Iroquois Confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy united the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes.  Sometime, perhaps around 1570, the five tribes had agreed to organize a confederation.  They had an elaborate government structure.  At its peak each tribe got one vote in the grand council and decisions had to be unanimous.  Why did they form this confederation?  Probably because they were under attack from all sides by more powerful tribes.  They concentrated in remote areas of central New York, building fortified villages on high ground.

Then they began to make a cult out of personal glory in warfare.  (Cultural values matter.)  The women of the tribes took over the farming duties.  This freed up the men for other activities.  Today it would be sitting in the recliner drinking a beer and watching sports.  For the Iroquois it was ranging through the forests to fight people.  Either you get good at this or you get dead.  The Iroquois got good at it.  Really, really good.  A total population of about 12,000 could produce 2,200 warriors at any one time.

At this time Europeans wanted beaver pelts in immense quantities.  (They made really sharp-looking and water-proof hats.)  Traders were taking 10,000 beaver a year out of upstate New York.  They were willing to pay Indian trappers a lot to get the pelts to satisfy the demand in Europe.  The first Iroquois treaty was with the French in 1624.  The two groups then fell out over the high price of French goods and the French favoritism for the Algonkins and Hurons, who seemed willing to accept Jesuit missionaries.  Also, the French did not want to sell the Iroquois guns.  The Iroquois got in touch with the Dutch fur traders on the Hudson River.  The Dutch tried to trade alcohol for furs.  The Iroquois wanted guns.  So the Dutch sold guns.

By the 1630s the over-hunting of beaver on Iroquois land threatened to undermine the economic basis of confederation power.  What to do?  Perhaps we should work to create a “sustainable” economy in harmony with Nature, instead of engaging in thoughtless resource depletion.  Perhaps we should reject consumerism, which puts a premium on “having things” at the expense of emphasizing nurturing relationships with the friends and family who give life real meaning.  Nope.  There’s lots of beaver on the lands of other tribes.  We’re going to conquer those tribes and take their beaver.

Between 1648 and 1675 they were on the offensive.  In a quarter of a century they smashed up all the major tribes to their west as far as Ohio and as far south as Georgia.  This gave them control of all the fur trade of the northern forests.  Tribes moving furs from up-country either paid a share to the Iroquois or they made a long detour to avoid coming into contact with the Iroquois.  Either way the “tax” on the fur trade pushed up the price of furs delivered in Montreal.  This greatly annoyed the French.  Anyway, between this and the butchering of Jesuit missionaries, the French got all bent out of shape with the Iroquois.  They launched several major invasions of Iroquois country.  This, in turn, greatly annoyed the Iroquois, who launched a whole series of raids against the French settlers in Canada.

Once the British got New York away from the Dutch, they started dealing with the Iroquois.  When France and Britain fought for control of North America, the Iroquois provided a valuable ally to the British.  (Certainly a lot more valuable than the useless American colonists who were afraid of the woods.)  The British would give you the guns for free, then they would pay for scalps on top of that.  Iroquois heaven.


A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 4.

Africa was one of the battlefields in the Cold War. The United States supported—to a degree— the Congolese dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (aka Joseph Mobutu) while the Cold War went on. It’s not like they had much choice, regardless of what spy novels tell us about the supposed powers of the CIA world-hydra. Once the Cold War ended, all bets were off. In the late 1990s, Mobutu was staggering after 30 years of tyranny and plunder. Rebels waged war against the government from remote sanctuaries in the vast country. All sorts of tribal quarrels were barely held in check. Then, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide on Congo’s eastern border killed 800,000 Tutsis and led to the flight of a million Hutu “genocidaires” and their kin to the Congo. While the Ugandan-backed Tutsis took power in Rwanda, the Hutus took effective control of the refugee camps that were supposedly run by international agencies. Not content to leave bad enough alone, the Hutus transformed these into bases for guerrilla raids into Rwanda. In 1996, the Rwandan Tutsis joined forces with some of the local Congolese rebels (some of them Congolese Tutsis) to wage their own war in Eastern Congo against the Hutus. Massacres of Hutus—not just of soldiers—attended every Tutsi incursion, then and later.

