to draw on, the peasant family met the minimum daily vitamin requirements a good deal better than some people today.

A difficult time was the depth of the winter, but even then, the wine, taken with every meal, furnished a standby portion of vitamin C. There was, in addition, traditional knowledge of wild plants, the so-called potherbs, which appeared in the early spring and filled the gap before the garden vegetables were ready.

Medieval agriculture, despite its low yields, supplied a good diet. The problem lay not with what food the peasant could raise, but with what proportion he could retain. Oppressive rents cut directly into his living standard. When enforced payments increased, generally because of some levy connected with war, he had less grain to tide him over the winter and sold off more of his animals. The enormous ransoms exacted by the English for the French nobles taken in battle were felt almost at once by the peasantry.

Warfare & brigands

Far crueler than the worst of taxes was the effect of war itself on the peasant population. For a century, on and off, the countryside was a battlefield, not only for English and French forces but for the opposing factions of the French.

The standard method of warfare was the raid. This consisted in army’s marching up and down a district, destroying everything in its path. In intervals of truce, the mercenary soldiers of the various armies, unpaid and forced to live off the countryside, again stripped the peasant of whatever he had.

In addition, large-scale brigandage developed as the ruined small nobility and desperate peasants preyed on those who were still a step away from destitution.

At times areas were absolutely deserted, uncultivated, abandoned, emptied of all people, covered with briers and brush or growing back into thickets of trees.

The only lands that could be cultivated were those fields within the walled enclosure of a town or a chateau, or on the immediate fringe of these, near enough so that a watchman on a tower could see the approach of brigands. He could then sound his horn and warn the people working in the fields or among the vines to take refuge within the fortifications.

It became a common matter everywhere for the oxen and workhorses, as soon as they were untied from the plow, on hearing the signal of the watchman, to instantly, by themselves, from long habit, rush terrified for the refuge where they would be safe. Sheep and pigs also learned to do this. But since the towns and fortified places were rare in relation to the size of the provinces, and many had been burned or demolished or pillaged by the enemy, these bits of land cultivated as it were in secret, close to the fortifications, seemed very small or even almost nothing compared to the vast stretches which remained completely deserted, with no one who might work on them.

Jeanne d’Arc, one of the few peasants we know much about

We possess no biography of a peasant, either in peace or in war. There is one striking exception, and that is of a life exceptional in many ways. The peasant in question was a girl who, moreover, lived only to the age of nineteen. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.  Until she set out in her patched red dress to see the king, Jeanne passed her time largely in the small village of Domrémy on the Meuse. Her family were peasants, though somewhat high in the social hierarchy of the village – her father represented his neighbors in dealings with the chateau and was in charge of collecting the taxes.

Jeanne grew up without learning how to read or write. That was perfectly normal for her class. From the start to finish of her short career, Jeanne showed extreme self-possession. She spoke to older people, nobles, bishops, the king himself without embarrassment. She did not feel awkward in polished society or in places altogether different from her native village. She learned, in one lesson, how to hold a lance and to play at jousting – that sport reserved for kings. She quickly became knowledgeable about military tactics. She made friends easily with rough captains and delicate duchesses, and later, in the hands of high churchmen, she was not especially awed by them. Allowing for a sense of divine calling, there still remains a degree of natural poise that does not at all conform with the stereotype of the peasant as a lout. The many peasants whose depositions were taken for the rehabilitation proceedings of Jeanne, twenty years after her execution, also speak sensibly and to the point. We have to conclude that peasants, as a whole, were well-organized, integrated people, neither servile nor stupid.

Jeanne showed a surprising amount of knowledge of public affairs. She knew what the issues were and who the personalities were in the long and complicated hostilities. She understood the priorities of the situation – the importance, for example, of having the dauphin crowned at Reims, where he could be properly anointed with oil from a sacred ampule that had been brought by a white dove for the baptism of Clovis, back in the fifth century. All this without reading or writing, without newspapers or printed books. It is clear that all along, the peasantry had a good overview of the general situation. There was enough traffic and travel for news to get around. The town was not so isolated from the country, nor the court from the common people, for politics to remain an affair of the rulers only. The peasants reported, recollected, pieced together, and discussed. Patriotism in the modern sense may have existed, but there was no doubt in Jeanne’s mind that the English were to blame for the woes of France and that they must be driven back to their own country.

The walls girdling some medieval French towns were a thousand years old. The oldest went back to the third century, when, as beleaguered outposts, towns threw up ramparts to hold off the first barbarian invaders. Waves of Franks, Goths, Huns, and Avars followed at intervals. Some conquered, some were repelled, some passed on to settle elsewhere. In periods of ostensible security, the neglected walls, collapsing in sections and overgrown with briers and creepers, seemed only an obstruction and were often used as quarries. Then they had to be repaired hastily and rebuilt to stave off the raids of the Northmen. Time and again over the long span of history, walls had saved the towns.

Most towns were already old by the 14th century. The larger places – Paris, Orléans, Rouen, Lyons, Toulouse, Metz – had all been urban centers in Roman days, linked to one another by those remarkable paved roads, with footings three feet deep.

Stone castles made their appearance at this time, replacing earlier wooden structures. Towns expanded and rebuilt their walls. Much had been learned about the art of fortification from the Saracens, whose walled cities had successfully resisted the Crusaders. In fact, the new walls built around French towns were well-nigh impregnable. They were very thick, with an inside and outside course of stone and rubble between them. Topping the walls were battlements – tall stone curbs behind which bowmen could crouch to shoot their arrows through narrow apertures.

At intervals, the walls were supplemented by towers. Bounding up the staircases inside these towers, the defenders could quickly and safely reach the top of the walls and be ready to grapple with an attacking party. Stones were hurled, and boiled water poured down as the attackers struggled up their ladders. The entrances into the towns were shielded by gates and heavy metal grilles called portcullises. There was also a drawbridge raised and lowered by pulleys. Walls were further protected by a wide, deep moat. This could be filled with water brought from a nearby stream via canal or be left dry and allowed to grow up to rough briers. Perpetual watch was kept from the high towers flanking the principal gate, and the town was locked up every night even in peaceful times.

There was another type of town that was deliberately created at this period. This was the so-called New Town. It arose in connection with the new lands recently thrown open for settlement. No peasant wanted to live so far from a population center that he could not bring his produce into town and return to his home village within the same day. Since he went on foot or on a leisurely mule, this meant a distance of no more than ten miles. Moreover, it had become evident that a town added to the prosperity of a region. Since the lord owned the land on which the town would be located, he could collect good rents from building lots. He could also collect small fees from future commerce – so much for every wagon entering the gate, so much for the use of every market booth. A town, in short, was a source of continuing revenue.

Residents of the new towns were tempted by favorable concessions. They were offered charters spelling out their future rights. The terms were highly appealing, and large numbers of newly chartered towns were founded and peopled during the 13th century.

They gradually extended their control within the walls until they were governing themselves. The walled town became a self-sufficient unit owing nothing to an overlord except certain payments. A discontented countryman could come to the walled town, and after a year and a day, be relieved of his old obligations.

The new towns were less obsessed with security than the older ones that had suffered so many assaults in the course of their long history. For practical reasons, a ville neuve was generally established on a flat along a river. The river provided power for mills. Waterpower was being applied to a number of industrial processes besides the grinding of grain. There were mills for pounding hemp, tanning leather, and fulling cloth, and a water wheel could also power a saw. This gave tremendous impetus to lumbering.

There was plenty of light and air. Houses were rarely above two stories and had courtyards and gardens for such utilitarian purposes as stacking firewood, airing clothes, and locating privies. Disposing of wastes was a simple matter; an arrangement was made with a landowning neighbor who would cart the ordures out to his fields. The town provided communal laundering facilities – a group of stone tubs along the river bank. Many houses had their own wells, and water was piped into fountains.

Street cleaning was always a problem. Of course, the medieval city was not afflicted with the litter we have in such quantity. But there was stone dust, builder’s lime, the mud deposited by the periodic flooding of the river, fallen leaves, and loose soil blown in from the countryside. In addition, the medieval city was full of animals. Horses and mules were much about. But cows, too, were often kept within the city limits, even in Paris.

These cows provided fresh milk for city dwellers in an age without refrigeration. The animals destined for the slaughterhouses were allowed to pasture on the rough land adjoining the city walls. In earlier times, any Paris citizen could keep a pig. But after 1131, when the king’s son had a fatal accident because of a pig – his horse shied at one of these huge creatures and threw his noble rider – pigs were banned from the city. As in smaller towns, they performed a useful function in cleaning up vegetable debris.

Throughout the south, where the Roman heritage was strongest, buildings were usually made of local stone, roughly quarried and rather soft and porous. Hence, the stone was usually covered with stucco to keep out cold and damp.

The ordinary town house was what we now call half-timbered. It was a rather better-crafted version of the village house of wattle and daub. The visible beams were laid in attractive patterns and were generally accented with paint, either red or black. Windows were usually set in pairs and hung on iron hinges. The rooms have wood-coffered ceilings, wainscoted walls, and floors of polished, bright-colored tile. The furniture is sparse, but adequate. There are tables, large and small chairs, settees, chests, and cupboards. All such pieces are well formed and have a touch of Gothic carving. The beds have wooden headboards and are equipped with canopies and woolen hangings, dyed deep red or blue. When these hangings were drawn, the sleepers enjoyed warmth and privacy. Babies were kept in cradles set on rockers. There are ample fireplaces, which indicate that at least part of the house was adequately heated. Kitchen hearths seem well supplied with hooks, spits, and trivets.

A small town was closely linked to the surrounding countryside. It produced largely for the local market. Neighboring peasants were required by law to sell to the nearest town – a measure that assured the town its food supply and kept down speculation. There were other regulations of this sort. Thus, a ceiling was placed on the amount that any individual could buy, so that no one merchant could corner the market. On Saturdays, all the town’s artisans had to close their shops and exhibit their wares in the official marketplace – thus giving buyers a chance to compare what was being offered. Prices and standards of workmanship were fixed by the craftsmen themselves through their guilds.

The medieval guild was an association of craftsmen, merchants, or provisioners. Butchers, bakers, goldsmiths, tanners, carpenters, cloth merchants, and so on banded together and made rules governing their own trade. They were less interested in consumer protection than in preventing cutthroat competition, oversupply, and economic chaos. They also exercised considerable political power. Guildsmen stood high in the town’s social hierarchy. Guilds had their banners, their patron saints, their processions and feast

For the most part, a guildsman was not a large employer. He was permitted to have three or four apprentices, who came to him as children. A lad was sent off young to learn his trade – sometimes as early as seven. But then, the medieval equivalent of education normally took the form of sending a child to live in another household. The avowed purpose of education was “to learn to serve.” Even the nobility put its children through this process. A peasant family with several sons had to think of the boys’ futures – there was not enough land to go around. So one child would be sent to the nearest town where the family had some connections.

Before the child was sent away on that momentous journey, the parents came to an understanding with their child’s future master.

The master undertook to feed and lodge his apprentice and provide him with clothing and shoes. He might offer a small wage – a matter of a few pennies a year. Or the parents might pay something equally small by way of tuition. The master also promised to treat the child honorably. Sometimes he offered further assurance: Beatings would be administered only by the master, not by the master’s wife.

The child was at first largely a servant, helping with the household tasks. He was given a room, probably no more than a cubicle in the garret, and ate at the family table. Meanwhile, he took in the atmosphere of the trade through his pores – the sounds, smells, rhythms of what went on in the workshop located on the ground floor of the master’s house. Gradually, he was assigned simple duties. In an age without books or manuals, learning was by doing. Standards of workmanship were taken seriously – pride in craft was one of the ruling impulses of the age.

The training period varied from four to twelve years. In some trades, a journeyman period was required, during which the young artisan went from town to town hiring himself out to various masters and learning how things were done away from home.

At the end of all this, the lowly apprentice could graduate into a guildsman. There were still several conditions to fulfill. He had to produce a certificate from his master stating that he was “prudent and loyal.” He had to show that he had enough capital, either in tools or in money, to go into business. There was an oath to take to the guild and a fee to pay to the lord of the town. Lastly, he had to prove his competence by producing a chef-d’oeuvre. Each guild decided what this test piece was to be. A saddler had to fabricate one palfrey saddle and one mule saddle, while the stone carver had to produce a statuette three-and-a-half feet high. A cobbler was given a realistic problem: From a sack full of worn shoes, three pairs were drawn at random for the candidate to mend.

In view of these hurdles, not every apprentice could hope to become a master. The guilds soon began to practice exclusionary policies, reserving the trade for their kin. In many towns, it was possible to set up shop without belonging to the guild, but guild standards of workmanship, of weights and measures, prices, and working hours, tended to be accepted as norms everywhere. The public authorities also actively intervened in economic life, controlling prices and wages. This was especially true after the Black Death when economic patterns suffered violent dislocation.

Another institution grew up alongside the guild and was considerably more inclusive. This was the confrerie, or fellowship. It was not made up of people in the same line of work but cut across social and professional barriers. The fellowships were what we nowadays call benevolent associations. Each maintained a chapel to its patron saint and took pride in the splendor of the altar and other appointments. Here, the confreres gathered for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The annual saint’s day was an important occasion, celebrated by a colorful procession, a Mass at the chapel, a meeting for the election of officers, and a frequently riotous banquet. Sports events and contests were organized. Some of the wealthier fellowships maintained hospitals for their members. All assured their members proper burial and a well-attended funeral Mass.

One function of the fellowship was the performance of plays on religious holidays and state occasions. These were mystery and miracle plays – dramatizations of the life of the patron saint or enactments of the Passion. The casts were enormous, for everyone wanted a part.

The border between work and private life was fluid. The workshop was not far from home, sometimes under the same roof. There, the artisan found, at least in youth, the satisfying companionship of labor. Wine was cheap. Sundays could be used for strolling outside the walls. Nor were Sundays the only free days, for the year was punctuated with a multitude of religious festivals. In fact, workers were known to protest against the great number of holidays, which kept down their earnings.

We have only the dimmest idea of what those earnings were. Pay varied greatly from trade to trade and region to region. Moreover, the changing value of the currency makes an estimate even harder.

The upper bourgeoisie of Reims had an average annual revenue of 1,500 livres (there were 240 deniers in a livre). Members of leading guilds – furriers, spice merchants (which also meant apothecaries), and drapers – enjoyed an income of 200 livres. Members of the building trades counted 60 livres a year. Even the humblest worker received at least 25 livres a year. We may take that sum, then, as the rock-bottom living wage.

Noble families commonly sent sons and daughters away to another castle to serve as pages or maids in waiting and acquire better manners and the sophistication learned only away from home.

Sharing his retirement was his wife, who was considerably younger than the count. The Spanish visitor, as the courtesy of the age required, found her the most beautiful woman in France. She was everything a great lady should be and ran her household superbly. Surrounding her was a bevy of well-born girls, ten of them, who had no duties but to keep the countess company.

The castle was set on the banks of a river, in the midst of orchards and gardens. Close by was a pond so well stocked with fish that it could provide for the daily needs of a household of 300. This figure, set down by the young Spaniard, was not exaggerated. Apart from the immediate family and the house guests, the place swarmed with a host of retainers, minstrels, trumpeters, grooms, kennel men, falconers, gardeners, valets, and maids, as well as menials to do the cooking and cleaning.

The grooms brought up the horses, each with a fine saddle and splendid trappings. The count kept 20 such mounts, as well as a pack of hunting dogs. Then, the party went riding into the country, stopping to gather greenery and fashion garlands for one another. Both ladies and gentlemen proposed songs and sang them in parts: lays, rondeaux, medieval French lyrics, laments, and ballads

The girls had trained their voices, had been singing since childhood, and could improvise polyphonically. Singing was part of cultivated life, and everyone loved music. The young Spaniard, hearing these songs for which France was famous, thought it the music of paradise.

Back at the castle, the party found the tables already set. The count, the countess, the Spanish captain, and the steward of the castle occupied a small table, while the rest of the party, each maid in waiting paired with a knight or squire, was seated at a large one. The main meal of the day began with its vast variety of artfully prepared dishes. The appropriate themes of dinner-table conversation were fighting and love, the appropriate tone was polished and courteous, and the ladies were as adept as the men at giving replies. Jongleurs also provided music between courses.

There was dancing, the countess taking the Spanish captain for partner and each of the girls her table mate. The dances were rondes and bourrées, fashionable at court, the partners holding each other by the hand and executing complicated figures, meeting and parting, bowing and circling. The dances went on for an hour. When they were done, the countess gave the “kiss of peace” to the Spanish captain, and every gentleman kissed his partner. Wine was served, along with candied and spiced fruits, and the guests retired to their own rooms.

For Spaniards, this was siesta time. The French may have bathed and changed their clothes. The girls would certainly have used this interval to chatter with one another. For behind la belle countenance that they maintained as the etiquette books prescribed, they were lively teenagers. They surely discussed the new arrivals, who was most handsome and most courteous, the particular nuances of the kisses after the dance, and the by-play between the countess and the Spanish captain. They were well acquainted with the story of Lancelot du Lac, the story of Tristan and Iseult, and other romances

They stopped at the mews to pick up the falcon on her wrist, which was protected by a heavy glove. She led the others a random course through the woods. Pages beat the underbrush, startling the game, and the countess released her falcon, which was well trained to wait – that is, to circle until the quarry was sprung. She showed great style in her handling of the bird.

Everyone was a connoisseur of hawking. All could take an interest in the history of each bird, whether it was an eyas, or nestling, taken from its aerie and raised artificially or a brancher that had been caught at a somewhat later stage. The fine points of rearing and training the predators could be discussed endlessly, as well as the design of the jesses and hoods or the birds’ temperaments. Each falcon’s flight, its battle with the quarry, its docility in returning with its prey, were appreciated like an artistic spectacle. Only incidental was the bag of plump songbirds that would do for tomorrow’s breakfast. After the falcons had been transferred to the care of pages, the party dismounted and walked through the lovely meadows. Servants unpacked baskets and brought out roasted chicken, pheasant, and fruit; everyone ate and drank and again; they wove green garlands and sang songs before returning to the castle.  Since the weather was fine, the company had an early snack and again went out of doors and played bowls until it was dark. Then, in the hall lighted by torches, they listened to minstrels, danced, and had wine and fruit before bidding one another good night.

This was the courtly way of life as it had evolved over several centuries in France, envied and imitated elsewhere.

Had the count been in good health, his 50 dogs would have been brought from their kennels and a proper hunt organized for stag and boar. The delicate ladies would have participated, although the sport was brutal, with the dogs running the quarry to exhaustion, then closing in and tearing at it, and the animal fighting for survival until the men dispatched it with lances. The program for entertaining guests could also have included a joust. Invitations would be issued to neighboring castles; everyone would come with horses and armor; a crimson tent would be erected for the spectators and a jousting ground prepared. The watching girls would rate the performers, showing great expertise on the matter.

Walls for demarcation and privacy were so universal a feature of medieval architecture that they were taken for granted. But not every castle was strongly fortified or set in what was thought to be an impregnable position. As early as the mid-13th century, a traveler from Florence had noted with appreciation the unfortified manor houses of the Île de France. The presence of such residences, where the charm of living took precedence over the remembrance of danger, were the sign of a secure kingdom and an affluent owner.

The earlier condition of society, when every castle was by definition a stronghold and every noble lived in perpetual battle-readiness, prepared to repel and revenge incursions from his neighbors, was far in the past. Private warfare had been checked, first by the strengthened monarchy, then by the intervention of the Church. King Louis IX forbade his nobles to make war with each other and instead directed their bellicosity against the common enemy, the Saracens who held the Holy Places.

 “Feudalism” was coined in the 17th century, when an attempt was made to codify the old property arrangements that had so far gone unformalized – the conditions of tenancy, taxation, and so forth. By the 18th century, “feudal” or “feudalism” had taken on still other connotations. The feudal order meant the bad old days, the tangle of antiquated, unjust, oppressive, irrational conditions against which an overwhelming wave or protest was gathering, to reach its climax in the French Revolution. The theoreticians of that Revolution, and the inflamed citizens who carried out its measures, were very clear in their minds that what they were sweeping away was feudalism. It was Church, Monarchy, and Nobility. It was Power Structure and Property Structure – for these are always intricately entwined.

Nowadays, many historians reserve the term feudalism for the specifically military arrangements that for a while accompanied the manorial system. In this narrower sense, feudalism flourished in the period between the 9th and 12th centuries. Like the manorial system, it was highly unsystematic, not an institution that was ever consciously created, but an improvisation that arose in response to external danger.  The conscription of fighting men stopped short at the peasant, who was considered servile and had no great part in these nobler pursuits. In fact, everybody depended on him for subsistence.

In Carolingian times, this system was expanded. Many wars and a growing empire created a continuous demand for fighting men. There were also vast new lands to be distributed among vassals, and many who had not previously been enfeoffed were now integrated into the property-power-military system. The specific duties owed in respect of these fiefs became codified, and the whole institution began to reach up and down, in hierarchical fashion, through the society. In theory, every man now had his overlord to whom he owed fealty. The greatest lords of all owed fealty to the monarch. The marauding of the Northmen, which persisted for a century and a half, drove many more into this system of vassalage. The weak were forced to put themselves under the protection of the strong. A certain haphazardness disappeared. Social and economic obligations were more carefully defined. Ranks and dignities hardened, and the image of the lord ceased to be predominantly that of the landowner (although his wealth still depended as much as ever on possession of land and the auxiliary uses he could put it to) and became that of the warrior.

Back in the eighth century, Charles Martel had placed many of his men on horseback to combat the Muslims who were sweeping up from Spain. The waterborne Northmen had been notorious for commandeering horses and using them to stage lightning raids, far from rivers, on unsuspecting settlements. And, of course, horses were necessary in battle to transport supplies and carry off booty. But in the eleventh century, fighting on horseback became a practice. Horses were bred and trained for this purpose. Every count and baron came to war on the best charger in his stables, and even the lowliest vassal was supposed to show up for military duty on a horse. These warriors were now called chevaliers (“horsemen,” or “knights”). The cost of doing military service went up, and the role took on additional cachet. A whole new set of skills had to be learned and new equipment provided. Moreover, in accordance with medieval feeling – we are now in the twelfth century, when ritual and ceremony pervade all institutions – the role cried out to be solemnized.

By the fourteenth century, chivalry had become a highly stylized way of behavior of the ruling class. It was further characterized by a passion for pageantry and costumes. Every knight must have his colors, his badge, his coat of arms, and his motto.

The common soldiers who carried out most of the fighting were no longer anybody’s vassals. They were mercenaries from another country or another province, with no special sympathy for either side. They fought for their small wages and for booty. They inflicted maximum damage on the areas they were passing through, both because such ravaging was one of the techniques of warfare and because they were expected to provision themselves as they went. They set grain fields ablaze, put villages to the torch, drove off the peasants’ animals, and raped the women.

There was an intricate hierarchy that, together with the body of believers, constituted the Roman Catholic Church. It so completely permeated medieval life in all aspects that, in a sense, we may say that the Church and its destiny was the Middle Ages. The Church Militant, it called itself, in order to emphasize that it was engaged in perpetual struggle against the forces of evil.

The bureaucracy of the Church – the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, cardinal legates, and so on – rivaled kings and barons in wealth and often in conspicuous consumption. High churchmen and high-ranking men of the world came from the same families and had similar interests and lifestyles. Bishops rode to the hounds and rode to war, although on the battlefield, they inclined to carry a mace rather than a sword; canon law forbade the ecclesiastic to shed blood, and with a mace, a strong-armed bishop could crush an enemy’s skull sine sanguinis effusione, as the phrase was, “without spilling blood.

