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The First Year

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Hugh Thomas The Slave Trade Epub

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The reliance of the smaller valley states on hill trade and forest collecting was so pronounced that it acted occasionally to restrain efforts to assimilate hill peoples to lowland culture. The fear was that if, indeed, hill people took on valley religion, dress, and settlement patterns and began to cultivate wet rice, they would perforce leave off playing the valuable but stigmatized role of supplier of hill products. Cultural difference, along with the economic specialization that it fostered, was the basis of comparative advantage. Though the lowland states might poach slaves from the hills, they had every incentive to ensure that the hill-trading niche on which they depended was always occupied.[270]

A geography that was favorable to hiding and escape was, by the same token, favorable to raiders. The mangroves were close to the shipping lanes just as the Pegu Yoma was close to the prosperous lowlands. Raiders could dart out and back, plundering ships, raiding coastal settlements, and taking slaves. Like the Vikings, the sea gypsies had an amphibious existence as traders and raiders. Like the Vikings, the sea gypsies had fast, shallow-draft perahu, enabling them to escape up small creeks where larger vessels could not go and to raid settlements at night from the often unprotected, upstream side. Using the mangroves to their advantage, they posed for a time a major threat to Dutch and British maritime trade in Southeast Asia. Even today, their highly armed, motorized, lineal descendants bedevil the great tankers plying the Straits of Melaka.[464]

Runaway slaves clustered in precisely those out-of-the-way places where they could not easily be found: swamps, rough mountain country, deep forests, trackless wastes. They chose, when possible, defensible locations accessible by only a single pass or trail that could be blocked with thorns and traps and observed easily. Like bandits, they prepared escape routes in case they were found and their defenses failed. Shifting cultivation, supplemented by foraging, trade, and theft, was the commonest maroon practice. They preferred to plant root crops (for example, manioc/cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes), which were unobtrusive and could be left in the ground to be harvested at leisure. Depending on how secure the site was, they might plant more permanent crops, such as bananas, plantains, dry rice, maize, groundnuts, squash, and vegetables, but such crops could more easily be seized or destroyed. Some of these communities were short-lived, others survived for generations. Outside the law by definition, many maroon communities lived in part by raiding nearby settlements and plantations. None, it seems, were self-sufficient. Occupying a distinctive agro-ecological zone with valued products, many maroon settlements were closely integrated into the larger economy by clandestine and open trade.

The relative efficiencies of each agricultural technique varied not only with the demography but also with agro-ecological conditions. In areas where annual river flooding deposited fertile silt that could be easily worked, flood-retreat farming of irrigated rice was far less labor intensive than where elaborate irrigation works or ponds (tanks) were required. Where, on the contrary, the terrain was steep and the water supply unreliable, the labor cost of irrigated rice would be nearly prohibitive. Such evaluations of relative efficiency in terms of factor costs, however, entirely miss the determining political context. Despite the enormous amounts of labor involved in their construction and maintenance, elaborate irrigated rice terraces have been created in the hills against any plausible neoclassical logic. The reason, it appears, is largely political. Edmund Leach wondered about terracing in the Kachin hills and concluded that it took place for military reasons: to protect a key pass and to control its trade and tolls, which required a concentrated and self-provisioning military garrison.[508

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