The pre-colonial landscape was a “patchwork” that consisted of diverse agricultural patterns, wild nature, and unique Indian settlements. The most important elements of this new order were new agricultural patterns brought by Europeans and new villages and towns (settlements). Henceforth with economic life gaining the ascendancy over the agrarian, these clusters of cities very quickly constituted two groups: the North and the South, linked by trade routes. These two clusters complemented each other and competed with each other. Cronon (1983) explains that: “famous declension helped drive English towns from their original vision of compact settlements, communal order and cities upon hilltops” (p. 141). As of that date, the Europeans seemed to be the great winners in the struggle for the control of the trade routes and lands. In New England, colonization brought forth a new face of societies. At the same time, it generated a form of economic and political relations that, though unprecedented, represented the consequences of the mutual encounters between civilizations. They crossbreed with the populations of the territories which they occupied.
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The unintended consequences of this ‘invasion’ were changing patterns of agriculture and hunting, the new social and political structure of society, and war conflicts. Europeans caused such problems as environmental degradation, wildlife extinction, and deforestation. Land use was perhaps the most significant factor influencing soil erosion, for two main reasons. First, many land-use practices left the soil devoid of a protective vegetation cover, or with only a partial cover, for significant periods, and second, they involved mechanical disturbance of the soil. The main causes of deforestation in America were agricultural development, expansion of mining and logging, cattle ranching, migration of farmers who occupied new land. “The ecological effects of this regional deforestation were profound extending even to the climate itself” (Cronon 1983, p. 122). Also, the reasons for deforestation were largely economic. The exploitative decline in forest and woodland resources was not sustainable in the long term and several environmental problems, including soil erosion and biodiversity losses, had developed as a result. Environmental problems were complex because they influenced all spheres of social and economic life, and require immediate actions and responses to protect this region from total environmental degradation.
According to Cronon (1983), the ‘ideal’ state of nature means a natural development of the land. He writes: ‘by encouraging the growth of extensive regions, which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host country a host of wildlife spices’ (p. 106). Since the 16th century, European influences and effects had already penetrated the tribes at the very core of the continent. In contrast to this process, Cronon identifies the state of ‘equilibrium’ as the mature forest ‘organism’ so that all members of the community could be interpreted as functioning to maintain” (p. 10) order and allow nature to reproduce itself.
In their descriptions, European explorers described the land and nature in the New World as wild and prolific. The most amazing thing about nature was its infinite variety. “If Wood’s descriptions were accurate, the strawberries too had been larger and more abundant before they were so cornered up by cultivation” (Cronon 1983, p. 3). Also, European explorers first described woods as “a more open and parklike appearance” (p. 4). These descriptions presage that Europeans would exploit the land and natural resources impressed by their variety and prolific nature. It is important to note that peasant farmers utilized as much land as they could, and their production in any given year was a function of the availability of labor, the size of their holdings, and the cooperation of nature. Descriptions of wild nature show that remote lands meant constant danger from the Indians, so many immigrants chose to settle on the secure areas rather than settle on the frontier.
Europeans brought new laws and social order, new values, and traditions. They perceived the land as the main property and wealth they had been deprived of in their native countries. Land was the main source of wealth accumulation and power. Cronon (1983) describes: “Indians notions of status were measured by a handful of goods, whereas European could accumulate wealth with virtually and material possession” (p. 98). “New England became for the colonists a form of capital, a thing consumed for the express purpose of creating augmented wealth” (p. 169). This expansion promoted economic growth and capital accumulation supported by the Puritan culture and new goods available in America. Endogenous growth created the possibility that small initial capital differences could magnify the size of small initial income differences, which would in turn further.
Epidemics among the Indians had removed the most serious potential enemy, and groups of settlers who might under other circumstances have found themselves serving as soldiers in New England immediately began to clear and cultivate the land. While their tax rates were sometimes substantial, the levied monies supported primarily local activities — construction of meetinghouses and schools, the minister’s salary, the laying out of new village roads — and they were willing to pay these costs. Smallpox was one of the most terrible infections brought by Europeans. The terrible ravages of epidemic disease caused great social changes. In the mid-seventeenth century, plague and pox claimed multitudes of victims. Smallpox was the first new disease to smite the Indians whose hemispheric isolation had spared their ancestors from Old World plagues and had consequently prevented the natural selection of resistant survivors and their descendants. Stemming largely from the near destruction of village economies, continuing land losses, epidemic disease, endemic alcoholism, and fears that their village societies stood on the verge of destruction, such movements offered hope for both the present and the future. Based on a combination of native religious ideas and elements of Christianity, these revival movements grew out of a yearning for stability, a means for dealing with the unending problems caused by the invading whites, and a hope of finding a way to direct their affairs. Thrown into the white world more drastically than on reservations, Indians faced conflicts between traditional behavioral patterns and urban ways (Cronon 1983). Extended families and tribal ties were diminished in the cities, and identification with one’s occupation became an important element in social change. The changes-some of them in rapid and dramatic form–contributed to highly visible social pathology among urban Indians, especially alcoholism, crime, and mental illness. At the same time, the new situations stimulated a sense of social awareness and led to pan-Indian activities.
Following Cronon (1983), Europeans could ‘commodify’ nature. They saw the land as the main source of capital accumulation and wealth exploiting natural resources and ruining natural beauty. A substantial pre-contact native population would imply that the land was not vacant. The Indians saw their land as the main source of food while Europeans saw it as the source of income. The colonial charters granted in England to individuals and companies gave proprietorship of the soil, but the king reserved political jurisdiction and control, as well as the mineral rights. Thus, Penn and Calvert, and Oglethorpe received merely grants of land. The governing and feudal rights which they assumed were revocable at the royal will, and as the colonies became more densely settled and advanced in political status, the king appointed governors to rule over them. When the proprietary right to the soil had been given, the possessors of these rights or their assigns continued to hold the land originally allotted to them. In contrast to Europeans, Indians valued their land and natural resources as the main source of life and development of their civilization. Proprietorship of large landed estates, moreover, was highly regarded by the colonials. It was an emblem of nobility. It carried with it political as well as pecuniary preferment. There, during the colonial days the presence of large landed estates, engrossed in comparatively few hands, fostered a landed aristocracy. Land ownership, therefore, was desirable for social and political, as well as for pecuniary reasons. Europeans did not value land resources and natural beauty: “at least in the eyes of many colonists, the Indians blessed with such great natural wealth nevertheless lived “like to our Beggers in England” (Cronon 1983, p. 33). In contrast to Indians, grants of land in New England were a source of continual political intrigues. Land determined the wealth and social position of a person, his wealth and capital. ‘Commodity culture’ brought by Europeans contradicted with Native traditions and values followed by generations of Indians.
The differences between European and Native use of the land were caused by different cultural and social traditions of the two societies. The political sovereignty and administrative control of the territory were strengthened. This brought about disputes regarding ownership and the right to the control of the soil. Intercolonial jealousy and territorial greed led the rival claimants to take measures, secretly and openly, to assert their rights by actual occupation or by royal conveyances.
Cronon, W. (1983). Changes in the land. Hill and Wang; 1st Ed. Edition.