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The Blessing of Bad Geography

Updated on September 24, 2015

At its highpoint, the Spanish empire in the Americas was enormous, stretching from the southern tip of South America to much of what is today the southern United States. The heart of the empire, however, was in northern South America, Central America, and the Caribbean islands. Columbus first hit land in the Caribbean, and it was in Central America and northern South America that the Spanish found great civilizations to conquer and significant populations of Native Americans to exploit as laborers. Many of the Native Americas who managed to survive exposure to old world diseases worked in horrific conditions in the lucrative silver mines found in these mainland regions.

But it was Portugal, the only other significant player in the Americas during the 16th century, that established the basic model for the other big money makers in the Spanish new world: cash crops. It was Portugal, in fact, that had gotten the ball rolling for European exploration in the first place. Beginning in the early 15th century, Prince Henry “The Navigator” began sending naval expeditions south around the coast of Africa. In addition to satisfying Renaissance curiosity, seeking to expand the “kingdom of God,” and hoping to generate wealth in some way from Africa, the ultimate goal was an eastern sea route to Asia. By the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese had managed to send an expedition around the southern tip of Africa and to the coast of India. In the 16th century, the Portuguese would generate tremendous amounts of wealth from its growing control of the Indian Ocean trade routes.

While much of Portugal’s focus was to the east, it also established one significant colony in South America: Brazil. And in this colony, they found an ideal environment for growing sugar, a crop that was rapidly growing in popularity at the time. The only problem was finding a labor force to plant, tend, and harvest the crop. You did not have in Brazil the types of population centers found in Mexico or Peru, and the Native Americans who did live there made for a poor class of laborers due to their tendency to die from exposure to old world diseases.

Fortunately for Brazil – and unfortunately for many of the people living on the West African coast – Portugal’s travels around Africa solved their labor shortage problem. People, along with gold, became the most valuable commodities that the Portuguese traded for in Africa. And Africans, due to centuries of exposure to old world diseases, withstood the terrible conditions in the fields better than Native Americans. The Spanish, who also controlled ideal sugar-growing lands in Central America and the Caribbean, would replicate the Portuguese model of plantation agriculture. Ultimately, ninety-five percent of the African slaves transported across the Atlantic would land in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. One-third of these people were shipped to Brazil alone. For the first 300 years of European colonial settlement in the Americas, African immigrants outnumbered Europeans.

Meanwhile, as the Portuguese and especially the Spanish established themselves in the Americas during the 16th century, no other European nations had much of anything happening in the new world. Both the French and the English had sent expeditions into North America in the late 15th and the early 16th centuries, but these did not translate into permanent settlements. The main goals of these early navigators were to find lucrative fishing waters or to discover a northwest passage to Asia. And for good reason, they were not particularly impressed with the lands that they found. Unlike the Spaniards in Latin America, they did not see any signs of large empires to plunder or ideal climates for producing cash crops. And the Spanish, who sent explorers into the southern regions of North America, came to similar conclusions. Their North American lands remained thinly settled border regions for centuries, far away from the more lucrative lands of the south.

By the late 16th century, however, the English had resolved some of their internal conflicts and reached a point where they could invest more into overseas exploration and colonization. At first, their primary means of gaining wealth from the Americas was stealing it from Spanish ships. But by the early 17th century, they were able to begin establishing a string of colonial settlements along the North American east coast. As latecomers to American colonial settlement, they were forced to settle for these “leftovers.” Fortunately for the English, they were also able to gain control of some islands in the Caribbean, and by copying the Portuguese model of plantation agriculture, these lands generated more wealth than the thirteen colonies. In the Southern colonies of the east coast, however, they were able to grow some valuable cash crops – tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar, and eventually cotton – that generated significant amounts of wealth. And after a few decades of relying on European indentured servants for labor, they would eventually turn to the same African slaves used throughout the Americas.

In the colonies north of Maryland, however, the climate and soil were not well suited for plantation agriculture. Geographically, these Northern colonies seemed to have limited economic potential. But in a way, these geographic limitations may have proved to be a blessing for the North. Because they could not simply enrich themselves by exploiting land and manual labor to crank out the cash crops, Northerners were forced to become more economically innovative. Fortunately for them, the early settlers of New England, who were largely hard working, self-disciplined, educated Puritans, were inclined toward business activity anyway. So over the course of several decades, the North became the business and industrial center of the English colonies and, eventually, of the early United States. The South, on the other hand, would remain mostly content with cash crop production, cranking out the cotton for Northern (and British) textile factories. And when these regions came into conflict in the United States’ only civil war, the industrialized North would prevail, establishing the dominance of its system over the nation as a whole.

If you were living in 1600, you would assume that Spain would be the dominant power in Europe and the Americas for decades to come. And even when the English and French began to build their colonial empires in North America, you would assume that the economic and political centers of the Americas would be found in the South. These were the areas, after all, that were blessed the most with ideal climates and natural resources. But instead, the English would eventually develop into the dominant economic and political power in Europe. And the English colonies on the east coast of North America, which would ultimately develop into the United States, became the power center of the Americas and eventually of the entire world.

So how was it that the English, stuck with the colonial leftovers, created the dominant American society? And how was it that the Northern colonies and eventually states, which seemed to inhabit the inferior geographic regions of the country, would come to dominate this North American nation? Some of this may have resulted from cultural differences between England and Spain. The Spanish, for instance, more strongly maintained the medieval notion that landholding and military service were more noble pursuits than business activity. The colonial model in New Spain was essentially conquest, with wealth generated through the exploitation of land, labor, and natural resources. They extracted wealth. They did not produce it through economic innovation. The English, on the other hand, developed over time a more favorable attitude toward business activity. They also created a political system in the Americas similar to that found in England. For while Spain was an absolute monarchy, and the provinces of New Spain were governed by political appointees ruling in the name of the king, England developed a parliamentary system in which some of its citizens had a say in political matters. This outlet for political participation and the potential ability of voters to shape policies more beneficial to the general public may have further encouraged a climate of innovation that is the key to long-term economic success. Englishmen and their colonial descendants, after all, were not always expected to give unquestioning obedience to the state, and they developed the mentality that the state served the public, not the other way around.

In itself, however, cultural and political differences cannot completely explain the different circumstances in England and Spain or between the United States and Latin America. When English colonists had the opportunity, such as in the Caribbean or the Southern colonies, they were content to follow the traditional model of cranking out the cash crops. But in the Northern colonies, where plantation agriculture was not an option, a wider variety of economic activities would evolve. And over time, this society based more on towns, industry, and trade would become the dominant power in the new world.

Today, there are prosperous nations throughout the world that have benefited from the blessings of their geography. They may have a climate ideally suited for certain activities, plentiful natural resources, or a beneficial strategic location. Geographic blessings, however, do not guarantee long-term economic success. There are many resource rich countries with tremendous economic potential, after all, that are political and economic basket cases. In the end, cultural values may be more important in creating a prosperous society than the blessings and/or curses of geography. And since “necessity is the mother of invention,” it is often the societies facing the greatest geographic obstacles that become the most resourceful and innovative.

For well over a century, the United States has been an economic powerhouse and global center of innovation. But as we progress into the twenty-first century, will the United States be able to retain those qualities, with their deep historical roots, that have helped it be so successful? Innovation in the face of geographic adversity may have played a significant role in laying a cultural imprint that helped lead to long-term economic success. With so many Americans today raised in relative comfort, can the United States retain that cultural edge? If Americans rest on their laurels and assume that they are somehow entitled to live in a prosperous and stable society, we may find someday that our nation, like the Spanish before us, is looking back longingly at its former glory days.


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