• A Book Review of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England, by Strother E. Roberts. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2019.1

What do beavers in Connecticut have to do with sugar in Barbados? A lot, it seems. So much, actually, that, if I may push the argument that Strother Roberts makes in Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy, Caribbean sugar would not have been possible without New England beavers. And given that by the end of the 18th century, taxes on sugar were the highest source of revenue from imported commodities for the exchequer, beavers played a fundamental role in the British Empire.

How so? Because, as Strother Roberts explains, of the interconnections of markets that the British Empire created.

Sugar in the 17th and 18th century was too profitable not to use all the possible land in the Caribbean islands to produce it. Which meant that everything else that was needed to live and work there had to be produced elsewhere and imported, from flour and meat, to working animals and enslaved workers, even including the ships and the barrels that carried sugar to its consumers in the north and across the Atlantic. These imports for the West Indies came from the Connecticut Valley, home of the beavers.

“Roberts tells an impressive story of economic incentives, which brought together the different parts of the British Empire on the Atlantic coast….”

Roberts tells an impressive story of economic incentives, which brought together the different parts of the British Empire on the Atlantic coast. The interdependency of the North American colonies, the West Indies colonies, and the metropole, is a commercial interdependency that in its turn depends on the interdependency people have with nature and the local ecological environment. The imperialism that Roberts describes is thus an imperialism that extends to the environment.

It did not help that, at the time, there was the belief of a causal relation between climate and civilization. “Civilized” societies and mild climates came together; “civilized” societies would emerge when “savage” climates and landscapes had been “civilized.” So by making the landscape of New England more like the landscape of England, the Puritans hoped that the harsh climate of New England, with its very hot summers and very cold winters, would become closer to the mild climate of England.

The English wanted to reproduce England, with its cultivations, its animals, its luxuries, its fireplaces. They wanted to create, indeed, a “new” England. According to Roberts, they succeeded only in the 19th century:

  • In a sense, the early nineteenth century saw New England truly become a “new” England. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England had commanded an empire of goods that ultimately saw raw materials from the colonies flow to the metropole and manufactured goods flow out […] In the nineteenth century, New England became the manufacturing center of a new American Empire” (207).

Before that, New England had to feed its hunger for British-ness with trade. New England was peopled with English newcomers and with indigenous communities—all with a desire for English goods. The English wanted English luxuries, and the indigenous peoples wanted English weapons and metal objects.

Here is where the beavers come into play. First, beaver fur was not only warm and soft, but it was very fashionable in Britain in the 17th century. The Connecticut Valley was an ideal home for beavers. For centuries, these little engineers built dams and ponds in the Connecticut River. Indigenous communities would hunt them and sell their fur to the British colonists, who in turn would sell them to the metropole to feed the local fashion. In return, indigenous nations got their English weapons and the Puritans their English luxuries.

Within a century, the beavers were decimated, their dams collapsed, and their ponds drained. They left lush meadows, fertile land, and no habitat for mosquitoes carrying malaria. They also left a decreased biodiversity, increased flooding and terrain erosion, and indigenous communities with severe food scarcity problems. Indigenous lands were sold to the English to pay for indigenous debts. Indigenous men increasingly joined indigenous women as workers in English farms and households, vanishing from historical records.

In possession of excellent land, the English wanted to replicate England. They thus disregarded the native features that contributed to that fertility. Indigenous peoples would use fire to regenerate land. The English were instead skeptical of fires, as not practiced in the old continent. Rather than corn, they wanted to grow wheat. But New England soil was not suitable for wheat. Rye would have worked better, but rye bread was darker than the white wheat bread typical of the old England, so rye was not a welcome substitute.

Only the Connecticut Valley proved to be a good new home for the old grain. And so by the end of the 17th century, the Connecticut Valley fed not only New England but the West Indies too, as the West Indies fed sugar to England. The trade went through the ports of Massachusetts, where sugar and molasses were made into rum, then exported to Africa as part of the slave trade directed to the West Indies. “Without this intraempire trade, it would likely have been impossible for the settler economies of either the West Indies or New England to have grown at the rate which they did” (78-9).

But Connecticut farmers could not rely on wheat alone. Indigenous peoples had a mixture of crops that did not deplete the nutrients of the soil; the English instead not only plowed their field, exposing nutrients to erosion, but grew only wheat, with decreasing yields. Diversification became necessary, and it came with flax, flaxseeds to be more precise. To produce linen, flax needs to be harvested before it matures to produce seeds. So some plants need to be spared for seeding. The Connecticut Valley soil would not yield a good quality harvest, but it could grow a lot of seeds. Ireland did have the soil to produce excellent fiber. And so Connecticut specialized in the production of flaxseed, exported the seeds to Ireland where high quality cloth would be produced and then exported back to New England.