Archbishops quarreled with counts and kings over the ownership of land and sometimes settled such arguments by sending armed retainers. The authorities of the Church and the authorities of secular society stimulated the development of a vast body of jurisprudence called canon law. Codified in the 12th century, canon law was studied particularly by archdeacons, who became the legal advisers and business managers of bishops. The shrewdness and sharp practice of archdeacons ultimately became notorious.

Theologians and preachers made much of the “seamless garment of Christ.” The essential characteristic of the Church, they maintained, was its unity. But it is the nature of unity to give rise to diversity, and this happened repeatedly throughout the history of the Church. Heresies flourished and were crushed. Sometimes there were two popes, hurling anathemas at each other.

Throughout the Middle Ages, kings and high officials were chided for their inattention during Mass. After all, they heard it so often, and they were busy men. Some doodled impatiently, some held whispered conferences. Even ecclesiastics were not above hurrying the familiar ritual a little.

As an adult, depending on the degree of his piety, he might go daily, weekly, or only on the high feast days of the ecclesiastical year. But unless he was a heretic, a Jew, a Muslim, or a reprobate sunk in iniquity, he certainly attended Mass at least twice a year, at Easter and Christmas. And even heretics took the precaution of attending Mass once in a while, lest they be denounced to the Inquisition.

The medieval French (and the people of other nations as well) had little faith in the celibacy of the clergy. The reason seems to have been that the clergy had no very high opinion of celibacy. In theory, priests had forsworn the flesh since the 4th century; in practice, they resisted for the better part of a millennium all efforts to deprive them of their official and unofficial wives. For centuries, popes and bishops fulminated in vain. Every villager knew who the priest’s focaria was; officially his housekeeper, she was locally called the presteresse and might very well have a brood of children about her. For the ordinary Frenchman was convinced that lust was stronger than gluttony, pride, or avarice; he therefore kept an eye on his womenfolk when a young priest had no woman of his own.

A series of reform movements initiated by Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century succeeded only in banishing the acknowledged wives of priests; but the focariae remained. Sometimes rebellious priests who had been ordered to put away their wives or concubines closed their churches and refused to administer the sacraments. Eventually, the principle of an unmarried priesthood was established, but the practice of a fully chaste priesthood never was if judged by the incessant repetition of bans against priests’ having any women whatsoever, even their mothers or sisters, in the house. Yet, when bishops and archbishops made their annual rounds of their dioceses (the visitation, these regular visits were called), their reports filled up with accounts of flagrant violations of the rule of celibacy: We found that the priest of Ruville was ill-famed with the wife of a certain stone carver, and by her, is said to have a child. . . . Also, the priest of Gonnetot is ill-famed with two women and went to the pope on the account [i.e., made a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the pope], and after he came back, he is said to have relapsed. . . . Also, the priest of Wanestanville, with a certain one of his parishioners, whose husband on his account went beyond the sea, and he kept her for eight years, and she is pregnant. . . . Also . . . But the list could go on and on, and this is only one visitation among hundreds recorded. The celibacy of the clergy is a battle that has been waged almost continuously within the Roman Catholic Church.

How are we to account for the strong streak of anticlericalism that runs through medieval society? We see it acknowledged not only in literature but also in public documents. In the bull Clericis Laicos (1296), for instance, Pope Boniface VIII remarks casually: “Antiquity teaches us that laymen are in a high degree hostile to the clergy.” The genuine weaknesses of some priests and prelates, the contrast between the ideal minister of God, and the real human being all too often ministering to his own comfort and advantage, would certainly be part of the reason. But equally potent was the crass economic factor. Lewd or pure, good or bad, the priest was a drain on the substance of his parishioners. They had to support him, and through him, the whole hierarchy of the Church. The ordinary peasant and artisan could not help realizing that priest and bishop, parish house and episcopal palace, parish church and cathedral, were ultimately sustained by his labor.

Fervently as he loved the Virgin Mary, God, and all the saints, he, at times, could not help wishing that there were not so many expensive intermediaries between him and them. It was bad enough that he had to pay approximately 10 percent of his income – the tithe – to the Church.

In addition to the regular tithe, the priest generally charged or was by custom paid fees for almost all the services he rendered. He also led the frequent drives to collect funds for charitable purposes, for support of the building program, for the adornment of the church, for the relief of the Holy Land, and so on. In some places, where wealthy bourgeois generously contributed to their church, the local clergy would be well off, enjoying the benefits of what was known as a “fat prebend.” But grinding poverty was also familiar to the lower ranks of the priesthood, especially among priests in rural parishes. Such curates had small plots of land as part of their livings; they could raise vegetables and keep a pig; many of them got in the hay and shoveled manure like any of their rustic parishioners.

The Church provided the most important avenue of social mobility available in the Middle Ages. Any bright boy quickly acquired the nickname of clergeon, “little clerk.” Trained first to make the responses to the church, he could, if he showed an aptitude for learning – which meant, for Latin – count on becoming the priest’s favorite pupil, assisting at the altar, and later receiving a scholarship in some endowed college. Sometimes, unfortunately, children might be consigned by their parents to the monastic life because there was no inheritance for them if they were boys or sufficient dowry if they were girls.

In nunneries, the routine was much the same, although manual labor tended to be some form of needlework rather than laboring in the fields or building barns and granaries. Nuns appear to have been somewhat more laggard than monks in arriving at the night office – it was hard for anyone to rise for matins, particularly if the rule of silence had not been so strictly observed before bedtime and the good sisters then went to bed late. It was also harder to enforce simplicity of dress in convents, almost impossible to deprive well-born nuns of a jeweled clasp or a bit of fur trim to their cloaks. And there was a tendency for the nunnery to be a merrier place than the monastery, with occasional spontaneous and unauthorized dances, dressing up, and a good measure of laughter.

The struggle against vanities of dress – silken veils and golden rings, silver pins and gilded belts – engaged the attention of the abbesses and bishops almost continually. It was only symbolic of the unending struggle for strict observance of the Benedictine Rule that went on for centuries in the convent communities of the Western world. Piety led to bequests, bequests to prosperity, prosperity to corruption, corruption to a desire for reform and the creation of new monastic orders. In this way, the Cluniacs, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and countless lesser orders were successively founded, each, in turn, attempting to go back to the simplicities of the past

By the 12th century, trade was going full swing in France. The roads, which had been neglected for hundreds of years, had been improved and widened so that two carts could pass each other. Bridges had been built where previously there had been only a ford or an unreliable ferry. There were no longer those endless nuisance tolls levied by each small lord whose territory the road led through. The greater lords had seen the wisdom of encouraging trade and had made themselves the protectors of merchants. These lords even vied with each other in devising special legislation, regulations, and safeguards designed to lure merchants into their lands. Thus, they had developed a whole network of land routes that facilitated connections with Flanders, with Italy, with the French ports of the Mediterranean.

Highway robbery was still a danger, but incidents were rarer. Merchants went armed or had a few strong fighting men along. By order of the lord, localities themselves cleaned out nests of robbers. And as more merchants took to the roads, often traveling in bands, their own numbers guaranteed safety. All in all, transport of goods was no longer so perilous or arduous as it had been.

The moneychangers had begun extending their role somewhat; they received deposits, lent money on interest, and issued letters entitling the bearer to receive his money when he got home. For it was not wise to travel with a great deal of metal. The moneychangers were well on their way to becoming bankers.

Much that is now taken for granted in the sexual realm was for them sinful. On the other hand, their sexual behavior seems uncontrolled, even brutish. No attempt was made to shield the young from sexual knowledge or to delay sexual experience. Modesty was enforced for girls, but no illusions were held about their innate purity or monogamous instincts. Marriage was hallowed, but adultery was omnipresent. In the upper classes, where marriages were arranged, invariably with a political purpose, boys and girls were married at the age of eight. The formal arrangement would become a physical one as soon as that was biologically possible. Thus, a young duke or prince might be a father at 13. Princess Isabeau, married to the dauphin who was later to be Charles VI, had had three pregnancies by the time she was 16.

The marriage patterns in other classes were somewhat different. Among peasants, marriage was deferred for economic reasons. Families were small due to high infant mortality, and sons and daughters reaching maturity represented valuable labor power. Setting up a household was no light matter. To accumulate at least a pittance toward their future, young people might hire out as servants or agricultural hands. Among artisans, again, the apprenticeship years had to be gone through before marriage was conceivable. And daughters were useful about the house. One might say that excessively early marriages, such as were practiced by the nobility, were a luxury.

The merchant class, in this respect as in so many others, was midway between the peasantry and the nobility. A girl of this class was not sent into marriage at 13. It was well understood that she would be expected to assume responsibilities, to run her future household efficiently and in accordance with her husband’s standing. Therefore, she was given a practical as well as a religious education. She was taught how to read, at least French; it was assumed that her husband would often be away and would want to send her instructions on business or household matters. She might not learn to write. Writing was a dangerous skill for women: They tended to use it for making assignations.

One wonders how the marriage turned out and what luck the Ménagier had with his education. How well did he succeed in teaching his young wife along the ideal lines he believed in? For the text, as read now, provides evidence that the meek, pious, obedient medieval woman was far from universal. In the circles in which the Ménagier moved, apparently, not all women said their prayers or were careful of their husbands’ comfort. Some were drunken, some were foul-mouthed, some came to church disheveled in the morning or snapped at their husbands in front of others. Some held strongly to their rights, even drawing up a contract specifying what each member of the partnership owed the other. Some did what they pleased, finding ways not to clear all decisions with their husbands. Perhaps the Ménagier should not have told his wife of such possibilities. But he was led on by his own gifts of observation and storytelling.

The fashionable clothing of the time – tight bodices, drooping sleeves, and towering headdresses – greatly restricted movement. In spite of this, medieval ladies managed to take considerable exercise – walking, dancing, riding, and romping in such innocent sports as blindman’s buff. They maintained their slenderness by eating sparingly. Moreover, the religious life of ladies called for a good deal of fasting. Thus, piety and slimness went together. Strict observation of religious practices was part of aristocratic manners. Nevertheless, a good deal of this was merely for show. Girls who were too devout were headed for the cloister.

Etiquette prescribed the right way to act in church – one was to look straight ahead, keep one’s eyes cast down, and one’s thought presumably directed toward one’s salvation. For social life, something less austere was wanted, but even there, demeanor was highly controlled. The love poems of Charles d’Orléans draw a picture of the perfect jeune fille of the time: “Fresh beauty, greatly rich in youth; laughing expression, loving features; pleasant of tongue, governed by good sense; womanly bearing in a well-made, sweet body.  Ideals of this sort belonged to the upper classes.

The peasantry, ruled by different necessities, had a different view of what constituted the ideal woman.

Sturdiness and industry counted for more than social graces.

A mature peasant woman was a pretty earthy creature with few sexual inhibitions and a sharp sense of the value of a penny. She did not seem to care much what she looked like. Heavy work, coarse food, and close quarters gave little encouragement to female narcissism. On the other hand, the peasant woman, as her husband’s helper, was pretty much his equal. She was often the dominant figure in the family. Again, we know this from folk tales with a gallery of strong woman characters.

Although there was no lack of people eager for jobs, servants were hard to manage. Those who came for a single day, like porters, wheel-barrow men, and agricultural laborers, tended to be independent and short-tempered. At pay time, they often broke out into shouting and foul language. The prosperous man had an instinctive mistrust of the lower classes. “For if they were without fault, they would be mistresses and not servants, and of the men I say the same,” declared the Ménagier. Here, at the end of the fourteenth century, we already have the convictions that underlay the so-called Protestant ethic.

Before domestics were hired, careful inquiries were made of their previous masters. Their parents’ names and their birthplace were written down so that the arm of the law could reach them if they committed theft. Maidservants between 15 and 20 had to be specially supervised. They were given a sleeping room near the mistress’s, with no window through which they could slip out at night or receive visitors. They were taught how to extinguish their bedtime candle properly, by blowing it out or snuffing the flame with two fingers, not with their skirts. Back home, these country girls had neither candles nor nightshirts.

The closing of the house for the night was an important ceremony and the heavy keys a symbol of the housewife’s rule. The mistress inspected the wines to be sure none disappeared during the night. She gave the servants their instructions for morning and saw that the hearth fires were banked with ashes.

One aspect of housekeeping was time-consuming and frustrating. This was the fight against vermin. Fleas lurked in the folds of woolen clothes and in the bedding. The multiplicity of prescriptions against them indicates that there was no definitive way to get rid of them. White woolen cloths were spread to attract the fleas: The black specks could then be seen, caught, and destroyed. Alder leaves strewn in the bedroom were also said to attract the insects. The airing and beating of textiles were major tasks for the maidservants. In better homes, a small room was provided, a garde-robe, where all the family textiles could be stored and presumably sealed away from infestation.

Woolen clothes were infrequently cleaned, but then the quality of the wool was so good that such clothes largely resisted soil. Grease spots could be removed with various homemade cleansers – fuller’s earth and ashes, wet feathers, warm wine mixed with ox gall. An excellent cleanser was verjuice, which was fresh grape juice prevented from turning by the addition of salt. In the fall, when the grapes were first pressed, a great cleaning of woolens took place. Clothes lasted a lifetime and were listed in inventories upon a person’s death.

Besides her spiritual life, her supervisory functions, and social contacts with relatives and guests, the bourgeois woman had another great resource – her garden. The garden was not large and was rather formally arranged, with square or rectangular beds edged with bricks. In the city, the whole was enclosed by a brick wall, in the country by a wattle fence. The flowers in the garden were violets, pinks, peonies, lilies, and roses. There was also a selection of vegetables, but these were by no means paramount. More room was allotted to the herbs – those used in cooking, those used in simple medicinal preparations, and those from which fragrant waters were made for laving the hands after meals. The garden also contained berry bushes and espaliered fruit trees. The bourgeois wife’s other great interest was, of course, her children. But here we are faced with a paucity of material. The Ménagier, so eager to give instruction on every aspect of the household, has not a word to say on child care.

Children’s lives were frailer than they are now. What the 19th century called the diseases of childhood – smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria – were endemic. In the south, there was malaria and typhoid. In addition, there were all those dysenteries and fevers whose causes even now we can’t identify – “bugs,” we say – but whose effects on a poorly nourished infant were far more drastic than today.

We have much to thank Guillebert for. Historians have used his data to construct the street maps he could not draw and to compile glossaries of all the trades, arts, and crafts of Paris, more numerous than anyone could have believed. Thanks to Guillebert, we know, for instance, that there were ivory carvers and diamond and gem cutters in Paris, as well as a school for minstrels. We learn that the spice merchants, apothecaries, and salt merchants were all on one street. Nail makers, wire makers, and armorers were likewise all grouped together. The coffin makers were, of course, established near the great cemetery at the Church of the Innocents.

We learn from Guillebert that the splitters of clapboards and the hewers of beams shared the neighborhood. The area must have been the center for the building trades, for the glassmakers were also located there. Bread, flour, and old clothes were sold in the same market. The butchers massed in several squares, tripe merchants and poulterers occupying the adjacent streets. There was a fowl market, a milk market, a hay market, an oats market, and a busy flower market; for the whole populace bought wreaths of roses and greenery, and flowers were essential for every formal feast.

The streets of Paris, for instance, were not unpaved. Early in the 13th century, by order of Philip Augustus, the municipal authorities began paving the main thoroughfares with stone. The work went on steadily for a century and a half. By the reign of Charles V the entire area within the second ring of walls was cobblestoned.

People were supposed to remove their trash at their own expense. The usual thing was for the residents of a street to hire a cart and a drayman for this purpose, and in the poorer neighborhoods, the filth simply accumulated underfoot. Moreover, the draymen, like present-day sanitation workers, tended to lose part of their loads along the way. As the city grew and the outskirts became built up, the dumps had to be moved farther out. Though disused, the old ones remained, forming hills that are still part of the Paris topography.

The fourteenth-century town planners had made heroic efforts to deal with the problems of sewage. The paved streets sloped toward the center, where there was a runnel that served as a drain. The contents of scrub pails and chamber pots were supposed to be emptied here, so that rain would wash these waters toward the sewers.

Every house that aspired to decency had a privy in the back garden. But this was not made a matter of public law until the 16th century. The city provided public urinals; near the cathedral, there was even one with running water. There were also latrines near the Place de Grève. But it was an open secret that there were not enough of such public conveniences. The wastes were removed by professional scavengers. These were organized into a guild and were also in charge of the city’s sewers and wells. They had their own somewhat self-pitying cry as they went up the streets soliciting business: “To clean a hutch/Takes little skill./I don’t’ earn much,/Do what I will.

The planners had provided the city with an extensive system of trenches and canals that led the sewage toward the moats outside the city walls. Such sewers were sometimes covered over, either with stonework or planks. Usually, however, they were open to the sky and, inevitably, gave off a terrible smell. The stench of Paris was famous.

In earlier centuries, the people of Paris had drawn water from the Seine. Flowing between green banks and bordered by willows, with sailboats its only traffic, it was, by and large, a clean river. Even so, there was enough concern for hygiene for people to use the stream above and below the city, but not directly at it. Almost all houses had their own wells. As the city grew, this self-sufficiency was no longer possible. Under Philip Augustus, two aqueducts were built to supply public fountains all over the city. Water was also piped to the newly built palace of the Louvre and to a number of grander houses. The rich increasingly infringed on the water main, piping off more and more of the flow to their hotels. By the time of Charles VI, the supply to the fountains was so diminished that the shortage of water became a scandal, and an edict was issued forbidding private use of the aqueduct water except in the houses of royal princes.

How to keep the more monied folk from hogging all the water had long been a problem. Thus, regulations had to be made reserving certain fountains for the inhabitants of the quarter and stipulating that people had to draw their own water in person. In finer houses, water was delivered regularly by water sellers. But in the poor neighborhoods, water was a scarce commodity. There was always a crowd around the public fountain, and the water taken from it had to be carried up many flights of narrow stairs. We can scarcely conceive how difficult ordinary domestic work – maintaining cleanliness, doing the cooking – was under such conditions.

Cook shops abounded; prepared food, always hot and presumably savory, was to be had at all hours of the day.

After heavy work in the fields, no religious teachings on earth could have kept peasants – who, in any case, were never prudish – from taking a quick dip in the nearest stream.

Householders were required to keep a bucket of water at their front door in case of fire, but once a fire started, there was not much that could be done about it. There were, however, regulations aimed at preventing fires. It was forbidden for artisans to work after dark; candles and torches in crowded workshops were a fire hazard. Wine shops, too, had early closing hours. Once darkness had fallen, there were few people out in the streets – only the night watch, drunks, rowdy students, or fellows up to no good. A medieval peace descended on the city. Except for what candlelight filtered through closed shutters, and except for the lanterns carried by the watch, the streets were totally dark. The only public illumination was a single lantern placed before the image of Our Lady at the entrance gate of the Grand Châtelet, the huge fortress and prison that guarded the entrance to the Île de la Cité.

Because she had always been there, Paris possessed no charter. The newest thing the city had to any formal set of rights went back to privileges conferred in dim times past on an occupational group known as the marchands de l’eau, the “merchants of water.” The water in question was, of course, the Seine, and the owners of the boats who plied the stream early played a leading role in the affairs of the city. For the king, who had dominion over the waterways, had delegated to the merchants of the water the right to supervise navigation. They could also set rules for loading and unloading boats, could watch over weights and measures, and could regulate the buying and selling of cargoes. The boats carried mostly grain, salt, and wine. Thus, the boat owners exercised control over the grain merchants and could direct the entire trade in wine, from its crying – the medieval form of advertising – to its prices. They even decided who might sell wine in a tavern, so that, in effect, they issued the city’s liquor licenses.

The merchants of the water were also empowered to collect dues on all wares brought by water. A portion of these revenues went to the king; the rest was retained and reinvented in river business. Thus, the merchants of the water built a port where heavy cargoes could be conveniently handled. This was at the Place de Grève, a gravelly bank of the Île de la Cité sloping down to the river. When it was first ceded to the merchants, it was devoid of houses and sold for the sum of several livres. The merchants enlarged the bank with fill, faced it with stone, and equipped it with ramps for the convenience of the carters. On its edge, they erected a building for their headquarters. This Place de Grève was to become the very heart of civic, commercial, and industrial Paris.

By the 13th century, the provost of the merchants of the water appears as provost of all the merchants, and as such, is indisputably mayor of the city. He was assisted by four échevins – “magistrates.” Their powers were wide: They levied taxes, operated the police system, and looked after public works. The defense of the city was also their responsibility. Originally, each corporation was supposed to supply a certain number of men for the night watch, patrolling the streets and walls after dark.

From the twelfth century on, the municipal authorities were conscious of the need for regulated growth. A “zoning administrator” called the voyer strictly controlled changes in the city. No street could be opened or closed without his permission. He superintended every major repair or modification in the alignment of buildings. He kept down the number of stalls selling foodstuffs. The voyer was often a man of some distinction, and the post allowed him to increase his substance.

In the best of times, Paris attracted criminals and vagabonds. When war or social disruption wrenched masses of people from their roots, the number of social deviants increased alarmingly.

Along with the real beggars, there was also an influx of sham beggars into the city. The records show many ordinances against the tribe of “crocodiles and rogues,” as they were called, who “pretend to be crippled, hobbling on canes and simulating the decrepitude; smearing themselves with salves, saffron, flour, blood, and other false colors, and dressing in muddy, filthy, foul-smelling, and abominable garments even when they go into churches; who throw themselves down in the busiest street or, when a large group such as a procession is passing, discharge their noses or mouth blood made of blackberries, of vermilion or other dyes, in order dishonestly to extort alms that are properly due to God’s real poor.

There were false pilgrims, as well, who went about with the traditional staff and cockleshell associated with Saint Jacques (that is, Saint James) and preyed on the good will of the devout. Another type of confidence man was the counterfeiter, who took advantage of the great confusion in coinage to pass false money. Tricksters also had some famous routines for swindling travelers at inns. First one man would appear lamenting that he had just lost a valuable chain or ring. After he had left, his accomplice would turn up and offer to sell a chain or ring he had just found at a price far below the value mentioned by the first man. Other professionals were expert at breaking into the poor boxes of churches or making candlesticks disappear from altars. Cardsharps and players with loaded dice abounded in the taverns, while cutpurses and pickpockets prowled the streets.

Criminals, on the other hand, were officially put on bread and water. They did not have to pay for this – most, in any case, were penniless. Rather, the guild of bakers provided bread, and there were always collections taken in the churches for prisoners. Accommodations were deliberately rough – inmates were crowded together in one large vaulted hall and slept on straw or the bare stone.

The average criminal did not stay incarcerated long. Justice was speedy. The culprit caught in the act could count on a hearing the very next morning. He either admitted the charges or denied them. Witnesses were heard. The judge decided whether the prisoner should be “put to the question.” A standard piece of equipment in every prison was the rack – a wooden frame with wheels and cords for wrenching the prisoner’s limbs. There were two gradations of punishment: Women and frailer men were put to the “small rack” while stronger men were put to the “large rack.” The instrument did not kill or necessarily inflict lasting injuries. However, many were maimed by the treatment. It was best to confess quickly. After confession, sentence was passed. False clerics and those who received stolen goods were put in the pillory, then banished. Bigamists had their heads shaved. Counterfeiters were thrown into boiling cauldrons. Thieves and burglars were hanged. Those convicted of political crimes – traitors to the king, high officials guilty of peculation, or those who in the civil war who allegedly had relations with the enemy – were carted through the city to the headsman’s block at Les Halles. Their heads and limbs were displayed on pikes, and their torsos were hung on the gibbet along with other rotting corpses.

