Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
Rate it:
Open Preview
1%
Flag icon
As it happened, she didn’t actually know what the IMF was, so I offered that the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world’s debt enforcers—“You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs.” I launched into historical background, explaining how, during the ’70s oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn’t figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to ...more
1%
Flag icon
Actually, the remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true. A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk. If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable—if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance—the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan? “Well, I know that sounds like common sense,” I said, “but the funny thing is, economically, that’s not how loans are actually supposed to work. Financial institutions are supposed to be ways of ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
on a global level—which is how you could have all those banks willing to fork over billions of dollars to a bunch of obvious crooks in the first place.”
2%
Flag icon
For almost two years, I had lived in the highlands of Madagascar. Shortly before I arrived, there had been an outbreak of malaria. It was a particularly virulent outbreak because malaria had been wiped out in highland Madagascar many years before, so that, after a couple of generations, most people had lost their immunity. The problem was, it took money to maintain the mosquito eradication program, since there had to be periodic tests to make sure mosquitoes weren’t starting to breed again and spraying campaigns if it was discovered that they were. Not a lot of money. But owing to IMF-imposed ...more
2%
Flag icon
Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation-states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it.
2%
Flag icon
In 1895, for example, France invaded Madagascar, disbanded the government of then–Queen Ranavalona III, and declared the country a French colony. One of the first things General Gallieni did after “pacification,” as they liked to call it then, was to impose heavy taxes on the Malagasy population, in part so they could reimburse the costs of having been invaded, but also, since French colonies were supposed to be fiscally self-supporting, to defray the costs of building the railroads, highways, bridges, plantations, and so forth that the French regime wished to build. Malagasy taxpayers were ...more
2%
Flag icon
But debt is not just victor’s justice; it can also be a way of punishing winners who weren’t supposed to win. The most spectacular example of this is the history of the Republic of Haiti—the first poor country to be placed in permanent debt peonage. Haiti was a nation founded by former plantation slaves who had the temerity not only to rise up in rebellion, amidst grand declarations of universal rights and freedoms, but to defeat Napoleon’s armies sent to return them to bondage. France immediately insisted that the new republic owed it 150 million francs in damages for the expropriated ...more
2%
Flag icon
Starting in the 1980s, the United States, which insisted on strict terms for the repayment of Third World debt, itself accrued debts that easily dwarfed those of the entire Third World combined—mainly fueled by military spending. The U.S. foreign debt, though, takes the form of treasury bonds held by institutional investors in countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Gulf States) that are in most cases, effectively, U.S. military protectorates, most covered in U.S. bases full of arms and equipment paid for with that very deficit spending. This has changed a little now that ...more
Daniel Moore
later), but not very much—even China finds that the fact it holds so many U.S. treasury bonds makes it to some degree beholden to U.S. interests, rather than the other way around.
2%
Flag icon
In the 1720s, one of the things that most scandalized the British public when conditions at debtors’ prisons were exposed in the popular press was the fact that these prisons were regularly divided into two sections. Aristocratic inmates, who often thought of a brief stay in Fleet or Marshalsea as something of a fashion statement, were wined and dined by liveried servants and allowed to receive regular visits from prostitutes. On the “common side,” impoverished debtors were shackled together in tiny cells, “covered with filth and vermin,” as one report put it, “and suffered to die, without ...more
2%
Flag icon
Arguments about debt have been going on for at least five thousand years. For most of human history—at least, the history of states and empires—most human beings have been told that they are debtors.4 Historians, and particularly historians of ideas, have been oddly reluctant to consider the human consequences, especially since this situation—more than any other—has caused continual outrage and resentment. Tell people they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased, but this surprisingly rarely leads to armed revolt. Tell people that they are potential equals who have failed and that ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”
2%
Flag icon
French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes—they were referred to as “the vanquished ones,” since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste many centuries before—lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans from the landlords simply to find a way to eat—not for the money, since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
accounts were settled, she return to her husband and begin her married life.6 This seems shocking, outrageous even, but Galey does not report any widespread feeling of injustice. Everyone seemed to feel that this was just the way things worked. Neither was there much concern voiced among the local Brahmins, who were the ultimate arbiters in matters of morality—though this is hardly surprising, since the most prominent moneylenders were often Brahmins themselves.
