Early Modern Fur Trade

Fur trade-based predation upon species already had a long and remunerative history in Europe and Asia at the time that the first European fur traders began their activities on the North American continent. Scandinavia had provided ancient Rome with furs, along with amber, sea ivory, and slaves, receiving gold, silver, and other treasures in return.39 In the late ninth century CE, seigniorial traders such as Ottar, from the Norwegian fjords near modern Tromsoe, took marten, reindeer, bear, and otter furs in tribute from Lapp hunters and sold them in Norway, Denmark, and England.40 In the early tenth century, the Viking Rus delivered sable, squirrel, ermine, black and white fox, marten, beaver, and slaves to Bulgar on the bend of the Volga. In 922 ce the Arab Ibn Fadan described graphically the voyage of Rus merchants down the Volga with sables and slave girls for the markets of the Islamic Levant. After the Vikings, the North German Hanseatic League captured the fur trade in the northland. From a trading post at Bergen they mercilessly exploited the Norwegians, forcing them to deliver and clean large quantities of fur and fish in return for payments advanced, thus operating a kind of "international debt peonage."41

In what today is Russia, the operations of the Viking Rus prompted the development of the polities of Kiev and Novograd in the ninth and tenth centuries. For these states, as for their successors, furs became the single most valuable item of trade from the earliest beginnings to the eighteenth century and beyond.42 Indeed, the quest for domination and expansion has been portrayed as one "extended quest for domination of successive river basins by the control of portage between them, the speed of expansion being determined by the exhaustion (or local extinction) of fur-bearing animals in each successive basin." The Russians, like Ottar before them, collected furs through tribute (iasak) imposed on local populations as a body, and through a tithe43 on all furs obtained by individuals. Indeed, furs so obtained later constituted a major item in the income of the Russian states, rising from 3.8 per cent of state revenues in 1589 to 10 per cent in 1644.44

The fur trade, and with it the earliest proximate modern rehearsal for the modern global commercial war on species, began in earnest in medieval times in Europe, when it involved the hunting of European animals to stock the wardrobes of the nobility and royalty. It involved mainly small animals, such as squirrels, martens, ermine (the white phase of the weasel), sables, and foxes, and they were usually trapped alive so that their furs could be collected undamaged. Several hundred squirrel pelts were needed to make one cloak, so the numbers killed were enormous. Eventually the population of fur-bearing animals in Western Europe was almost exhausted, leading to the exploration of the northern forests of Russia and the development of an international trading system. This trade became a major driving force behind the early modern Russian expansion into Siberia, and the fur trade became Russia's economic foundation.

It is estimated that, at the height of the squirrel trade in the fourteenth to sixteenth century, the region of Novgorod was exporting half a million squirrel skins a year. The fur-bearing animals of the vast Siberian forests were already virtually eliminated by the end of the eighteenth century.45 When Russian traders had exhausted the terrestrial fur-bearing animals, they turned their attention to sea otters in the north Pacific. Between 1750 and 1790 about 250,000 sea otters were killed. Then otters became too scarce to be worth hunting and the trade collapsed.46 Only when Czar Peter the Great launched Russia on its road to industrialization did the fur trade decline in importance. Even so, the "fur war" waged against animals for commercial ends remained the main contribution of Siberia to the Russian economy until the nineteenth century.47

From the earliest days of European settlement in North America, the fur trade was one of the main reasons for westward expansion. For a long time, the colonists simply traded their goods for furs collected by Amerindians. As skilled hunters and suppliers of pelts, the Amerindians were sought after as trading partners and thus were exposed to white culture. In exchange for their goods, the Amerindians received European products, both practical, such as iron tools and utensils, and decorative, such as bright-colored cloth and beads. They also received firearms and liquor, both of which had an enormous impact on Indian lifeways. A second and devastating effect of the fur trade with white settlers was the outbreak of European diseases among the Indian population. A third effect was the long-term ecological disruption of the food chain by the depletion of fur-bearing mammals. And finally, the fur trade brought European traders, trappers, and hunters on to Indian lands. Then came the trading and military posts, the miners,48 and soon thereafter, the settlers. Although there is little comparison between the depredations imposed by these opportunistic individuals on the Amerindians and those imposed by the majority of the Spanish conquistadors, who sought to conquer, plunder, and enslave the Indian population, nevertheless fur traders were often the harbingers of an insensitive and exploitative culture that had emerged within the framework of early capitalism. However, as Eric Wolf notes, the fur trade was not a North American but an international phenomenon, inseparable from the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of the early modern phase of capitalist expansion.49

As Native American societies prospered, they elaborated new cultural configurations that combined Native and European artifacts and patterns. Such expressions were made possible by the flow of new and valued European goods into a still self-regulating Native economy. As long as the Amerindians were able to direct most of the social labor available through kin-ordered relations to the task of guaranteeing their subsistence, the goods attained by part-time fur hunting supplemented rather than replaced their own means of production.50 But as European traders consolidated their economic and political position, the balanced relation between Native trappers and the Europeans gave way to imbalance. Amerindians themselves came to rely increasingly on the trading post not only for the tools of the fur trade but also for the means of their own subsistence. This growing dependence pressured the native fur hunters to commit even more labor to the fur trade in order to pay for the goods advanced to them by the trader. Abandoning their own subsistence activities, they became specialized laborers in a putting-out system, in which entrepreneurs advanced both production goods and consumption goods against commodities to be delivered in the future. Such specialization tied the Native Americans more firmly into continent-wide and international networks of exchange, as subordinate producers rather than as partners.51