By far, the largest number of female malefactors were prostitutes. Of course, the Church condemned such women. Yet, what was the purpose of the Church if not to offer even the hardened sinners the means to achieve salvation? Besides, the Church was not unaware that a great part of the clientele for women of ill repute came from its own ranks. So there was nothing to be done about prostitution per se.

King Louis IX had restricted the streets where prostitutes might live in their bordellos. The women could solicit during the day but had to be indoors by six o’clock. Landlords were forbidden to rent rooms to prostitutes except along these special streets. It is evident, however, that this regulation was consistently flouted, for there were repeated new ordinances on the matter, and new streets were constantly being assigned to “dissolute women.” Although they were forbidden to purchase houses, this rule, too, went by the board. There were many complaints of such women coming into respectable streets, locating close to churches, and opening taverns where they received guests at every hour of the day and night.

Another set of regulations was intended to curb the way streetwalkers dressed. They were forbidden the normal finery of women of the bourgeois class – gilt buttons on dress or hood, pearls, lavishly embroidered belts, shoe buckles, and the fashionable trailing cloak trimmed with fur, the houppelande, which was the summit of every merchant’s wife’s dreams. If a woman of evil life was caught in such attire, she was hauled off to prison, where the vanities were confiscated and the cloak trimmed to permissible length. The official reason for such laws was to prevent confusion between the good ladies and the wicked ones. However, the idea may also have been to keep prostitutes from flaunting the luxuries their sinful life made possible.

Yet the greater number of them did not do well by themselves. They were often country girls who had slipped into the life by chance or by force. They had almost no bargaining power, for there were endless numbers of girls like them and they were victimized by procuresses and pimps.

In contrast to the harshness shown the lawbreaker, there was consistent charity shown to beggars. It was easy to fall into beggary. The economy provided no sort of margin between the decent poverty of a peasant or artisan and the wretchedness of the beggar. There is little evidence even of those warm family ties that in some cultures offer the individual protection from the extremes of want. Ill health, a bad harvest, a spell of unemployment, being crippled in a war or on a crusade – any of these misfortunes could be ruinous.

Monks were also out every day begging for their wherewithal. Some belonged to the mendicant orders like the Dominicans and the Franciscans, who were officially committed to sharing the lot of the poor. But there were also the Carmelites, known as the Barrez (“Stripes”) because of their black-and-white habits, and the various orders of canons who added their voices to the cry for bread. The Templars, though known as a rich order, were also out soliciting contributions toward new crusades.

Then there were the famous beggars who belonged to the Quinze-Vingts. This was a charitable institution founded by Louis IX to take care of 300 poor knights, casualties of the king’s crusades, whose eyes had been put out by the Saracens. The pious king left them a good house set in spacious grounds and an annual sum of 30 livres, so that every inmate “might have a good mess of pottage daily.” After the original inmates had passed on, the place became a home for the blind. The inmates were a privileged group, entitled to wear the fleur-de-lis embroidered on their garments. They could have wives and husbands living with them to act as attendants and help administer the institution. The blind were also entitled to beg inside the churches. Since some of the churches were much more lucrative than others, an auction was held every year at the home, and the best churches were assigned to those who promised to pay the highest premium to the hospital. The Quinze-Vingts were known to live high, to drink wine, and to wear serge and velvet instead of proper rags.

The city of Paris and all its institutions were put to the test during the 15 years between 1421 and 1436 when the city was occupied by English troops. There were winters when murderous wolves prowled the faubourgs, for the beasts had acquired a taste for human flesh from the great number of corpses carelessly buried in the countryside. There were times when day and night the streets rang with the crying of the poor: “Alas, I die of cold” or “Alas, I die of hunger.” This in Paris, which in the days of its pride had supported, not badly, the 80,000 beggars Guillebert de Metz had mentioned – for he had meant this fantastic figure as a boast of the city’s generosity and plenty. In better times, the bakers had thrown stale bread out for the poor, and there were always tubs of unsold fish at the end of the day in the fish market close to the Grande Boucherie. Now, men, women, and children lived on cabbage cores and fought with the pigs for the dregs from the barrels of apple cider.

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Think covid-19 is bad? The tuberculosis pandemic is still killing millions

Preface.  These are my kindle notes from “The Plague and I” by Betty MacDonald.  Her great sense of humor, beautiful writing, and finding out what it would have been like to be in a Tuberculosis (TB) sanitarium in 1937 are quite interesting.

So if you’re having a hard time coping with covid-19, TB would have been worse before antibiotics, and may be again now that there are drug-resistant strains. No thanks, I’ll take Covid-19.

TB is found in every nation of the world and the leading cause of infectious death, even greater than HIV/AIDS.  Currently about a quarter of the world’s population is thought to be infected with TB, with 10 million active cases resulting in 1.5 million deaths a year. About 95% of deaths occur in developing countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.  But now that there are multidrug-resistant forms of TB, the threat lurks for us all.

TB is at least 5,000 years old and as always, the world’s poor were most likely to die of it.  Sanitoria to treat patients began in the late 1800s, but at least half who entered died within five years.  Antibiotic cures began appearing after WWII, but even before then the prevalence had been dropping due to better nutrition and hygiene.  Most who have TB have no symptoms, and only 10% of them will progress to the active disease with a chronic cough, fever, and weight loss when it can be spread it to others. 

We’ve come a long way baby. Between 1810 and 1815 more than 25% of deaths in New York City were from TB. In 1900, 194 out of every 100,000 died of TB in the US, declining to 46 in 1940. Back then, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), and diarrhea and enteritis, which (together with diphtheria) caused one third of all deaths.   In the U.S. from 1900 to 1925 the number of beds in sanatoriums went from about 4,500 to 675,000, and for those who could afford them, kept them from spreading TB to others and perhaps even a cure. Now TB kills about 500 people a year in the U.S.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


MacDonald, Betty. 1947. The Plague and I.   Harper Perennial.

Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness, you remember nothing about the urgent errands. You can’t even remember where you were going. The important things now are the pain in your leg; the soreness in your back; what you will have for dinner; who is in the next bed.

Being sent to an institution, be it penal, mental or tuberculous, is no game of Parchesi, and not knowing when, or if, you’ll get out doesn’t make it any easier. At least a criminal knows what his sentence is. I had been confidently counting on the chest specialist’s guess of one year, when I remembered the rider he had tacked on of “or longer.” “Or longer” could mean anything from one month to ten years. It was not comforting.

Instructions from the clinic were that new patients must arrive at The Pines between the hours of three and four-thirty in the afternoon, “after rest hours and before supper.

I awoke early to milky windows and foghorns. The hollow echoing footsteps of the paper boy followed by the thump of the paper on the porch. A streetcar clanging past, high-spirited and empty on its first trip. A window slamming shut across the street. The thud of the front door and several sharp joyful barks as Mother let the dogs out. The complaining groans of the starter on a car somewhere down the alley. The rumbling thunder of another streetcar crossing the bridge over the park ravine two blocks away.

Finally Anne asked bluntly, “Are you going to die, Betty?” I said of course not. How ridiculous. Joan said, “Bessie had tuberculosis and she died.” Bessie was a school friend of Alison’s, and until this moment her illness and death had been tactfully kept from me.

In spite of our good intentions, the children did stay home from school and everything was very abnormal but I managed somehow to tie up most of the odds and ends of my life, and to have a permanent wave and a very short haircut before two o’clock. Then the thin autumn sunshine and the rollicking dogs gave a picnicking air to the good-byes, but even so as I walked down the steps of the old brown shingled house I remarked morbidly to Dede that I felt like a barnacle that had been pried off its rock. Glancing briefly at my short, too-curly hair she remarked drily that I looked quite a lot like one too.

As we drove off I turned and waved and waved to the children. They stood on the sidewalk, squinting against the sun. Young, long-legged and defenseless. I loved them so that I felt my heart draining and wondered if I was leaving a trail behind me like the shiny mark of a snail.

I looked at gardens blazing with dahlias, zinnias, Michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums. At lawns blatantly green from damp fall weather, lapping the edges of the sidewalks. At full-leaved Western trees hesitantly turning a little yellow on the edges, while imported Eastern trees blushed delicately as they dropped their leaves in the soft, warm autumn air.

A freight train, enveloped in its own smoke, racketed and panted along the shore. Occasional late-flowering dogwoods gleamed greenish white in the dark woods, like numbers on a luminous-dialed clock at night. The madroña trees, leaning down and twisting their trunks in an endeavor to see from under the suffocating firs, dripped with berries bright as blood. Their cinnamon brown bark curled back to show patches of chartreuse skin. Occasional pines stood alone, their branches stiff, their gray green skirts held high. The whole outdoors was fragrant and beautiful and grew more so as inexorably we drew closer and closer to The Pines and my incarceration

It might have been any small endowed college except that there were no laughing groups strolling under the trees. In fact, the only sign of life anywhere at all was a single nurse who flitted between two buildings like a white paper in the wind.

Like wax figures in a store window we sat motionless in unnatural attitudes on the unyielding furniture, all facing each other and the empty grate. The quality of the whole scene was so dreamlike that I looked at Mother and Mary, side by side on a mustard-colored love seat in front of the window, and expected to see large cobwebs attaching them to each other and to the casement back of them. I felt that we had all been there forever.

She acted as if she were reading them off the bottom of the soap, in my bathrobe sleeve, from the hem of the washcloth. “Patients must not read. Patients must not write. Patients must not talk. Patients must not laugh. Patients must not sing. Patients must lie still. Patients must not reach. Patients must relax.

When she came to my bottle of cough medicine and box of aspirin, she exploded. “Patients must never take medicines without the Doctor’s permission. No patient of the Sanatorium ever has medicine of any kind whatsoever in his possession. Patients are never allowed to choose own medicines. These,” she held up the cough medicine and aspirin as if they were Home Cure for Syphilis and Quick Aborto, “will have to be sent home or destroyed. These extra sweaters, these bed jackets, all your clothes, books, writing materials and handkerchiefs [her disdain of this last filthy habit-forming article was tremendous] will have to go through fumigation and be sent home.

At four o’clock we had supper. First an ambulant patient came around and propped up the beds so that we were sitting up; then nurses dealt out trays, set with silver, napkins, salad, bread and butter, dessert and little slips of paper with beautiful thoughts on them. Then the food carts were wheeled around, and we were served spaghetti, soup and tea by the Charge Nurse. The food was well seasoned and very good but cold. The beautiful thought on my tray said, “If you must be blue, be a bright blue.

At five o’clock the radio, which was controlled and set at the office, with a speaker in each ward, began drooling forth organ music. Organ music of any kind depresses me and added to that was the fact that I had no bed lamp. A bed lamp apparently was not considered a necessity and had not been on the list of requirements. My corner was dark. My thoughts gloomy.

It was hard to remember how anxious I had been to enter The Pines; how grateful I had been to the Medical Director for putting me ahead of the long waiting list; how wonderful it was that I was being cured and cared for for nothing. I was cold and lonely and I missed my children and my family. The ward was very quiet and little wisps of fog crept through the wide-open windows. If only I could read, or write, or talk or do anything but lie there and listen to that awful organ music.

At seven o’clock we had hot cocoa, hot milk or cold milk. At nine o’clock the lights were turned out by a main switch in the hall. The night nurse operated by flashlight. Up and down the halls she went with her flashlight like a firefly dancing over each bed, resting for a second on each face. When she left our room the darkness, silence and cold settled down again like a shroud.

The night went on and on and on and I grew progressively colder and sadder. “There’s one thing to be said in favor of life at The Pines,” I thought, as I tried futilely to warm a small new area at the bottom of the bed, “it’s going to make dying seem like a lot of fun.

All the news was depressing and the patients spoke of two, three and five years with a casualness usually associated with minutes. But as I was still having difficulty coming face to face with the bald fact that I would be away from the children and the family for a year,

I took out my lipstick and Sylvia said immediately, “No, no, Betty, patients are not allowed to wear makeup except on visiting day.

We had been lying perfectly still for about ten minutes when I opened my eyes a crack and saw the Charge Nurse materialize in the doorway. She walked without a sound and appeared in the doorway so suddenly it was as though she had been projected there by a machine from the main office. She looked us over quickly and moved on to appear in other doorways and maybe catch other patients talking or laughing or reaching or singing or scratching or twitching or any of the other things that did not come under the category of resting.

At twenty minutes past seven the same ambulant male patient who had come in the evening before, put up our beds for breakfast.

As he put up the back of my bed he said, “My name’s Charlie Johnson. You’re new here, ain’t you?” I said yes, so he said, “Well, I been here five years and I seen ’em come and I seen ’em go. Some go out on their feet but most of ’em go out in a box. How bad are you?” I said that I didn’t know but that I only expected to stay a year. “Ha, ha!” he laughed mirthlessly. “A year. That’s what they all say when they first come. Ha, ha!

I asked Kimi if all the male patients were old and sad like Bill and Charlie. She said, “No, most of the male patient are young but because of sex the young virile men are not allowed in the Women’s Bedrest Hospital and, vice versa, the young pretty nurse are not allowed in the Men’s Bedrest Hospital.” I asked her what the young men did and she explained that they worked in the greenhouse, laboratory, x-ray and shops

From 12:3 TO 2:30 were rest hours. “The strictest rule of The Pines is observance of rest hours and any infraction of the rule for absolute rest during these two hours, means instant dismissal,” it had stated in the book of rules. It also stated: “Getting well depends on the patient. Rest, fresh air, good food, and later, regulated and supervised exercise, all help but if the patient doesn’t have the will power, honesty, and character to obey the rules, nothing will save him. . . . If you cannot pay the price and feel that you will not be a good influence on others, go home and give your bed to someone who will be of value.

Occasionally, with terrifying suddenness, a nurse would appear at the door to see if we were resting. One time it was a cheerful nurse. She winked at me and disappeared.

A girl in the next room began to cough. Her cough was deep and resonant and was a welcome relief from the silence. It was like a signal, for immediately up and down the corridors there were more coughs. Small dry coughs, loose phlegmy coughs, short staccato coughs, long whooping coughs. The hospital began to seem peopled and cheerful. A nurse flashed in the doorway. She said to me, the others being asleep, “Patients must control their coughs. A cough can be controlled.” I didn’t say anything because I hadn’t coughed and I knew if I spoke I would. She looked at me penetratingly for a minute and then flashed away again. I noticed that the coughing had ceased. Apparently she had stopped at each door and turned it off, like the radio.

I drank some more water and thought, “I haven’t even been here a full twenty-four hours yet and I have at least a year yet to go.” Again my thoughts careered dangerously toward home. Keeping away from homesickness was like walking across a rock slide. Every step was insecure and the very next one might bring the whole mountain down on me.

Was being cold all the time part of the cure or was it the easiest way to keep patients quiet and under the covers?

The frequent detailed discussions of sputum, its amount and color, often made me wish for a more dainty ailment like diabetes or brain tumor.

I asked her if The Pines was like any of the other sanatoriums. She said, “No. In all the other sanatoriums they have the rules but only in The Pines do they enforce them. The Medical Director here knows tuberculosis and people with tuberculosis and he is going to cure them in spite of themselves.” I asked her if being cold was part of the cure. She said that she didn’t think so. That she wasn’t cold.

There was a terrific clatter in the hallway and two nurses pushed in a large pair of scales, for in addition to its being Sunday and a visiting day, this was also the last day of the month and weigh day. As each of us was helped out of bed and onto the scales, the room was tight with hope, for gaining weight signified at least a foothold on the climb to health. Losing weight meant a sliding backward

Kimi solved the problem by saying, in her small sweet voice, “Eileen, all crying will do is to make your pillow and sheet wet and colder. When Katy, the evening nurse, comes on duty she will fill your hot-water bottle. Don’t be sad, we are your friend and are in sympathy with you.” Kimi’s speeches always sounded as though they should have been on parchment with a spray of cherry blossoms or a single iris painted across one corner.

The staff at The Pines did not discuss tuberculosis with the patients. If you asked the doctors or nurses about your progress or lack of progress you got a noncommittal stare and no information.

Lessons and were mailed to the patients every few days. My first lesson on tuberculosis began; “Tuberculosis is contagious: The germ is thrown off in spray or sputum from the nose and throat. Patients must ALWAYS cover the nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing. Handshaking and kissing are means of spreading the germ.

A tuberculosis sanatorium, like a boarding school, is rife with gossip and rumors. But the gossips and rumors at The Pines, instead of being about cheerful things like boys and parties, were always about poor little patients who were mistreated by the staff. The doctors out of pure cussedness were always forcing too much air into the patients’ lungs so that they collapsed, ripping out all their ribs for the joy of it, putting them on enteric diets for meanness, ignoring vital symptoms so they could watch them suffer, and giving them medicines which did no good.

The rumors were all based on a little bit of truth but turned out like the whispering game

Miss Muelbach’s thick, gray, hairy legs looked as if they had been driven into her shoes and when she walked she stamped and the stands and tables jumped around like tiddlywinks. Her skin was oily and swarthy.

She slipped up and down the halls without a sound and prevented the patients from, or caught them in the act of, laughing, talking, reaching, sitting up, looking out the window, reading, or writing when they were not supposed to, or exceeding their reading-and-writing time when they were supposed to, talking to the ambulant patients, coughing, curling hair, not eating “the egg,” or reading mail on an empty stomach.

Once during my first week, I asked Kimi how she could lie in her bed so entirely immobile hour after hour. She said in her gentle way, “It is not difficult. In my mind, I am torturing the nurses.” She only meant Granite Eyes, Gravy Face, Mrs. Macklevenny and Miss Garnet, of course. The rest of the nurses were unfriendly but not unkind. A few were darlings

The darlings were Miss Hatfield; Katy Morris, of course; Ann Robinson, who came to The Pines the same day I did, was tall, dark, beautiful and gentle and after nursing us for seven months, contracted miliary tuberculosis and died in two months; and Molly Hastings, an English nurse, who had been at The Pines for two years but was still sweet and friendly to the patients and had a wonderful sense of humor.

Molly told us some of the trials of being a nurse at The Pines. She said that the discipline was not limited to the patients as the nurses were not allowed to smoke on the premises, had to be in every night by ten-thirty, were required to attend school three nights a week and were under twenty-four-hour surveillance to be sure that they obeyed these rules and many others, including no indulgence in SEX, thoughts of SEX, actions which might eventually lead up to SEX, discussions of SEX or literature concerned with SEX. She said that with the exception of the charge nurses, the nurses weren’t allowed to speak to the doctors,

Molly told us that only unattractive nurses were sent to the men’s hospital because of SEX. We asked her if many of the nurses married patients and she said that many of them did.

When you have tuberculosis, you have broken lungs with sores on them and the less you use them the quicker they will heal. How can you rest your lungs? By breathing less often and less deeply. A person resting quietly in bed, breathes two times less each minute than a person sitting up and of course much less than a person walking. Deep breathing, hurried breathing and excitement, cause both lungs and heart to work faster and to wash out more poisons from the tuberculous sore. This is what gives you that tired feeling, rapid pulse, fever, etc. Rest is the answer. Rest, rest and more rest.

The only way we could tell whether we were getting well or dying was by the privileges we were granted. If we were progressing satisfactorily at the end of one month, we were given the bathroom privilege and 15 minutes a day reading-and-writing time. At the end of two months, if we continued to progress our reading-and-writing time was increased to half an hour, we were allowed to read books and were given ten minutes a day occupational therapy time. At the end of three months we were given a chest examination, along with the other tests, and if all was still well we were given three hours’ time up, one hour occupational therapy time and could go to the movies (if chosen by the Charge Nurse).

The most common surgical methods:

  • Artificial Pneumothorax—compression of the affected lung by the introduction of gas or filtered air into the pleural cavity (between the chest wall and the lung).
  • Intrapleural Pneumolysis—cauterizing of adhesions between the chest wall and the lung.
  • Thoracoplasty—removal of the ribs on one side of the thorax to accomplish a permanent collapse of the affected (diseased) part of that lung.
  • Several more

A successful collapse of the lung, whether it was accomplished by pneumothorax, thoracoplasty, phrenicectomy or stripping, favored rest for the infected part of the lung and facilitated healing of the disease.

The treatment room had windows to the ceiling, pure white walls and strong overhead lights and I sat in my wheelchair, absolutely quiet but blinking and squinting in the strong light and feeling like a mole that had suddenly burrowed out into the sunshine.

I grew fascinated with the blonde’s tatting shuttle. It darted in and out of the shrimp pink like a dragonfly in a hollyhock. The pink thing was square and lacy and seemed to be some kind of a yoke. I had seen many such yokes displayed at county fairs and could easily picture it completed, its virulent color clutching the top of a too-short white cotton petticoat, cut on the bias and sucked in at the knees.

I felt the prick of the hypodermic needle, just under my left breast, then an odd sensation as though he were trying to push me off the table, then a crunchy feeling and a stab of pain of what looked like a steel knitting needle to a small rubber hose connected to two gallon fruit jars partially filled with a clear amber fluid.  By suppertime I had sharp knifelike pains in my chest and had spit up a little blood.

She explained calmly that the pains were adhesions tearing loose, the blood was probably from my nose, that I was most fortunate to be able to take pneumothorax.  it was difficult for me to see eye to eye with the Charge Nurse, especially as I had felt perfectly well without a single pain of any kind before I got so terribly lucky and was given pneumothorax.  For three days and nights, each time I moved I had severe tearing pains in my left lung.

It all happened so quickly I didn’t even have a chance to say good-bye to Kimi. I opened my eyes after rest hours and the next I knew I was in a cubicle by myself at the opposite end of the building. A few minutes later Kimi was wheeled past my door and a pathetic note from her that night informed me that she had been put in a room with the Japanese girl with no character.

“Why did the Charge Nurse separate us? How could she perform such an act of cruelty?” That’s what I wanted to know so I asked her. She said, “It is better for the patients to move every so often. To adjust to different personalities. It is better for you to be by yourself.” I loathed being by myself. It was dull and depressing and I found it impossible to adjust to my own personality.

Before coming to The Pines, death, if I thought of it at all, which was seldom, was something swift, awe inspiring, cataclysmic, dramatic and grand. Death was a lightning bolt, a flood, a fire, a hurricane, a train wreck, an airplane crash, a pistol shot, a leap from a high bridge. When I had told this to Kimi one evening, she had said, “Oh, that is not at all my idea of Death. To me Death is a lecherous, sly, deranged old man. His beard is sparse and stained. His eyes are coarse lidded, red rimmed, furtive and evil. His loose red lips are slimy and drooling. He pants with anticipation. His partially opened mouth shows brown shaggy thread of tooth. He shuffles up and down the corridor at night, his malodorous, black robe dragging behind him.

I was horrified and told Kimi that she was morbid. She had said, “I cannot help it. Each time Margaretta or any other very sick patient passes our door I fancy I see Death’s evil face peering around the corner. I think I see his black robe swirl through the doorway ahead of the wheelchair. I can see him hovering like a great bat over the emergency ward, the light room, the private room. I can hear him shuffling up and down the corridor at night.

