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The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World

John F. Richards
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 696
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  • Book Info
    The Unending Frontier
    Book Description:

    It was the age of exploration, the age of empire and conquest, and human beings were extending their reach-and their numbers-as never before. In the process, they were intervening in the world's natural environment in equally unprecedented and dramatic ways. A sweeping work of environmental history,The Unending Frontieroffers a truly global perspective on the profound impact of humanity on the natural world in the early modern period. John F. Richards identifies four broadly shared historical processes that speeded environmental change from roughly 1500 to 1800 c.e.: intensified human land use along settlement frontiers; biological invasions; commercial hunting of wildlife; and problems of energy scarcity.The Unending Frontierconsiders each of these trends in a series of case studies, sometimes of a particular place, such as Tokugawa Japan and early modern England and China, sometimes of a particular activity, such as the fur trade in North America and Russia, cod fishing in the North Atlantic, and whaling in the Arctic. Throughout, Richards shows how humans-whether clearing forests or draining wetlands, transporting bacteria, insects, and livestock; hunting species to extinction, or reshaping landscapes-altered the material well-being of the natural world along with their own.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93935-6
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    As the subtitle suggests, this book is an attempt to write environmental history on a global scale. The book’s aim is to identify, describe, and reflect on the processes by which human beings intervened in the natural environment during the early modern period. From the late fifteenth century to the early nineteenth, the pace and magnitude of change increased in human societies in every part of the world. There were, moreover, shared processes of change of unprecedented intensity seen around the world.¹ Change in the early modern world forecast the direction of even greater changes to come during the nineteenth...


    • Chapter 1 The Early Modern World
      (pp. 17-57)

      During the early modern centuries, for the first time in human history, a truly global, interconnected society rapidly knit together. After 1500, a world economy took shape that stimulated economic productivity in every region. How and why did this new, interrelated world emerge at this time? The answer lies in a critical conjuncture between two developments: the expansive dynamism of European early modern capitalist societies, and the shared evolutionary progress in human organization that appears to have reached a critical threshold across Eurasia, if not the entire world.

      In every world region, this conjuncture strengthened and fused early modern states...

    • Chapter 2 Climate and Early Modern World Environmental History
      (pp. 58-86)

      Although most historians have not addressed the issue, climatologists and climate historians have assembled increasingly robust evidence that the world’s climate has changed significantly over the past millennium. They describe three phases: a change from a warm medieval era to a significantly cooler regime in the early modern centuries, followed by a considerably warmer trend in the twentieth century. This periodization raises significant questions about the environmental history of the early modern world.

      Did this climatic change occur uniformly around the world in the early modern period, and what effects did it have on human societies? Presumably, for some periods...


    • Chapter 3 Pioneer Settlement on Taiwan
      (pp. 89-110)

      During the seventeenth century, a remarkable new organizational form—the chartered, joint-stock trading company—emerged from northern Europe. In England, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, merchants and investors formed joint-stock companies and obtained state charters that granted them monopoly powers to carry on long-distance trade with remote regions. The chartered trading companies proved to be more capable, efficient, and profitable than the state-run monopolies of Portugal and Spain that dominated trade between Europe and Asia and the New World in the sixteenth century. In part, the new companies reflected the entrepreneurial spirit of northern European societies. In part, they...

    • Chapter 4 Internal Frontiers and Intensified Land Use in China
      (pp. 112-147)

      Contrary to long-cherished Occidental notions of a static traditional Asian society, China in the early modern period was a dynamic and changing society. Under the Ming and Qing dynasties, China experienced impressive growth in population—similar to that of Europe in the same period. The accepted or conventional long-term scenario for human numbers in China proper is as follows: A generally agreed-on estimate for the early Ming dynasty in 1400 is 75 million.¹ Two hundred years later, around 1600, the human population had doubled, to 150 million. During the 1600s, heavy mortality associated with Ming dynastic breakup and Qing conquest...

