The Globalized Origin of Thanksgiving

I know this post is a bit late contextually — sorry, I’ve had a busy holiday! — but I think it is an interesting enough point to explore at any given time.

Globalization and Thanksgiving are not two topics most people think to put together. But as Farok J. Contractor points out in a piece in Quartz, the context of the event — which loosely commemorates the success and survival of the early English settlers who laid the foundations of the United States — is indelibly tied to a newly emerging international order of mass migration, trade, and cultural transfusion across continents.

Indeed, even the bird that defines the holiday was a product of globalization:

Most Americans probably do not realize that the turkey they devour every Thanksgiving is not actually native to North America (nor is it from Turkey, for that matter). In fact, its origin is a breed of Mexican fowl (meleagris Mexicana) that the Spanish found in their Aztec colonies and exported to Europe a century before the founding of Plymouth.

Europeans confused this bird with the guinea hen (an African fowl) that had been imported via Ottoman Turkey. Apparently the taste—and the agricultural economics—of the Mexican bird were superior, and so it displaced its African kin on European farms and tables, taking over the name “turkey.” By 1530, this bird was abundant on European and British farms.

The early American colonists, who grew up eating this “turkey” in Europe, found similar-looking birds in their new environs, a North American wild version known as meleagris Americana. But these wild birds didn’t take well to being domesticated—whereas the Mexican variety had already been bred for eating in Europe and was reimported back to the North American continent under the name “turkey.”

While the first Thanksgiving meal probably involved a variety of local birds, it is most likely that what Americans know today as turkey is a descendant, in fact, of this Mexican bird, which made a round trip from Mexico back to Plymouth via Europe, on English and Spanish ships.

Many iconic Thanksgiving dishes continue to be globalized in their production and consumption. Turkey, which was once an almost exclusively American indulgence, is increasingly popular in Mexico, its country of origin. China, Canada, and the Dominican Republic are also major importers, with Canada, Brazil, and Australia being the largest per capita consumers.

The vast majority of green beans and sweet potatoes come from China. Cranberries, though still grown mostly in the northern U.S., are increasingly cultivated in Canada. Most yams are grown in West Africa, especially Nigeria. Cornbread is of Native American origin, while potatoes were first cultivated by indigenous Peruvians. There are also various regional varieties that reflect certain immigrant or ethnic groups: lasagna among Italian Americans, kugel pudding for Ashkenazi Jews, or chitterlings for African Americans and southerners.

But beyond food, Thanksgiving — and the very existence of this country — is, for better or worse, the product globalization: it was age of exploration, driven largely by a desire for new goods and trade routes, that precipitated the colonization of the Americas — and sadly, but just as significantly, the destructive encounter with indigenous populations. Even the legendary Native American who helped save the early European settlers was influenced by globalization (albeit not in an entirely benign way).

The Pilgrims reached Plymouth a month after their arrival and found that most of the local Native American population that had lived in the Cape Cod area had been wiped out in previous years by smallpox and other diseases introduced by English trading ships. One of these ships, back in 1608, proposed to the natives an exchange of English metal goods for beaver and other animal skins. Instead, they double-crossed the natives, capturing and transporting some of them back to Europe as slaves.

One of them was a young man named Tisquantum (later shortened to Squanto), who was sold as a slave to Spanish Catholic priests for £20 ($25). They freed him in 1612, and Squanto traveled to England and lived in London for six years, with what must have been a wild hope of returning to his native village. In fact, it was not so improbable an aspiration because trade and globalization were by then well-established.

Each year English trading ships would travel to New England, where they exchanged goods and would occasionally enslave more natives. In fact, the English trade with the early New England colonies was, from the beginning, linked to slavery. By 1618, Squanto’s English language abilities, general intelligence and language acumen were noticed by an English ship captain who offered to take him back to New England in return for his translation and intermediary skills. Landing somewhere near Maine, Squanto was either freed or escaped. It took Squanto three years to walk his way south and find the colonists near his native village.

In the spring of 1621, as despair and death engulfed the weakened remaining English settlers, to their utter amazement, a Native American (of the local Patuxet tribe) who spoke English as well as the area’s Wampanoag language stepped into their settlement, offering friendship and advice on what crops to plant and how to hunt and trap animals. That enabled the amateurish settlers to survive.

More importantly, Squanto served as an ambassador to the area’s Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians. And so later that year, after the first successful harvest, the Pilgrims organized a celebratory feast with some of the natives, something now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving”.

And for a remarkable half-century, there was an uneasy peace between the English and the natives. As a result, those 50 or so settlers who survived that first winter endured. New arrivals helped the English colony grow to a population of 180 by 1624 and eventually to more than 1,500 by 1650.

Unfortunately, we all know where it goes from there. The English and other Europeans continue to arrive and thrive, steadily overwhelming and pushing out the depopulated and fractured natives, who were already heavily weakened by foreign diseases — a grim reminder that globalization is a powerful, and above all neutral, force, creating winners and losers on all sides.

Squanto’s trans-Atlantic journeys, his role in supporting the English bridgehead on the American continent and the export and reimportation of the Mexican bird known as the turkey are vivid examples that globalization was commonplace, even routine, by the 17th century.

Four centuries later, as many try to push back against globalization, these stories serve as a reminder that the forces driving it cannot be stopped for long.

An important and appropriate lesson to learn at a time when economic populism and nationalism are brushing up against this inevitable process.

Anyway, I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! Thanks for taking the time to read my belated post about it!

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