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Antananarivo, Madagascar
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Brief History of the most Notorious Suppliers to Plundering Pyrates, Literal and Metaforical

Happy Thursday All! Our week continues with extended morning Malagasy lessons and afternoons spent planning our next few months and catching up on the thread of of lives that followed us over here. In between, we managed to throw together another Malagasy history lesson -- we hope you enjoy it. Oh, and sorry for the walls of text and so few photos. We're hoping to get out into the "field" this weekend -- we'll bring back some photos!

[All credit for historical information herein goes again to Mervyn Brown’s A History of Madagascar, from which we’ve lifted the vast majority of the historical material. The more modern information mostly comes from a series of reports by Rhett A. Butler & Rowan Moore Gerety that you can find at mongabay.com and wildmadagascar.org. Other tidbits spring unreferenced from either Tom’s memory (unlikely) or the all-knowing series of tubes (highly likely).]

In our recently departed homeland of Northern California, it’s common wisdom that when the goldrush comes, the smart money is in the service sector. As the hordes are racing to “them-thar-hills”, the best bet is to skip out on the sluicing yourself and get rich supplying the ambitious forty-niners with the all the picks and beans they’ll need to waste their lives in search of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

In 1848-49 in San Francisco, even with all the thousands of goldminers digging for the American dream, the first million to be made from the goldrush didn’t go to a lucky strike, but instead to Mr. Samuel Brannan, an enterprising excommunicated Mormon. Brannan learned of the original gold strikes at Sutter’s Mill first-hand when a millworker in Brannan’s drygoods store paid for his purchases in gold dust. Instead of rushing to the mill alongside the growing stream of hopefuls, Brannan quickly bought every shovel in San Francisco. The city still has a street named in his honor.

This same lesson comes to us from the early days of European involvement in Madagascar, when the large, remote island was a pirate paradise. In the late 1600s all the pieces fell into place to make Madagascar an ideal location for pirates to exploit “local resources”. Such resources included: highly profitable trade routes passing from India to Europe around the nearby Cape of Good Hope; a refreshing lack of a far-reaching European naval presence, given the paucity of permanent European settlements; and plenty of water, anti-scorbutic fruit, large wild game, and accommodating women. Add easy access to guns and booze and you’ve got heaven on earth for a murdering, sea-going bandit looking for R & R.

Some of the stories sound as if they were plucked from the pages of A Princess Bride. Writing under the pseudonym of Captain Charles Johnson, Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) penned A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. In his non-fictional account, the fictional Capt. Johnson describes the utopian community of the Republic of Libertalia. Set in the world-class Bay of Diego Suarez (now Antsiranana) in northern Madagascar, this pirate’s republic prided itself on a far-ranging liberal egalitarianism. One hundred years before the United States began their bumpy experiment with equality, Libertalia was philosophically founded on “democratic representative government, equal sharing of profits, abolition of slavery, and equality for all races”, and economically founded on murder and theft. This paradise was not only eventually overrun by less-philosophically inclined Malagasy natives, but was, sadly, also probably entirely fictional.

For a pirate society that rests on more solid historical ground, we have only to look a few hundred miles to the southeast, along the coast of eastern Madagascar, to find Ile St. Marie. This small coastal island became a favorite retreat for the gleaners of the East India trade, and an excellent place to restock water and food, as well as powder, shot, and booze. These latter commodities did not spring forth from the earth, but were instead provided by enterprising merchants like New York’s Frederick Phillips. As the then-governor of New York, Lord Bellamont, reported to the Admiralty in 1699:

"'Tis the most beneficial trade, that to Madagascar to the pirates, that was ever heard of, and I believe there’s more got that way than by turning pirate and robbing. I am told this Shelley (a captain of one of Phillip’s ships) sold rum, which cost but 2s per gallon at N. York for 50s and 3 pounds per gallon at Madagascar, and a pipe of Madeira wine, which cost him 19 pounds at N. York he sold there for 300 pounds. Strong liquors and gunpowder and ball are the commodities that go off there to best advantage.” –A History of Madagascar

One Mr. Adam Baldridge of New York lived for just shy of ten years on Ile Sainte Marie and served as Phillip’s local representative. Baldridge grew rich on his trade, built himself a heavily fortified house on a small island within Ile Ste Marie’s lagoon, and began trading locally in cattle and slaves taken from the native populations. In 1693 one ship of many arrived with a great diversity of goods to trade, ranging from “6 dozen of worsted and thread stocking”, to “some books, catechisms, primers” etc, and of course “5 barrels of rum, 4 quarter casks of Madeira wine, … 3 barrels cannon powder.” From this single ship Baldridge made “1100 pieces of eight and dollars, 34 slaves, 15 head of cattle, 57 bars of iron.”