3%
Flag icon
Compare this with, say, medieval France, where the moral status of moneylenders was seriously in question. The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude, causing the Church hierarchy to authorize preaching campaigns, sending mendicant friars to travel from town to town warning usurers that unless they repented and made full restitution of all interest extracted from their victims, they would surely go to Hell. These sermons, many of which have survived, are full of horror stories of God’s judgment on unrepentant ...more
3%
Flag icon
Historically, there have been only two effective ways for a lender to try to wriggle out of the opprobrium: either shunt off responsibility onto some third party, or insist that the borrower is even worse. In medieval Europe, for instance, lords often took the first approach, employing Jews as surrogates. Many would even speak of “our” Jews—that is, Jews under their personal protection—though in practice this usually meant that they would first deny Jews in their territories any means of making a living except by usury (guaranteeing that they would be widely detested), then periodically turn ...more
4%
Flag icon
Since colonial days, Americans have been the population least sympathetic to debtors. In a way this is odd, since America was settled largely by absconding debtors, but it’s a country where the idea that morality is a matter of paying one’s debts runs deeper than almost any other. In colonial days, an insolvent debtor’s ear was often nailed to a post. The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, ...more
4%
Flag icon
In Minnesota, “the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009 … In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January [2010], a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man ‘to indefinite incarceration’ until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.”15 In other words, we are moving toward a restoration of something much like debtors’ prisons.
5%
Flag icon
In the years after Columbus, as Spanish and Portuguese adventurers were scouring the world for new sources of gold and silver, these vague stories disappear. Certainly no one reported discovering a land of barter. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travelers in the West Indies or Africa assumed that all societies would necessarily have their own forms of money, since all societies had governments and all governments issued money.7 Adam Smith, on the other hand, was determined to overturn the conventional wisdom of his day. Above all, he objected to the notion that money was a creation of ...more
6%
Flag icon
For centuries now, explorers have been trying to find this fabled land of barter—none with success. Adam Smith set his story in aboriginal North America (others preferred Africa or the Pacific). In Smith’s defense, at least it could be said that in his time, reliable information on Native American economic systems was unavailable in Scottish libraries. His successors have no excuse. By mid-century, Lewis Henry Morgan’s descriptions of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, among others, were widely published—and they made clear that the main economic institution among the Iroquois nations were ...more
6%
Flag icon
Why? The simplest answer would be: for there to even be a discipline called “economics,” a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that, among people like the Gunwinngu and the Nambikwara, simply does not exist. These divisions in turn are made possible by very specific ...more
6%
Flag icon
Adal-badal is always practiced with non-relatives and affords men a great deal of pleasure as they attempt to get the advantage over their exchange partner. A good exchange, in which a man feels he has gotten the better of the deal, is cause for bragging and pride. If the exchange is bad, the recipient tries to renege on the deal or, failing that, to palm off the faulty object on someone unsuspecting. The best partner in adal-badal is someone who is distant spatially and will therefore have little opportunity to complain.22 Neither are such unscrupulous motives limited to Central Asia. They ...more
7%
Flag icon
For example, if Henry was living in a Seneca longhouse and needed shoes, Joshua would not even enter into it; he’d simply mention it to his wife, who’d bring up the matter with the other matrons, and, if the matter were approved, fetch materials from the longhouse’s collective storehouse, and sew him some.
