Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Indian Cow Urine and the Garifuna Expulsion

While we are in Massachusetts, Sally & I often spend Saturday morning going to yard sales in our immediate area. We send things in barrels down to St. Vincent, both for our own use and to give away. One of the main things we buy is books: because we can get hardbound books for a dollar or so, sometimes less, and softbound books for 25 or 50 cents. After we have read them we donate them to the library in Kingstown, which can always find places for extra books.

This last saturday I found a book by Stephen R. Bown titled "A Most Damnable Invention" (St. Martin's Press, NY, 2005). I had been interested in Alfred Nobel, especially since I had been a graduate student at Columbia University when Tsung-Dao Lee (aka T.D.) won the Nobel Prize. But Bown's book was also about greek fire and black gunpowder.

In reading about saltpeter, one of the ingredients of black powder along with sulphur and charcoal, I ran across a mention that when the British in 1757 won the Battle of Plassy in India they were able to exclude the French from India, and particularly from the supplies of saltpeter that India produced by virtue of cow urine, low cast workers and tropic heat. India supplied the largest part of saltpeter exported to Europe, and whoever controlled India controlled the ability of European nations to make war. England and France produced only a small part of their consumption of saltpeter, even if the English King made it unpatriotic not to recycle urine.

In fact being cut off from Indian supplies of saltpeter caused the French to sue for peace and sign the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War in 1763. That was the war that is called the French and Indian War in the U.S., and the First Carib War in St. Vincent.

When the French had to give back St. Vincent to the English, the Caribs signed a peace treaty. The party that signed the treaty were fluent in French and Carib, but there was only one English officer fluent in French and none spoke Carib. Deliberately or inadvertently the Caribs got the impression that they were trading land for peace; but the small print said that the Caribs agreed to be "subjects" of the English monarch. This, after the English used mercenary german troops to defeat the Caribs in 1797 during the Second Carib War, allowed them to consider the Caribs "traitors" and thus justified not only the genocide on Balliceau but the expulsion to Rowaton that would allow the Garifuna to die off out of sight. The Garifuna survived, but that wasn't the intent of the English.

It is entirely possible that the native population of St. Vincent would have fared no better under the French, since the native population of Martinique and Guadeloupe have vanished, but the St. Vincent Caribs and Garifuna were still an independent people, at least in their own eyes, and might have retained a better status in post-revolutionary France. But that was not to be, because the English controlled the conversion of Indian cattle urine to a component of gunpowder.