From far down the hall a cough—dry and rattling like seed pods in the wind. Then another nearer—gurgling and strangling and leaving the cougher gasping for breath. Then from across the hall a harsh deep cough with a strange metallic ring. Then the girl in the private room, the girl with skin the color of old snow, the girl with arms and legs like knobby sticks, whose voice was gone, would begin to gasp dreadfully.

Because over it all I could hear the slow, sure shuffle of Death. Up and down the halls he went, never hurrying, knowing that we’d wait for him.

The days were all so exactly alike and followed each other with such monotonous regularity that I lost all interest in holidays as such. I knew them only as “gas” day, bath day, fluoroscope day, visiting day, supply day or store day. It was in part infiltration into sanatorium life, divorce from normal living. It was also in part the childish self-centered attitude of an invalid. What I was doing, how I felt, what was to happen to me became more and more important to me as time went on.

At first when my visitors told me of happenings in the outside world I was vitally interested and relived each incident vividly with the telling. Then gradually, insidiously, like night mist rising from the swamps, my invalidism obscured the real world from me and when the family told me tales of happenings at home, I found them interesting but without strength, like talk about people long dead. The only real things were connected with the sanatorium. The only real people, the other patients, the doctors, the nurses.

Three months was the gestation period at The Pines. We were conceived at the Administration Building, confirmed by a staff doctor, approved by a Charge Nurse and for the next three months existed as embryos carefully fed and cared for by the Mother Hospital, alive but not living. At the end of three months we emerged and were individuals to engage in occupational therapy, attend the movies, read books and, if strong enough, have time up.

“The way I understand it, pulmonary tuberculosis is caused by tubercle bacilli in the lungs and to date the only way found to render these tubercle bacilli inactive is to wall them off in the lungs with fibrosis. The fibrosis forms quickest when the lung is at rest. If your lung was put at rest with pneumothorax or other surgery I shouldn’t think it would matter whether you were in Alaska or South America, but if you had to depend on bedrest to build your fibrosis then I should think that a year-round cool climate at sea level would be the most pleasant.

As in the Bedrest Hospital, all the windows were open at all times.

Most wonderful of all was the freedom. No nurses patrolled the promenade, occasional voices or moderate little trills of laughter could be heard on either side of us, eight-hour patients walking past the door, arm in arm, stopped to smile and talk to us, and Sigrid and I exchanged pleasantries without first listening carefully for the soft rubber-soled steps of a nurse. I filled my hot-water bottle with fresh hot water about ten times during the next hour and each time my skin prickled with the delight in this small free act of comfort. In spite of the Charge Nurse’s hateful reception, I thought her Ambulant Hospital was pure heaven.

At 4:15 Sigrid told me to get up and get ready for supper. She said that I could wash my face and put on makeup; that I would be taken to the dining room in a wheelchair for the first week, then I could walk one way one day, two ways the next day and so on. In two weeks, I could walk back and forth to all meals.

The tables for the men were on one side, for the women on the other, a no man’s land in between. The men and women were not allowed to speak to each other in the dining room; in fact no communication of any kind, including winking, waving, smiling or note writing, was allowed between male and female patients,

The Charge Nurse said, “We do not encourage any friendships between the men and the women, Mrs. Bard. In tuberculosis, sex is the worst complication, Mrs. Bard. Infractions of the rules are punished by taking away visiting or show privileges, not granting requests for town leaves or sending you home,

Mother brought me a dozen cans of fruit juice and a large box of cookies, all of which Sigrid stuffed in my old stand bag and hung under the robes and sweaters in my locker. We were all starving all the time but were not allowed to keep any food in our rooms, which were searched regularly.

Reading of Katherine Mansfield’s tragic and lonely struggle against tuberculosis made me see The Pines as such a paradise that I could even place a small golden halo around the head of the Charge Nurse as she sidled in our door like a giant hermit crab to warn me that from that moment on anything I did, including breathing, would be cause for removing my town leave.

On the following Monday, at ten-thirty, Sigrid left for home. The moment she had gone a corps of nurses came in with scrub brushes and buckets of disinfectant to remove all trace of her. Her bedding and all her things were dumped into large cardboard cartons marked fumigation, and wheeled away. Everything she had touched or used was scrubbed.

Eileen’s roommate, Delores the nightclub singer, arrived at the Ambulant Hospital and I felt reasonably sure that the Charge Nurse would be too busy to bother with me anymore.

Delores had a large mouth, perfect, flashing white teeth and bold blue eyes. Her every movement had a purpose and increased weight had given her very delectable curves which she showed to advantage by pulling her flimsy purple kimono tightly around her. Her first entrance to the dining room was late and dramatic. Arranging herself in the doorway, slightly sideways so that what lay beneath the tightly pulled kimono was prominently displayed, Delores looked the dining room and the diners over slowly and carefully. Then, when it was pretty well established that every single eye in the room was riveted on her, she put everything she had into a great big dazzling smile and slowly undulated to a seat at the front table. One of the men was so carried away by the performance that he began to clap

flagging down every doctor who went by and saying in her husky, penetrating voice, “I have a little pain right here, Doctah. No, a little lower down, if you don’t mind, Doctah. No, a little lower down, Doctah! No, it doesn’t hurt very much, Doctah, but if I thought it would make you come to see me oftener I could make it hurt moah.” Pixie said that the doctors quite evidently enjoyed

she brought out a new rule. After I had been in the shop for about an hour I started to leave to go upstairs to the bathroom. Miss Gillespie came panting after me. “Where are you going?” she demanded. “To the bathroom,” I said. She said, “Now, Mrs. Bard, going to the toilet is merely a habit. Habits can be broken. Not necessary. Break it. Bad habit. Control the functions of the body. Everything can be controlled. Why there are days and days when I don’t go to the toilet from dawn till dark.” I continued up the ramp with Miss Gillespie clutching my arm and trying to dissuade me. She never forgave me.

It took me the whole summer to learn that you do not dispose of eight and a half months in a sanatorium just by leaving the grounds. I had had to struggle and bleed to adjust to sanatorium routine and I had to struggle and bleed to adjust back again to normal living.

Kimi and I clung together. She came to the house frequently and we walked in the park and talked about The Pines, Miss Toecover and the patients. Kimi said that she was very lonely and unhappy, that her former friends treated her as though she were violently contagious, and boys, who before had been merely too short for her, were now like “mites” in comparison.

I asked Kimi if she had had any such unpleasant experiences. She said, “Oh my, yes. Sometimes they do not wait until I am out of the house before producing the Flit Gun and vigorously spraying everything I have touched.

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Wave, tidal, ocean current, in-stream, & ocean thermal power

Preface. This is mostly a review of the 2013 National Research Council’s report on harvesting marine energy from waves, tides, temperature differences, currents, and run-of-river.  But as new projects come and go, I add them into this long post. 

None of these water devices are commercial, because they rust, are destroyed by tides, storms, hurricanes, lightning, icebergs, floes, large waves, marine growth, and corrosion.  Offshore wind turbines are corroded within 15 years, while their onshore cousins last about 20 years.

They’re also very expensive to build and maintain, have low efficiency, and it’s hard to find a place to put them, since they have to be near urban centers and the electric grid, yet not conflict with ship navigation, aquaculture, marine sanctuaries, and nearby ports.

Hydro-kinetic devices are huge. To generate 1000 MW of wave power in the rough North Sea, the Wave Dragon Energy Converter would need to be 124 miles long. A wave energy contraption not yet deployed required 826 tons of steel that took 55 workers and 14 months to build (Chalmers 2019).

So far most demonstration models have been pummeled to death. In the real world, we could never get much power because high tides and stormy seas are usually too far from cities and the electric grid. Oceans may be vast, but the energy contained in waves and tides is very small and diffuse. Harvesting the energy would require thousands of square miles of contraptions and thousands of miles of undersea cables and energy storage devices that would take more energy to construct and maintain than the energy harvested.

This report doesn’t give much hope that any of these kinetic water power devices will ever work out.

Marine kinetic failures in the news:

2020-8-13 Orbital Marine Power decommissions 2-MW SR2000 floating tidal turbine.  A prototype 2-MW SR2000 floating tidal turbine project has ended.  I can’t find what the cost was, but clearly millions of Euros:  it weighed 516-tonnes, had a 73m long (240-foot) floating superstructure, supporting two 1 MW turbines at either side with rotor diameters of 20m (66 feet). While in operation for a year, it met about 25% of total electricity demand of the Orkney Islands, with a population of 22,000.

Future doomed projects in progress:

Maygen tidal stream array (the full project will cost 420 million Euros) for which they had to get many permits, including to disturb marine species and basking sharks. Why does it cost so much? Here are just a few of the specs: Each turbine is located on an individual foundation weighing between 250 and 350 tonnes, coupled with 6 ballast blocks weighing 1,200 tonnes, that provide horizontal stability over the lifetime of the turbine. Each turbine has a dedicated subsea array cable laid directly on the seabed and brought ashore via a horizontal directionally drilled borehole within the foreshore bedrock.

UK Marine energy 2019: a new industry.  This pdf explodes with enthusiasm for the potential of marine energy, but points to only the above two demonstration projects. No wonder people think that renewable energy will save us.  It sounds good, there is lots of research and money being thrown at it, but time is running out, conventional oil production peaked in 2018 (EIA 2020).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


NRC. 2013. An Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Resource Assessments. National Research Council.


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hired contractors to evaluate five Marine and Hydrokinetic Resources (MHK) globally: 1) Ocean tides 2) Waves 3) Ocean Currents 4) Temperature gradients in the ocean (OTEC) and 5) Free-flowing rivers and streams.

Then DOE asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the results, so NAS assembled a panel of 71 experts to write this assessment.

The NAS replied it was a waste of time for DOE to ask the contractors what the global theoretical maximum power generation from MHK resources might be.  For example, solar power plants provide less than .1 % of electricity in the United States, even though the theoretical amount would be staggeringly enormous if you plastered the entire continent with them.  But you can’t do that.

Nor can you fill the world’s ocean and rivers with devices to harvest the power in waves, tides, ocean currents, rivers, and temperature gradients (OTEC).

NAS says DOE should have asked was how much power could be generated locally at specific sites in the United States after taking into account technical and practical resource limits. For example:

The GIS database of MHK resources lists a 100 MW resource. But after evaluating the location further, it turns out to be a 2.7 MW resource because of 1) technical resource limits (turbines 30% efficient, only 20% of the area can be used, the efficiency of connecting the extracted energy to the electric grid is 90%), and 2) practical resource issues: 50% of the remaining area interferes with existing fisheries and navigation routes, leaving a practical resource of 2.7 MW (100 MW * .30 * .20 * .90 * .50 = 2.7 MW).

Here are some more practical barriers to developing MHK:


  • Impacts on marine species and ecosystems (e.g., rare or keystone species, nursery, juvenile and spawning habitat, Fish, Invertebrates, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Plants and habitats)
  • Bottom disturbance
  • Altered regional water movement
  • acoustic, chemical, temperature, and electromagnetic changes or emissions
  • Physical impacts on the subsurface, the water column, and the water surface, scouring and/or sediment buildup, changes in wave or stream energy, turbulence

Regulatory obstacles:

  • Endangered Species Act; Coastal Zone Management Act; Marine Mammal Protection Act; Clean Water Act; Federal agency jurisdictions: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), State Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), U.S. Coast Guard
  • Overlapping jurisdiction of state and federal agencies: FERC (within DOE) has jurisdiction over hydroelectric development; leases on the U.S. outer continental shelf require approval by BOEM (Dept of the Interior; NOAA (Dept of Commerce) is responsible for licensing commercial OTEC facilities; FWS (Dept of the Interior) and NOAA coordinate protection of marine mammals from potentially harmful development; NOAA also protects essential fish habitats. Projects in navigable waters fall under the jurisdiction of USACE and may also require involvement of the U.S. Coast Guard. USACE permits may be required for projects involving dredging rivers or coastal areas. The Coastal Zone Management Act involves coordination among local, state, and federal agencies to ensure that plans are in accordance with a state’s own coastal management program.

Social and economic:

  • Spatial conflicts (e.g., ports and harbors, marine sanctuaries, navigation, shipping lanes, dumping sites, cable areas, pipeline areas, shoreline constructions, wreck points, mooring and warping points, military operations, marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, Traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering; commerce and transportation; oil and gas exploration and development; sand and gravel mining; environmental and conservation activities; scientific research and exploration; security, emergency response, and military readiness; tourism and recreational activities; ocean cooling water for thermoelectric power plants that use coal, natural gas, or nuclear fuel; aquaculture; maritime heritage and archeology; offshore renewable energy; view sheds, commercial and recreational fisheries, access locations such as boat ramps, diving sites, marinas; national parks, cultural heritage sites
  • Interconnection to the power grid (e.g., transmission requirements, integrating variable electricity output, shore landings; Capital and life-cycle costs (e.g., engineering, installation, equipment, operation and maintenance, debris management, and device recovery and removal
TABLE 1 Issues That Impact the Development of the Practical MHK Resource

No Commercial scale MHK plants exist because:

Once installed, MHK devices are subject to mechanical wear and corrosion that is more severe than land-based equipment

Corrosion-related problems (i.e. galvanic, stress, fatigue, biocorrosion) and marine fouling are key challenges for all MHK devices.   Advanced structural materials with appropriate coatings and paints still need to be identified in order to construct the robust, corrosion-resistant components for MHK energy generation.

Survivability in hurricanes, tides, storms, large waves, and so on

This is another challenging problem, especially in shallow water. Devices can be destroyed, damaged, or moved from their moorings under the actions of rough seas and breaking waves

Making MHK devices rugged enough is expensive

Rugged MHK devices require huge amounts of steel and concrete, which is inherently expensive, and many use expensive exotic materials or engineering.  The power electronics on MHK devices will be a challenge to implement and operate reliably. In shallow tidal and riverine areas, there is a great concern that debris will affect both the efficiency and durability of any installed devices.

Capital and Life-Cycle Costs

As with any energy device or power plant, there are costs such as design, installation, operation and maintenance, removal, and replacement. The largest of these costs, and potentially the greatest barrier to MHK deployments, is the capital cost. An earlier NRC committee concluded that it will take at least 10 to 25 years before the economic viability of MHK technologies for significant electricity production will be known. A 2008 report evaluating the potential for renewable electricity sources to meet California’s renewable electricity standard found that the cost of electricity from waves and currents was higher than that from most other renewable sources and had a substantially greater range of uncertainty.

The best places for MHK are often far from urban centers

  • In-stream power: Alaska is by far the largest resource but it’s questionable whether it would work because rivers freeze up, the scour incurred during spring ice break-up would make year-round deployment a challenge and possibly require seasonal device removal.
  • Tidal resource: Alaska’s Cook Inlet
  • OTEC: only feasible near Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.


These challenges affect not only installation, maintenance costs, and electricity output, but also MHK scalability from small to utility applications

Time and Regulation

The time to get all the regulatory agencies at federal, state, and local levels to agree to a project is formidable and time-consuming.  MHK devices are far from being ready to scale-up to commercial levels.

Most of the ocean and rivers are too far to connect to the electric grid

The distance required to interconnect into the electricity system is critical, as it directly impacts the economic viability of a project.  Often the MHK device needs to be placed far from areas close to the grid because ports, cities, and other users already occupy prime grid-connection locations.

Connection to the grid is challenging and requires extra equipment due to harsh environmental conditions, intermittent and unstable load flows, variable energy output, lack of electrical demand near the generation, the length of cable from a device or array to a shore terminus, potential environmental impacts from the cable, permitting issues, and the reliability of the equipment.

The situation is even more complicated if there are large numbers of offshore generators, because connecting a large number of devices together with no load demand along the path of the network cable could produce an unstable system.

Tidal Power only generates power 2-4 times a day.

The potential of tidal power has long led to proposals of a barrage (a dam that lets water flow in and out) across the entrance of a bay that has a large range of height between low and high tides. It would generate power by releasing water trapped behind the barrage at high tide through turbines similar to a hydro-power facility. Or this could be done with in-stream turbines similar to the way that wind turbines work.

Scale:  A tidal amplitude of 3.3 feet would require over 110 square miles to produce 100 MW (enough to power about 70,000 homes). This is why tidal power is limited to regions with very large tides, which tend to be in the northern latitudes, far from any cities that could use the power. Even with a current speed of 3 meters per second, a 100 MW project would need a flow of nearly 40,000 cubic meters per second, which requires 120 turbines, each having a cross-sectional area of 120 square yards, or 24 turbines of 82-foot diameter. Many more turbines would be needed for more typical, smaller currents. This many large turbines are likely to interfere with existing water uses, and an array this large would have near-field back effects that reduce the current each individual turbine experiences.

More than 1 channel: Power is reduced if there’s more than 1 channel, which also tends to divert flow to other channels.

Engineering challenges: Corrosion, biofouling, and metal fatigue in the vigorous turbulence typically associated with strong tidal flows.

Conflicting uses: Some of the locations with the highest tidal energy density are also estuaries having ports with heavy commercial shipping traffic. It is likely that there will be limitations to the number and size of turbines and the depth at which they can be deployed so as not to interfere with established shipping lanes.

Why we can’t harvest tidal power (Carlyle 2014).

Tides don’t raise the mass of entire oceans. They actually raise very little mass, compared to the size of the oceans.

Tides occur due to slow horizontal flows of the oceans in response to lunar/solar gravity.  It’s the same as the surface of water in a drinking glass trying to find its level as you move the glass, but on a much bigger scale. So the only component of lunar/solar gravitational action which causes any appreciable net water motion is the part tangential to the curvature of the surface, or horizontal flow.

The pure upward/downward forces are simply not strong enough to cause any appreciable motion on their own. This is why ponds and lakes don’t have tides — they’re not big enough for horizontal water motion to add up to any meaningful water level differences. Tidal forces can’t really lift water, they can only weakly push it side to side.

Imagine sliding a cup of water around on a table. The surface level of the water will shift around as the cup is accelerated in various directions. But the majority of the water is not moving up or down. Tides are similar — it’s a side to side “sloshing” effect as the water tries to shift to one side of the “container”, not a true vertical lifting/dropping effect.

These horizontal flows redistribute the mass of water slightly around the planet, and thus create bulges/troughs of relative height changes on the surface. There are two potential harvestable energy flows here:

1) The rise and fall of the small bulges in water level

2) The horizontal flow of the large mass of ocean water

Throughout most of the world’s oceans, the tidal bulges are small in height — less than a meter. Also, the horizontal tidal flows are quite slow through most of the ocean.

This low-magnitude nature of tidal energy really, really matters, because it is extremely difficult to extract useful power from big, diffuse energy sources. In both cases, almost all of the total energy flux is spread over utterly enormous areas — far too large to be practical or cost-effective to harvest. We simply can’t build any device big enough to capture much of that energy.

In the end, the vast majority of the energy in tides is dissipated by turbulent flow as low-level waste heat — nothing we can capture. Just a small fraction could be captured via tidal dams and turbines without interfering with shipping or marine life or being absurdly expensive to build.

Tidal power is doomed to be permanently marginal as an energy source. The underlying natural energy flows just aren’t intense enough.

Failed tidal projects (Royte 2020)

In 1980, Nova Scotia Power began to convert a causeway spanning the tidal Annapolis River into North America’s first grid-connected tidal dam, or barrage. A hybrid of ancient tidal mill and modern hydroelectric plant, the barrage featured a four-bladed turbine 25 feet in diameter. On an outgoing tide, the device generated up to 20 megawatts. It operated for 35 years, but the barrage blocked fish migration, killed salmon and mackerel, trapped marine mammals, interfered with nutrient and sediment flows, and contributed to erosion. In January 2019, a mechanical problem shuttered the Annapolis tidal barrage, succeeding where decades of environmental opposition had failed.

In 2009, OpenHydro in Nova Scotia Power lowered a six-story-high, 400-ton circular turbine into Minas Passage. Within days, the current ripped the device apart because engineers underestimated the tide’s force. Seven years later they tried again with an 1,100-ton model. After generating just two megawatts the device was extracted for repair and upgrades after seven months, and another turbine was lowered. But within days, investors pulled out, bankrupting the company. The turbine rests on the seafloor to this day.

For a very technical explanation of a project in Swansea see: Andrews, R. May 25, 2015. A Trip Round Swansea Bay.

Wave Power

Power in ocean waves originates as wind energy transferred to the sea surface when wind blows over large areas of the ocean. The resulting wave field consists of a collection of waves at different frequencies traveling in many directions.

If energy is removed by a wave energy device from a wave field at one location, less energy will be available in the shadow of the extraction device, so a second row of wave energy devices won’t perform as well as the first row.  The planning of any large-scale deployment of wave energy devices would require sophisticated, site-specific field and modeling analysis of the wave field and the devices’ interactions with the wave field. 


One theoretical study on wave-device interaction modeled the Wave Dragon Energy Converter deployed in the highly energetic North Sea. They concluded that capturing 1 GW of power would require the deployment of a 124-mile-long single row of devices or a 5-row staggered grid about 1.9 miles wide and 93 miles long. This doesn’t take into account that the recovered power must be transformed into electricity and then transmitted. Because of the high development and maintenance costs, low efficiency, and large footprint, such devices would be a sustainable option only for small-scale developments considerably less than 1 GW close to territories with limited demand, such as islands.

It would take about 81 miles of wave machines to produce as much power as a typical power plant (1000 MW). Even if you built wind machines as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico along both coasts, you’d only get 9% of the electricity we use now (Hayden).

Wave Power Efficiency

None of these systems are likely to operate at efficiencies over 90% and will probably have more realistic efficiencies of 50-70%. This calls into question claims of wave energy facilities that capture 90% or more of the available energy.

Other Wave Power Issues

  • Waves are intermittent, which means energy production is spotty
  • Waves have a low potential energy that varies with the weather and only a small hydraulic head of 2 or 3 meters. Hence large volumes of water have to be processed which means large structures relative to power output
  • The waves are a challenge for energy harvesting since they not only roll past a device but bob up and down or converge from all sides in confused seas, plus have to cope with the period of the wave (Levitan)
  • No design that’s been investigated is very good at capturing a very large fraction of the energy over a range of wave conditions. If they’re designed to efficiently capture wave energy in “average” sea conditions, they’ll be totally overwhelmed in high sea conditions. If they’re designed for efficient energy capture in high sea conditions, they’ll be almost totally insensitive to the energy present in average conditions (HED).
  • These devices typically produce what’s known as low-frequency power, which can be difficult and expensive to convert to high-frequency electrical grids
  • Wave technologies have lots of electrical components, hydraulic fluids and oils — all presenting a pollution risk
  • So far about 30 wave power ventures have failed, such as Denmark’s “Wave Dragon”, the UK “Salter Duck”, Netherlands “Archimedes Wave Swing”, The Sea Clam, the Tapchan, the Pendulor, Finavera Renewables “AquaBuOY” in Oregon, Pelamis Wave Power in Portugal, Verdant Power’s East River project ($30 million spent so far), Pacific Gas & Electric’s wave energy testing program, Oceanlinx in Sydney, and Ocean Power Technologies in July 2014 canceled plans to build a wave energy project off the coast of Australia, saying it says is no longer commercially viable and will repay what it has received of a A$66.5M government grant, which was intended to be used toward the A$232M proposed cost of building the project.

Ocean Current Thermal Power (OTC)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is OTEC-ocean-thermal-energy-conversion-power.jpg

Ocean currents (excluding tidal currents) are affected by Coriolis forces and mainly generated by winds that cause strong, narrow currents which carry warm water from the tropics toward the poles, such as the Gulf Stream, with an ocean current in the Florida Strait that can exceed two meters per second.

