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Violent Frontiers and Super-Violent Frontiers
Part II


The first part of this essay argued that all frontiers are violent. But, some are more violent than others. What characterizes hyper-violent frontiers?

Frontiers will be hyper-violent when

  1. The indigenous groups are small and politically disorganized. They will be incapable of mounting resistance to atrocities.

  2.  The invaders have a monopoly of force. They do not have to fear attacks from rival invading forces.

  3. The invaders are collectors rather than settlers.

  4. The process of extraction of resources is ecologically destructive.

  5. The invading force is primarily all-male.

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These observations were drawn from my own reading and the reading of my team on the histories of nineteenth century Texas, nineteenth century Malaya and Thailand, and the Belgian Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Future website postings will tell many of the fascinating and bloody stories associated with these places. All three settings were violent. In all three settings, what happened to the weak and poorly armed was not pretty. This brief introduction to the cases will provide broad outlines as to what happened and show the relevance of the previous propositions to frontier violence in general.

The Congo was the most violent of the three frontiers. The Congo was attacked by slavers from west and east. The Portuguese organized a large slave trade on the Atlantic side. Arabs and East Africans working out of Zanzibar organized a large slave trade on the Indian Ocean side. Both groups used either Congolese or other Africans to carry out slave trades with slaves being sent to the Americas, to Arabia or to slaveowners in the Congo or Zanzibar.

The abolition of the slave trade led traders on both sides of the Congo to move into selling ivory. The ivory trade meant killing elephants with the same sort of extermination orientation that characterized the white destruction of buffaloes on the American Great Plains. Ivory expeditions left areas elephant-free, forcing ivory traders to go deeper and deeper into the forest exterminating elephants as they went.

Ecological exhaustion led to a decline of the ivory trade. The next big export product was natural rubber. Later in history, there would be scientifically run rubber plantations, where plants would be preserved and output would be maintained over the long term. In the years of rubber booms, tappers tapped trees that they found wild in the forest. The plan was to drain as much sap out of the rubber plant as possible – an extraction strategy that guaranteed the drying up of the tree. As was the case with elephants, rubber tappers had to go deeper and deeper into the forest to find rubber plants that they could use.

There was very little permanent European or Arabic settlement in the Congo. Missionary outposts existed, as did trading posts and military garrisons. There was practically no settlement, no creation of long-term farms or productive enterprises and no permanent migration to the Congo. Invaders came, did their tour of duty, and then left.

Clearly the logic of the Collector applied in the Congo. The logic of the Bully applied too.

The forest peoples of the Congo – with only a few exceptions – lived in small, decentralized villages. These were largely self-governing places with substantial local autonomy. There were few overarching political units. When the Congo was set upon by systematic invasion by the French in Brazzaville, by the Belgians in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and by the Arabs in the East and Center Congo, the villagers were facing large, well-armed coordinated military forces, capable of mounting organized campaigns that killed hundreds of Congolese while incurring very few casualties themselves. Congolese facing the invaders were always outnumbered. The Congolese had virtually no access to the advanced riflery carried by the French, Belgians or Arabs. The decentralized structure of Congolese government meant that it was nearly impossible for the forest dwellers to organize large-scale coordinated resistance to these focused well organized invasions

The invaders rarely fought with each other. The Arab sphere of influence was the Eastern Congo. The French sphere of influence was the Northern Congo. The Belgian sphere of influence was the Western Congo. There were some interactions and tensions where the three zones came together at the Stanley Pool, on the Congo River. But in most of the Congo, there was one and only one invading force. These forces had the full blessing of support of the French, Belgian and Zanzibarian governments respectively, so the colonial invaders could do whatever they wanted with a monopoly of force.

What happened was grotesque. There was large-scale slave raiding. There was large scale forced ivory hunting and forced rubber cultivation. Hostages would be taken to ensure that villages provided the maximum amount of rubber. Villages would be burnt to the ground. Food supplies would be seized en masse to feed the invading colonial forces. The Congolese stopped growing food because whatever food they had was being requisitioned by the Europeans and Arabs, and because the Congolese were kept too busy hunting elephants or tapping rubber trees far from their villages to allow them to be able to cultivate their fields at home.

