Furs, Culture and Technology
Innis's account of the fur trade as "the history of contact between two civilizations, the European and the North American," focuses on the radical effects of new techniques and technologies. The trade became important in the late 16th century when the beaver hat, a new style of waterproof headgear, became popular among well-dressed European gentlemen. Innis stresses however, that the trade was propelled by native people's intense demand for European manufactured goods:
The importance of iron to a culture dependent on bone, wood, bark and stone can only be suggested. The cumbersome method of cooking in wooden vessels with heated stones was displaced by portable kettles. Work could be carried out with greater effectiveness with iron axes and hatchets, and sewing became much less difficult with awls than it had been with bone needles. To the Indians, iron and iron manufactures were of prime importance. The French were the gens du fer.
Muskets, knives and metal spears also made hunting easier and more efficient, but Innis points out that the convenience of European manufactured goods came at a high price. The native peoples became dependent on European traders for fresh supplies, ammunition and spare parts. More efficient hunting with guns led to the extermination of the beaver and the need to push into new hunting territories in search of more furs. This competition led to outbreaks of fighting. "Wars between tribes which with bows and arrows had not been strenuous," Innis writes, "conducted with guns were disastrous." Everything was made worse because native peoples had no immunity to European diseases such as smallpox which continually ravaged their communities, decimating whole populations. Finally, European rum, brandy and strong wine brought illness, conflict and addiction.
Again and again, Innis draws attention to what he sees as the disastrous and catastrophic effects of the contact between a more technologically advanced European civilization and traditional native societies. He writes that the aboriginal peoples' dependence on the trade in beaver pelts to secure European iron goods "disturbed the balance which had grown up previous to the coming of the European." Decades later, Innis would return to this concept of balance in his communications writings.
Just as aboriginal peoples depended on imported manufactured goods, European traders relied for their survival on native tools and techniques. Birch-bark canoes enabled traders to travel in spring, summer and fall; snowshoes and toboggans made winter travel possible; while Indian corn, pemmican and wild game provided sustenance and clothing. Equally important, Innis notes, was the natives' thorough knowledge of woodland territories and the habits of the animals they hunted.
Biographer John Watson argues that in his study of the fur trade, Innis broke new ground by making cultural factors central to economic development. In Watson's terms, The Fur Trade in Canada is a "complex analysis" of three distinct cultural groups: metropolitan European customers who bought expensive beaver hats, colonial settlers who traded beaver fur for goods from their home countries and indigenous peoples who came to depend on European iron-age technologies. Also, Innis notes the dependence of traders on First Nations peoples, and suggests their dominance in early trading when he writes, "The trade in furs was stimulated by French traders who rapidly acquired an intimate knowledge of the Indian's language, customs, and habits of life"
The trader encouraged the best hunters, exhorted the Indians to hunt beaver, and directed their fleets of canoes to the rendezvous. Alliances were formed and wars were favoured to increase the supply of fur. Goods were traded that would encourage the Indian to hunt beaver.
Innis writes that the French used Christianity to make First Nations more amendable to trade. They encouraged war or promoted peace as ways of winning First Nations support. He notes these policies led to an increase in the overhead costs of trade that decreased profits and encouraged the growth of monopolies.
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