The ocean current power team estimated the Florida current could generate 14.1 GW, or 62% of the 20 GW maximum power obtainable.

NAS thought that figure was way too high for many reasons and concluded that maximum power that could be extracted is 1 and 2 GW at best.

Or it may be less than 1-2 GW:

  1. If the high turbine density in the water column diverted the Florida Current and forced the flow around the Bahamas
  2. Seasonal variability and meandering might limit the placement of turbines to just a few narrow areas where the flow was consistent

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) Power

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is the process of deriving energy from the difference in temperature between surface and deep waters in the tropical oceans. The OTEC process absorbs thermal energy from warm surface seawater found throughout the tropical oceans and ejects a slightly smaller amount of thermal energy into cold seawater pumped from water depths of approximately 1,000 meters. In the process, energy is recovered as an auxiliary fluid expands through a turbine.

NAS thought the study should have been limited to just the areas this could possibly work: the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. Hawaii could generate 143 TWh/yr, the Mariana Islands (including Guam) 137 TWh/yr, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands 39 TWh/yr. The majority of this resource is found far from the United States near Micronesia (1,134 TWh/yr) and Samoa (1,331 TWh/yr).

OTEC would increase global warming

Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution, California, and Stanford colleagues report in Environmental Research Letters that when they began to simulate an ocean dotted with vertical pipes that exchanged deeper and shallower waters, found that “Prolonged application of ocean pipe technologies, rather than avoiding global warming, could exacerbate long-term warming of the climate system.” Kwiatkowski, L., et al. March 19, 2015. Atmospheric consequences of disruption of the ocean thermocline. Environ. Res. Lett. 10

The efficiency  is so low  — just 3 to 4 percent — that it may take more electricity to pump the deep cold water to the surface than is generated by the process.

The continental U.S. resource is very seasonal and limited, and it is unlikely that plant owners would want to operate only part of the year.

OTEC plants are vulnerable to corrosion, strong currents, tides, large waves, hurricanes, and storms, and remaining anchored.

OTEC could cause environmental damage.

OTEC plants must be near tropical islands with steep topography to make it easier to reach deep cold water and transmit power to shore.

The committee estimated the global OTEC resource could be 5 TW (a 100-MW plant every 30 miles in the tropical ocean). In reality, this would never happen because you need to connect them to land-based electric grids.

OTEC needs very large equipment and very high seawater flow rates

OTEC systems are similar to most other heat engines. There are significant practical aspects that make it difficult to implement, mainly from the small available temperature difference of only ~20ºC between the warm and cold seawater streams. Because of the low efficiencies, OTEC plants require very large equipment (e.g., heat exchangers, pipes) and seawater flow rates (~200-300 cubic meters per second for a typical 100-MW design) that exceeds any existing industrial process to generate a significant amount of electricity.

OTEC needs to be near existing electric power systems

The cold-water pipe is one of the largest expenses in an OTEC plant. As a result, the most economical OTEC power plants are likely to be open-ocean designs with short vertical cold-water pipes, close enough to shore to connect to existing electric power systems.

Concerns with tides, variation in power output, shear current effects on the cold-water pipe

The committee is concerned about the variations in isotherm depth due to internal tides, which can be significant near islands. For example, deep isotherm displacements of as much as 50 or even 100 m are common near the Hawaiian Islands, which could induce a 5-10 percent variation in power output over the tidal cycle. In addition, areas with strong internal tides will also impose strong shear currents on the cold-water pipe. Seasonal variations could lead to a 20% variation in power output in Hawaii over the course of the year. Even more dramatic changes result from fluctuations due to El Niño or La Niña in the central tropical Pacific, where the committee estimates variations in power production as high as 50 percent. The assessment group largely fails to address the temporal variability issue.

Spacing must be far apart given the huge seawater requirements

Clearly, a key question for determining the OTEC technical resource would be how closely plants could be spaced without interfering with each other or excessively disturbing the ocean thermal structure. At regional and global scales there could be a variety of impacts on the ocean arising from widespread deployment of OTEC.

There are many interesting physics, chemistry, and biology problems associated with the operation of an OTEC plant. Whitehead suggested that an optimal plant size would be around 100 MW in order to avoid adverse effects on the thermal structure the plant is designed to exploit.

Smil (2010) points out that sinking a long pipe into cold waters < 4°C beneath the warm subtropical or tropical seas, whose daily high temperatures are > 25°C, and using the temperature difference to generate electricity, has a fundamental thermodynamic problem:  The difference in temperature between the hot and cold reservoir, a mere 20°C, is tiny compared to the difference in a large thermal electricity generating plant, where the temperature is over 500°C. Hence, the efficiency of the process is so low (typically 3-4%) that it may take more electricity to pump the deep cold water to the surface than is generated by the process.

In-Stream Hydrokinetic Power

In-stream hydrokinetic energy is recovered by deploying a single turbine unit or an array of units in a free-flowing stream.  Estimates of the maximum extractable energy that minimizes environmental impact range from 10 to 20% of the naturally available physical energy flux.

There are many limiting factors that will reduce the in-stream hydrokinetic energy production

These factors include but are not limited to ice flows and freeze-up conditions, transmission issues, debris flows, potential impacts to aquatic species (electromagnetic stimuli, habitat, movement and entrainment issues), potential impact to sites with endangered species, suspended and bedload sediment transport, lateral stream migration, hydrodynamic loading during high flow events, navigation, recreation, wild and scenic designations, state and national parklands, and protected archeological sites. These considerations will need to be addressed to further estimate the practical resource that may be available.

Navigable waters are a resource for a number of sectors, and coordinating their use is an immense logistical challenge that will definitely impact in-stream energy development.

NAS criticisms of the DOE report

This is just a very small part of the criticisms scattered throughout the report, much of which criticizes the data, methods, and conclusions of each of the 5 contractors, such as:

The committee was disappointed by the resource groups’ lack of awareness of some of the physics driving their resource assessments, which led to simplistic and often flawed approaches. The committee was further concerned about a lack of rigorous statistics, which are essential when a project involves intensive data analysis. A coordinated approach to validation would have provided a mechanism to address some of the methodological differences between the groups as well as a consistent point of reference. However, each validation group (chosen by individual assessment groups) determined its own method, which led to results that were not easily comparable. In some instances, the committee noted a lack of sufficient data and/or analysis to be considered a true validation. The weakness of the validations included an insufficiency of observational data, the inability to capture extreme events, inappropriate calculations for the type of data used, and a focus on validating technical specifications rather than underlying observational data.

The committee is also concerned about the scientific validity of some assessment conclusions.

All five MHK resource assessments lacked sufficient quantification of their uncertainties. There are many sources of uncertainty in each of the assessments, including the models, data, and methods used to generate the resource estimates and maps. Propagation of these uncertainties into confidence intervals for the final GIS products would provide users with an appropriate range of values instead of the implied precision of a specific value, thus better representing the approximate nature of the actual results.

The committee has strong reservations about the appropriateness of aggregating theoretical and technical resource assessments to produce a single-number estimate for the nation or a large geographic region (for example, the West Coast) for any one of the five MHK resources. A single-number estimate is inadequate for a realistic discussion of the MHK resource base that might be available for electricity generation in the United States. The methods and level of detail in the resource assessment studies do not constitute a defensible estimate of the practical resource that might be available from each of the resource types. This is especially true given the assessment groups’ varying degrees of success in calculating or estimating the technical resource base.

Challenging social barriers (such as fishery grounds, shipping lanes, environmentally sensitive areas) or economic barriers (such as proximity to utility infrastructure, survivability) will undoubtedly affect the power available from all MHK resources, but some resources may be more significantly reduced than others. The resource with the largest theoretical resource base may not necessarily have the largest practical resource base when all of the filters are considered. It is not clear to the committee that a comparison of theoretical or technical MHK resources—to each other or to other energy resources—is of any real value for helping to determine the potential extractable energy from MHK.

Site-specific analyses will be needed to identify the constraints and trade-offs necessary to reach the practical resource.

Quantifying the interaction between MHK installations and the environment was a challenge for the assessment groups. Deployment of MHK devices can lead to complex near-field and/or far-field feedback effects for many of the assessed technologies. Analysis of these feedbacks affects both the technical and practical resource assessments (and in some cases the theoretical resource) and requires careful evaluation. The committee noted in several instances a lack of awareness by the assessment groups of some of the physics driving their resource assessments, such as the lack of incorporation of complex near-field and/or far-field feedback effects, which led to simplistic and sometimes flawed approaches. The committee was further concerned about a lack of rigorous validation.

As part of the evaluation of the practical resource base, there seemed to be little analysis by the assessment groups of the MHK resources’ temporal variability. The committee recognized that the time-dependent nature of power generation is important to utilities and would need to be taken into account in order to integrate MHK-generated electricity into any electricity system.

DOE requests for proposals did not offer a unified framework for the efforts, nor was there a requirement that the contractors coordinate their methodologies. The differing approaches taken by the resource assessment groups left the committee unable to provide the defensible comparison of potential extractable energy from each of the resource types as called for in the study task statement. To do so would require not only an assessment of the practical resource base discussed by the committee earlier but also an understanding of the relative performance of the technologies that would be used to extract electricity from each resource type. Simply comparing the individual theoretical or technical MHK resources to each other does not aid in making such a comparison since the resource with the largest theoretical resource base may not necessarily have the largest practical resource base. However, some qualitative comparisons can be made, especially with regard to the geographic extent and predictability of the various MHK resources. Both the ocean current and OTEC resource bases are confined to narrow geographic regions in the United States, whereas the resource assessments for waves, tides, and in-stream show a much greater number of locations with a large resource base. As for predictability, while there is multi-day predictability for wave and in-stream systems, especially in settings where the wave spectrum is dominated by swells or in large hydrologic basins, the predictability is notably poorer than for tidal, where the timing and magnitude of events are known precisely years into the future.

Overall, the committee would like to emphasize that the practical resource for each of the individual potential power sources is likely to be much less than the theoretical or technical resource.

Tidal resource NAS criticisms

Based on the final assessment report, the assessment group produced estimates of the total theoretical power resource. However, this was done for complete turbine fences, which essentially act as barrages. The group did not assess the potential of more realistic deployments with fewer turbines, nor did they incorporate technology characteristics to estimate the technical resource base. It is clear, however, that the practical resource will be very much less than the theoretical resource.

Because power is related to the cube of current speed, errors of 100% or more occur in the prediction of tidal power density in many model regions. In the Pmax scenario, the fence of turbines is effectively acting as a barrage, so that Pmax is essentially the power available when all water entering a bay is forced to flow through the turbines. Pmax is thus likely to be a considerable overestimate of the practical extractable resource once other considerations, such as extraction and socioeconomic filters are taken into account.

Allowing for the back effects of an in-stream turbine array deployed in a limited region of a larger scale flow requires extensive further numerical modeling that was not undertaken in the present tidal resource assessment study and is in its early stages elsewhere. However, a theoretical study by Garrett and Cummins (2013) has examined the maximum power that could be obtained from an array of turbines in an otherwise uniform region of shallow water that is not confined by any lateral boundaries. The effect of the turbines is represented as a drag in addition to any natural friction. As the additional drag is increased, the power also increases at first, but the currents inside the turbine region decrease as the flow is diverted and, as in other situations, there is a point at which the extracted power starts to decrease. The maximum power obtainable from the turbine array depends strongly on the local fluid dynamics of the area of interest. Generally, for an array larger than a few kilometers in water shallower than a few tens of meters, the maximum obtainable power will be approximately half to three-quarters of the natural frictional dissipation of the undisturbed flow in the region containing the turbines. In deeper water, the natural friction coefficient in this result is replaced by twice the tidal frequency. For small arrays, the maximum power is approximately 0.7 times the energy flux incident on the vertical cross-sectional area of the array (Garrett and Cummins, 2013). Estimates of the true available power must also take into account other uses of the coastal ocean and engineering challenges.

Conclusions & Recommendations. The assessment of the tidal resource assessment group is valuable for identifying geographic regions of interest for the further study of potential tidal power. However, although Pmax (suitably modified to allow for multiple tidal constituents) may be regarded as an upper bound to the theoretical resource, it is an overestimate of the technical resource, as it does not take turbine characteristics and efficiencies into account. More important, it is likely to be a very considerable overestimate of the practical resource as it assumes a complete fence of turbines across the entrance to a bay, an unlikely situation. Thus, Pmax overestimates what is realistically recoverable, and the group does not present a methodology for including the technological and other constraints necessary to estimate the technical and practical resource base. The power density maps presented by the group are primarily applicable to single turbines or to a limited number of turbines that would not result in major back effects on the currents. Additionally, errors of up to 30% for estimating tidal currents translate into potential errors of a factor of more than 2 for estimating potential power. Because the cost of energy for tidal arrays is very sensitive to resource power density, this magnitude of error would be quite significant from a project-planning standpoint. The limited number of validation locations and the short length of data periods used lead the committee to conclude that the model was not properly validated in all 52 model domains, at both spatial and temporal scales. Further, the committee is concerned about the potential for misuse of power density maps by end users, as calculating an aggregate number for the theoretical U.S. tidal energy resource is not possible from a grid summation of the horizontal kinetic power densities obtained using the model and GIS results. Summation across a single-channel cross section also does not give a correct estimate of the available power. Moreover, the values for the power across several channel cross sections cannot be added together. The tidal resource assessment is likely to highlight regions of strong currents, but large uncertainties are included in its characterization of the resource. Given that errors of up to 30% in the estimated tidal currents translate into potential errors of more than a factor of 2 in the estimate of potential power, developers would have to perform further fieldwork and modeling, even for planning small projects with only a few turbines.

The tidal resource assessment is likely to highlight regions of strong currents, but large uncertainties are included in its characterization of the resource. Errors of up to 30% in the estimated tidal currents translate into potential errors of more than a factor of two in the estimate of potential power. Although maximum extractable power may be regarded as an upper bound to the theoretical resource, it overestimates the technical resource because the turbine characteristics and efficiencies are not taken into account.

Waves. The theoretical wave resource assessment estimates are reasonable, especially for mapping wave power density; however, the approach taken by the assessment group is not suitable for shallow water and is prone to overestimating the resource. The group used a “unit circle” approach to estimate the total theoretical resource, which summed the wave energy flux across a cylinder of unit diameter along a line of interest, such as a depth contour. This approach has the potential to double-count a portion of the wave energy if the direction of the wave energy flux is not perpendicular to the line of interest or if there is significant wave reflection from the shore. Further, the technical resource assessment is based on optimistic assumptions about the efficiency of conversion devices and wave-device capacity, thus likely overestimating the available technical resource. Recommendation: Any future site-specific studies in shallow water should be accompanied by a modeling effort that resolves the inner shelf bathymetric variability and accounts for the physical processes that dominate in shallow water (e.g., refraction, diffraction, shoaling, and wave dissipation due to bottom friction and wave breaking).

The wave power team used a model that’s only accurate in water depth over 164 feet deep (50 m). Yet shallow-water regions are where developers might prefer to put wave machines to minimize the distance to connect to the grid, and would be easier and cheaper to build and maintain if close to shore. NAS recommended a model for shallow be used next time, one with much higher spatial resolution that includes shallow-water physics (e.g., refraction, diffraction, shoaling, wave dissipation due to bottom friction and wave breaking).

Nor did they capture how often very large waves or extreme weather events are likely to occur that might destroy or harm the wave power equipment, and the model was likely to double count part of the wave energy, and even when this was pointed out, continued to use this methodology even though it “clearly overestimates the total theoretical resource”.

The mechanical and electrical losses in the transformation processes and transmission significantly reduce the technical resource, typically to 15-25% of the recoverable power. So the Energetech prototype would have had a technical power resource of just 4.5% to 7.5% of the incident wave’s theoretical power.

Estimates of the current state of wave-energy technology are not based on proven devices.

Ocean Currents. The ocean current resource assessment is valuable because it provides a rough estimate of ocean current power in U.S. coastal waters. However, less time could have been spent looking at the West Coast in order to concentrate more fully on the Florida Strait region of the Gulf Stream, where the ocean current can exceed 2 m/s. This would have also allowed more focus on the effects of meandering and seasonal variability. Additionally, the current maps cannot be used directly to estimate the magnitude of the resource. The deployment of large turbine farms would have a back effect on the currents, reducing them and limiting the potential power. Recommendation: Any follow-on work for the Florida Current should include a thorough evaluation of back effects related to placing turbine arrays in the strait by using detailed numerical simulations that include the representation of extensive turbine arrays. Such models should also be used to investigate array optimization of device location and spacing. The effects of meandering and seasonal variability within the Florida Current should also be discussed.

Ocean Current Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)

The group chose to use a specific OTEC plant model proprietary to Lockheed Martin as the basis for its resource assessment, a 100-MW plant, a size generally considered to be large enough to be economically viable and of utility-scale interest yet small enough to construct with manageable environmental impacts. Since no plants this large have yet been built, there are many technical and environmental challenges to overcome before even larger plants are attempted.

The committee views the use of the HYCOM model for assessment of the theoretical resource to be inadequate and also regards the application of a specific proprietary Lockheed Martin plant model with a fixed pipe length to be unnecessarily restrictive.

The DOE funding opportunity for OTEC was the only one to specify that the assessment should include both U.S. and global resources, and the assessment group chose to focus on the global resource. The committee believed, however, that more emphasis should have been placed on potential OTEC candidates in U.S. coastal waters. To demonstrate this point, the committee evaluated equation 1 and used the National Oceanographic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s World Ocean Atlas data to map this function for a 1,000-m pipe length, a TGE efficiency of 0.85, and PL of 30 percent. This simple exercise shows that in USA territory, the coastal regions of the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa would be the most efficient sites for OTEC.

The committee is also concerned that the 2-yr HYCOM run will not provide proper statistics on the temporal variability of the thermal resource. Although it does include both El Niño and La Niña events, 2 years is not sufficient to characterize the global ocean temperature field with any reliability. Longer datasets are widely available, so it is not clear why the assessment group limited itself in this way. Ocean databases that extend for more than 50 years are readily available; these data would allow assessment of the inter-annual variability in thermal structure due to El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to be evaluated. The advantage of HYCOM’s higher resolution over earlier estimates from coarser climatologies may vanish if HYCOM is used without appropriate boundary conditions near the coasts, resulting in inaccurate seasonal and inter-annual statistics on thermal structure. Without these abilities, this study is not much more valuable than prior maps of global ocean temperature differences, which already identified OTEC hot spots.

The OTEC assessment group’s GIS database provides a visualization tool to identify sites for optimal OTEC plant placement. However, assumptions about the plant model design and a limited temperature data set impair the utility of the assessment. Recommendation: Any future studies of the U.S. OTEC resource should focus on Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where there is both a potential thermal resource and a demand for electricity

In-Stream power from rivers and streams

The theoretical resource estimate from the in-stream assessment group is based upon a reasonable approach and provides an upper bound to the available resource; however, the estimate of technical resources is flawed by the assessment group’s recovery factor approach (the ratio of technical to theoretical resource) and the omission of other important factors, most importantly the omission of statistical variation of stream discharge. Recommendation: Future work on the in-stream resource should focus on a more defensible estimate of the recovery factor, including directly calculating the technically recoverable resource by (1) developing an estimate of channel shape for each stream segment and (2) using flow statistics for each segment and an assumed array deployment. The five hydrologic regions that comprise the bulk of the identified in-stream resource should be tested further to assure the validity of the assessment methodologies. In addition, a two- or three-dimensional computational model should be used to evaluate the flow resistance effects of the turbine on the flow

Additional references

Carlyle, R. 2014. It has been calculated that the earth’s oceans contain about 14,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Kg of water. Tidal energy raises the whole mass multiple times daily. How can we tap into this enormous energy?

Chalmers, K. 2019. Massive wave energy buoy nearing completeion in Portland. news

EIA. 2020. International Energy Statistics. Petroleum and other liquids. Data Options. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Select crude oil including lease condensate to see data past 2017.

Hayden, Howard. 2005. The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World

HED. 7 May 2003. Hawaii Economic Development Department study.

Levitan, David. 28 Apr 2014. Why Wave Power Has Lagged Far Behind as Energy Source.

Martin, Glen. 4 Aug 2004. Humboldt Coast Wave power plan gets a test. San Francisco Chronicle.

Royte, E. 2020. The push for tidal power faces its biggest challenge yet. Smithsonian.

Smil, V. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. AEI Press.

Posted in Waves & Tidal | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Even a small nuclear war could cause 1+ billion deaths

Preface. Carl Sagan first introduced the idea of a “nuclear winter”, which helped to end the cold war.  The smoke from fires started by bombs would absorb so much sun the earth wold grow cold, dry, and dark, killing plants on land and in the water world-wide, jeopardizing the whole human race.  New findings indicate that even a small regional nuclear war could have the same effect globally.  Global deaths would result far from the initial conflict.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that war between India and Pakistan is growing every more likely: 2016-05-04 Nuclear battles in South Asia and moved the doomsday clock to 3 minutes to midnight.

In a future nuclear war it is likely that the attacker will use a bomb to initiate an Electromagneticpulse (EMP) blast to take a nation’s electric grid down since a limited nuclear war would also kill their own citizens: The EMP Commission estimates a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill up to 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse

Both Jägermeyr (2020) and Toon (2019) below imply millions, if not billions of deaths given that the entire world would suffer a 25-50% decline of crops and fish for ten years.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Jägermeyr, J., et al. 2020. A regional nuclear conflict would compromise global food security.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan with just 50 Hiroshima-sized detonations could perturb the climate for at least 5 to 10 years, send temperatures plunging 1.8 C (3.25 F), and lower production of maize, wheat, rice, and soybeans four times more than any drought, flood, or volcanic eruption in history.  Worst hit are nations 30°N, including the United States, Europe, and China for 10 to 15 years.  But this affects the whole world because much of production from the north is exported.  Maize reserves are gone after 1 year, wheat after 2, ending exports to poor nations which already have food insecurity and are barely able to feed themselves with imports. At least 1.3 billion would see their food supplies drop by more than 20%, including nations that now export grains.

This is a conservative estimate since India and Pakistan may have much larger bombs than used in Hiroshima. Also, they weren’t included in the study to avoid mixing the direct effects of war with the indirect climate effects on agriculture.  But it would be reasonable to assume food production in both nations would drop almost to zero, with additional deaths from radioactive fallout, and stratospheric ozone depletion allowing more UV rays in damaging people and agriculture even more globally.

Toon OB. 2019. Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe. Science.

Surface sunlight will decline by 20 to 35%, cooling the global surface by 2° to 5°C and reducing precipitation by 15 to 30%, with larger regional impacts. Recovery takes more than 10 years. Net primary productivity declines 15 to 30% on land and 5 to 15% in oceans threatening mass starvation and additional worldwide collateral fatalities.

Should a war between India and Pakistan ever occur, as assumed here, these countries alone could suffer 50 to 125 million fatalities, a regional catastrophe. In addition, severe short-term climate perturbations, with temperatures declining to values not seen on Earth since the middle of the last Ice Age, would be triggered by smoke from burning cities, a global disaster threatening food production worldwide and mass starvation, as well as severe disruption to natural ecosystems. Compounding the devastation brought upon their own countries, decisions by Indian and Pakistani military leaders and politicians to use nuclear weapons could severely affect every other nation on Earth.