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fur trade in North America moved on to its last frontier, the land west of the Mississippi. In 1805, when Lewis and Clark, the first explorers of the area, crossed the Rocky Mountains and continued on to the Pacific coast, they reported that the area was richer in beaver and otter than any other region on the planet.52 Once these animals were trapped, the trappers had nowhere else to go, but they could switch to less desirable species. For a few years the trade was sustained by muskrat and marten furs, but these, too, were soon depleted.53

As the traders demanded furs from one group after another, paying for them with European artifacts, each group adapted its way of life to the needs of the European manufacturers. At the same time, the demands of the Europeans for fur increased competition among the Native American groups. Competition for new hunting grounds and competition for access to the European goods soon became essential components of native technology as markers of differential status. The fur trade thus changed the character of warfare among Amerindian populations and increased its intensity and scope. It led to the loss of whole populations and the displacement of others from their previous habitats. Nor were furs the only item furnished by the Amerindians. The growing trade also required supplies, and as the commerce in furs expanded westward it altered and intensified the patterns by which food was produced for hunters and traders alike.

One of the favorite targets in North America was the beaver, the largest of the surviving rodents of the continent. Once extremely abundant throughout most of North America, it had gone into decline as early as the 1630s, when King Charles I of England decreed the compulsory use of beaver fur in the manufacture of hats to be worn by all members of high society. By 1720, over 2 million beavers had been killed in eastern North America. Beaver hats were fashionable until the early nineteenth century, by which time beavers had been virtually wiped out east of the Mississippi.54

In the nineteenth century, as beaver grew less important, it was replaced by sea otter and seal, exported mainly from North America to markets in China. Russia, too, lost its dominant role in the European fur market by the end of the seventeenth century, and sought outlets for its furs in China and elsewhere in Asia.55 What the Europeans sought on the northwest coast of the New World was, above all, sea-otter pelts. Between 1785 and 1825, some 330 recorded vessels visited the coast, nearly two-thirds of them trading for two seasons or more.56 Sea-otter skins were obtained at first in return for iron and other metals, later for clothing and blankets, and still later for rum, tobacco, molasses, and muskets. The Native American traders were mostly "chiefs" who mobilized their followers and personal contacts to deliver the otter skins, and whose power grew concomitantly with the development of the trade.57

For more than three centuries, the fur trade thrived and expanded in North America, drawing ever new Native American groups into the widening circuits of commodity exchange that opened up between the incoming Europeans and their native partners in trade. The trade first touched the food collectors and horticulturists of the eastern woodlands and sub-arctic. Then, with the expulsion of the French and the partition of the north between British Canada and the United States, it reached beyond the Great Lakes into the western sub-arctic, creating at the same time a new zone of supply in the area of the Plains. Finally, at the conclusion of the eighteenth century, the trade established a beachhead in the Pacific Northwest, eventually linking up, across the coastal mountains, with the advancing inland trading posts.58

Wherever it went, the fur trade brought with it contagious illness and increased warfare. Many native groups were destroyed and disappeared entirely; others were decimated, broken up, or driven from their original habitats. Remnant populations sought refuge with allies or grouped together with other populations, often under new names and ethnic identities. A few, like the Iroquois, expanded at the expense of their neighbors.59 Some groups, located strategically or strong militarily, became the primary beneficiaries of the trade in furs.

The Hudson's Bay Company bore major responsibility for promoting the hunting of hundreds of thousands of fur-bearing animals every year in North America and exporting the hides and furs to Europe. The most valuable animals were the various members of the weasel family, including the short-tailed weasel in its white or "ermine" phase, otter, mink, pine marten, fisher, and wolverine. Of these animals, only weasels, otters, and mink remain today, and the weasel is the only one that is still abundant. In addition, these species also suffered greatly from reduction of their forest habitat.60

The loss of furs from other sources was a major incentive for the massive hunts for various types of seal.61 The animals were usually clubbed to death when they came ashore to breed. The pattern was a familiar one: the discovery of large populations of a target species led to the development of intensive hunting, culminating in the extermination or regional depletion of the species. Then trappers moved to new areas and repeated the cycle. The first phase of the seal hunts (1780-1820) took place in many areas of the southern hemisphere and was carried out by sealers from Europe, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Massive seal hunts also developed in the North Atlantic, where hunters took advantage of the huge harp seal population that breeds on the pack ice around Labrador and Newfoundland. The sealers, mostly from Canada, focused on the newborn seals, whose pure white fur yielded high profits. Started in the early nineteenth century, the Newfoundland sealing industry peaked in the 1850s at about 600,000 animals killed. Ultimately, it reduced the size of the herds by about 80 per cent, causing the decline of the industry in the early twentieth century.

In the Bering Sea, Russian hunters stalked the northern fur seal off the Pribilof Islands after having wiped out the sea otters. The number of seals killed fell from 127,000 in 1791 to 7,000 a year in the 1820s. In this short period 2.5 million animals had been killed. The population recovered when the Russian hunters moved to other areas, but after Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, the totalkilled went back up to 250,000 per year. By the turn of the century, the seal population had again fallen dramatically.62

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