7%
Flag icon
Employers in Smith’s day often lacked coin to pay their workers; wages could be delayed by a year or more; in the meantime, it was considered acceptable for employees to carry off either some of their own products or leftover work materials, lumber, fabric, cord, and so on. The nails were de facto interest on what their employers owed them. So they went to the pub, ran up a tab, and when occasion permitted, brought in a bag of nails to charge off against the debt. The law making tobacco legal tender in Virginia seems to have been an attempt by planters to oblige local merchants to accept their ...more
7%
Flag icon
The Sumerian economy was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates. Even though ancient Sumer was usually divided into a large number of independent city-states, by the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500 BC, temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy—one that is in some ways still with us, actually, because it’s to the Sumerians that ...more
8%
Flag icon
Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans, etc.) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money. And it did indeed circulate in the form of unworked chunks, “rude bars” as Smith had put it.33 In this he was right. But it was almost the only part of his account that was right. For one thing, silver did not circulate very much. Most of it just sat around in Temple and Palace treasuries, some of which remained, carefully guarded, in the same place for literally thousands of years. It would have been easy enough to standardize the ingots, stamp them, create some ...more
8%
Flag icon
The groundwork was laid by Mitchell-Innes—the same one I’ve already cited on the matter of the cod—in two essays that appeared in New York’s Banking Law Journal in 1913 and 1914. In these, Mitchell-Innes matter-of-factly laid out the false assumptions on which existing economic history was based and suggested that what was really needed was a history of debt: One of the popular fallacies in connection with commerce is that in modern days a money-saving device has been introduced called credit and that, before this device was known, all purchases were paid for in cash, in other words in coins. ...more
8%
Flag icon
In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to ...more
8%
Flag icon
Recall here what Smith was trying to do when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Above all, the book was an attempt to establish the newfound discipline of economics as a science. This meant that not only did economics have its own peculiar domain of study—what we now call “the economy,” though the idea that there even was something called an “economy” was very new in Smith’s day—but that this economy operated according to laws of much the same sort as Sir Isaac Newton had so recently identified as governing the physical world. Newton had represented God as a cosmic watchmaker who had created the ...more
8%
Flag icon
How could credit money come about? Let us return to the economics professors’ imaginary town. Say, for example, that Joshua were to give his shoes to Henry, and, rather than Henry owing him a favor, Henry promises him something of equivalent value.10 Henry gives Joshua an IOU. Joshua could wait for Henry to have something useful and then redeem it. In that case Henry would rip up the IOU and the story would be over. But say Joshua were to pass the IOU on to a third party—Sheila—to whom he owes something else. He could tick it off against his debt to a fourth party, Lola—now Henry will owe that ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
about forty different tiny inscriptions in Chinese. What credit theorists like Mitchell-Innes were arguing is that even if Henry gave Joshua a gold coin instead of a piece of paper, the situation would be essentially the same. A gold coin is a promise to pay something else of equivalent value to a gold coin. After all, a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will. In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.
9%
Flag icon
During the reign of the actual Henry II (1154–1189), just about everyone in Western Europe was still keeping their accounts using the monetary system established by Charlemagne some 350 years earlier—that is, using pounds, shillings, and pence—despite the fact that some of these coins had never existed (Charlemagne never actually struck a silver pound), none of Charlemagne’s actual shillings and pence remained in circulation, and those coins that did circulate tended to vary enormously in size, weight, purity, and value.13 According to the Chartalists, this doesn’t really matter. What matters ...more
9%
Flag icon
One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry’s time were notched “tally sticks” used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called “the stock” (hence the origin of the term “stock holder”) and the debtor kept the other, called “the stub” (hence the origin of the term “ticket stub.”) Tax assessors used such twigs to calculate amounts owed by local sheriffs. Often, though, rather than wait for the taxes ...more
9%
Flag icon
Modern banknotes actually work on a similar principle, except in reverse.16 Recall here the little parable about Henry’s IOU. The reader might have noticed one puzzling aspect of the equation: the IOU can operate as money only as long as Henry never pays his debt. In fact this is precisely the logic on which the Bank of England—the first successful modern central bank—was originally founded. In 1694, a consortium of English bankers made a loan of £1,200,000 to the king. In return they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to ...more
Daniel Moore
money to the clients who borrowed it), but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it ever were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.
9%
Flag icon
Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem. Such a force would likely consume anything edible within ten miles of their camp in as many days; unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and animals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions.18 On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn ...more
9%
Flag icon
This was particularly true in the colonial world. To return to Madagascar for a moment: I have already mentioned that one of the first things that the French general Gallieni, conqueror of Madagascar, did when the conquest of the island was complete in 1901 was to impose a head tax. Not only was this tax quite high, it was also only payable in newly issued Malagasy francs. In other words, Gallieni did indeed print money and then demand that everyone in the country give some of that money back to him. Most striking of all, though, was language he used to describe this tax. It was referred to as ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
either to find some kind of cash crop to sell—to start growing coffee, or pineapples—or else to send one’s children off to work for wages in the city or on one of the plantations that French colonists were establishing across the island. The whole project might seem no more than a cynical scheme to squeeze cheap labor out of the peasantry, and it was that, but it was also something more. The colonial government was also quite explicit (at least in their own internal policy documents) about the need to make sure that peasants had at least some money of their own left over, and to ensure that they became accustomed to the minor luxuries—parasols, lipstick, cookies—available at the Chinese shops. It was crucial that they develop new tastes, habits, and expectations; that they lay the foundations of a consumer demand that would endure long after the conquerors had left, and keep Madagascar forever tied to France.