This triggered the final collapse of the Mobutu dictatorship. Supported at first by Rwanda, a former-rebel-turned-schemer-in-exile named Laurent Kabila took over as president. Rather than replacing one strong-man with another, this created a vacuum of power. Civil war broke out with multiple participants. Kabila disappointed the Rwandans just as much as he disappointed many others. In 1998, Rwanda again invaded the Congo. Kabila saved himself from overthrow by drawing in help from neighboring Angola and Zimbabwe. This stalled the Rwandans at the price of expanding the number of interested participants in an already gory war. Then Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his even more ineffectual son. Again civil war broke out. Again, Rwanda intervened.[1] Often these interventions seem to have been driven by the quest to control the mines of eastern Congo: gold, diamonds, uranium, nickel, copper. Over the years, huge amounts of precious minerals have been transferred to Rwanda.[2]

The war continues in fits and starts much as it has done for twenty years now. It has been a particularly brutal war. Small bands of armed men, rather than great armies, do battle far from Western eyes. Massacres of civilians abound, and millions haven driven into hiding in the bush. Starvation and disease are as much killers as are the gun men. By 2009, the best estimates held that 4-5 million people had died. Then things began to calm down. Uganda and Rwanda, long partners in crime, fell out with one another over the division of the spoils. Rwanda sought to patch-up relations with Congo. This brought a period of relative peace to eastern Congo.

You might think that this catastrophe would attract a lot of attention. It hasn’t. There are a couple of excellent histories.[3] There is one novel that focuses narrowly, but effectively, on the corrupt relationship between business and government in what amounts to a profit free-fire zone.[4] Told through the voice of an Anglo-Congolese translator, the story boils down to a plot by a well-connected American businessman to launch a fake coup in eastern Congo so that his mercenaries can scoop up a vast store of precious metals. “The horror. The horror.”

[1] Paul Kagame, the Rwandan “president,” is a much caressed pet of the United States.

[2] This may be one explanation for the apparent modernity of government offices in what is still a poor country.

[3] Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwanda Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press, 2009); Jason K. Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (Public Affairs, 2011).

[4] John le Carre, The Mission Song (Little, Brown and Co., 2006).

Oil for the Lamps of China.

Half of the world’s easily available oil is in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. That oil powered the great Western economic surge since the Second World War. In 1973 and 1979 “oil shocks”—sudden rises in the price of oil and restrictions in supply—badly damaged the world’s economy in multiple ways. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, on the border with Iran when it was caught up in the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution. Visions of Red Army tanks reaching the northern shores of the Persian Gulf danced through the heads of many people. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter announced that “Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”

Actually, the American concern went beyond combatting an “outside force [seeking] to gain control.” The American concern encompassed any Middle Eastern state seeking to dominate so much of the region’s oil production that it could move the world market price for oil. What the Americans wanted was a stable world market in oil. President George H. W. Bush showed just how seriously the United States took both Carter’s declaration and the larger interest in price stability when he gathered a broad international coalition to cream Iraq in 1990-1991 after it occupied Kuwait.[1]

The spread of the Industrial Revolution into Asia has created a vastly more complicated situation. The collapse of the Communist experiment in the Soviet Union led the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and then other one-time believers in a planned economy to turn toward a market economy. A head-long rush to industrialization in the non-Western world followed. Oil became in ever-greater demand. Thus, no sooner had Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait been defeated than the PRC entered international oil markets. By 2003 China had passed Japan as the world’s second largest economy and the second largest oil consumer.

The Chinese strategy began with two components. First, China re-cycles part of the profits from exporting low-cost manufactured goods to the West into buying up oil and gas drilling rights in developing countries. These export earnings leave China with deep pockets, so the Chinese often just out-bid their Western competitors. More than thirty countries have received Chinese investments in oil production. They include Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Iran, and Indonesia. All Persian Gulf countries sell oil to China.

Second, China went where Western countries would not go. In particular, China began to court Sudan and Iran. By 2005, China had invested $15 billion in Sudan’s oil drilling and production. China chose to ignore the outcry in the West over the government of Sudan’s brutal war against its own people in the western and southern parts of the country. In Iran, China began trading modern weapons for oil to a state under a Western arms embargo. Cash investments soon followed. People in rich countries often forget that a delicate conscience is a luxury.

The Chinese demand for oil destabilizes the world oil market. Fighting China won’t be like fighting Iraq. So, perhaps people will strike a deal?

On all aspects of energy:

Matthew Yeoman, The World in Numbers: Crude Politics,” Atlantic, April 2005, pp. 48-49.

[1] The Great Depression of the 1930s had brought Hitler to power in Germany and had paralyzed the Western democracies. Reasoning backward from their own youthful experiences, many people in the West thought that if you hadn’t liked the Second World War and the Holocaust, then you should try to avoid a new world economic crisis. So, regardless of what Western liberals and Middle Eastern conspiracy theorists believe, “war for oil” isn’t the same thing as “war for oil companies.” It’s the same thing as “war for peace and prosperity.”