Major crop-growing regions of North America and Eurasia experience declines of NPP averaging 25 to 50% over this time. Very large reductions in NPP occur in India, China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, as well as in tropical South America and Africa. Ocean reductions in NPP are highest in the Arctic, where production is almost entirely extinguished. In addition, in many regions where major fisheries exist, production is significantly reduced, including the North Atlantic and North Pacific, where NPP decreases by 25 to 50%. Together, the reductions in temperature, primary productivity, and precipitation suggest major disruptions to human and natural systems worldwide.

Robok, A.  19 April 2007. Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Robock, A. 2011. Nuclear winter is a real and present danger. Nature 473: 275-6

Toon, O.B., et al. 2019. Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe. Science Advances.

Alan Robock and Woen Brian Toon: “Some people think that the nuclear winter theory developed in the 1980s was discredited. And they may therefore raise their eyebrows at our new assertion that a regional nuclear war, like one between India and Pakistan, could also devastate agriculture worldwide. But the original theory was thoroughly validated. The science behind it was supported by investigations from the National Academy of Sciences, by studies sponsored within the U.S. military, and by the International Council of Scientific Unions, which included representatives from 74 national academies of science and other scientific bodies.”

  • Just 100 of the smallest of the 17,000 nuclear bombs that exist dropped on cities and industrial areas in a fight between India and Pakistan would start firestorms that would put massive amounts of smoke into the upper atmosphere, about 5.5 million tons (5 million metric tons) of black carbon. This ash would absorb incoming solar heat, cooling the surface below.
  • Even a very small regional nuclear war on the other side of the planet could disrupt global climate for at least a decade by wiping out the ozone layer for 10 years. These particles would block the sun, making the earth’s surface cold, dark and dry. Agricultural collapse and mass starvation could follow. Hence, global cooling could result from a regional war, not just a conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
  • Cooling scenarios are based on computer models. But observations of volcanic eruptions, forest fire smoke and other phenomena provide confidence that the models are correct.  Colder temperatures would reduce global rainfall and other forms of precipitation by up to about 10 percent. This would likely trigger widespread fires in regions such as the Amazon, and it would pump even more smoke into the atmosphere.
  • Global average surface temperatures would drop suddenly by about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), their lowest levels in more than 1,000 years. In some places, temperatures would get significantly colder — most of North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East would experience winters that are 4.5 to 10.8 degrees F (2.5 to 6 degrees C) colder, and summers 1.8 to 7.2 degrees F (1 to 4 degrees C) cooler. The colder temperatures would lead to lethal frosts worldwide that would reduce growing seasons by 10 to 40 days annually for several years. [The Top 10 Largest Explosions Ever]
  • Survivors will find that the pollution from dioxins, PCBs, asbestos, and other chemicals will make the air unhealthy to breath.

Human toll. An all-out nuclear war between India and Pakistan could slaughter people locally and lead to more deaths across the planet.

  • 20 million people in the region could die from direct bomb blasts and subsequent fire and radiation.
  • 1 billion people worldwide with marginal food supplies today could die of starvation because of ensuing agricultural collapse.

If war broke out between two countries and 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, each the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT, were dropped on cities, the smoke from these fires would result in a giant ozone hole that would last for 5 years or more.  The worst effects would be the northern high latitudes, with a 50-70% ozone loss (and 20% globally, 25-45% mid-latitude).

The resulting increase in UV radiation would kill or harm plants and animals resulting in serious consequences for human health.

The ash that absorbed heat up in the atmosphere would also intensely heat the stratosphere, accelerating chemical reactions that destroy ozone. This would allow much greater amounts of ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth’s surface, with a summertime ultraviolet increase of 30 to 80 percent in the mid-latitudes, posing a threat to human health, agriculture and ecosystems on both land and sea.

The ozone losses predicted here are significantly greater than previous “nuclear winter/UV spring” calculations… Our results point to previously unrecognized mechanisms for stratospheric ozone depletion”.

The absorption of sunlight by the stratospheric soot produces a global average surface cooling of 1.25°C persisting for several years and large reductions in precipitation associated with the Asian summer monsoon and other disruptions to the global climate system.

Previous studies had estimated that global temperatures would recover after about a decade. However, this latest work projected that cooling would persist for more than 25 years, which is about as far into the future as the simulations went. Two major factors caused this prolonged cooling — an expansion of sea ice that reflected more solar heat into space, and a significant cooling in the upper 330 feet (100 meters) of the oceans, which would warm back up only gradually.

Depletion of the ozone column relative to normal conditions may impact living organisms, which are usually adapted to local UV radiation levels. Increased UV radiation is largely detrimental, damaging terrestrial and oceanic plants and producing skin cancer, ocular damage, and other health effects in humans and animals. Conclusive evidence shows that increased UV-B radiation damages aquatic ecosystems, including amphibians, shrimp, fish, and phytoplankton. The effects of sunlight on the biota are quantified as a product of the sun’s spectrum at the Earth’s surface and the action spectra for biologically damaging processes, such as erythema, carcinogenesis, and photoinhibition. An analysis of biological sensitivity to UV spectral changes concluded that a 40% ozone column depletion at 45°N – as computed here – would increase DNA damage (believed related to carcinogenesis) by 213%, and plant damage (e.g., photoinhibition) by 132% relative to normal conditions.

The global-scale ozone reductions predicted here for relatively small injections of sooty smoke into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere indicate an unexpected sensitivity associated with such perturbations, and suggest that certain events-such as regional nuclear conflicts, or geo-engineering schemes based on absorbing carbonaceous aerosols-might pose an unprecedented hazard to the biosphere worldwide. Our regional nuclear scenario involves <0.1% of the yield of nuclear weapons that currently exist. The current build-up of arsenals in an increasing number of states suggests scenarios in the next few decades that are even more extreme. The potential hazard to global ozone, and hence terrestrial biota, deserves careful analysis by governments worldwide advised by a broad section of the scientific community.

Nuclear material is spreading, making wars more likely (Conant 2013)

Already many nations have nuclear weapons: Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.  Japan could easily construct nuclear weapons if they wanted to, and other nations are in the process of acquiring them (i.e. Iran).

Russia wants to supply nuclear power globally.  If a country can’t afford the $3 billion price tag, Russia will cut a deal for a Rent-A-Reactor.

Russia has plans to build 40 reactors on their own soil, and another 80 world-wide by 2030. Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom has already built nuclear plants in Turkey, Vietnam, China, and India. New potential clients include Nigeria, Finland, Eastern block countries, Algeria, Indonesia, Namibia, and Middle Eastern countries. Rosatom is even interested in the United States, where they already provide half of America’s nuclear fuel.

Nuclear proliferation experts are alarmed:

  • Nuclear bomb material and know-how will be spread widely. Some of the scarier countries Russia is courting are Myanmar (Burma), Iran, and Belarus.
  • Russia is not known for putting a high priority on safety.
  • Russia plans to build fast-breeder reactors. A meltdown could create an explosion that would blow the top off and send out highly toxic radioactive plutonium, uranium, cesium, and iodine quite a distance.
  • Mass production of small nuclear plants generating just 300 to 500 MW would spread nuclear risk accidents and proliferation of nuclear bomb material even more widely
  • Worse yet, Russia plans to build floating reactors, which have the potential to poison entire oceanic food chains, are hard to defend against terrorists, and are vulnerable to tsunamis.

Rosatom will take the nuclear waste back to Russia.  No other company offers that. It’s a huge selling point. Very few countries have permanent geological repositories to put nuclear waste in. After Yucca mountain was shut down as a possibility, America has no location in sight, and probably never will with Congress so divided and focused on other issues.

When will our luck run out?

Ron Rosenbaum in his book “How the end begins: the road to a nuclear World War III” explains how and why nuclear weapons will inevitably be launched. He also recounts the many times a nuclear war was almost launched — sometimes by accident — and how flawed the complex reasoning of Mutually Assured Destruction is to begin with. He concludes:  “I think only luck has saved us, and our luck is bound to run out.”

What other nuclear nations besides North Korea will try nuclear blackmail after peak oil?

North Korea is portrayed as a nation run by insane ruler, but building nuclear weapons to blackmail other nations for oil is a predictable consequence of the collapse that followed a drastic reduction of their fossil fuels after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote “the world is likely to say that the North Koreans are acting “irrationally.” But this is not the case — they are a very rational regime, actually the world’s most Machiavellian. North Korean leaders are sending a message…using both artillery and centrifuges to say: “We are here, we are dangerous, and we cannot be ignored. We can make a lot of trouble, but also we behave reasonably if rewarded generously enough.  … U.S. policy toward Pyongyang has been based … on the assumption that North Korea can be persuaded and bribed into surrendering its nuclear program. It is an illusion: The survival of the North Korean regime depends to a large extent on its blackmail diplomacy. There has never been a chance that it would surrender its nuclear program, which alone makes it possible to extract sufficient aid from the outside world.

The entire world is on the cusp of the energy cliff — will other nations also try this tactic?

Though North Korea may have been more predisposed to take this route given their long and tragic history, including being occupied by the Japanese in the 1920s, massively destroyed by the Korean War in 1950-53, and major natural disasters in the mid-1990s.   With little farmland and poor soils, the North Korean population was far past their carrying capacity when massive fossil fuel and food imports dropped suddenly after the collapse of the Soviet Union – millions of people may have died as a consequence (Pfeiffer, Wikipedia).

Even the USA might nuclear blackmail the world

Even the United States might be tempted, according to Erik Townsend: “While the use of nuclear weapons … might seem unthinkable today, the USA has yet to endure significant economic hardship. … a government operating in crisis mode to hold off systemic financial collapse … would change the mood considerably. All the USA has to do in order to secure an unlimited supply of $50 per barrel oil is to threaten to nuke any country refusing to sell oil to the U.S. for that price. Unthinkable today, but in times of national crisis, morals are often the first thing to be forgotten. We like to tell ourselves that we would never allow economic hardship to cause us to lose our morals. …What we’ll do in a true crisis that threatens our very way of life is anyone’s guess.  If faced with the choice between a Soviet-style economic collapse and abusing its military power, the USA just might resort to tactics previously thought unimaginable.”

When you consider the crazy hate talk and massive denial of science in the United States right now, when times are good, it’s not hard to imagine how hard times could drive America into fascism, and demagogues elected with massive funding from corporations – hell, it’s already happening.

I wrote this in 2013, and now with Trump’s election this surely brings us closer to nuclear war.  Who knows what he meant by this tweet: The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.  At any rate, I was dismayed by how many men in the peak oil movement said that Hillary was the warmonger, not Trump!  It’s not hard to find a fact-checking site to check on this. It sure looks to me like Trump is more likely to get us into war: Donald Trump on War & Peace.

Some people would say we’ve been blackmailing the Saudi Arabia for decades now by giving them an offer they couldn’t refuse, a mafia-style relationship with Saudi Arabia, where nearly half of the world’s cheap, easy oil remains.  In return for defending the Saudis from other nations, we get some of their oil and prevent other nations from controlling it.  China, Russia, and Europe certainly know any attempt to take the Saudi or other Middle Eastern oil would result in nuclear Armageddon.

Most nations don’t have nuclear weapons, and will try to cope as best they can like Cuba did, where their Peak Oil predicament was handled quite differently.  Every country and region within a country will need their own survival strategy when their oil supplies plummet, as I wrote in “Lessons Learned from How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”.

James Howard Kunstler, in “The Long Emergency” writes: “Those of us who lived at the time of the Cultural Revolution must remain impressed by China’s potential for lapsing into political psychosis. China’s material progress in the past four decades has also been impressive.  This progress coincided with the global oil fiesta now culminating in the production peak.  When that enabling mechanism is withdrawn by historical circumstance, China may not hold together.  If it implodes in political chaos, there is no telling what will happen with its neighbor (and historic enemy) Japan.  Japan has even less oil and natural gas than China…it might be subject to nuclear blackmail…or drawn into the violent vortex of China’s meltdown…”


Choi, C. Q.  February 22, 2011. Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming for Years: Regional war could spark “unprecedented climate change,” experts predict. National Geographic News.

Conant, E. October 17, 2013. Russia’s new Empire: Nuclear Power. The federation is aggressively selling reactors all over the world, raising safety concerns. Scientific America.

Friedemann, Alice. 7 June 2006. Lessons Learned from How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Kunstler, James Howard. 2005. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Lankov, Andrei. 24 Nov 2010. North Korean Blackmail. New York Times.

Mills, M.J.  8 Apr 2008. Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol 105:14:5307-5312.

Murray T. 9 Dec 2011. Recipe for Nuclear Winter.

Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. 17 Nov 2003. Drawing Lessons from Experience; The Agricultural Crises in North Korea and Cuba. From the Wilderness.

Pimentel, David.  in “Population Politics” by Virginia Abernethy (2000)

Robock, Alan et al., January 2010. LOCAL NUCLEAR WAR. Worry has focused on the U.S. versus Russia, but a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could blot out the sun, starving much of the human race.  Scientific American.  Original paper: 19 April 2007. Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Smil, Vaclav Smil. 2000. “Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production”.

Townsend, Erik. 6 Jan 2013. Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System. ASPO-USA

2 July 2012. War-Related Climate Change Would Reduce Substantially Reduce Crop Yields.  ScienceDaily.

Posted in Extinction, Nuclear | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Maddow’s “Blowout”, Russian peak oil, corruption, fake news

Preface.  Since this blog focuses on peak resources, I drastically rearranged my notes from this book in the order I found most interesting. I’m also interested in corruption, Putin, fake news, and more, as you’ll see below.  Since the book is 405 pages, I’ve obviously left out quite a bit, so buy it if you want to know more and much better flow and continuity.

Although peak oil is often spoken of as a geological issue, it can also stop flowing from wars, financial crashes, and in Russia’s case, from corruption.

By the way, Russia isn’t communist any more. It is a mafia totalitarian state. The only 5 nations that are still “communist” are North Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Maddow, R. 2019. Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. Crown.

Russia Peak Oil & Corruption

Putin had decided that Russia would be a petro-state—choosing an economic future for his country that best served his own needs. Oil and gas could be wielded as an international cudgel to force other countries to respect and deal with Russia no matter anything else Russia did. The industry also—bonus!—trailed enough easy cash to generate almost instant, almost limitless corruption wherever needed. And when you have those kinds of goals in mind for your one indispensable industry, and you run that industry like a Mafia chop shop with less omertà, eventually the actual business side of your dark little authoritarian scheme is going to suffer. Both financially and in its basic technical competence. And indeed, by 2014, the bright red star of Russian energy was dimming.

Putin used Russian natural gas and oil not only to make money for the Russian state but also to keep neighboring countries corrupt and dependent. It solved so many problems. It reduced expectations for democratic governance and the rule of law in those countries. It created a corruptly empowered political class invested in preserving the Russia-dependent system that enriched its practitioners and their families. It also created comfortable space for organized crime to flourish. The Russian government, under Putin’s control, has steadily become more integrated with all kinds of transnational organized crime in the former Soviet sphere.   The beauty of Putin’s ever-deepening kinship with the mob was that it gave him a whole other set of levers with which to settle problems—and to make problematic people go away—whenever it might be unseemly to wield the overt powers of the state.

There were substantial problems in 2012, and almost all of them of Putin’s making. Gazprom, for instance, wasn’t really able to keep up with all the new European demand, because its production capabilities sucked. The company hadn’t invested in new technologies, because as a state-sanctioned monopoly propped up by the Russian government and therefore free from competition, it really hadn’t needed to. Dig deep enough in the company accounting ledgers and you’d find that Gazprom lost about $40 billion a year to corruption and waste. That’s a loss nearly equal to its annual profits.

Why was the state gas company buying TV stations? Well, why not? Gazprom was better understood not as an energy company but as a big battering ram President Putin used to get stuff he wanted. So yes, inefficient, money-bleeding, crappy Gazprom owned a television station and a bunch of other media properties, but only because Putin had arranged it in order to silence one of the few remaining critical voices in the Russian press. Vladimir used his security forces to arrest and to intimidate the critic who owned the media company, and then he used Gazprom as the piggy bank to buy the company at a steep jailhouse discount. Independent television journalism in Russia was thus dealt another blow, and Putin would instead have another reliable mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s party line.

For pure waste, though, little in the Gazprom history measured up to the Nord Stream gambit. “We’re spending money like hell,” said Managing Director Matthias Warnig, an old pal of Putin’s from their spy days. Nord Stream was a pipeline project that was built from both sides at once—from Russia and from Germany. Same pipeline, same materials, same building standards. But the Russian side of the construction project (led by the Rotenberg brothers of St. Petersburg, and remember them) cost three times as much, per mile of pipeline, as the German side did. That money was not going into the pension and health fund of the Russian pipe fitters’ union; it went into the pockets of Putin and his pals. The founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, James Grant, sized up Gazprom and rated it, simply, “the worst managed company on the planet.” Congratulations, citizens of Russia, that’s the hash your government managed to make of the globe’s biggest supplies of natural gas.

Putin had been gangstering up the Russian oil industry for years. Eschewing competition that might encourage innovation and meritocratic success, Putin instead just smashed and grabbed any homegrown enterprises that proved resourceful or entrepreneurial or attractive to legitimate investors—goodbye, Yukos. He harassed foreign interlopers, too. He invented a dubious environmental violation bill of attainder, to force Shell Oil to hand over controlling interest to Gazprom in a $20 billion project in the far east of Russia.

Wheel of Fortune. Putin and the Russians “have essentially been coasting on the assets inherited from the Soviet Union,” Gustafson explained in talks promoting his book back in 2012. “Virtually all of Russian oil comes from fields that were already known in Soviet times. There have been very few new discoveries that are producing today. The drama of this situation is that the inheritance is now starting to run down….

It might have been dawning on Putin, under that bright red Lukoil canopy in New York in September 2003, that in allowing Russian businessmen—even patriotic Russian businessmen—to do business with ExxonMobil and BP and Chevron and Shell, he risked losing his iron grip on the industry that provided the lifeblood of the Russian state.

There was still plenty of oil and gas underfoot in Russia. But it was in the tight shale formations, or offshore in the Arctic seas, and it was going to be both difficult and expensive to get. “Bottom line is Russia is not running out of oil, but it’s running out of cheap oil,” explained Gustafson. “That looks pretty bleak….

More Corruption

The country, meanwhile, has eroded into a stultifying economic sinkhole for average Russians. “Despite receiving $1.6 trillion from oil and gas exports from 2000 to 2011, Russia was not able to build a single multi-lane highway during this time. There is still no interstate highway linking Moscow to the Far East,” Karen Dawisha wrote in her richly detailed 2014 book, Putin’s Kleptocracy. “The inability of well-trained young graduates to succeed as entrepreneurs and innovators in Russia has stimulated emigration and plans to emigrate.” Dawisha went on to quote a pollster in Moscow on the plight of young Russians: “They have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to hope for.” “The lack of adequate medical care produces five times more deaths from cardiovascular disease among women in Russia than in Europe,” the professor wrote. “More Russian women die annually from domestic violence than the number of soldiers the USSR lost in the entire Afghan war. For Russian men, the situation is even grimmer. Poor workplace and road safety standards, plus high rates of suicide and homicide combine with the negative health effects of high alcohol consumption to make life especially precarious….According to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy of a fifteen-year-old male is three years lower in Russia than in Haiti.

Russia under Putin has become warped and stunted—a gigantic multi-continental country of 150 million souls, living on an economy considerably smaller than Italy’s.

When the Resource Curse takes hold in a country as big and influential and aggressive as 21st century Russia, it turns out to be the entire world’s problem. What has happened to Russia is like when a faraway humanitarian concern morphs from a charity cause into an international terrorism threat. Russia’s Resource Curse has become a malignant tumor spreading through the rest of the world.

But as Putin’s Russian Federation revealed itself to be a robustly corrupt, authoritarian regime happily committed to securing its own survival by force, it repeatedly and increasingly put itself into rogue state territory, and that ultimately screwed up its ability to play in the global markets as if it were some kind of normal country. Putin’s best-known exports list has lately comprised the most dreaded organized crime syndicates on earth, money laundering on such a massive industrial scale that it can bring down whole national cornerstone banks in any part of the globe, exotic assassinations, rogue-state-friendly weapons systems, illegal out-of-uniform military incursions, and the first seizure of another country’s territory in Europe since World War II. That sort of activity can get in the way of a country’s global business operations, on the odd chance that there’s anyone on the face of the globe who sees it as their responsibility to punish and isolate the kinds of international bad actors that invade their neighbors, shoot down civilian airliners, and send intelligence officers armed with nerve agent to assassinate their exiles in British cathedral towns.

If the problem is that Russia’s behavior is too outré to be accepted in the global economy, then change the expectations for what counts as outré. Be the leveler. Corrupt other countries. Gain control over the former Soviet states in the near abroad by owning their politicians, by controlling the range of possibilities their people are allowed to choose for themselves. Ruin exemplars of governance and responsive democracy. Support separatism and the dissolution of bonds and treaties and Western norms wherever they’re vulnerable. Become internationally powerful through force (when you can muster it) or sabotage. Cheating is now Russia’s most viable avenue in world affairs.

This is the vexing predicament facing the Kremlin: Putin’s thug dream of resurgent Russian dominance—fueled by oil and gas—is one that can’t come true without international help to make his one indispensable industry capable of competing in the global market. And he can’t get that international help as long as he’s recognized as a gangster and treated like one.

So as of 2015, Putin faced a rapidly diminishing ability to use oil and gas as a substitute for legitimate global power, and no way forward without some kind of move—any move, no matter how nutty—to get those sanctions lifted and to relieve Russia of the burden of U.S.-led opprobrium and global Western leadership. It was worth trying almost anything.

As Special Counsel Mueller and reporters throughout Europe and America have made clear, the Russian Federation ultimately embarked on a deliberate and aggressive campaign to tear apart Western alliances, to rot democracy, and to piss in the punch bowl of free elections all over the civilized world. It continues to this day. And Putin isn’t doing this because of Russia’s strength. Not according to people who have watched the action up close. Russia “gives the impression that I am a lion who walks through the world hitting France with one paw, with the other Britain and America,” says Romanian security expert Dan Dungaciu. “But it is not a lion. It is rather in the role of a hyena, which senses a crisis and goes there and plays on the crisis.

Russian fake news and interference in 2016 election

it’s clear that jobs at Internet Research were coveted. Most of the hundreds of young people who worked at 55 Savushkina made around $700 a month; under the table, in cash. No need to report it to the tax authorities. This was very good money indeed for playing make-believe on your computer, twelve hours a day (two days on, two days off). The salary was equal to that of a full professor at a local university

Most all of the fun at Internet Research was in creating personas that could comment and blog and post and tweet and network with people anywhere in the world: a European fortune-teller who opined on dating, dieting, crystals, and feng shui; a young professional woman who unleashed bons mots about Kim Kardashian’s latest nekkid selfie; a specialist in vintage automobile repair living on a sunny coast in Central America; a movie critic in Los Angeles. “It was an opportunity for them to live a life they always dreamed about and to pretend to be somebody else,

“They can be a gorgeous knockout. They can be bodybuilders. They can live in any part of the globe. In America. They could live the life they’ve always wanted to live—through the internet.

The Internet Research Agency was engaged in constant, rapid-response-driven information warfare. Speaking to co-workers was frowned upon. Talking about the work to anybody outside the building was forbidden. The nondisclosure form was the first thing a new employee signed. Show up late and you were docked pay. Fall short on the quota of work and you were docked pay. The folks on the social media teams were expected to produce five political posts, ten nonpolitical posts, and more than 150 comments every two days. Without fail.

