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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THE PATRIOTISM OF MONEY

I understand why Republicans have such naive faith in capitalists. Certainly, the businessmen or women who risk their own futures on the vagaries of markets, deserve universal respect. But it seems to me that the farther you get from the pain of your own mistakes the less you are a capitalist, and the more you become an elitist. As proof, I present to you a German flute maker who made his fortune in England, and doubled it by investing in the American fur trade; John Jacob Astor (above). He made in his life time the modern equivalent of $110 billion, so much money that his fortune survived two hundred years, it survived two "great depressions", four generations of 20th century “death taxes” and two world wars, so that his distant heirs are still enjoying its benefits. Astor’s “genius” was that he saw the American fur trade was not about fur, it was about dope. And he got the Army and Navy, anybodies army and navy, to protect hs investments.
See, just like 21st century China,  post-revolutionary war American didn’t have enough domestic customers to support a native industry. America then, like China today,  had to be an exporter. Her nearest customers were in Europe, who were interested in furs. But by 1810, hunters had so decimated eastern populations of beaver, otter, squirrel and fox in North America, that trappers were shipping furs fifteen hundred miles across country just to reach an Atlantic port. Overland transportation costs now made American fur a luxury item in Europe. But - and realizing this was Astor’s genius -  the west coast of North America was still filled with fur, swimming and walking around. And just across the Pacific were millions of Chinese opium addicts. And Astor saw the connection between those two. And he was willing to use the Army and Navy - anybodies army and navy - to protect his investments.
Plugged into the global English banking system, Astor realized he could buy furs in the Pacific Northwest from native Americans for the price of some fish hooks and iron axes, sell them in China and Japan for working capital, with which he could buy Afghanistan opium, which could be sold in China at an enormous profit. All he had to do was buy enough British politicians to get them to send the Royal Navy to force the Chinese to leave his opium fleets alone. That was what the British meant by Freedom of the Seas. And the real magic was that Astor never had to go to any of those places himself and look dead otters or dead addicts in the face. He hired others to do that. Of course, it turns out, working at a distance has its own price.
To put his plan in motion Astor first hired Wilson Hunt, who was a New Jersey businessman (and a junior partner), at the head of 64 French Canadian trappers, to head overland for the Columbia River. And then he convinced the U.S. Navy to loan him Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, hero of the battle of Tripoli. The problem for Astor, was that neither of these guys had any business running anything.
Thorn left first, on September 8, 1810 in command of the 290 ton, 10 gun ship, the Tonquin. She carried 34 seamen, French Canadian trappers and clerks, and everything needed to set up Astor’s fur collecting station at the mouth of the Columbia River. But barely had they passed out onto the Atlantic when Captain Thorn turned into Captain Bligh. He cursed the crew for singing a sea ditty. And when Alexander McKay, another junior partner in the venture, commented on the lousy food, Thorn called him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit.” That night McKay wrote in his notebook “I fear we are in the hands of a maniac” McKay had no idea.
Wilson Hunt and his party left St. Louis on October 21, 1810, but traveled only 450 miles up the Missouri River before winter forced him to camp just south of present day St. Joseph, Missouri. They were paddeling  birch bark canoes and the plan was to follow the Lewis and Cark trail over the Rocky Mountains. But over the long dark winter months Hunt started to think for himself, a mistake which was to prove disastrous.
By early December, when the Tonquin stopped for fresh water in the Falkland Islands, the passengers had begun speaking only French in the presence of Captain Thorn, because they wanted to insult him and they knew he did not speak French and hearing it but not being able to understand it, drove him crazy. He paid them back by acting the petty tyrant. When five of his passengers went sightseeing and missed his deadline to return, Thorn weighed anchor and set sail, leaving them desperately rowing for three hours to catch up. He would have abandoned them to their fate, had not the wind fortuitously shifted and allowed the exhausted Canadians to collapse, vomiting, back on board. Everybody now had a thorn in their side; Captain Thorn
On Christmas day this unhappy ship rounded Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Africa, and on the 12th of February 1811, after stops in India and China to confirm business arrangements, the Tonquin anchored off Hawaii, for pork and water and to pick up a few additional workers. Thorn had by now convinced himself that his crew and passangers were about to break out in an armed rebellion. His opportunity for dealing with this perceived threat arrived on March 22, 1811, when the Tonquin stood off the mouth of the Columbia River, at a cape with attractive title of Desperation Bay.