    • Chapter 5 Ecological Strategies in Tokugawa Japan
      (pp. 148-192)

      Beginning with the destruction of Kyoto in 1467, medieval Japan endured endemic civil war—swirling, violent conflict between dozens of autonomous barons (daimyo)—that did not fully end until 1615. These barons gave only nominal allegiance and obedience to the emperor or to the Muromachibakafu(hegemonal baron) at Kyoto. After the warlord Oda Nobunaga (d. 1582) gained control of one-third of Japan, his brilliant successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (d. 1598), forced all daimyo to accept his dominance in a thirty-year process of war, political consolidation, and pacification. After Hideyoshi’s death, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), lord of Edo and the Kanto...

    • Chapter 6 Landscape Change and Energy Transformation in the British Isles
      (pp. 193-241)

      Between 1500 and 1800, in common with other early modern societies, the British monarchy and its agencies and other private organizations developed new capability, efficiency, stability, and durability.¹ New, complex, large-scale organizations that enhanced human capacity for collective action mobilized and directed the rising flow of natural resources within and, increasingly, outside, the British Isles. These new organizations, whether monarchical or private, aggressively sought to increase their wealth and power by transforming the natural world. More and more persons found a path to power and wealth by working within government agencies and private companies that directly and indirectly exploited the...

    • Chapter 7 Frontier Settlement in Russia
      (pp. 242-273)

      In the fourteenth century, Moscow was an obscure Slavic principality located on the eastern marches of European civilization. Ivan I (r. 1331–1340), Grand Prince of Moscow, claimed authority over several hundred thousand subjects and less than twenty thousand square kilometers of territory.¹ By the nineteenth century, Moscow had grown into the sprawling Russian empire—one of the largest and most powerful in the world. Tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917) ruled over 125 million subjects in an empire stretching over 22 million square kilometers.² This extraordinary record of territorial growth against contiguous land borders is as impressive as the...

    • Chapter 8 Wildlife and Livestock in South Africa
      (pp. 274-306)

      Between 1488 and 1652, Indian Ocean–bound vessels traveling down the coast of Africa to reach the winds of the “roaring forties” latitude frequently stopped at the welcoming shelter offered by the harbor at the Cape of Good Hope. First, Portuguese vessels sailing to Goa looked forward to obtaining freshwater and provisions and making repairs at the Cape. Later, after 1600, ships of the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company did the same. The pastoralist Khoikhois who lived there were sometimes willing to trade freshly slaughtered cattle or sheep from their herds for pieces of iron...


    • Chapter 9 The Columbian Exchange: The West Indies
      (pp. 309-333)

      Christopher Columbus’s voyages were the first systematic projection of state power to the Western Hemisphere. News of this feat inspired the imaginations of Renaissance statesmen and religious leaders. The monarchies of Europe, supported by rapidly growing organizational sophistication, economic resources, and military strength, saw the New World as a source of riches to be ruthlessly exploited. Gold and silver, human labor, timber, fertile lands, and new plants could all be put to the service of the state at home. The Church saw among the strange peoples of the New World a fertile source of new converts. Gold and the cross...

    • Chapter 10 Ranching, Mining, and Settlement Frontiers in Colonial Mexico
      (pp. 334-376)

      In 1519, just twenty-seven years after Columbus’s first voyage, the Spanish landed in mainland North America in Mexico. With great audacity and luck, the Spanish defeated the powerful Aztecs and made themselves masters of central Mexico. Continued military success steadily increased their territory, and firm colonial rule prevented and discouraged rebellion. For the next three hundred years, Spanish colonial rule, Spanish settlers, Spanish cultural norms, and Spanish economic needs shaped and profoundly transformed the environment of Mexico.

      To fully exploit their strange new empire, the Spanish had to control the labor of their subject populations, and they had to manage...