The worst aspect of Congolese frontier violence was the systematic mutilations. The Belgians were the primary mutilators. To keep Belgian forces (or their African proxies) from “wasting bullets”, soldiers were expected to come back with either a head or a hand for every bullet that was fired. Head/hand documentation turned into an orgy of amputation for its own sake. When the Congolese pleaded that they could not make the Belgian quotas for elephants or rubber because the supplies of both were exhausted, the Belgians would take hostages that they would torture or would start cutting off the arms of women and children. Men could lose their arms too, if the Belgians were unhappy with their rubber production. The rubber boom degenerated into an orgy of gratuitous dismemberments and mutilations that were administered to broad swathes of the population. Keep in mind that in the Congolese jungle of the early 1900’s neither anesthetics nor antibiotics were readily available. It was extremely common for hostages and amputees to die from physical shock, blood loss, or infections, after encounters with the Belgians.

Nineteenth Century Texas and Malaya/Siam were all highly violent places – but the violence was more evenly balanced.

Texas was jointly settled by Anglos, by Mexicans and by First Nations peoples. Unlike the peoples of the Congo, the Indians had many groups that were large, well organized, and militarily competent. The Comanches were the dominant First Nation raiders and warriors. They were able to trade for fairly good weapons. The Cherokees who had been displaced from Georgia and the Carolinas were also skilled fighters. The Comanches and the Cherokees did not get along. Farther West, the Lipan Apaches were a significant military power. Although all three of these groups had their own agriculture, a great deal of money was made by rustling horses and selling them to the Americans in the East. Interspersed among these groups were smaller, more peaceful groups such as the Caddo. The Anglos were easily able to overrun the smaller peaceful groups, but the three large tribes of skilled Indian cavalry fighters were another matter entirely.

The military situation was complicated by the presence of the Mexicans. Hostility between the Anglo Texans and the Mexicans led to the War of Texas Independence which featured the active involvement of the Mexican army. However, both before and after the Texas Independence campaigns, there was plenty of raiding of Mexican towns by Anglos and plenty of raiding of Anglo settlements by Mexicans.

Overall, the Anglos had the advantage. It was easier for the Anglos to stay armed and provisioned because they could count on a robust trade economy with New Orleans. The Mexicans had to trade with Veracruz, which was not nearly as rich and did not offer nearly as lucrative commercial opportunities. The ability to buy both guns and consumer goods from New Orleans meant that both Indians and Mexicans, given the option, were eager to trade with the Anglos – while the Indians were relatively reluctant to trade with the Mexicans. Anglos could buy Comanche and Cherokee allies to attack Mexicans. The Mexicans could not reciprocate in kind. Over time, the logistical advantages of the white Texans allowed them to drive first the Indians and then the Mexicans off the land. Taken on its own terms, the history of Texas is violent and bloody.

However, there were not the systematic enslavements, exterminations, torture, and mutilations that characterized the Belgian Congo. Neither the Mexicans nor the Anglos could turn their full forces against the Indians because they had to worry about fighting each other. Furthermore, the Anglo and Indian populations were highly divided among themselves. Blood feuds were relatively common among the Anglo population. The Indians fought extensively in both inter-tribal warfare and internal tribal disputes. Much of the destruction of the Indian population did not require direct Anglo attacks on the Indians, because the Anglos would play one Indian faction off against the other. They let the competing groups mutually destroy themselves. Warriors of all ethnicities had to use realpolitik and not commit themselves too extensively to any one campaign lest they create openings for other groups not associated with the current dispute.

Texas was also a settlement colony. All three ethnicities farmed. All three ethnicities herded. All three ethnicities sought control over land and control over water so they could produce the food and horses that were essential to their economies. But, not everyone in Texas was a settler. In all ethnic groups, there were bandidos, desperados or full-time rowdies who came to Texas to fight and have adventures. These professional raiding bands looked very similar to the Belgian or Arab occupying forces in the Congo.

