Tag Archives: Hanna Camp

Today in Trade History: How Mexican Cowboys Prove Tom Tancredo is an Idiot



Today in trade history, I’m going back to my roots. On October 20, 1835, the American trading vessel Pilgrim anchored in a Mexican harbor, and on October 21, its crew went ashore to do business. The local community was a diverse mix of Mexican ranchers, descendants of Spanish missionaries, and the native Acjachemen tribe, whose economy began and ended with cows. When trading ships like the Pilgrim came to ports all over the coast, pretty much all they were looking for was cattle hides, tallow, and other cow-related products. The bluffs around this port, however, were so steep that the sailors just tossed the hides over the cliffs onto the beach below like giant leather frisbees, getting a few caught halfway down. The captain, not wanting to lose money, heroically demanded one of his men climb down the cliffs to free them. The sailor who did so, Richard Henry Dana, went on to write one of the best records of that region and its trade that exists, a book entitled Two Years Before the Mast. The city that now sits on that harbor is named Dana Point in his honor, and the neighboring city of San Juan Capistrano is my hometown. The Mexican cattle ranching haven was California.

There are two reasons this story is important and not just self-indulgent. One is that despite Dana being a raging leftist who wrote his book as an honest account of the miseries of shipboard life for a common crewman, the American people happily missed the point entirely in favor of the romanticism of a foreign land, thus setting the stage for The Grapes of Wrath and The Real Housewives of Orange County. The second reason is that the story is a nice illustration of why America has nothing to fear from Latino influence. There has never been an America with California in it that did not include Latino influence.

You’ve probably never heard of the California Hide Trade, but it is the reason California’s major cities became major. The Hide Trade lasted just a couple of decades as the Mexican ranchers flourished, extended from Boston to Peru to Alta California to Hawaii to China, and included trade assists from the British and Russians. Foreign sailors and traders often settled and intermarried with local Mexican and indigenous groups, linking up the disparate peoples who would one day build the gayest city in the Western Hemisphere (excepting maybe Rio).

The list of interesting things about this trading route is endless. One Boston company (Bryant, Sturgis & Co., which owned the Pilgrim) so dominated the hide and tallow trade that the local name for the United States was “Boston.” American ship captains made evading Mexican tariffs into an art form, primarily through bribing the hell out of the tariff collectors and competing with each other for who could get away with paying the least. And the pelts of cute little Californian otters were so popular in Canton that the otter population got drastically reduced, so good one, China.

The Pilgrim sailed the Hide Trade route carrying Richard Henry Dana, who was not your typical sailor. Son of a prominent Cambridge family and a Harvard boy, he betrayed some nascent hippie tendencies when he supported a student protest as a freshman and received a six-month suspension in return. In his junior year, he contracted measles and suffered vision loss. Instead of doing a rich boy tour of Europe to recover, he let his hippie flag fly and joined a two-year voyage out of Boston, around South America, up to California and back again. He resolved to live the life of a common sailor and see what it was like.

Turns out, it sucked. The hours were long, the conditions were horrible, and the food was legendarily bad. The story of the ship captain pressuring crew to climb down cliffs and retrieve cow hides for his own gain illustrates how little sailors’ lives were worth, but during the voyage Dana also witnessed a crewmember getting severely beaten by a superior, and had an activist epiphany. He returned to Harvard, got his law degree, and spent the rest of his life defending common sailors in court and helping found the anti-slavery Free Soil party. Publishing Two Years Before the Mast was supposed to help the cause, and in some ways it did. But much like Upton Sinclair later found, the reading public often decides all on its own what it will be interested in, and in Dana’s case, the reading public was roughly 1,000 times more interested in the pretty coastline and shiny, shiny gold of California than they were in the rights of ship crews. And who can blame them?

Kids who grew up in or next to Dana Point generally know a little bit about this. Most of us were taken to see Dana’s statue in the harbor as a field trip, some were made to read Two Years Before the Mast by an ambitious English teacher. A few were hardcore and spent a weekend bunked up in the replica of the Pilgrim that floats in Dana Point Harbor today, a kind of educational hazing service the Harbor offers in order to give 6th graders a taste of what it was like to be a sailor back then. In general though, the legacy of Dana in Dana Point is very much adventure and cowhides, and very little labor rights advocacy.

Dana’s accounts of Mexican California, not coincidentally, make it sound pretty American. Its economy was basically an American cowboy fantasy. When Mexico secularized the missions, it promised to give half of the Church’s land and property to the Native Americans, but mostly did not do any of that. Immigration policy in Alta California was more or less “if you can get here, you can stay (but getting here’s the hard part)”. What’s more American than all of those things?

The reason we share so many similarities is that we share a complicated history, which really kicked off with trade. Every street name in my hometown is in Spanish for a reason, but it doesn’t make the place any less American, as this weirdness can prove. Anyone who complains about the Spanish language in America or the rising numbers of Latino Americans should remember the California Hide Trade, and find something better to be worried about.

