27 January 2014

Molasses: Historical Significance

Wits may laugh at our fondness for molasses, and we ought all to join in the laugh with as much good humor as General Lincoln did. General Washington, however, always asserted and proved, that Virginians loved molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.
John Adams to William Tudor, 11 August 1818
From The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856. 10 volumes. Vol. 10.

Molasses, of course, was sought by those in New England because it was the principal ingredient in the manufacture of rum. The 1733 tax to which Adams alludes was a protective measure designed to render importation of molasses from French plantations so prohibitively expensive as to eliminate French sources. New England rum distillers would thus be forced to secure molasses from Barbados, Jamaica, and other British islands in the Caribbean.

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, and War in the West Indies (New York: Walker Publishing, 2011), 241, 400 attributes "[m]olasses was an essential ingredient in American Independence" to Novanglus (vol. 4 in The Works of John Adams). Parker also spells his source Novangulus.

04 January 2014

Getting It Right!

Starting out reading Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2006) by J. H. Elliott, I am immediately impressed with the depth and breadth of the author's work. There is much worthy of praise, including a single word in a one sentence: "Cortés, an inspired leader, beached his boats and led his expedition resolutely into the interior of an unknown land to conquer it for his royal master" (emphasis added, 16). Five years ago, I wrote about the common misconception that I had learned decades earlier and held to be true until early 2008 that Cortés had burned his boats (see "the burning of boats"). He did not burn them.

Elliott's bibliography and notes are impressive. There are several citations in the first chapter to Hugh Thomas, The Conquest of Mexico (1993), the text in a 2005 American edition with a slightly different title that set me straight on this small, but not insignificant point. There are several explanations that have been offered by several historians for the long-held and frequently repeated error. Thomas's simple observation of the handwriting in the original primary text offers the simplest and best explanation. Two words are easily confused: quebrando (breaking) and quemando (burning).

Employing the best available scholarship as the basis of his narrative, Elliott gets this detail right.

02 January 2014

The Dog and the Shark

A constant pleasure of history are the little stories that pop out while reading primary sources. Often distracting from the purpose that led to the text in the first place, these episodes entertain and add texture. They also offer unexpected connections to other stories.

As I prepare to teach Atlantic history in the fall, I am perusing texts concerned with the development of the sugar industry in the West Indies. Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011) has filled time-spaces between the social activities of New Year's celebrations the past few days. Parker draws heavily upon Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657). Inasmuch as the 1673 edition of Ligon's text is readily available via Internet Archive, I have delved into that text. Ligon offers three compelling paragraphs concerning "a Fish called a Shark" (5).

Several sharks were taken on board the Achilles, the ship on which Ligon made passage from England to the West Indies in 1647. Once the shark had been landed on board, however, the adventure began. Most of the passengers were afraid to approach it. Only the fearless sailors and a very large dog had the courage.
We had aboard divers mastive [mastiff] Dogs, and amongst them, one so large and fierce, as I have seldom seen any like him; this Dog flew to [the shark] with the greatest Courage that might be, but could take no hold of him, by reason of his large roundness and sliminess; but if by chance he got hold of one of his Fins, the Shark would throw him from side to side of the Ship, as if he had been nothing; and doubtless if he had encountered him in his own Element, the Sea, he would have made quick work with him.
Ligon, True and Exact History, 5.
Reading of the flopping shark's ability to fling this large mastiff across the ship's deck, I am reminded of the fate of the Aztecs who faced such animals in battle.

It is often assumed by those with superficial understanding of history that Europeans prevailed in the New World because they had superior armaments (see "Superior European Technology"). On the contrary, the most important weapon the Europeans possessed was infectious disease. The Aztecs were weakened by disease prior to their conquest in 1521. Their repression of neighboring peoples also helped the Spanish, who were able to recruit allies among enemies of the Aztecs. In battle, guns were insignificant except where cannon were useful. But the Spanish had two terribly powerful weapons of use in close combat--their swords--Toledo steel--and their dogs--mastiffs bred for war.

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