Thursday, 5 January 2017

America: the Empire built on Fat and Shit

The end, as the philosophers often say, is in the beginning. This may or may not be true, but if it is, it is particularly interesting to consider the beginning of the American Empire.

Some would say that America hardly needs an Empire, as it is a vast continent-sized nation with enough of the resources and none of the inherent costs that come with being an empire. Isolationism has always been the default common-sense position for this impressive amalgamation of natural resources and human capital. However, instead of making the most of what they have, Americans have embroiled themselves—at great cost in terms of blood, finance, and internal corruption—in the affairs of the World. It does not seem to be a project that will have a happy end.

But how did America become an empire—and why—when it clearly had no pressing need to? It seems that the driving forces were twofold, namely blubber (whale fat) and guano (bird shit). It was these two unlikely commodities that first pushed America across the threshold from minding its own business at home and minding everyone else's abroad. The wars with the Mexicans and the "Red Skins" can be seen more as localized affairs to secure the core, rather than true imperial ventures.

The first driver was "blubber" and the oil that could be extracted from it. From the early 19th century onwards, American whalers, mainly from New England, ventured into the Pacific Ocean.

As the first relatively modern whaling ships, they enjoyed something of a "pioneer effect" and found plenty of easy pickings in places like the lagoons of Baja California, in Northern Mexico. The tendency to over-catch meant that whaling grounds were progressively exhausted, forcing the whalers to move ever onwards to new whaling grounds. This brought the New England whalers finally to Japan, which was at that time a closed country unwilling to have anything to do with foreign whalers. Also, any whalers shipwrecked on the Japanese shore would be treated like criminals and imprisoned. This was a major factor in President Millard Fillmore's decision to mount America's first truly Imperialistic venture - the expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry to browbeat a technologically backward nation half-a-world away to do America's bidding.

The importance of whalers in opening up Japan cannot be overstated, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):
“If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whaleship alone to whom the credit will be due, for already she is on the threshold.”
How true those words were, as two years later and then again in 1854, a large fleet of American warships, under the command of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, arrived in Japan and used the "human rights" of whalers to push the Japanese into signing the Convention of Kanagawa, the first step in American trans-Pacific projection. Most of the 12 articles of this treaty concern the interests of American ships and sailors, who at that time, were almost exclusively whalers.

American whalers were active across the Pacific, and started to develop a network of ports, bases, and whaling stations, including Hawaii, which became a key rest and resupply station. It was also used as a recruitment ground, providing the type of Queequeg, the South Sea Islander harpooner in Melville's Moby Dick. These activities provided the basis for later colonization.

Whaling also influenced America's acquisition of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for a price that now seems laughably cheap. The Russians were keen to sell the territory, which they had scarcely colonized in order to hunts furs, because they wished to keep it out of the hands of their main geopolitical rivals, the British. Remember that this was just a decade or so after the Crimean War, and Russia had no means of defending the territory if the British decided to attack. As this land was discontiguous with the territory of the United States it can be seen as a semi-Imperialistic expansion.

The importance of the area to the American whaling fleet, even when the territory was under Russian control, is testified by the activities of the Confederate raiding ship the Shenandoah, which entered the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Strait area to attack Yankee whalers in the spring and summer of 1865. Under the command of James Waddell, the Confederate clipper, built in Scotland, captured twenty of the fifty eight Yankee whalers working in the area and destroyed several whaling stations.

Captain James Waddell and the CSS Shenandoah
The hunt for the oleaginous fat of the whale played the key role in pushing the American consciousness far beyond the nation's natural boundaries, a development that was culturally encoded in Melville's great nautical tale, but we should not underestimate the role that the second "substance" in question played in the incipience of the American Empire—namely guano or bird shit.

While the hunt for blubber has a rather transitory aspect, with whalers moving wherever the diminishing supply of whales went, until alternatives to the blubber oil and baleen finished off the industry, the drive to acquire guano had a more precisely territorial aspect to it.

Until quite late in the 19th century, America was overwhelmingly an agricultural nation. In earlier times the virgin soil provided good returns but, as the population increased, over-farming became a problem, especially with regard to highly profitable cash crops like tobacco and cotton. Without any of the potent chemical fertilizers that are now used, this soon became a very serious problem.

The "white gold" of guano!
As American whalers pushed into the Pacific in the early 19th century, a solution was found in the vast amounts of bird shit left by seabirds on small islands in the Pacific. Using these as secure bases for their fishing, the seabirds left behind a rich deposit of phosphates and nitrates, ideal for replenishing farmland.

Around the same time that America was pushing to open up the densely populated nation of Japan in order to facilitate its the exploitation of the far-flung Pacific whale population, moves were also afoot to get the nation's hands on the precious guano resource. In contrast to Japan, most of the territories involved were sparsely inhabited islands, or not inhabited at all, this being a precondition for the concentration of the large numbers of seabirds that shat the "white gold.".

In 1856, the US government passed the Guano Islands Act. This gave US citizens the right to mine guano on any small island not clearly belonging to another nation, by claiming it as US territory.

The next year, American sea captain Peter Duncan, seized the tiny island of Navasa, 35 miles West of Haiti. Although Haiti protested, President James Buchanan issued an executive order to protect Duncan's claim with military force. The guano was then ruthlessly exploited by the Navassa Phosphate company, largely using cheap labour from Haiti itself. This later resulted in a riot by the labourers and the deaths of four White overseers. The island, which is only about 1.5 miles across, remains United States territory to this day, although Haiti continues to dispute the claim.

Navassa and the Guano Islands Act thus became a template for American colonial expansion. Over the next few years, a number of similar small islands and atolls were seized on similar grounds, some in the Caribbean, but most of them stretching across the Pacific, including some which would play a vital part its history, such as Midway Island.

The importance of this Guano Imperialism was that it was a relatively low-cost way of projecting American interests far across the world, and creating the kind of spheres of interest and other entanglements that would later lead to greater challenges, projects, wars, and the occupation of foreign nations. Without this, the Empire of Fat and Shit would never have been able to become the Empire of Oil and Debt projection.

Midway: came for the guano, stayed for the strategic projection.

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