10%
Flag icon
By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the very notion that the market could regulate itself, so long as the government ensured that money was safely pegged to precious metals, was completely discredited. From roughly 1933 to 1979, every major capitalist government reversed course and adopted some version of Keynesianism. Keynesian orthodoxy started from the assumption that capitalist markets would not really work unless capitalist governments were willing effectively to play nanny: most famously, by engaging in massive deficit “pump-priming” during downturns. While in the ’80s, ...more
11%
Flag icon
Why were cattle so often used as money? The German historian Bernard Laum long ago pointed out that in Homer, when people measure the value of a ship or suit of armor, they always measure it in oxen—even though when they actually exchange things, they never pay for anything in oxen. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because an ox was what one offered the gods in sacrifice. Hence oxen represented absolute value. From Sumer to Classical Greece, silver and gold were dedicated as offerings in temples. Everywhere, money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
Daniel Moore
described in the first chapter: how to turn a moral obligation into a specific sum of money, how the mere sense of owing someone else a favor can eventually turn into a system of accounting in which one is able to calculate exactly how many sheep or fish or chunks of silver it would take to repay the debt. Or in this case, how do we go from that absolute debt we owe to God to the very specific debts we owe our cousin, or the bartender? The answer provided by primordial-debt theorists is, again, ingenious. If taxes represent our absolute debt to the society that created us, then the first step toward creating real money comes when we start calculating much more specific debts to society, systems of fines, fees, and penalties, or even debts we owe to specific individuals who we have wronged in some way, and thus to whom we stand in a relation of “sin” or “guilt.”
12%
Flag icon
The notion that debts to gods were appropriated by the state, and thus became the bases for taxation systems, can’t really stand up either. The problem here is that in the ancient world free citizens didn’t usually pay taxes. Generally speaking, tribute was levied only on conquered populations. This was already true in ancient Mesopotamia, where the inhabitants of independent cities did not usually have to pay direct taxes at all. Similarly, as Moses Finley noted, “Classical Greeks looked upon direct taxes as tyrannical and avoided them whenever possible.”51 Athenian citizens did not pay ...more
12%
Flag icon
We don’t know precisely when and how interest-bearing loans originated, since they appear to predate writing. Most likely, Temple administrators invented the idea as a way of financing the caravan trade. This trade was crucial because while the river valley of ancient Mesopotamia was extraordinarily fertile and produced huge surpluses of grain and other foodstuffs, and supported enormous numbers of livestock, which in turn supported a vast wool and leather industry, it was almost completely lacking in anything else. Stone, wood, metal, even the silver used as money, all had to be imported. ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
12%
Flag icon
The effects were such that they often threatened to rip society apart. If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization. Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and later Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties: “clean slates,” as economic historian Michael Hudson refers to them. Such decrees would ...more
12%
Flag icon
Historically, kingdoms and empires have rarely been the most important reference points in people’s lives. Kingdoms rise and fall; they also strengthen and weaken; governments may make their presence known in people’s lives quite sporadically, and for many people in history, it was not at all clear whose government they were actually in. Even until quite recently, many of the world’s inhabitants were not quite sure of what country they were citizens, or why it should matter. My mother, who was born a Jew in Poland, once told me a joke from her childhood: There was a small town located along ...more
13%
Flag icon
One might even say that what we really have here, in the idea of primordial debt, is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods that created us, paid interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and ultimately paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe it to the Nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, offer to pay it with our lives. This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t ...more
14%
Flag icon
Danish writer Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him. The man objected indignantly: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”13 The last line is something of an anthropological ...more
15%
Flag icon
Nehemiah was a Jew born in Babylon, a former cup-bearer to the Persian emperor. In 444 BC, he managed to talk the Great King into appointing him governor of his native Judaea. He also received permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier. In the course of rebuilding, sacred texts were recovered and restored; in a sense, this was the moment of the creation of what we now consider Judaism.
