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Mercantilism as a Tool for Europeans to Control Their Goods

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The western hemisphere, rich in valuable resources, was desired by every colonizing nation. It was an opportunity for nations to expand their economy in the untouched land. One such nation was Great Britain, an overwhelmingly rich, strong, and economically organized European nation, that took advantage of this opportunity and established their first colony in 1607: Jamestown colony in Virginia. William Cronon, in his book, Changes in the Land, describes how the Europeans were exposed to the new cultures of the indigenous, native groups whose practices were impractical to the Europeans. By 1732, there were a total of 13 British American colonies including New England. In the New England Colonies trade, fishing, and manufacturing were common tasks that were performed by the colonists. To reestablish their colonies, the Europeans decided to rebuild the economic systems of their colonies by introducing capitalism. Through capitalism, European colonists were able to control the profit and industry of the colonies. Although the European concept of capitalism weakened the interactions between the Indians and the Europeans, it brought organization and wealth to the colonies through the trading of natural resources and the introduction of new techniques of farming and hunting.

As the English colonizers began to settle in colonial New England, they aimed to filter out and establish some elements of the land that could later be used for trade. For instance, they sought to discover merchantable commodities that were scarce in Europe but abundant in America. These natural products such as fur, fish, whales, and trees “could be shipped to Europe and sold at a profit in order to provide steady income for colonial settlements”. With the Europeans discovering new resources, they were able to strengthen trade between the New World and Europe. Although fish, fur, sassafras, oil and tobacco were some of the commodities that were easy to fetch, timber and maize required major environmental alteration in the New England colonies. Before European settlements were established, the Natives performed seasonal migrations which the Europeans referred to as an “underused behavior,” for the Indians would not be able to use their land or abundant crops. In other words, the English colonists thought that, due to their ways of cultivating, Indians would squander the resources that were available to them. With the introduction of maize, the Europeans did not have to perform any seasonal migrations or intensive plantation because maize did not require much attention. In addition, the colonists would “not only cut down trees to clear fields for agriculture, but also for lumbering”. Because timber and lumber were abundant in colonial New England, colonists mainly utilized them for housing and shipbuilding. One major use of lumber was with fences, for fences “marked off, not only the map of a settlement’s property rights, but its economic activities and ecological relationships as well”. With the large act of deforestation, the soil became colder in the winter and warmer in the summer, and flooding occurred more often. In addition, local temperatures were uneven and some larger rivers were dammed. The colonizers kept on clearing and burning forests with the aim of making the soil more nutritious. In effect, the nearby residents, the natives, were irritated and urged to stop the distraction as not only were the colonists disturbing but also wasteful. On the opposite, the natives would use every piece of land and resources that were available to them. For instance, they would use animal skin for clothing, and would use rock or oyster to farm, hunt, and fish. Whereas, the Europeans had their own tools made from steel that were more advanced and durable. Furthermore, with the increase in the use of lumber and certain other crops, the Europeans caused several environmental degradations in colonial New England; however, the economic impact was different.

By developing abundant merchantable commodities in its colonies, Europeans were able to strengthen their economic stance through trade. Before the settlement of Europeans, the Indians did not trade internationally, but they would rather exchange personal goods with domestic groups. Once the Europeans arrived, they introduced the idea of mercantilism, in which they put restrictions on how their colonies spent their money so that they could have absolute control over their economies. Although such theories seemed controlling for the Indians, it had a huge impact on the colonies’ economic production. With the vast amount of profits, Europeans were able to manipulate the abundant resources. In the following quote, William Cronon discusses the idea of mercantilism and the role of merchantable commodities:

“The shift from Indian to English dominance in New England saw the replacement of an earlier village system of shifting agriculture and hunter-gatherer activities by an agriculture which raised crops and domesticated animals in household production units that were contained within fixed property boundaries and linked with commercial markets. Ultimately, English property systems …led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace.”

In other words, with the arrival of Europeans, the economy of colonial New England, compared to 1600s, expanded. Although the Indians had not recognized the huge use of their abundant resources, the Europeans sought to find these merchantable commodities for trade. They had an overview of what was valuable and scarce, which would be a guide for a successful trade. Colonial New England’s economic transformation paralleled its ecological one; as the region altered environmentally as it integrated into the emerging capitalist economy. With the use of capitalism, including mercantilism, the Europeans were able to have full control over their trading goods as well as relations which defined its strong and ongoing economy.

With the trading of natural resources and the introduction of new techniques of farming and hunting, the Europeans brought a heavy change to their colonies, including “economic institutions, new markets, and new ways of bounding the landscape”.  Not only were the Indians uninformed of the new ways of European farming and organization, their main aims of living were different. The Europeans thought to produce and cultivate not only for domestic and immediate use, but also for trade. While, on the other hand, the Indians sought to reach food and commodities for domestic use. From the changes that they brought to the colonies, the Europeans were more advanced in the knowledge of economic stability, where the Indians were skilled in plantation and labor. With the two having strength in different aspects, the Europeans were able to find a point of intersection and take advantage of both sides, thus changing the economy and natural environment.  

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