One of the themes in A Little History of the United States is how much the American story has been shaped by a succession of economic booms, sparked by the first sustained contact after 1492 between the Americas and Eurasia/Africa. As I note in Little History:
One boom after another would transform the Americas as Europeans looked to control new resources: furs trapped in North America; tobacco grown in Virginia and Maryland; sugar plantations in Central and South America and later Louisiana. The biggest commodity was of course cotton, the principal driver of economic expansion in both the South and North during the first half of the nineteenth century. The South grew the cotton but northern factories (as well as those in Europe) spun it into ready-made clothing bought by millions.
Few people today are aware of one of the earliest of booms in post-Contact America, that of pearls. On his third voyage of 1498, Columbus traded beads, hawks’ bells and sugar for pearls collected by natives along the coast of Venezuela. Soon Spain built a fort on the “Coast of the Pearls” to harvest the commodity more systematically, principally from the island of Cubagua. Relations between the Guayaquer Indians and the newcomers were amicable at first, for the Spanish didn’t want to repeat their disastrous experience on Hispaniola, where the native Indian work force was virtually exterminated through enslavement, war, maltreatment and disease. The Spanish protected the Guayaquerí from their hostile Carib neighbors; in return, Guayaquerí divers brought up oysters from the ocean floor and the pearls within, “some as large as hazelnuts, very clear and beautiful.”
But within a few years, the desire to make a fortune led the Spanish to enslave their Indian laborers, import more from the Bahamas and other islands and push laborers beyond their limits. Slaves were branded on the face and arms with the letter C and sent to work, six divers to a canoe. They worked in pairs, one man weighed down with stones to dive to a depth of up to 8 fathoms (43 feet) or even more to gather oysters; the other man to pull his partner back to the surface. Divers had little time to rest between plunges. If they dawdled, an overseer threw them into the water and whipped them until they agreed to continue. Many died after attacks by sharks or internal bleeding from such deep dives. At night the divers slept in chains.
Each boat could net around 35,000 oysters in the space of a few weeks. Profits were high; and the usual boom country atmosphere prevailed, with drinking, gambling, quarreling and killing. The Spanish governor was ruthless, at one point subduing a native revolt by capturing and executing two chieftains, one by hanging and the other, a younger boy, by strapping him “to the muzzle of a cannon, [blowing] his head off, [and] throwing his body to the dogs.”
Eventually excess harvesting and the new practice of dredging the sea bottom took its toll. One modern estimate suggests that as many as 100 billion oysters were collected over a thirty-year period. By the 1530s the pearl boom was finished. Details of this early example of environmental degradation can be found in an excellent article by Aldemaro Romero, Susanna Chilbert and M. G. Eisenhart, “Cubagua’s Pearl-Oyster Beds: The First Depletion of a Natural Resource Caused by Europeans in the American Continent,” Journal of Political Ecology (6:1999) found on the web at http://bit.ly/1LSyyce.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors