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Reshaping the World



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In this lesson, you should learn to identify and discuss the following names and terms:

You should also be able to discuss the following topics in some detail:

You should also be considering some of the basic questions and ideas we have touched on on this course. One of these is that one should not make quick assumptions about the past and certain not pass moral judgements without having considered the facts in detail.

You might want to think about this question as an example, and perhaps discuss it on your lists. The year is 1839 and you are a young adult living in Charleston. Despite your upbringing and the attitudes of your family and friends, you do not believe that slavery is a good thing. You receive word that your uncle Thurston has died, leaving you five hundred acres of land on the coast planted in sea cotton, and turning over to your ownership one hundred and fifty slaves, both household, artisans, and field hands. What would you do about this? What sort of difficulties would you have to face? What do you think that the slaves might tell you if you were to ask them what they would like you to do?


We are accustomed to changes in the distribution of the world's population and wealth brought about by the discovery of new sources of mineral wealth. The Boer war of the turn of the century and the resultant establishment of British control over South Africa was a result primarily of the discovery of the great gold mines of the Rand as well as the diamond mines of the country. The discovery of an immense supply of anthracite, or hard, coal in Pennsylvania, coupled with the establishment of a Great Lakes water route by which the iron ore of the Mesabi Range of Minnesota could be carried to the source of the coal, made possible the great steel mills of Pittsburgh and the rise of the United States to the rank of a world industrial power. When the former Belgian Congo gained its independence, a civil war broke out in which Moise Tschombe, the governor of Katanga province finally gained control with the aid of a powerful force of Belgian, British, French, Irish, German, and even American mercenary troops. These troops were organized and paid by someone, and it has been assumed that the "someone" was the Union Miniere company making an investment in order to maintain control of the rich copper mines of Katanga. And you are probably too well aware of the extent to which international politics revolves around oil resources to need to be told about it. Even water can be a raw material in the sense that, like coal, it is a source of power. In the 1920's and 1930's, the state of Washington was only partly settled and was regarded as a survival of American's frontier. In the 1930's, however, the Grand Coulee Dam was completed and began producing immense quantities of electric power, and ships bearing loads of bauxite ore from Mexico and elsewhere began coming to Puget Sound, to factories that could use that immense power to turn the bauxite into aluminum. It was just before the Second World War and the United States was beginning to produce great quantities of all-metal war- planes. The metal they used was aluminum, and so great aircraft factories such as Boeing moved into a region where still other factories, such as that at Hanford, were using the rich electric power of the region to produce uranium and plutonium.

It is not only the movement of wealth that is governed by the location of raw materials, but the movement of people is also affected. Irish and Welsh came in to dig the coal of western Pennsylvania, and Swedes and Poles worked the steel mills. Germans and Norwegians dug the iron of Minnesota, and British and Scots manned the ore carriers of the Great Lakes. South African Blacks were lured out of their tribal economies to mine gold and diamonds, just as, centuries earlier, North American Indians had been required to produce a certain amount of gold annually for the Spanish Crown.

It is probable that, in the long run, the transplantation of plants from one part of the world to another has done more that the exploitation of mineral sources to change the face of the globe. This movement of plants, and of animals, has been so complex and has such a long history that, within the confines of a survey course, one can only sketch in an outline and let one's readers fill in the details.

Let's turn first to the effect of the spread of New World plants by the ships of the sea-borne empires.

It took Europeans a long time to accept the potato, but they embraced it with open arms when they did. Ireland turned its agriculture almost completely over to the potato, eating the inside and feeding the peels to their pigs. Ireland had been lightly populated with great stretches of forest and moor, but this was changed as the forests were cut back and the new land put into potatoes. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the population of Ireland was some eight million, a total the country has never recovered since the famines caused by the potato blight around 1848. A lot of the Irish land that had been deforested was finally put into pasture for the raising of horses, and Ireland has been raising horses - many exported to be butchered in France -- ever since. But the spread of the potato did not stop with Europe. Sweet potatoes were introduced into China and raised the populations and the standard of living a good deal, as well as the quality of life. The Chinese discovered that one could make and acceptable wine from fermented potatoes, just as the Russians and the people living around the Baltic Sea found that one could make vodka and other very potent liquors by distilling a fermented potato mash. In many parts of the world, the shape of the family residence changed as buildings were furnished with small adjacent fields in which the residents could plant a small crop of potatoes. This is reflected in America with our houses and yards. The word "yard" comes from "garth," meaning small fenced enclosure. My back yard, for instance, measures only fifty feet by fifty feet, but this would be enough ground to produce about sixteen hundred pounds of potatoes. We no longer use our yards in this fashion, and this has made it possible to design residential districts in a much different fashion from those of the past. When one thinks about it, the immense amount of calories the potato can produce with relatively little investment of land or labor has made possible a considerable increase of world population as well as having relieved a greater portion of that population from the need to engage directly in the raising of food. This, in turn, has allowed the expansion of other parts of the economy and made the concentration of people in large cities possible. So urbanization, which is such an important element of the modern world was made possible, at least in part, by the spread of the potato.

Corn was not well-received in Europe, except by the Italians who turned it into pollenta, but it was used elsewhere as chicken feed and for pig slop, and the average European peasant began using his garth to raise livestock. Corn was much better accepted in Africa and provided a valuable protein supplement to the common diet. Corn on the cob is still a favorite food at African parties and festivities. But the cultivation of corn did more than provide Africans with a new and nutritious source of food. Unlike most previous African food crops, corn had to be planted in rows. Over a period of time, the furrows between these rows became deep enough to begin carrying away rain and groundwater so that thousands of acres of African borderland swamp was converted into arable land. Like potatoes, corn can be turned into a potent drink (white lightning), and corn and potatoes between them increased the world's supply of alcohol for drinking and industry significantly.

The spread of the cultivation of addictive plants is particularly interesting and well-documented. Coffee was an addictive stimulant, probably native to the Ethiopian highlands, that had been cultivated and consumed for many years in the Middle East. Portuguese traders brought back coffee from their expeditions to the Indian Ocean and soon had a large and expanding market of Europeans who found it difficult to live without coffee. The Portuguese recognized the value of this market and realized that they could not allow the supply to be cut off. So they took coffee seeds from Persia and Arabia, and transplanted them to their Brazilian colony, forming great "plantations." The Portuguese government passed regulations to prevent coffee trees from cultivated by any of the other imperial powers, but an English traveller managed to smuggle some 50,000 coffee seeds out of Brazil. He took them for study to the great British botanical garden in London called Kew Gardens. Kew Gardens was like many of the other great botanical gardens established in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was intended to be a scientific establishment, but it also served the state by determining whether plants submitted for study could be grown successfully in other parts of the empire. The British introduced intensive coffee culture to the highlands of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and the coffee trade between the two countries helped Abyssinia to modernize to a slight degree. When the Italians seized the Abyssinian ports, The British had to buy Brazilian coffee, but it also began a crash program in about 1912 to turn the highlands of Kenya into a coffee-producing region. The program was successful, and Kenyan coffee (nasty stuff, in my opinion) is still a major national expert. Meanwhile, the Dutch had stolen coffee seeds from the British and established their own plantations on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Americans had bought their coffee from the Dutch, so that the slang term for a coffee was Java, and the call Cuppa Joe! was a request for a cup of Java coffee. (The oft-repeated request by W.C.Fields for a cup of mokka java was a call for a mixed Dutch and Arabian blend.) When construction on the Panama Canal began, American companies encouraged planters in Columbia and Central America to grow coffee for export to the United States, and the favorite coffees in the U.S. are still drawn from that area. So from restricted origins in Persia, coffee has been spread over the world, and several highland regions not very well suited for the cultivation of other crops have been made quite profitable.

Of course, the British were never great coffee drinkers and soon began to favor tea, a plant indigenous to some upland zones of China. Chinese administrators were quite sophisticated and were unwilling simply to open up their markets to the British. The British traded with Chinese coastal merchants whose prices were control by governmental regulation. Since the British were unwilling to pay high prices that the Chinese demanded for their tea, they acquired some excellent examples of tea plants and started plantations in the uplands of India, particularly Assam, and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They also addressed the refusal of the Chinese to allow them to trade in the interior by importing high-grade opium poppies from the region of Turkey and planting them in many of those areas of southeast Asia where they now flourish. They smuggled smoking-grade opium into the interior of China and soon had large numbers of Chinese consumers eager to buy their product. The Chinese objected, and the British navy - equipped with steam-driven gunboats - battered the coastal cities and opened up the interior by force. These commercial poppies flourished and spread even after the British had no longer had need of their cultivation.

Then there was rubber, derived from the sap of trees in the rain forests of Brazil. It was interesting stuff and, properly treated, would bounce around in an amusing fashion. In hot weather, however, it tended to get squishy and sticky so its uses seemed limited. By the mid-nineteenth century, the American inventor, Firestone, had found a method of stabilizing it so that it would not melt, and it became an important substance for industry. Brazil boomed by slashing its native trees, but other nations soon got rubber plants and began their own plantations -- the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in Indonesia, the British in Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma, and the Belgians in the Congo. One of the reasons that the United States got involved in a disastrous conflict in Vietnam in the 1960's and 1970's was to attempt to save the Michelin and Dunlop (the major French and British tire manufacturers) rubber plantations from being taken over by the "Communists". Meanwhile, the Germans had no colonies, except for Kamrun in Africa, that could sustain rubber trees, and so Germany led the way in the development of Buna rubber, a synthetic, and, by virtue of its work in this area, the Germans led the rest of the world in the area of producing synthetics from coal for a number of years.

Quinine provides another example of "botanical imperialism" for want of a catchier phrase. As soon as it's medicinal value - not merely in combating malaria, but in actually preventing it - was recognized, the Dutch established chincona plantations on Java and became the world's supplier of high-grade medicinal quinine (small quantities were used as a bitter flavoring in drinks such as gin and "tonic"). It was not until the Japanese occupied the Netherlands East Indies during the Second World War (1941-1945) that the Americans developed Atabrine as a quinine substitute.

There are many plants that had equally important effects upon human history: sugar, now a major crop in Florida and Hawaii since 1963, when the Cuban revolutionary government nationalized the Cuban holdings of Commonwealth Edison, and the United States declared an embargo against trading with a country that had, up to then, been our major supplier of sugar. Cocoa would be another tale. Or the story of how the British planted cotton, indigenous to India, in its North American colonies, and so brought about a slave-driven plantation economy that led the North Americans to a civil war (1860-1865). When the British found their supply of cotton cut off, they re-introduced it to India and began plantations in Egypt, so rendering themselves independent of cotton from North America, which thus stimulated the growth of the textile mills of New England, and so forth.

Most people picture the south seas islands as covered with swaying coconut palms, but many of those palms were planted there by companies who wanted the dried meat of the coconut, (copra, from which to extract palm oil. Back at the turn of the century, there was an Englishman by the name of Lever who owned a soap company. He felt that there would be a great industrial market for plant oils in the near future and got a grant from the British government to plant some 300,000 acres in the Solomon Islands in palm trees. He soon acquired several hundred thousand more acres in the Belgian Congo for similar purposes. The Lever Company changed its name to Unilever and is now one of the world's biggest companies, with palm plantations all around the world. A great number of companies and products you may think of as thoroughly American, such as Palmolive soap, various brands of margarine, cold creams, shampoos, cooking oils, breakfast foods, and the like are in fact Unilever products. The United States sends a lot of money the Britain because it does not have its own supply of oil palms.

Some years ago, the New Zealanders began cultivating the chinese gooseberry, renaming it "kiwi fruit". It became quite popular and California and Florida planters began growing it, just as their predecessors had imported grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, kumquats, pomegranates, and a host of other fruits from the Middle East, and just as California planters began growing pistachio nuts when trouble arose between the United States and Iran, the world's supplier of this commodity.

Not all botanical transfers have happy results, however. The Asian Kudzu was introduced to the southern United States as a fodder plant, but found its new home so congenial that the state of Mississippi has almost been engulfed by its thick tendrils. Russian emigrants into the United States at the turn of the century brought the Russian thistle with them. At home, the thistle was a garden plant, and its young pods were pickled and eaten as a particular delicacy. Like the kudzu, the Russian thistle spread quickly, and states and counties now spend millions of dollars annually trying to keep it down, since it has become clear that there is no chance of eradicating it.

One could go on by discussing cocoa, tobacco, indigo, or even turning to the transplantation of animals -- rabbits to Australia, the bubonic plague bacillus from Asia to Europe, African Killer Bees to the Americas, elm disease from the Netherlands to America, the Japanese beetle from Japan to the United States, European smallpox and pneumonia from the Old to the New World, and so on.

The important thing to note, however, is that, unlike emigration or the exploitation of mineral resources, the movement of plants and animals from one part of the globe to another have radically changed many parts of the world, often substituting one ecological system for another, and many of those changes have proven to be more or less permanent or even expanding. Mineral resources can be depleted over time because, unlike biological resources, they are not renewable, and human demography is influenced by plant and animal resources much more basically by biological than by mineralogical factors. People go or stay depending upon the available supply of food. The world as we know it is far more of a human creation than we generally suppose. Let me close with a final example.

In 1890, western Kansas was covered with native grass, largely because, except in the river valleys, nothing else could be grown there. It was part of a great range-land extending from the Texas coast into Saskatchewan, and was, together with the Argentine Pampas and Russian Ukraine, one of the world's great stock-raising areas. It was about this time that the Russian Government began making trouble for the Russian Mennonites and others for their pacifist beliefs. About 1900, many of them began to make their way out of Russia to find a sanctuary somewhere. A small group came to Kansas since there was still free, or at least quite inexpensive, land in the western part of the state. They settled down there and tried to farm the inhospitable land. The farmers among them had each come carrying a bag of the seed with which they were familiar. Their strain of wheat seed, a strain that we now call Turkey Red, was rather remarkable. It seemed to be resistant to all of the blights that reduced a usual wheat crop; it was a winter wheat and made extremely good use of the moisture that accumulated in the soil during winter snows; it was able to flourish on extremely little moisture thereafter. After their first harvest, the new immigrants found that there was such a demand for their wheat that they began to specialize in raising seed. In 1910, just as the farmers of western Kansas had accumulated enough Turkey Red wheat seed for a full planting, new giant steam-driven tractors came into the area pulling what were for the time immense multiple plows. What is more, there was the promise of steam-driven combines of cutters and threshers come the next Summer.

1910 was the year that is remembered as The Great Plow-Under, when vast expanses of western Kansas were brought under cultivation, just as 1911 was the year of The Wonder Harvest, in which Kansas wheat flooded into the world-markets in undreamed of quantities. Western Kansas, along with the Russian Ukraine and the Argentine Pampas, became one of the world's breadbasket. New ports were created, new railways were laid, new shipping channels dug, and the world's old wheat-producing areas began to turn to other pursuits. Instead of being regarded as "deserts", these lands were now considered national treasures.

Down in the Flint Hills and in various corners of Kansas tucked away among vast wheat fields, you can still see cattle "ranches". Many of these are tourist attractions, but the tourists do not often realize that they are looking at tiny remnants of what Kansas was before the "miracle wheat" arrived. Such places should serve as reminders of how greatly the face of the world has been changed.

I was quite right about people not paying all that much attention to the migration of plants as a factor in world history. I was so right, in fact, that I've found only one site dealing with the subject and I've decided to let you try to find it. I'll give you a hint. The site is sponsored by the Bayer Rubber Company. You might like to visit the Mutiny on the HMS Bounty site. It was a famous book and made into a couple of good movies. It took place in the 1790's when the HMS Bounty, commanded by Captain William Bligh was becalmed and running short of water. Bligh had been ordered to proceed to the South Seas and to gather breadfruit plants to carry to the Caribbean to see if they would make a nourishing and cheap food for the slaves there. Bligh insisted on using the crew's scant drinking water to keep the plants alive, and the crew mutinied, finally finding safety in the unknown and almost inaccessible Pitcairn Island. As long as we're talking about the sea, you might enjoy visiting A HREF="" target=blank> The New Bedford Whaling Museum and remembering that when the whales became scarce, most countries were forced to turn to petroleum and plants to fill their need for oils.


Coal Mining in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is well-worth a visit. The United States rose to the rank of world power during the 1890's mainly because of its ability to export inexpensive steel, and such men as Andrew Carnegie became fabulously wealthy as a result. This inexpensive steel was made possible by the poorly-paid men who did the dangerous work of mining the coal that the steel mills needed. The next time that you're tempted to oppose the construction of atomic power plants on the basis of the danger they present, you might want to ask yourself how many lives are lost providing you with the coal needed to produce the electric power you want.

Puget Sound History offers some insight into the changes brought about in the state of Washington by the availability of water power. Finally, American Immigration provides an overview of the creation of the American population. while Ellis Island offers an insight into how many of you came to be born Americans.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
19 March 1998
Lawrence KS