Captain Thorn ordered his first mate, Ebenezer Fox, to take four of the Canadian landlovers and find a route over the treacherous sand bar at the river’s mouth. (Even today, the U.S. Coast Guard station at Desperation Bay responds to 400 calls for help every year.) Fox begged to be allowed to replace the Frenchmen. “I am to be sent off, without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.” Captain Thorn bellowed back, “Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston. I command here! Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!” At about 1:00 p.m. Mr. Fox and the Canadians did just that, and were never seen again.
The next day Captain Thorn dispatched another seaman and three unhappy Hawaiians to find a passage. They also disappeared into the surf. Only now, with the ranks of his opponents thinned, did the captain dispatch able seamen. With difficulty they found the opening in the bar, and led the ship to the safety of the bay. The survivors were overjoyed to be on dry land and away from the insane Jonathan Thorn. Wrote one of the party, “The loss of eight of us within two days was deeply felt.” They immediately began building a fort, which they christened with the name of the man who signed their pay checks (and who had hired Captain Thorn!); Fort Astor.
Captain Thorn did not wait for the construction to be completed. Before the supplies had been completely unloaded, he sailed north, intending on returning in a few weeks. Mr. McKay, ordered to accompany the madman north, handed over his journals and bade his friends goodbye. “If you ever see us again it will be a miracle” were his parting words.
There was no miracle. Off Vancouver Island Captain Thorn applied his powers of diplomacy to a local tribe, who in response butchered the entire crew (including Thorn). Somehow fire reached the ship’s magazine, and the resultant explosion killed most of the avenging natives as well. Thus ended the naval and diplomatic career of Lt. Jonathan Thorn, dispensing death to everything and everyone he touched. He also left 16 survivors back at Fort Astor, stranded on the lonely west coast of North America, without enough supplies and with no way of communicating their plight to anyone who cared to listen.
Meanwhile, as you may remember, Wilson Hunt was leading a party of 65 French Canadian trappers out of Missouri. And after thinking the thing over carefully, Mr. Hunt decided not to follow the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. With the arrival of April 1811, he bought horses from the local indians and mounted up his French Canadian trappers, each of whom had been hired because of their skills in handeling a canoe.
By September of 1811, these miserable men had got as far as the North Fork of the Snake River (also called Henry’s Fork), in present day Idaho. Here Mr. Hunt faced an open rebellion from his French Canadians, who found their thighs badly chaffing. So they gave their horses as gifts to the local Indians, and the trappers set about constructing birch bark canoes. This proved to be a bad idea. Just two days after launcing their tiny armada, two canoes over turned, dumping all their food and supplies into the river, and two men were drowned. The river was alternated between cascades, rapids and rock stewn shallows. Progress was so slow the party quickly cleaned out every edible creature within reach of the river. In desperation, the starving Canadians split up into four groups. One turned back for civilisation, stumbling upon the broad South Pass through the Rockies along the way, while the other three groups headed further down the "...accursed mad river.”
Unfortunatly they now discovered the Snake River Gorge, Quickly they were trapped in a quarter mile wide abyss, between 700 foot high walls of solid basalt. There was nothing to eat here beyond the fish in the river, of which there were very few. As Richard Neuberger would write, “It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin footgear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.”
The survivors finally exited this purgatory by climbing out of the canyon. Again under Mr. Hunt’s command, they scattered in search of food. Luckilly they were stumbled upon by compasionate Indians, who fed and re-clothed the men before passing them on, tribe after tribe, until they were welcomed, each sad ragged party after the other, by the survivors of Astor’s ocean going disaster. Of the 64 who had set out from St. Louis in the fall of 1810, 45 staggered into Fort Astor, the last arriving in February of 1812…just in time for the war of 1812 between the United States and Great Britian.
Having believed Astors advertising campaigns, Captain William Black, of HMS Raccoon, was startled at what he saw. “Is this the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world?", wrote Captain Black. "Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!”  He did not have to. The Astorians, as they referred to themselves, surrendered without a shot, secure in the knowledge that whatever nation’s flag was flying over the fort it remained the private property of an English citizen who had hired French Canadians and Americans to do his dirty work. The war was, at worst, an inconvenience to such an international corporation.
When the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed in December of 1814, it included a special clause which specifically transferred Astoria from Britain back to the United States, where Mr. Astor had now taken up residence. Average men and women might occasionally die for a flag, but for corporations,  money always trumps patriotism.
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