  • New England consumers thus completed a great circle of imperial commerce, sporting linens produced abroad with English or Irish labor, woven with Irish flax that was grown from Connecticut Valley seed. […] [When the clothes wore out, they would sell] the rags of Irish linen to be recycled by a regional paper mill. Finally the linen rag paper produced would provide the medium upon which local newspaper would print new advertisements by merchants seeking flaxseed for export (93).

Ships returning from Ireland would carry back English manufactures and salt. Salt was needed to preserve meat sold to feed colonial cities and the enslaved sugar workers of the West Indies. By the 1670s Massachusetts alone had a fleet of over seven hundred merchant vessels going along and across the coasts of the Atlantic. Sailors in these ships needed to be fed, too.

The English, in their quest to create a new England, imported English animals. To protect them, they exterminated the local predators. To feed them, they replace local grasses with English ones. The result was the destruction of the major sources of proteins for the indigenous peoples.

Cattle affected water quality both when alive and when slaughtered. Grazing near water meant trampling on and destroying root systems that would hold soils together. Fat, bones, hair, and residues from the leather industry washed into waterways, deoxygenizing the waters, resulting in the decimation of certain fish.

But by the late colonial period, the Connecticut River was the main trade avenue that made the ports of Connecticut become the most important centers for exporting live animals as well as pork and preserved meats. Live animals in the sugar plantations were used to power the sugar mills and to transport sugar for export and imports for consumption to and from the plantations and the ports.

The harsh work and the heat caused early death for most animals. Acquired in the most productive time of their life, they were worked to death, and then replaced with new imported ones. The same logic was used also for human labor.

  • The calculus of the market encouraged sugar planters and their agents to rely on importing draft animals, rather than breeding them locally. Successfully breeding livestock in the numbers required to keep the plantation system running would have meant shifting land and labor away from the production of staple crops. In many ways, the decision to import draft animals rather than breed them locally, paralleled the inhumane logic by which plantation managers approached the slave trade (179).

The profitability of the market for animals, as well as the reliance on manure for agriculture, increased the incentives for deforestation.

The lack of records of woodlots in early times testify to the abundance of wood. But within about fifty years the natural supply of wood was significantly decreased. It did not help that the cold of the harsh New England winters could not be mitigated by the English style fireplace, which consumed an immense amount of wood and produced poor results. So the new inhabitants chose to sacrifice their wooded land to produce more marketable products and relied on regional markets to get firewood.

Valley timber made its profitable way to the West Indies, raising conflicts between the local settlers and the Empire. The British Navy engaged in conservation policy for naval timber, and with the 1691 White Pine Acts, reserved all white pines in New England with a diameter over twenty-four inches to the Crown and the Royal Navy, for ship-building purposes. “By 1760, one out of four merchant ships active within the British Empire had been constructed in New England” (137). Taxation on exported timber was also established under the pretense of conservation. For Roberts, it was more likely that exported timber was taxed as a good source of revenue instead.

White pine was among the most desirable building materials both in the colonies and especially in the tropical climate of the Caribbean, and thus a quite profitable resource for the colonists. Colonists threatened surveyors, and violence increased with enforcement attempts. It may not come as a surprise to learn that many of the surviving buildings from the 18th century were built with boards twenty-two or twenty-three inches wide.

Deforestation did bring changes to the climate, but not the ones hoped for. Deforestation caused both more droughts and more flooding when it did rain. And without the beavers’ dams, sediment would flush downriver causing severe impediments to oceangoing vessels at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

By the early 19th century, deforestation in the Connecticut Valley was such that lumber production had moved to the forests of Maine. With railroads, west-ward expansion, and industrialization, woodland was no longer profitable in New England, and reforestation expanded so much that “by the end of the twentieth century, the landscape would support more trees than any time prior to European colonization” (161).

The American Revolution disrupted a market that supported both New England and the sugar islands. With a smaller market, sugar profits declined and some land was converted to provisions.

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episode Stanley Engerman on Slavery. See also “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part II. Brotherhood, Trade, and the Negro Question,” by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, Library of Economics and Liberty, March 26, 2001; and “Slavery, Snakes, and Switching: The Role of Incentives in Creating Unintended Consequences,” by Glen Whitman, Library of Economics and Liberty, May 7, 2007.

The focus of the story that Roberts tells us, may seem limited in focus to New England and the Connecticut Valley during colonial times, but it is a precise analysis of how economic incentives, opportunity costs, and comparative advantages (without ever naming them explicitly), shape the relationship between humans and the environment. It is an historical account of how the seemingly universal desire for luxuries, which motivated the Puritans, the English in the old continent, as well as the indigenous nations, connected faraway people through trade, improved their living standards, reshaped nature, and brought millions of individuals into slavery.

This is a book worth reading.


[1] Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England, by Strother E. Roberts. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2019.

*Maria Pia Paganelli is a Professor of Economics at Trinity University. She works on Adam Smith, David Hume, 18th century theories of money, as well as the links between the Scottish Enlightenment and behavioral economics.

For more articles by Maria Pia Paganelli, see the Archive.

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