Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Space Colonies (Part 1)

From J.M. Bumsted's The Peoples of Canada: A Pre-Confederation History (Toronto: Oxford University, 1992), on the colonization of Newfoundland:

"Despite much advance planning, the Newfoundland Company was soon faced with the realities of planting a European settlement in a total wilderness. The expectation that the colonists would rapidly achieve self-sufficiency was not met. The soil was neither fertile nor extensive, the climate was unsuited to European seed, and it was difficult to keep settlers as landless employees labouring under difficult conditions solely for the profit of their masters. Continual injections of new manpower and provisions would be required: the Newfoundland Company, like most commercial operations in North America, required fairly rapid returns on investment rather than constant capital outlays. The venture quickly turned into a series of mutual recriminations between those on the spot and those at home, the former demanding more financial assistance and the latter insisting on profits. The settlers constantly feared armed attack from 'pirates'--often summering
fishermen who were becoming increasingly concern about competition. The truth was that the Newfoundland fishery did not require permanent settlement. Colonization might produce some marginal advantages, but the cost of establishment was higher than investors were willing to pay.


By the 1640s a handful of more or less permanent settlers survived on a year-round basis along the rocky coast. But throughout most of the seventeenth century no community worthy of description developed. Although Newfoundland had been one of the earliest sites in North America for English colonization, the focus had quickly shifted south, where the English by 1650 had developed a number of successful colonies with a population in excess of 100,000. The 'new-found' island continued to provide enormous wealth to the British Empire in the form of fish, but as an area of settlement it had become extremely marginal.

Newfoundland's problems as a colony of settlement might, perhaps, be extreme examples. Then again, most colonies of settlement in the past have had similar problems. Looking at the British experience, for instance, we see a few things:

  • The British colonies founded in the modern Maritime provinces from the mid-18th century on had much more fertile land and potential for growth than their northern neighbour, although it took the settlement of tens of thousands of Loyalist refugees in the 1780s and the War of American Independence to make modern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick really self-sustaining.

  • The British colonies in the Caribbean (based on slave plantations) were, in the long term, failed societies which quickly became marginal once slavery was abolished; in the 17th and 18th centuries, though, many Britons made their fortunes in the area, at least those who didn't die of disease. T

  • Australia's development lagged for a half-century after the landing at Sydney, requiring the gold rush of the 1850s to push Australia to the forefront of British colonialist attention. Australia's population almost tripled in that decade. Even now, a century after Australian unification and massive immigration from abroad, though, Australia remains thinly populated for its land area compared to (say) Canada or other Southern Hemisphere countries of settlement (white and Indian South Africa, Argentina, Brazil).

And then, there are the experiences of the other colonial powers. France and the Dutch Republic, for instance, were able to control fairly wealthy sugar islands in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean, but neither country was able to populate its North American colonies. The vast majority of Acadians descended from a wave of a thousand or so settlers in the mid-17th century, for instance, while a large number of the sixty thousand French colonists living in New France in 1759 were descended from deportees and forced settlers (les filles du roi, for instance.) New Netherlands failed to attract many settlers from the Dutch Republic, on account of high Dutch standards of living and the problems of living in a frontier society; before its conquest by the British, New Netherlands became famously multiethnic, drawing upon Belgian and German colonists in a vain effort to keep apace with Virginia and New England. In Latin America, countries that are now relatively populous like Argentina and Venezuela--even, to some extent, giantBrazil--remained almost underpopulated well into the 19th century. Mexico, with its dense population built on more than a millennium of dense pre-Columbian settlement, dominated the Spanish empire in the Americas. By and large, people in Europe were reluctant to migrate overseas until the Great Migrations that began in the mid-19th century, when Europe was wrenched into a dislocating industrialization at the same time that overseas transportation became a new possibility.

The simple truth is that Europeans--people generally--are reluctant to migrate to new environments. The massive British immigration to the Thirteen Colonies was more the exception than the rule; when compared, for instance, to the massive migration of French peasants to Spain that began in the Middle Ages and cotninued to the 18th century as described by Ladurie and Braudel, pitifully few French ever settled in North America (never mind Algeria or New Caledonia). Historically speaking, people have been willing to migrate within the frontiers of an established civilization, whether as professionals or workers, so long as free circulation is possible; migrating outside the boundaries of this civilization to a marginal area is a much rarer thing. The Russian settlement of southern Siberia in the 19th century only occurred because of overpopulation in central Russia, and the Soviet settlement of northern Siberia under Soviet rule took place using slave labour and massive subsidies; with the end of Soviet rule, northern Siberia is being depopulated as Soviet-era settlers' descendants move south, while the future of southern Siberia as a Russian-populated area remains open to doubt.

What does this mean for space colonization?

For starters, that the extreme example of Newfoundland might be very common in marginal areas of the Solar System; asteroid and lunar mining colonies, Kuiper belt scientific outposts, and similarly small and dispersed settlements based on the exploitation of at most several different resources just might not attract very many settlers. Why would the wealthy inhabitants of 21st century Earth be willing to migrate to fragile enclosed environments on Callisto or Triton in large numbers, after all? The poor of the world might be more willing, but I'm not sure that they'd be able to afford the cost of travel, never mind having the skills to live in vastly hostile environments. Even if technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, the costs of living in space might discourage voluntary immigration. Future settlements in space are likely to be outposts, not colonies, that is, extensions of an Earth-based societies not self-sustaining daughter civilizations. That's discouraging.

In this light, the possibility for scams become evident. In Europe's expansion, witness the colonial real estate speculation booms in early 18th century Britain and France come to mind, and their consequences--Scotland's bankruptcy in the Darien adventure forced Scotland into the United Kingdom, while the Louisiana Company in France and the South Seas Company in England both precipitated major crises of the capitalist economy. ("Hi, I've got a few dozen acres on Ceres to sell you ...")

Perhaps worse, there's no one potential destination for colonists that seems likely to be as relatively attractive as, oh, 17th century New England or 19th century Argentina. Mars is likely the best bet, with its potentially terraformable surface and its proximity to Earth, but even that might be a stretch; Antarctica is infinitely closer and more hospitable than Mars. If interstellar travel becomes possible, habitable Earth-like worlds could fill this role, but human civilization in the 21st century is very far indeed from establishing regular communications between solar systems tens of light years apart.

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