However, the raiders were counterbalanced by genuine settlers who were married and had families. Agricultural life moved them out of combat roles, although they could be brought back in if their farms were attacked (or if they were actively recruited). Agricultural domestication pacified Texas region by region. The East was pacified first. The Center second. The North, West and South came much later. To be sure, settlement entailed the large-scale displacement of first, the First Nations populations and later, the Mexican populations. The violence associated with this displacement should not be underestimated. And yes, some of the village burnings and village raids in Texas look remarkably similar to those in the Congo. But much of the population was displaced rather than enslaved, mutilated or killed. Many died from the displacement either from the disruption of native agriculture and the food supply or from Western disease. But all of that was happening in the Congo too, along with tortures that were far, far worse.

The Thai-Malayan case features victims capable of defending themselves and an intermediate posture between collection and settlement. The Malacca Straits have always been a violent place, long before there were foreign invaders. Piracy and slave trading have been enduring phenomena. Inland areas have brigandage. Warfare is relatively common. So, any invader of Thailand or Malaya would encounter an armed and combat-sophisticated population capable of defending its own interests.

The tin mines of Thailand and Malaya were settled and worked by Chinese immigrants. The Chinese immigrants came in secret societies.  Secret societies were a cross between forced labor and combat brigades. The owners had been rebels against the Qing Dynasty in China. When they fled China, they brought their soldiers with them. The soldiers had to pay for their passage. They signed bonds requiring them to work in the mines until their shipfare was paid off. Working for the mine owner also meant fighting for the mine owner. European history buffs will see the clear parallels between being in a secret society and being a medieval serf. For the mine owners, having experienced soldiers work the mines was a sensible precaution. The secret societies protected the mines from raids by pirates and also protected against attacks by brigands.

The local political authorities (the Rajahs) were armed. The British colonialists were armed. The King of Siam was armed, although his visits to the tin district were rare. The pirates were armed. The brigands were armed. (The pirates and brigands were often working in close cooperation with local political figures.) And the mines were armed.

Conflict was endemic in the regions from 1860 up through and including the 1950’s. Wars between the Miners and the Pirates were mixed with wars between the various secret societies for control of the opium trade. The local Rajahs and Siamese governors also had their individual disputes. There was substantial violence and protest associated with dynastic struggles among the Rajahs, and with attempts by the Chinese to maintain autonomous control over their mines.

There was also a substantial trade in opium, run by the same people who ran the tin mines. (The British government openly took a share of the proceeds.) Naturally, there were fights over opium and opium money, just as there were fights over everything else.

Thailand and Malaya had the quietest of the three frontiers. Secret society wars were a constant. But with a few exceptions, they rarely involved local Thai or Malay populations. The forces involved in the between-secret-society battles were relatively small. There was very little displacement of population. The between-secret-society battles were constant and enduring, but at least they were low casualty.

The Logic of the Bully applies here. The general well armedness and military preparedness of virtually all the factions in SE Asia, meant that combatants had to be judicious in their use of violence. The secret societies limited their confrontations with Malay and Thai social formations, although some battles did exist.

The mines represented an intermediate point between the Logic of Collection and of Settlement. Mines were long-term enduring investments (although in the very long run, they did run out. By the 1920’s, the tin industry was nearly dead.) The miners were “urban” dwellers living in towns. They did not own the mines, or their houses. Their bound labor contracts, however, tied them to one location for at least the middle term. (Chinese labor contracts were not lifelong. Miners did work their way to freedom although the process required time and effort.) Later, women would come to the towns and marry the miners. The mining-secret society life did not lead to workers “dropping out of collective living” to work on a farm. Miners stayed integrated with their work groups and their combat groups. However, the miners did domesticate, and they did create meaningful long-term relationships with the people in a given setting whether they were in the secret society or not.

The military balance of power, and the settled nature of the Chinese “invasion” of Siam and Malaya mitigated the level of frontier violence in this setting , although it did not eliminate it.

Does the Logic of the Bully and the Logic of Collection explain frontier violence in other settings? This is for the research to tell.

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