    • Chapter 11 Sugar and Cattle in Portuguese Brazil
      (pp. 377-411)

      Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese monarchy organized and encouraged colonial settlement on the Atlantic Coast of Brazil. For European settlement to succeed, the land had to be emptied. Its existing inhabitants, the Brazilian Indians, were either assimilated, put to work as dependents or slaves, driven from their lands, or killed. As in other New World populations, high death rates from introduced diseases greatly aided the Portuguese in this great colonial project. Most of the known Indian groups died out completely from disease, enslavement, and war. Groups that did survive suffered enormous losses. Ruthless colonial wars aimed at...

    • Chapter 12 Landscapes of Sugar in the Antilles
      (pp. 412-460)

      Sugar drove the repeopling of the New World tropics, whose previous inhabitants had succumbed to new disease. Sugar was the main driving force for frontier expansion and intensifying land use in the humid tropics of the New World. Imports of cane sugar, grown in the tropical regions of the Western Hemisphere, became one of the leading economic inducements to European settlement and exploitation of the New World territories. During the early modern centuries, profits from sugar shaped and stimulated the Atlantic trading system. Cane sugar’s access to buoyant home and colonial markets depended in part on reliable maritime freight transport....


    • Chapter 13 Furs and Deerskins in Eastern North America
      (pp. 463-516)

      European maritime contact with the New World thrust commercialized human predation across the North Atlantic Ocean. Commercial hunting proved to be the most lucrative way to exploit the northernmost regions of the Americas. Much of the early impetus for maritime travel to North America came from the profits to be made from hunting, killing, processing, and shipping animal skins back to Europe. Europeans found several prey species—beavers, foxes, marten, and other furbearers, and deer—that yielded high-value commodities for the home market with its pent-up demand for fur. Windfall exploitation of abundant New World fur-bearing animals raised the European...

    • Chapter 14 The Hunt for Furs in Siberia
      (pp. 517-546)

      By the late 1500s, after Russia’s conquest of the khanate of Sibir, Siberia’s vast lands lay open to exploration, conquest, and exploitation. Most of Siberia’s soils, vegetation, and climate did not hold out great appeal to the Russian peasant cultivator. Instead, Siberia offered the products of the hunt to Russian frontiersmen. Russians had long hunted or purchased from indigenous hunter societies the furs of the north. Furs were one of the most valued consumption items in Russia and one of its most profitable exports.

      For centuries, the temperate-zone Christian, Islamic, and Confucian worlds have demanded high-quality furs. In these colder...

    • Chapter 15 Cod and the New World Fisheries
      (pp. 547-573)

      From the Baltic to the Barents Sea, the fishing grounds of the northeastern Atlantic and Arctic had long produced valuable catches of cod for European markets. Fishermen had identified and were exploiting each of the major populations of cod in the northwestern Atlantic. Since the thirteenth century, there had been a long-distance trade in stockfish—dried and salted cod—dominated by merchants of the Hanseatic League. From Icelandic waters, European fishermen pushed onward to discover gratifyingly copious stocks of cod, a familiar resource, off Labrador and Newfoundland.

      In the 1490s, Basque fishermen apparently sailed regularly across the icy waters of...

    • Chapter 16 Whales and Walruses in the Northern Oceans
      (pp. 574-616)

      Before 1500, favorably situated coastal communities around the world killed and consumed whales in a largely passive, opportunistic enterprise. Shore-based fishing communities in Arctic waters off the east and west coasts of North and South America, Siberia, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, and northern Europe intercepted whales as they made their migratory rounds each year.¹ The whales taken were those vulnerable species that appeared regularly in coastal waters and were slow-moving enough to be taken by men in small boats wielding harpoons and lances or even nets. The greater part of the catch went for subsistence needs, although all whaling...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 617-622)

    The global scale and impact of human intervention in the natural environment during the early modern period were unprecedented in history. Accelerating productivity during this time rested firmly on access to unused, and often previously unknown, natural resources. These resources became accessible and valuable as a more efficient world economy linked resource extraction with core areas over longer distances. New technological inventions and innovations, especially in maritime transport and industrial production, raised economic output. Global communications and connections between human societies in distant world regions reached an unprecedented level of ease and intensity. Demands for natural resources, for cultivable land,...

    (pp. 623-660)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 661-682)