However, Baldridge’s Malagasy estate was not to last. After years of suffering their herds to be stolen and their people captured and sold into slavery, the local Malagasy violently took Baldridge’s island and all the possessions he stored there. Baldridge himself happened to be away trading, but upon hearing the news, he left his island behind and headed home to New York without his horded wealth.

In more modern times, the metaphorical guns and booze take the form of harvest permits and loans, which, given the right political winds, can easily be had. Madagascar’s few remaining forests (less than 10% of original stands) hold not only a host of highly endangered organisms only found in Madagascar, but also tropical hardwoods easily worth upwards of 100s of millions of dollars. The trade of those hardwoods represents a potential bonanza for timber companies, but such trade has been heavily regulated due to very valid fears of over harvesting. Until recently that is:

“The transitional authority led by president Andry Rajoelina, who seized power during a military coup last March, today released a decree [dated 2009 Dec. 31] that allows the export of rosewood logs harvested from the Indian Ocean island's national parks. The move comes despite international outcry over the destruction of Madagascar's rainforests for the rosewood trade. … More than 200 containers — worth at least $40 million — are said to be awaiting shipment. The first pick-up may come as early as Friday.” (Madagascar sanctions logging of national parks; wildmadagascar.org; Jan 11, 2010). “Immediately following the decree, reports on the ground indicated an upswing in logging activity in Masoala and Makira National Parks. In the midst of a cash-crunch, Rajoelina's government was apparently selling out Madagascar's forests to finance an election that it hoped would validate its seizure of power.” (Coup leaders sell out Madagascar's forests, people; Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com; Jan 27, 2010) An American diplomat here confirmed that cash flowing from hardwood exports are “funding the current government.” Some funding source had to fill the gap: after the coup, most international finance pulled out.

The current ‘transitional’ government holds the exclusive power to grant permits to specific timber interests and aggressively punish unpermitted operations. But like a 49er’s shovel in San Francisco, such permits are unlikely to come cheap. Cautionary tales in the form of unpermitted shipments seized by government enforcers have recently flashed across Tana’s daily newspapers, reminding logging interests that they need to get their permits. While no evidence of explicit bribery has been exposed, the power plays around rosewood exports strongly suggest a pay-to-play environment. Similar tales are emerging in the marine world. We have heard of permits granted to international fishing giants to trawl Malagasy seas. Internal and external critique rained on the previous president’s plan to lease an immense swath of agricultural land to Daewoo, a South Korean company. Perhaps divesting land evokes a more visceral reaction than fish, but both result in the export of Malagasy wealth for pennies-on-the-dollar.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the local government that appears to be one-degree of separation away from the current plunder. Just as a successful pirate needs to be well capitalized in balls and powder, logging efforts start with a pretty hefty price tag. In an uncertain regulatory environment, access to capital is crucial to finance these operations, and apparently a number of French and Dutch financial institutions were more than happy to oblige Madagascar’s illegal logging operations.

“Down payments for illegal lumber exports are seldom more than 50% of final sale value, making cash flow a problem even in such a lucrative industry. With so much capital tied up in existing stock, timber traders have come to rely on banks to finance their exports and their ongoing logging operations. … Even as foreign governments condemned the surge in illegal logging last year, many--either directly or through institutions they support--are shareholders in the very banks that have financed the export of illegal lumber from Madagascar's SAVA region.” [The article goes on to specifically name the World Bank, and both French and Dutch governments as part-owners of banks that have financed Malagasy timber operations]” (World Bank, European governments finance illegal timber exports from Madagascar; Rowan Moore Gerety, special to wildmadagascar.org; January 11, 2010)

In short, today’s lesson is, if there’s risky pillaging to be done it’s best not to get one’s hands dirty, at least not directly. There’s safer money in selling the means to plunder than in taking part in the questionable activity itself. With first-world funding and explicit assent of the currently unelected government, Madagascar’s natural wealth is being stolen from the nation’s people to enrich the Adam Baldridges of the world. And, with law of international economies being not unlike the navy-less expanse of the seventeenth-century Indian Ocean, it's a pretty safe bet that these 'Notorious Suppliers' will sail safely home when it's all over.

- Tom and Kirsten

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear things are moving along! Hope the phone and internet situations are being solved! Love to both of you!