The topics and tenor of the political content were decided at the top, every day. “We’d come in, turn on a proxy server to hide our real location and then read the technical tasks we had been sent,” an Internet Research Agency employee explained to The Guardian in March 2015. Most of the technical tasks the previous year, as the agency was getting its sea legs, centered on Ukraine—looking for ways to justify Putin’s invasion and takeover of Crimea and his ongoing military effort to do the same in the Donbas. Daily tasks called for savaging the new democratically elected, pro-EU, pro-U.S., anti-Russian government in Kyiv. They were fascists, anti-Semites, baby killers. Ukrainians fighting in their own country against out-of-uniform Russian soldiers and artillery and tanks were invariably described as “terrorists.” The more shocking the fake stories about heinous atrocities committed by the Ukrainians against the Russian “freedom fighters” in the Donbas, the better.

In the first days of March 2015, immediately following the assassination of the Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, technical task orders spurred hundreds of posts and tweets pointing fingers at Ukraine for the murder. It wasn’t Putin but the government in Kyiv that had killed Nemtsov! How does that even remotely make sense? Oh, follow along, why don’t you. See, the Ukrainians killed him as an exercise in reverse psychology. Shooting Nemtsov on the night before his big antiwar march was designed to stir up anti-Putin opposition in Russia! Killing an anti-Putin leader—that’s obviously a plot against Putin. “The murder is pure provocation….The state is doing everything to catch Nemtsov’s murderers….[Putin’s] best specialists have been sent to fulfill this goal.” There was no evidence, no hint of corroboration, to back up this nonsensical claim. Which means you just have to make it more loudly and more frequently.

And it wasn’t just about shaping the response to real events that people would normally be talking about. The Internet Research Agency spread word of stories and ideas and characters that would otherwise not get a second glance if it weren’t for the artificial hype its employees were churning out on a twenty-four-hour no-rest double-shift schedule. The morning after Foreign Minister Nathan Smith (Texas National Movement) gave his interview across town in St. Petersburg, Internet Research trolls were tasked to weigh in on the momentous secession crisis facing the Lone Star State. Dozens of tweets and social media posts started popping up, ready to be shared and retweeted, all across America. And in not particularly bad English.

Internet Research soon set up its own Facebook page promoting secession—and it was a hit! “Heart of Texas” drew followers by the tens of thousands, all of whom could be spoon-fed content devised by Russian agents in St. Petersburg and in turn pass it on to who knows how many Facebook friends and Twitter followers. “Heart of Texas” was one of scores of separate IRA-controlled Facebook pages

They had to get up to speed on American culture and politics, and specifically the most contentious and divisive issues of the day—immigration, gun laws, race, the Confederate flag. They had to spend hours screening one slightly cartoonish but very popular political series on Netflix. “At first we were forced to watch the ‘House of Cards’ in English,” said one of the trolls who worked at IRA in 2015. “It was necessary to know all the main problems of the United States of America. Tax problems, the problem of gays, sexual minorities, weapons. Our goal wasn’t to turn Americans toward Russia. Our goal was to set Americans against their own government. To provoke unrest, provoke dissatisfaction.

We also know that the Kremlin-run trolls at the Internet Research Agency were actively spewing incendiary provocations and content designed to promote Donald Trump leading up to, and all the way through, the 2016 general election campaign, and then through the start of the Trump administration. Content created by the Internet Research Agency and its brethren is known to have reached well over a hundred million Americans in the election season. The IRA greatest hits Facebook pages were “Stop A.I.” (meaning “All Invaders,” complete with many graphics of scary-looking Muslims), “Being Patriotic,” “Blacktivist,” and “Heart of Texas.” Each of those pages got more than eleven million discrete engagements.

African American voters—the bread and butter of the Democratic base vote—appear to have been targeted more aggressively than any other demographic, to turn them against Clinton or to dissuade them from voting altogether. “A particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary,” said the IRA-invented Woke Blacks. “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.

The IRA-created United Muslims of America posted an ad that read, “American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue war on Muslims in the middle east and voted yes for invading Iraq.” An official-sounding but fake “TEN_GOP” account—often assumed to be registered to the Republicans’ state party in Tennessee—shouted out a make-believe story about the election board in Broward County illegally counting tens of thousands of fraudulent mail-in ballots marked for Hillary.

As the election neared, the Internet Research Agency pros turned both rhetorical barrels on Hillary Clinton. If the Democratic nominee won the presidency, a “Heart of Texas” Facebook ad screamed two weeks before the election, there would be no choice but to secede. Because another Clinton in the White House would mean “higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens. More refugees, mosques, and terrorist attacks. Banned guns. Continuing economic depression.

They found the most ragged faults and fissures in our democracy: immigration, race, religion, economic injustice, mass shootings. Then they poured infectious waste into them. They used traditional media, social media, and disinformation to try to make citizens of differing experiences and viewpoints hate and distrust each other as much as possible; made public discourse and discussion as evil and mean-spirited and alienating as possible; created miserable expectations for coarseness and cruelty and blatant dishonesty in politics and civic life.

The Russian operation pushed American politicians and political parties to more and more extreme positions; it celebrated all manner of fringe, splinter, and radical politics and demonized centrists, moderates, and anybody on any point of the ideological spectrum who actually believed the levers of government could be harnessed for anything useful at all. And his achievement came cheap. A thousand—ten thousand—highly trained Illegals chatting up middle managers at conferences and dead dropping their expense forms could never have pulled off something this high-impact. This new type of operation was infinitely more effective, and bargain-basement affordable, and, because it worked, the blowback has been minimal. At basically zero cost, Putin succeeded in his biggest aim: he corrupted and polluted our most treasured possession, our democracy.  

Tillerson and Russia

Russia was dependent on foreign know-how in oil and across the board for that matter, as can be seen in how few inventions were patented there, Russia took home only 0.2 percent of the 1.3 million overseas patents awarded since 2000 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, lagging behind the state of Alabama in total annual awards.

Rosneft sucks. It wasn’t as if it got big and powerful by streamlining its supply chains and inventing stuff. Rosneft sucks all the time, but especially lately, when—because of sanctions against Russia for its terrible international behavior—it no longer has access to all that nifty Western Arctic- and shale-drilling technology it needs to reap that increasingly hard-to-get Russian oil.

Russia’s economic future therefore depends on Putin making deals with major international oil and gas companies who can be counted on to understand his imperatives and to not care at all about ethics and governance and geopolitical consequences of their cozying up to the Kremlin. Those kinds of deals aren’t just beneficial to the Russian economy; they’re critical necessities for Putin’s one-track plan for twenty-first-century Russia. And it turns out that as long as Putin is honoring the “sanctity of contract” and implementing friendly tax laws, industry leaders from the West have shown little hesitation in making those deals. That’s the business part.

Here comes the hero. Here comes the handsome hero.  Aside from being the possessor of impressive (and very valuable) technological prowess—or so it was said—Tillerson had shown himself a savvy strategist, both in business and in geopolitics. Why was Exxon (under Tillerson) welcomed with a bear hug when Shell and BP and even Exxon (before Tillerson) had all been roared at and given such a hard time? Well, for one, Tillerson was not making boneheaded Lee Raymond–esque demands about getting majority control of Rosneft; Rex made clear—in word and in deed—that he was fine with Putin staying in charge; he just wanted to be a good minority partner. He also seemed dialed in to the foreign policy game afoot in Russia.

In the ExxonMobil-Rosneft megadeal, ExxonMobil was giving as well as it was getting. Rosneft received 30% stakes in a handful of ExxonMobil’s projects in North America, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. In exchange, ExxonMobil was getting a crack at unlocking all that hard-to-get oil and gas in the tight formations in Siberia, in the Black Sea, and, most important and most difficult, in the Arctic waters of the Kara Sea. The up-front costs would be enormous. The project could be on line for more than twenty years. Total spending might well run into the hundreds of billions.

The arctic in 2008, “accounts for about 22% of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources in the world. The Arctic accounts for about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of the undiscovered natural gas liquids.” A lot of that potential hydrocarbon haul—maybe most of it—resided in Russian territory. But it wasn’t going to be easy to get,

What the Russians brought to the oil and gas game north of the Arctic Circle in 2012 was sheer brute force. Which was much needed. Almost any maritime operation in the Arctic promised a punishing battle against the harshest nature can offer. The Northern Sea Route from Murmansk, Russia (up near the northern coast of Finland), through the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi Sea, and out through the Bering Strait was navigable only a few months a year because of ice.

Americans like to think the dueling-superpower thing ended conclusively with the Cold War, with the United States now the undisputed winner in every conceivable matchup between the two countries. But in ice water? Turns out Russia still ruled. In 2011, a tanker chartered by Russia, the STI Heritage, made the quickest Northern Sea Route run of that year—just eight days—with two nuclear-powered, fresh-vegetable-producing icebreakers clearing the way. Russian-escorted tankers filled with tens of thousands of tons of iron, jet fuel, and gas condensate had made the Arctic transit more than thirty times that year. The Russian Federation was already writing big checks to manufacture four even larger and more powerful icebreakers to lead the fleet. Three of them double-reactor nuclear. Which meant the Russians would be able to plow out to offshore Arctic drilling sites and to deliver crude oil and liquid natural gas from that icy domain to almost any country in the world, for years to come.

But here was the problem: despite its unrivaled ice-busting prowess, Russia didn’t bring much to the actual offshore drilling operations in the frozen north. Russian companies, for instance, offered little in the way of useful drilling rigs or equipment of any kind—not even basics like subsea wellheads. In 2012, having made Russia’s economy and its power in the world almost entirely dependent on oil and gas, Putin faced a serious conundrum: his ability to maintain Russia’s place as an “energy superpower” depended almost entirely on availing himself of the expertise and technology of major Western oil companies. Russia had oil companies, sure, but they were gangster economy creations, and not one of them was technically or even financially competent.

They all wanted in, of course. The potential profits were ginormous. But success in the Russian Arctic would require overcoming two very difficult challenges. First, some Western oil major would have to figure out the proper care and feeding of Vladimir Putin, given the desperately high stakes of oil and gas for his presidency. Look at the ashes of Yukos; look at the chewed-up remains that Putin and Sechin spit out from what used to be BP’s “joint venture” in the country. This was going to be a delicate thing. What Western company would be willing to put itself in service to the Russian government, in service to Putin? Whose shareholders, whose home country, would stand for it? Which executives could stomach making that kind of arrangement?  And then there was the second difficult prospect for this potential partnership. No one much liked to talk about it. But, um, were the Western oil majors actually capable of drilling up in the Arctic? They said they were, but could they really do it?

Exxon had in fact sunk a ton of money into this potentially globally transformational project. It could change Exxon’s future, and Russia’s, and the world’s. One immediate problem it faced, though, was the weather in the Arctic. The Exxon-Rosneft team had a window of about 70 days before the ice floes closed in on the drilling platform.

Tillerson’s efforts on behalf of President Putin to lift sanctions after his invasion of Ukraine were not merely secondhand, or sotto voce. At a public forum that spring, Rex insisted rather churlishly that sanctions were rarely effective—because they were, as a rule, poorly implemented. Tillerson was apparently not at all concerned that he might be undermining a critical and very delicate U.S. foreign policy strategy, that threats of economic isolation from the U.S. government would not be quite so worrisome to Putin if the head of the biggest U.S. oil company was simultaneously jumping into his lap. He just kept jumping. Tillerson assured his shareholders at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting that the upcoming drilling campaign in the Russian Arctic was still a go.


Thank God for Russia. Thank God for the honeypot of known oil reserves in western Siberia, not to mention the vast untapped reserves off Russia’s Arctic shelf. Lukoil had five Arctic-ready, icebreaking oil tankers on order at that very moment

There was already a plan afoot, worked out among the energy pooh-bahs of the Bush and Putin administrations. U.S. companies would help finance a new pipeline from the oil fields in western Siberia to the Russian port city of Murmansk, as well as new storage tanks there and improved deep-water facilities commodious enough for big tankers to maneuver in and out.

Putin thought that Russia could be supplying 10% of U.S. oil imports before George W. Bush finished his second term in office. Maybe more.    “It’s not just oil,” Bush’s deputy secretary of energy had said on a reconnaissance visit to Murmansk. “Natural gas is also going to be an important factor in our energy relations.

The future U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul—was just beginning to take the measure of the new Russian president and had already warned of the risk that Putin would evolve into an autocrat who monopolized control of government and the economy behind the window dressing of democratic institutions.

Hopes for a world-changing American-Russian partnership—the canopy to protect us all from the vagaries of the international and political weather—have long since crumbled. As has the idea of Vladimir Putin as a force for global stability.

His efforts to restore Russia as a world-stage superpower no longer depend on capacity and know-how. They depend on cheating. Putin and his minions cheat at the financial markets. They cheat at the Olympics. They cheat at their own fake democracy. They cheat other people out of their democracies.

I do not propose to discount or minimize the powerful and positive effects the producers of our hydrocarbons have had on our own country and on the world at large. I like driving a pickup and heating my house as much as the next person, and the through line between energy and economic growth and development is as clear to me as an electric streetlight piercing the black night.

I also want to be clear: the oil and gas industry is essentially a big casino that can produce both power and triumphant great gobs of cash, often with little regard for merit. That equation invites gangsterism, extortion, thuggery, and the sorts of folks who enjoy these hobbies.

Russia’s one essential industry today has to keep up even with the West, even with the democracies. Putin knows Russia can’t do it alone, but it also won’t do it together—not if it has to be on the West’s terms. And so the West’s terms must be changed. Behold the new world disorder. Behold the foreign trolls in your Facebook feed.

How Putin rose to power

Yeltsin did manage to install his own replacement on his way out of office: a little-known pol who appeared both willing and able to shield the Yeltsin family from criminal prosecution—forty-seven-year-old Vladimir Putin. A trained Soviet KGB operative then heading its successor outfit, the FSB, Putin had done the sitting Russian president the memorable favor of successfully derailing the criminal investigation into the Yeltsin clan. He did so by blackmailing Russia’s prosecutor general with a fake sex tape. Putin made sure the grainy tape of an actor playing the prosecutor general and two prostitutes (playing themselves) was broadcast on Russian television. The poor quality of the video rendered it unconvincing, but Putin made an appearance at the TV studio that night to personally vouch for the tape’s authenticity. His word sufficed.

The prosecutor resigned, and the case against Yeltsin was abruptly closed. Yeltsin had rewarded the FSB boss’s intrepidity by nominating him to be the next prime minister. So when Yeltsin stepped aside on the final day of the twentieth century, Vladimir Putin was the next man up for the Russian presidency

Putin and his security-minded retinue had learned a few tricks for exercising power after branching off from spying into politics to run Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, in the early 1990s. Like the Yeltsin-made oligarchs, they found that democracy and capitalism, harnessed just so, could still deliver personal benefits just like the old communist regime did. Putin’s team installed and managed a vigorous kleptocracy from their offices at city hall. The citizens of St. Petersburg might suffer from want of food and electricity and decent wages, but Deputy Mayor Putin and his key aides made out splendidly.

Putin’s St. Petersburg clan relied on graft, financial manipulation, and violence as needed. There was no government or civil institution powerful enough to check them. The courts and the legal system were not instruments of justice in siloviki hands but instruments of power, or vlast. “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law,” the saying went. Putin and his siloviki carried these tools from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1996 (at Yeltsin’s invitation)

The Russian people got a less soothing picture of exactly what Putin meant to accomplish in the days leading up to his inauguration, when a leading liberal newspaper in Moscow published the secret siloviki manifesto Reform of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. The document was tidy, easy to understand, and uncommonly forthright. Control over the economy and politics would once again devolve to a central authority, that is, the president’s office. The legislature of the Russian Federation, the Duma, would be rendered impotent, as would local governors, administrators, and politicians—no matter how seemingly friendly. Key media outlets would be bought and controlled by the Russian government, to help provide “active agitation and propaganda” in support of Putin, and to actively discredit and undermine any opposition to the same. Who would be in charge of the state’s new modern adventure in securing permanent, unitary, unchallenged power? The institution Putin most trusted: the FSB. “All of the special and secret activities of the Directorate relating to counteracting the forces of opposition to the President,” read the manifesto, “will be entirely in the hands and under the control of the special services.

The toughest nut for Putin to crack when he first took office was the question of the oligarchs Yeltsin left behind (and their powerful gangster counterparts). A few months into his new regime, President Putin called them all, including Khodorkovsky, to a meeting at Stalin’s old dacha just outside Moscow, still outfitted with the desk and daybed from which Stalin dreamed up his Great Purge of enemies and elites. With that unsubtle setting as an ambient cue, Putin laid down the new law, or more precisely, the new balance of vlast. They could hold on to their ill-gotten gains, Putin told them, and operate as they had for the last decade, as long as they offered no opposition to the new regime in the Kremlin.

All this might have been forgiven, considering the extraordinary tax revenue Yukos was adding to the Russian government till (as much as 5% of the annual government take, according to Gessen), but Putin believed by then that Khodorkovsky was also in the middle of entering into a pact that was something near treason. It wasn’t just the noise about promoting anti-Putin political parties; it was worse: Putin learned he was negotiating the deal with Lee Raymond and Raymond’s number two, Rex Tillerson, that would give ExxonMobil 30% of Yukos—a deal that might one day permit the American company to gain controlling ownership of the most able and impressive company in the single crucial industry in Russia. Russia might not have been a superpower anymore, it might not have had a first-world military or economy or anything else anymore, but by God Russia had oil. And now Russia was supposed to willingly give that up, too? The thought, to Vladimir Putin, must have been somewhere between nauseating and enraging. Khodorkovsky’s great meritocratic free-market ride came to a screeching halt.

J. P. Morgan joined Morgan Stanley as one of the four joint global coordinators and book runners while Goldman Sachs signed on as a senior co–lead manager. To put it bluntly, Rosneft’s IPO campaign ended up making the world complicit in Putin’s theft of Yukos and spread the shame of it around the globe. The markets knew the Russian government had ripped off that company and framed its leader, flat out stealing billions from Yukos shareholders. But Morgan Stanley and the markets and the investors in those markets chose to look the other way because the potential payoff was too enticing.

Putin could imagine the world lining up to pay respects at his doorstep, according to The New York Times, in spite of his gangster behavior and in spite of the fact that the Russian oil and gas industry he controlled was known for its “tumbledown” machinery and technological deficiencies. “President Vladimir V. Putin has elevated energy to a central position in Russia’s foreign policy,” the newspaper wrote in 2006, “giving Moscow influence and respect in world affairs not seen since the demise of the Soviet Union, as consuming nations court the Kremlin for access to ever scarcer energy.

Oil Corrupts

The basic problem is that oil doesn’t happily coexist with other industries upon which you might build a reasonably stable national economy. That’s true in the third world, the first world, and even in the world in between, e.g. Russia. It creates such large, up-front, sweat-free gains for connected elites that no one wants to do anything else but chase the oil jackpot. And as oil crowds out other industries, the profits don’t ever seem to end up redounding to the nation at large. Extracting oil takes a lot of up-front capital investment, but that expensive initial, physical investment doesn’t create anything utile for any other purpose.

Oil extraction is much more capital-intensive than it is labor-intensive—which means it doesn’t produce a lot of lasting jobs.

Even with less rapacious political elites, there’s still the baseline problem that oil is a tradable commodity subject to wild international winds; with big swings in the price of oil, any effort at long-term, sane budgeting and investment for the population’s basic needs is impossible in a country newly dependent on oil revenues for its cash.

Russia’s power and wealth comes from oil and gas

While the median household in the oil exporter Norway enjoyed an income of more than $50,000, and Saudi Arabia about $25,000, the median household income in Russia was less than $12,000. Oil exporters such as Algeria, Venezuela, Qatar, Kuwait, and of course Saudi Arabia held back enough crude that their citizens at least got fuel at rock-bottom prices. Russians received no such break. And even if a Russian could afford an entire tank of full-price petrol, the state of the roads made driving dicey. A trip on any of the major thoroughfares connecting Moscow’s international airport to downtown was an obstacle course of potholes.

At a state visit in Berlin in September 2005, Putin persuaded the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to sign on to a partnership to build a new 750-mile pipeline under the Baltic Sea to carry Gazprom gas into Germany. Gazprom would then take large ownership stakes in the new Nord Stream pipeline and new storage facilities across Europe. The European Commission nodded in approval of Nord Stream, especially after proposals to extend the pipeline into the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. News of the deal came as a relief to Western Europe, where natural gas reserves were dwindling so fast there was fear they’d be entirely depleted in five years. Europeans desperately wanted and needed that plentiful Russian gas to heat their homes and run their factories.

On New Year’s Day 2006, Putin offered Europe a little demonstration of just how vital was his proposed new pipeline and just how desperate things could get if it went unbuilt. That day, as the frigid season was setting in across Europe, Gazprom made sudden drastic cuts in its supply of gas into Ukraine, which at that time held the only extant pipelines from Russia into the rest of Europe. Ukraine predictably siphoned off the gas it needed from the supply transiting through its landscape into other European countries. Gas deliveries into Austria dropped by a third the next day; gas deliveries to Hungary fell by 40% on the day following. Slovakia, also down 40%, declared a national emergency. Industrial output in Bulgaria and Romania ground to a stop. While these and other European nations shivered in panic, the Russians pointed the finger at Ukraine for stealing the natural gas bound for them, and insisted Gazprom customers could not rely on Ukraine to play fair with EU-bound gas. By the time the Russians made peace with Ukraine and turned the spigot back on, the new Nord Stream (which bypassed the allegedly pilfering Ukrainians entirely) was the talk of Europe.

By the time the Nord Stream project broke ground in 2010, Team Putin had proposed a second and longer pipeline, South Stream, which would carry gas from Russia across the Black Sea and then as far as Austria and Italy. Nord Stream had been on line for almost six months in March 2012, when Putin won a third presidential term. Russia was supplying the European Union 40% of its natural gas imports while cutting Ukraine out of the deal. Gazprom supplied every single cubic meter of imported natural gas up the line to EU members Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. It supplied about a third of Germany’s natural gas imports (as well as a third of its oil imports). Add to that, Russia had completed a new pipeline for pumping oil into China, the country with the fastest-growing economy and the fastest-growing energy needs

To discerning eyes in 2012, a map of the two pipelines transiting much of the continent appeared like a pair of giant pincers with which Russia would squeeze Europe.

More Russian corruption

Putin’s record $12 billion Winter Games budget had ballooned to $50 billion, according to the report. This made the final price tag for Sochi the biggest ever for an Olympic Games, winter or summer. Almost ten times the cost of the immediately previous 2010 Vancouver Games. More than the cost of the previous 21 Winter Olympics combined. Nemtsov generously pointed out that major budgetary overruns are the rule in these projects. Vancouver’s final bill, for instance, was a little more than double the original estimate. But that was nothing like what happened in Sochi. The cost of constructing the new thirty-mile highway and rail line leading from the Black Sea into the snowy mountains had run to more than three times the cost of the recent American space program to send a rover to the planet Mars (which is 34 million miles away). A new natural gas pipeline, built by the same Kremlin-favored Russian company that had built the inexplicably expensive Russian side of the Nord Stream pipeline, came in at five times the average cost of a European pipeline. Labor costs did not account for any markups. Pay was lousy and spotty on every project. Workers who complained aloud were silenced with firings or even beatings.

