Monday, May 09, 2011

William Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

The basis to William Cronon's study of the impact of the arrival of colonists to New England is that the "replacement of Indians by predominately European populations in New England was as much an ecological as a cultural revolution". This is not to say that he downplays the other impacts. He is clearly aware that the destruction of the Native Americans and their way of life was a profound social transformation, but he locates the changes as having very much an ecological base, which is liked in very concrete ways to the political and social makeup of the European societies that the colonists arrived from.

Cronon explains that contrary to the perception of the colonists and many writers since, the landscape of New England was in no way a pristine wilderness. The patchwork of woodland and open spaces was the consequence of centuries of human interaction with the natural world of New England. The particular hunting and farming combination that the nomadic people of this part of the world used to produce food and other resources throughout the year had created ecosystems that seemed to the new arrivals to overrun with valuable flora and fauna.

I use the word valuable here by choice. It is very noticeable in the extensive quotes that Cronon uses, that the colonists viewed the natural world around them in terms of commodities. In fact this is a central theme for Cronon. The clash between this concept of nature as a commodity ripe for exploitation and something that is utilised for short terms needs of the humans around. The changes that the colonists made, particularly in terms of deforesting the woodland for fuel, sale to the European nations and for agriculture, rapidly undermined the basis for the huge variety of game etc.

The Native Americans of New England (similarly to other areas of the pre-Colombian Americas). had a very different concept of ownership. People owned what they made with their hands, but there was no sense, or even need for the accumulation of further material goods. Land was considered to be owned by one tribe or the other, though perhaps under the influence is a better way of explaining this. But when the tribe moved on elsewhere, the land did not remain theirs by right. This contrasted with the Europeans who saw the ownership of land and its improvement through agricultural practices as a God given duty. There are some almost comic moments in the book when Cronon explains how male Native Americans were considered lazy, because they merely hunted whereas women, who mostly played the role of farmers were considered to be the hard workers. The tragedy of this, is because the colonists didn't see the use of the land that the Native Americans as real use in their terms, they didn't recognise any right to the land. So they took it.

Cronon documents the absolute destruction of the native population of New England through diseases brought from Europe. The population fell from 70,000 to 12,000 in the first 75 years of the 17th century. Destruction on this level meant that the native usage of the land could not survive, in anything like the previous scale. Leaving even more opportunity for the seizing of land.

Later in the book Cronon shows how the creation of the concept of trade, lead directly to the reorganisation of the economic life of the Native Americans. By introducing commodities that could be exchanged for materials like wampum or metal tools that the natives wanted, the whole basis of their economy changed. Suddenly leaders arrived, as did a dependence on the Europeans. Prestige could be obtained by owning particular items in a way that never made sense prior to the arrival of the colonists.

The Europeans created a completely new forest ecology. In part they destroyed an older one, replacing it with one on their idealised model. Grasses and crops were introduced from Europe, mono-cultures and weeds destroyed the diverse ecology. They saw this as progress, but for the people who had lived there for hundreds of years, it was complete destruction. There was of course resistance, but against the heavily armed European arrivals, backed up by powerful economies abroad, their was no long hope. The tragedy of New England's people, replicated in countless communities across the Americas, is one that we can learn from. Not because we can return to the world that has vanished, but because we can learn that the modern ways of using the natural world have more to do with exploitation than sustainability, and that we need to think about moving away from an economy based on the commodification of everything, to one based on the needs of people and planet.

Related Review

Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Burke Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

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