Richard Henry Dana: Fighting for the Common Sailor and Looking Good Doing It

Richard Henry Dana: Fighting for the Common Sailor and Looking Good Doing It

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Today in Trade History: How Carnival Destroyed the Parthenon

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church


If you’re like me, you’ve gone through life innocently believing the Parthenon slowly but inevitably crumbled into its present state of dignified ruination over the course of many thousands of years. It didn’t. On September 26th, 1687, a bunch of Venetians blew it up. You might object that this series is not called Today in War History, and you’d have a point. But this story is too good not to tell, and in telling it I can talk about the extremely relevant and amusing history of Venetian trade.

Venice, as everyone knows, is composed pretty much entirely of water, marble, and gondolas. Therefore, if the Venetians wanted to eat and have Carnivals (and they did) they needed to engage in a lot of trade. What is less well-known is what complete hucksters they were about it. By the 9th century CE the city had risen to prominence on the back of its ship-building industry, and in the course of sailing their ships around looking for food and Carnival masks, the Venetians conned pretty much everybody in the Mediterranean. They got the Byzantines to grant them tax-free trading privileges and control of Byzantine harbors, all in return for promises of military aid which they never delivered. They convinced the broke and hapless soldiers of the Fourth Crusade to sack the then-Christian cities of Zadar and Constantinople for them, causing all of the soldiers to get excommunicated. In an episode worthy of Mission Impossible, Venetians stole the remains of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering the relics with pork so the Egyptian border guards wouldn’t look too closely. At one point Venice was even ruling Jerusalem, “Kingdom of Heaven”-style.

In short, Venetians were crafty and mercenary, and after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, it should come as no surprise that they made new trade treaties with them and kept the river of money flowing. This generally worked out well for both sides. The Ottomans couldn’t match the Venetians for seafaring trader experience, and the Venetians wanted both the products Ottomans could supply and access to the markets they controlled. Yet predictably, the relationship between a sneaky city-state with a number of highly valuable trade outposts and a neighboring empire on a winning streak (True Fact: the Turks tangled with the real-life Dracula at this time – and beat him) ended up featuring a lot of warring. Almost three hundred years of periodic warring.

In 1687, in the course of one of these wars, a Venetian force advanced on Athens after driving the Turks out of the Peloponnese. In Athens, the Turks had already evacuated the main town and withdrawn their people and garrison to the Acropolis, where the Parthenon sits. It should be noted at this point that the Parthenon was not ruined, but was actually in pretty hot shape for a 2,000-year-old monument, with walls and a roof and all the things today’s Parthenon decidedly lacks. But the Turks, like fools, had placed their gunpowder magazine inside it, and on September 26th the Venetians, like fools, mortared it. Hundreds were killed, either by debris or by the resulting fires. The question of whether the Venetians caused this destruction purposefully, or presumably got the shock of their lives when a simple volley blew the thing sky-high, is a surprisingly open one. What is not debated is that the they then looted the place so much that by the time Lord Elgin came along he basically had to pry sculptures off whatever stones had remained standing in order to get anything good.

Religious fervor, lingering resentments from the Crusades, regional power-brokering and entrenched alliances all no doubt contributed to both sides’ constant explosive bickering. Yet the land-based objects of that bickering could not be said to be religious in nature – they were economically strategic. Between them, the two powers pretty much owned the direct land and sea routes between Europe and Far East, and they spent most of their time cooperating in that trade. “Being merchants,” the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire wrote, “we cannot live without them.” He said that in 1553, at which point they had already fought three wars within a space of less than 80 years, and would fight a few more before Venice finally gave way to Portugal as the top trading power of Europe.

And perhaps if Portugal had moved a little faster, the Parthenon would still be intact today.

For more on the complicated and occasionally hilarious relationship between Venice and the Muslim world see this video, from the wonderful Crash Course World History YouTube series. For previous entries in the Today in Trade History series, see this archive.

Possibly the world's greatest monument to thievery.

Possibly the world’s greatest monument to thievery.

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Today in Trade History: Africa’s El Dorado On Strike

The Trade History Series


My co-bloggers are ably using this space to write about contemporary issues. I hope to contribute in a different way – by using history, specifically the history of trade, to talk about the present. International trade has been radically changing the world for thousands of years, and is probably more responsible for the way we all live today than any revolution, any constitution, any war, and any single technological advance. The Columbian Exchange alone is so world-altering it boggles the mind – before trade with the New World opened up Europe had never seen a tomato, and Native Americans had never seen a horse. Yet there isn’t often much public talk about trade as a historical force, a story all its own connecting everyone.

I’ll approach the topic in a way similar to that of other authors who have written about subjects like labor history or World War II; each post will focus on a particular event in history corresponding with the date of the post, and use that to talk about broader context. I am not a trade economist, nor am I a historian. My purpose is to educate myself, and readers are welcome to correct me where I stray into speculation or error. To kick off the series I looked for inspiration in South Africa, my current home base, and I didn’t have to look far. Continue reading

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