Kremlin contractors simply imported foreigners who were willing to work 80-hour weeks and didn’t whine when their lousy, $2-an-hour wages were delayed or never paid. Putin’s builders had pocketed somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion in “embezzlement and kickbacks.  More than 90 percent of the money spent on the Games came right out of the Russian Federation’s government accounts. “The money stolen,” read the report, “could have paid for 3,000 high-quality roads, housing for 800,000 people or thousands of ice palaces and soccer fields all over Russia.

The flow of goods and cash into Sochi set off a full-on organized crime war that left a trail of dead gangsters.

Putin was the proud owner of a new compound as well, this one in the mountains outside Sochi. “It is called Lunnaya Polyana, or Moon Field, a reference to the barren landscape upon which it sits,” wrote Forrest. “It is protected by some of the 30,000 Spetsnaz special-forces troops that Russian military has dispersed into the mountains, there to live in tents until the Olympics are over. Putin has built himself two massive chalets, two helipads, a power station, and two ski lifts, servicing surrounding peaks.” Smack in the middle of what was supposed to be a protected national park, “the Russian state built a private dacha on a UNESCO site under the guise of conducting meteorological research.

Russia vs Ukraine

In the aftermath of his forcible annexation of Crimea, Putin was enjoying an enormous surge in popularity inside Russia. This first step in the advent of what he called Novorossiya (New Russia)—restoring the lost territory and the old glory of a faded empire—had caused Putin’s personal approval ratings to jump into the mid-80s by the summer of 2014. The approval numbers among his long-standing base constituency of poor, rural, less-educated Russians had ticked up to around 90%. The approval numbers among the urban intelligentsia, meanwhile, soared from below 50 to 75%. Russians had suddenly decided—after ten years of saying otherwise—that they would rather be struggling citizens of a superpower nation with swagger than struggling citizens of a beat country.

The international community was alarmed, if not outright horrified, that the Russian putsch hadn’t stopped there. Putin’s military had also massed soldiers, tanks, and artillery on the Ukrainian border as a sign of encouragement to separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, a region known as the Donbas. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population in those two oblasts had voiced support for annexation to Russia. Putin’s commanders explained they had moved military assets to the border in case they were called to sweep in and protect the Russian-speaking population in these oblasts from the depredations of Ukrainian leaders who had taken charge of the federal government in Kyiv.

The area nearby also accounted for something near 90 percent of Ukraine’s oil and gas production, and fracking technology promised to open new fields.

Ukraine had been a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the early twentieth century, but a conflicted one. The citizenry’s sense of itself as a separate and sovereign nation was never extinguished, and when it finally got the chance in 1991, the industrialized nation of fifty million chose independence, with an exclamation point. Nine in ten Ukrainians voted “yes” in the world-changing Act of Independence referendum that year. Even in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking oblasts on the Russian border like Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea, voters overwhelmingly picked independence. Three years later, the new Ukrainian government traded in its nuclear arsenal—the third largest in the world behind the United States and Russia at the time—for “security assurances.” The United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia signed on to the Budapest Memorandum in December 1994. Ukraine handed over its 176 long-range missiles and its nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads, and in return the other major nuclear powers agreed to respect Ukraine’s existing borders and its sovereignty.

The West chipped in with a large aid package. Cash-poor Russia promised what it could, and what it could promise was a robust and ongoing supply of cheap energy.

Ukraine had a mammoth appetite for gas—for Russian gas. The country consumed more fuel as a percentage of its GDP than any nation in the world, and its fuel of choice was natural gas. The country bought three-quarters of its supply through Russia’s state-controlled monopoly, Gazprom; it also made money transiting Russian gas through pipelines to Gazprom customers in Europe. So even after the Orange Revolution and the election of Yushchenko, Russia still managed to keep a hold on the reins of Ukraine’s economy, and its politics—which was perfect, as far as Putin was concerned. The infinitely corruptible energy business allowed Putin to pick and choose who would be rich and who would be powerful in Ukraine. He had learned this system well in St. Petersburg and then in Moscow, and it fast became Putin’s strategy for projecting Russian power beyond its borders. The biggest threat he had to keep at bay was the prospect of strong, rich, stable, Western-oriented democracies in Russia’s near abroad. That sort of thing could not only challenge or constrain Russia’s regional power; it could conceivably—the horror—inspire the Russian people themselves, leading them to demand a democratic say in their own government as well.

There was fantastical corruption at the very heart of the Ukrainian state, and so would the prospect of all the richest and most powerful and influential people in Ukraine being dependent on Russia’s every whim. It cost Gazprom a pretty penny—straight out of Russian government coffers—but it was worth it. Firtash (as well as some of Putin’s other Ukrainian oligarchs) would have plenty of cash to spread around to shape their country in ways that Putin would appreciate. Some of that cash went back to Moscow as tribute. Even more of it went to prop up Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which meant a whole bunch of it passed through or ended up in the offshore bank accounts of the mercenary American political operative Paul Manafort, who was always available to help his friend Yanukovych, for a price. The price ended up being about $75 million over the course of a decade.

Manafort was clearly quite taken with Dmitry Firtash, the source of much of that cash. He went so far as to set up a handful of business entities designed to help folks like Dmitry, and most particularly Dmitry, get money out of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and into U.S. or international real estate holdings. “The advantages of a single investor,” wrote Manafort, “include less exposure, more flexibility, less reporting requirements and the ability to organize off-shore to maximize the return of the investor.

Tymoshenko was a particular threat to Moscow’s influence in Ukraine. She had made herself the front-runner in the 2010 presidential election by seizing on Firtash’s sweetheart gas deal and promising to end it. She made a good case: Why on earth should RosUkrEnergo be allowed to siphon off $800 million in a single year by playing a middleman nobody needed?

One of Yanukovych’s first acts as president was to sic a rabid state prosecutor on Yulia Tymoshenko. Lock her up! Yanukovych’s prosecutor charged Tymoshenko with the crime of abusing her official powers by “illegally” arranging the new Firtash-free gas deal with Russia without the required bureaucratic sign-offs. Tymoshenko had a lot of sympathy in the United States and Europe, so Manafort got right to work on the public relations front. According to reporting by Luke Harding in The Guardian—later corroborated in legal filings by Robert Mueller’s special prosecution team—Manafort engaged a sleazy PR firm run by American expats to draw up an energetic media operation to smear Tymoshenko.

Despite FBC’s best efforts, Tymoshenko’s conviction in October 2011—she was sentenced to seven years in prison, ordered to pay $194 million in restitution, and barred from running in the next presidential election—was seen in government offices across the West for what it was: a hit job by Yanukovych on his most able political opponent. So Manafort’s dirty trickster public relations team kept at it. They got excellent help from emerging alt-right media sites like Breitbart News, which tossed a guilt-by-association anti-Semitism spray grenade.

Corruption-wise, things were going along pretty swimmingly in Ukraine. With Tymoshenko stashed in prison, trashed by American PR firms and law firms and anything else Manafort could cook up, Russia’s man in Ukraine—Dmitry Firtash—got back into the gas deal, which was better than ever. His company’s operating profit for the years 2012 and 2013 added up to nearly $4 billion. With that kind of money available for corrupting any actual governance in the interests of the people in Ukraine, Putin’s natural gas supplier monopoly hovered over the heads of the Ukrainian people like a sword.

Ukrainian companies were ratcheting up their own production in the country’s oil and gas fields, signing production deals with the major Western oil companies. They could frack, too! Ukraine had almost 400 million barrels of proven oil reserves, and God only knew how much natural gas once the serious fracking got going. Ukrainian officials were already talking about being able to produce every cubic meter of natural gas the country needed, inside the country. And to be able to export gas to Europe at a profit. This was revolting to Putin, whose lifeblood income came from Russia’s natural gas sales in Europe and whose gravitational pull over countries in his orbit was the control, corruption, and cash that energy supplies afforded him.

Putin was done trying to make nice. He had had it with the United States meddling on his turf. He figured the United States had put $5 billion into moving Ukraine into the Western win column. Vice President Joseph R. Biden had been in and out of Kyiv for years, insisting the Obama administration would protect Ukraine from Russian aggression. “We do not recognize—and I want to reiterate it—any sphere of influence,” Biden reminded.

Privately, American officials were even tougher on Russia’s decline—pointing to the increasing death rates among the country’s younger set, its rampant alcoholism, its military’s decline into second-tier status, and its rampant corruption. Hey, just saying, it can’t be easy being a former superpower

In less than three weeks, Putin ripped Crimea from Ukraine and took it for Russia. The “exit of Crimea from Ukraine,” the Kremlin claimed, was the result of “complex international processes.” It was the first time since World War II that one country had rewritten another’s borders by force and seized an entire landmass and its people for itself. Putin had blatantly violated Russia’s vow to respect Ukrainian sovereignty, and he didn’t seem content to stop at Crimea. He was already moving his forces toward other oblasts in the east of Ukraine, which also happened to be the oblasts with promising fields of oil and gas.

The move left Western leaders in a pickle; they were clearly shaken and uncertain of the proper response. The wrong move could easily tip into regional or even global disaster. Europe was hugely dependent on Gazprom’s natural gas. “There is no sensible alternative to Russian gas to meet Europe’s energy needs,” Germany’s economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said at the time. “Many people acted as if there [were] plenty of other sources from which Europe could draw its gas, but this is not the case.

The United States and the European Union drew up a list of Russian oligarchs and Kremlin officials, froze their assets in the West, and declared them off-limits for American and European businesses. The people on the list had one thing in common: they were Putin’s most trusted consiglieri. Among them were Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Russian Railways’ president, Vladimir Yakunin. And Igor Sechin.

the newly inaugurated Poroshenko got to work on behalf of Ukrainians. One of his first acts as president was to sign the official Association Agreement with the European Union that his Russian-tool predecessor had tried to back out of. “This is a really historic date for Ukraine,” Poroshenko said at the signing ceremony. He then further exasperated Putin by expressing his hopes that Ukraine would one day be a full member of the EU. Poroshenko also defied Putin in an even more aggressive way; he mounted a serious military counteroffensive in the Donbas, using the national army to reinforce the pro-Ukrainian militia groups who had formed in the long weeks of absence of help from Kyiv.

June and July turned out to be very, very bad months for President Putin. There was a surge in the number of dead Russian soldiers being shipped back home from the Donbas. The corpses arrived in Russia under the cover of secrecy, cryptically marked “Cargo 200.” The Putin critic and political opponent Boris Nemtsov saw it happen and immediately began a campaign to catalog a name-by-name record of the casualties for public release. Nemtsov understood there was a limit to how many husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters Russians were willing to sacrifice for another chunk of Ukraine. Officials in the Kremlin and the Russian military understood that too. Survivors of the dead received terse and pointed messages that suggested they keep their grief concerning these “volunteer” soldiers confined to the family circle.

On July 16, 2014, with Putin showing no signs of backing down in the face of Ukraine’s assertion of its sovereignty and the defense of its borders, the United States announced another round of sanctions. This new set, for the first time, included Rosneft. American companies were given license to go ahead with existing projects, but in the future there could be no new deals with Russia’s oil giant. European Union leaders were wary about supporting the United States on the new sanctions, because they were scared of backing the volatile Putin into a corner. Not only did EU countries do ten times more trade with Russia than did the United States, but they were dependent on Russia for much of their energy.

The spotters in the Russian brigade likely mistook the jet for a Ukrainian military plane. (The Russians had been shooting Ukrainian jets and helicopters out of the sky, with abandon, for well over a month by then.) There were almost 300 people on the flight, and more than 200 citizens of the EU.

The Kremlin denied responsibility, to little effect. Western Europe finally swung into Ukraine’s corner. Within two weeks, the EU had joined with the United States to take an even bigger bite out of Putin’s hide, and from the part he actually cared about. The new sanctions would specifically bar the sale or transfer of advanced engineering systems that Russia needed to drill new oil fields. “In the energy sector, new precision-guided restrictions will make it difficult for Russia to access the technology and equipment needed to produce oil from deep water, Arctic or shale deposits,” explained Jason Bordoff, who had just left his job as staff director in charge of energy and climate change at the National Security Council, and Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior sanctions adviser at the Treasury Department.

“These are precisely the complex, challenging projects that Russia will have difficulty achieving without the technology of Western energy firms. The measures are designed to make it more difficult and costly for Russian energy companies to invest in replacing declining conventional oil output and meeting future production goals.

He was also incensed by news from the international arbitration court in The Hague, which had chosen this particular moment to issue its verdict on Rosneft’s disputed grab of Yukos a dozen years earlier. The court ordered that Russia owed $50 billion in recompense and damages to Yukos shareholders and named Putin himself as a bad actor in the scheme. “Each step against Russia he [Putin] now believed to be a cynical, calculated attack against him,” Myers writes in The New Tsar. “He simply no longer cared how the West would respond. The change in Putin’s demeanor became acute after the downing of Flight 17, according to his old friend Sergei Roldugin. ‘I noticed that the more he is being teased the tougher he becomes….

Putin’s indifference and unwillingness to compromise turned pretty damn aggressive, pretty damn fast. Staging areas on Russia’s western border filled with more than 40,000 Russian soldiers and weapons (including land mines, mortars, rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, 152-millimeter howitzers, anti-tank guided missiles, and actual battle tanks). Russian soldiers were ordered to scrub all insignia and identifying markings from their uniforms and equipment and vehicles, hand over their cell phones, and head west into eastern Ukraine.

Most of the Russian soldiers who crossed the border were not rabid partisans for Putin’s fight, according to reporters on the ground from The Guardian. Typical among them was a recent recruit who signed up because there were no other paying jobs

The Ukrainian regular army and militia units were no real match for even poorly motivated Russian artillery and tank units. The former president Yanukovych had pretty well hollowed out the Ukrainian military while in office. The Russians killed more than a thousand Ukrainian fighters in the early stages of their new offensive and began winning back substantial chunks of the Donbas.

The Russian military, he insisted, had nothing to do with it. As did Lavrov, his foreign minister, who had made a habit of hurt and angry denial, even when presented with the half a dozen regular Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine, or with satellite images of Russian troops and weapons on the march in the Donbas. These were, he lied, “just images from computer games.

The United States, meanwhile, unleashed a very specific new sanction it had been threatening for months. The wiggle room allowed for dealing with Rosneft and the rest of the Russian oil industry was officially closed. Prior deal or no, the Obama administration declared that all American companies had to cease operations in Russia.

It didn’t take an oracle to see where this was headed. Yevtushenkov’s arrest was widely reported. It didn’t even matter that Yevtushenkov, unlike Yukos’s boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had never uttered a syllable of challenge to Putin’s political authority. This time around, it was simply about business or, more precisely, power. Here was a jewel of the Russian oil industry, and its principal owner, its Russian principal owner, seemed to be forgetting his company’s first duty was to the Russian state and Vladimir Putin (and Igor Sechin). Especially now, when the future of the Russian Federation was in the balance. Bashneft, like Yukos and Lukoil and every other oil-producing company in Russia, was first and foremost a “strategic asset” of the state;

On September 27, 2014, Rosneft announced that the West Alpha rig had struck oil 7,000 feet beneath the floor of the Kara Sea. Imagine the luck! It happened right inside the window that the U.S. government had afforded ExxonMobil to pack up its things, close off the well. Turns out, ExxonMobil had used the time to just kept drilling. The hydrocarbon trap Exxon drillers had tapped was believed to hold about a billion barrels of oil and oil equivalent. This represented one of the largest single finds in years, anywhere in the world.

While Yevtushenkov was in stir, remember, a judge in Moscow “nationalized” the billionaire’s shares in Bashneft, which meant that his shares in his own company were handed over to the Russian state. In three months, Yevtushenkov had been robbed by Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin to the tune of about $8 billion, the vast majority of his net worth. Not to mention, of course, control of the best-run and most remunerative oil company in one of the biggest oil-producing countries on earth.

Igor Sechin’s Kremlin-assisted “purchase” of a majority stake of Bashneft was concluded on remarkably favorable terms—he got the company for a pittance. Then, for a little icing on the cake, he found a court in Russia that would force Yevtushenkov to pay Rosneft $1.7 billion, for supposedly stripping Bashneft of its assets. So Putin and Sechin took his company, and then they made him pay them for the trouble of taking it. Gangster-style.

One unexpected piece of collateral damage in Sechin’s new crocodile act was the serious injury to the standing of the economic development minister at the Kremlin, Alexei Ulyukayev. Minister Ulyukayev had had the temerity to voice his opinion that Bashneft should go to the highest bidder on the open market. And Rosneft should stay out of it. For my enemies…Sechin invited Ulyukayev to his home and, truly gangster-style, presented him with a gift basket of his famous homemade sausages, some fine wine, and, unbeknownst to his guest, $2 million worth of rubles, in cash, stuffed into the bottom of the parcel. Sechin then had the minister arrested on the spot (the FSB gendarmes were conveniently there, at the ready) for soliciting and receiving a bribe. Ulyukayev was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay a $2.2 million fine. That takes care of him.

When the people of Ukraine stand up and make a rational decision for themselves, and toss out the fantastically corrupt Viktor Yanukovych and Putin’s other henchman in Kyiv, the natural gas middleman Dmitry Firtash, all Putin knows to do is turn to a different type of corruption. He attacks with lies and disinformation, because those are the only cards he has to play to prevent the Ukrainian people from making rational decisions in their own national interest.

In truth, a critical subtext of the Moscow Trump Tower project—which Mueller assessed could have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump—was dropping U.S. sanctions on Russia.  No deal could have happened through them as long as sanctions remained in place.  All of the potential financing entities described in conjunction with the Trump Tower Moscow deal were under sanctions. With sanctions in place, such a deal could never happen.

With an economy completely dependent on oil and gas, and an oil and gas industry completely dependent on someone else’s expertise, the sanctions that preclude Russia from getting that expertise were like a tourniquet around the neck. Sanctions were the entire ballgame for the Russians, and they had made that abundantly clear to Team Trump by the time it entered the White House.

Investigative journalist Michael Isikoff was the reporter who first ferreted out that Trump hit the ground running with a day-one concerted effort to try to unilaterally get rid of the sanctions. “Unknown to the public at the time, top Trump administration officials, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds, and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow,” reported Isikoff for Yahoo News. State Department veteran Dan Fried told him that in the first few weeks after Trump was inaugurated, he received “panicky” calls from officials who told him they had been “directed to develop a sanctions-lifting package and imploring him, ‘Please, my God, can’t you stop this?’

He could, actually. Fried and Tom Malinowski and other State Department old hands broke the emergency glass and sounded the alarm on both sides of the aisle in Congress that the Russia sanctions needed to be made statutorily binding—stat. Incredibly, it worked. With Democrat Cardin and Republican John McCain in the lead in the Senate, Congress moved with uncharacteristic agility and swiftness to pass legislation to codify the sanctions and make it harder for Trump to undo them on his own say-so. The national legislature did it at lightning speed, even after Tillerson begged members to soft-peddle the new law. “I would urge allowing the president the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the need in what is always an evolving diplomatic situation,” the secretary of state said as the bill was hurtling toward passage. Trump squeaked like an unoiled hinge over how much he hated the legislation and didn’t want to sign it. It was only when his hand was effectively forced by a veto-proof majority (98–2 in the Senate, 419–3 in the House) that he finally relented.

Nemtsov challenges Putin

Nemtsov became one of the president’s most vocal and most popular opponents, and a relentless burr under Putin’s saddle. He co-authored a no-holds-barred study of the Kremlin’s venality and mismanagement in its running of Gazprom in 2008. And in 2012, he publicly praised the Magnitsky Act, which permitted the U.S. Congress to mete out real economic punishment on specific individuals in Russia who committed gross human rights violations. Unlike Carter Page, who decried the Magnitsky Act as latter-day McCarthyism, Nemtsov hailed it as the way to finally nick the “crooks and abusers” among Russian businessmen and officials.

In 2015, while the battle for eastern Ukraine rumbled on, Boris Nemtsov, who had become the most fearless critic of Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his illegal war in the Donbas, sat for a long interview with the Polish edition of Newsweek. He was due to lead a massive antiwar demonstration in Moscow two days later. Nemtsov understood it was likely to take decades to chip away at Putin and authoritarian rule in Russia, but he wasn’t giving up, and he was driven by a sense of urgency. “I have no doubt that the struggle for the revival of Russians will be tough,” he told the Newsweek interviewer. Putin “implanted them with a virus of inferiority complex towards the West, the belief that the only thing we can do to amaze the world is use force, violence and aggression….[Putin and his siloviki] operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels: Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times….Unfortunately, it works. The hysteria reached unprecedented levels, hence the high level of support for Putin. We need to work as quickly as possible to show the Russians that there is an alternative.

Later the next evening, walking home after a dinner out with his girlfriend, Nemtsov was gunned down on a suddenly and strangely traffic-less side of a bridge across the Moscow River, steps from the Kremlin grounds. The assassination appeared to have been meticulously planned and executed by a team of two or even three dozen people. The Kremlin fingered a group of Chechen terrorists and continues to block independent investigations into Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

And where was ExxonMobil’s chieftain, Rex Tillerson, in all this? He was standing by, waiting for the unfortunate geopolitical cloud to disperse.

Russian spying – the Illegals (TV show “The Americans” based on this)

The Illegals had gleaned, well, pretty much nothing they couldn’t have gotten reading their local newspapers. Putin’s best spies in America seem to have never really had their heart in the mission. The New Yorker’s Keith Gessen, a Russian-born American journalist and novelist who came to the United States when he was six years old, found the entire episode “sad and touching….Sad because, according to the F.B.I. affidavit, the information requested by the Russian government (‘Moscow Center,’ as it’s called) is so mundane, and some of it merely trade secrets, unbefitting a mighty state and redolent too of the central planning that once turned the U.S.S.R. into an economic basket case. Touching because the other information they are said to have sought—American plans for fighting terrorism; American plans for Iran; Obama’s hopes for last summer’s summit in Moscow—seems to dance around the real issue. Like a kid in the presence of his new crush, asking, ‘Do you like movies?,’ ‘What’s your favorite color?,’ Russia really wanted to ask America: What do you think of me?

Despite the public boasts about their heroic victory in Moscow, the Illegals were demonstrably bumbling, even slipshod. The group was under close and constant surveillance for nearly ten years, with footage and photographs and audio recordings to prove it. Their countersurveillance efforts had bordered on gross negligence. Their homes were searched and their cars tagged with GPS trackers, and the Illegals never knew. The best of the spies, Heathfield/Bezrukov, was for years kept under the watchful and unseen eye of the U.S. lead agent Peter Strzok—the G-man later torched by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans for his role in investigating the Russia scandal surrounding the U.S. 2016 presidential election. The Illegals had repeated contact with FBI agents posing as fellow Russians. “Are you ready for this [next] step?” one undercover agent asked Anna Chapman. “Shit,” she replied, “of course.

Then she unwittingly handed over her laptop to the American undercover agent, and then she bought a burner phone and a Tracfone calling card, and then she dumped the receipt into a public trash can where it was fished out by the FBI.

Richard Murphy was barely even trying. “He had a thick Russian accent and an incredibly unhappy Russian personality,” she said. “I knew he wasn’t American. I knew it was very odd.” Or as one of Richard Murphy’s Marquette Road neighbors told a reporter a few days after the arrest, as the tumblers were beginning to fall into place, “It was suspicious that he had a Russian accent and an Irish last name. Who does that?…He must have been the worst spy ever.

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