15%
Flag icon
In the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, “freedom,” came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the Jewish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation from bondage in Egypt was God’s first, paradigmatic act of redemption; the historical tribulations of the Jews (defeat, conquest, exile) were seen as misfortunes that would eventually lead to a final redemption with the coming of the Messiah—though this could only be accomplished, prophets such as Jeremiah warned them, after the Jewish people truly repented of their sins (carrying each ...more
15%
Flag icon
There is something almost touchingly naïve in the stories about neighbors swapping potatoes for an extra pair of shoes. When the ancients thought about money, friendly swaps were hardly the first thing that came to mind. True, some might have thought about their tab at the local ale-house or, if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses, account books, exotic imported delights. For most, though, what was likely to come to mind was the selling of slaves and ransoming of prisoners, corrupt tax-farmers and the depredations of conquering armies, mortgages and interest, theft and ...more
This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.
18%
Flag icon
Laura Bohannan writes about arriving in a Tiv community in rural Nigeria; neighbors immediately began arriving bearing little gifts: “two ears corn, one vegetable marrow, one chicken, five tomatoes, one handful peanuts.”27 Having no idea what was expected of her, she thanked them and wrote down in a notebook their names and what they had brought. Eventually, two women adopted her and explained that all such gifts did have to be returned. It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbor and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one ...more
19%
Flag icon
I have been told that in some of the more lawless parts of the former Soviet Union, gangs prey so systematically on travelers on trains and buses that they have developed the habit of giving each victim a little token to confirm that the bearer has already been robbed. Obviously, one step toward the creation of a state. Actually, one popular theory of the origins of the state, which goes back at least to the fourteenth-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun, runs precisely along these lines: nomadic raiders eventually systematize their relations with sedentary villagers; pillage turns ...more
24%
Flag icon
Among the Nuer, forty cattle were set as the standard fee for bloodwealth. But it was also the standard rate of bridewealth. The logic was this: if a man had been murdered before he was able to marry and produce offspring, it’s only natural that his spirit would be angry. He had been, effectively, robbed of his eternity. The best solution would be to use the cattle paid in settlement to acquire what was called a “ghost-wife”: a woman who would then be formally married to the dead man. Sometimes she was paired off with one of the victim’s brothers, sometimes she was left to cohabit with anyone ...more
24%
Flag icon
The Iroquois, who traced descent in the female line, did not trade women in this fashion. However, they had another, more direct approach. If a man died—even of natural causes—his wife’s relatives might “put his name upon the mat,” sending off belts of wampum to commission a war party, which would then raid an enemy village to secure a captive. The captive could either be tortured to death, or, if the clan matrons were in a benevolent mood (one could never tell; the grief of mourning is tricky), adopted: this was signified by throwing a belt of wampum around his shoulders, whereon he would be ...more
26%
Flag icon
Money almost always arises first from objects that are used primarily as adornment of the person. Beads, shells, feathers, dog or whale teeth, gold, and silver are all well-known cases in point. All are useless for any purpose other than making people look more interesting, and hence, more beautiful. The brass rods used by the Tiv might seem an exception, but actually they’re not: they were used mainly as raw material for the manufacture of jewelry, or simply twisted into hoops and worn at dances. There are exceptions (cattle, for instance), but as a general rule, it’s only when governments, ...more
26%
Flag icon
We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to first rip it from its context. That’s what slaves are: people stolen from the community that made them what they are. As strangers to their new communities, slaves no longer had mothers, fathers, kin of any sort. This is why they could be bought and sold or even killed: because the only relation they had was to their owners.
27%
Flag icon
Now, copper bars had been used for money in this part of Africa for centuries, and at least in some places, for ordinary commercial transactions, as well. It was easy enough to do: one simply snapped them apart into smaller pieces, or pulled some of them into thin wires, twisted those around into little loops, and one had perfectly serviceable small change for everyday market transactions.53 Most of the ones current in Tivland since the late eighteenth century, on the other hand, were mass-produced in factories in Birmingham and imported through the port of Old Calabar, at the mouth of the ...more
27%
Flag icon
During the 1760s alone, perhaps a hundred thousand Africans were shipped down the Cross River to Calabar and nearby ports, where they were put in chains, placed on British, French, or other European ships, and shipped across the Atlantic—part of perhaps a million and a half exported from the Bight of Biafra during the whole period of the Atlantic slave trade.55 Some of them had been captured in wars or raids, or simply kidnapped. The majority, though, were carried off because of debts.
« Prev 1 3 4