Tombstones and International Trade

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Here are two stories in one. The first story is about a near-hallucination, of the non-frightening variety. The second is a cleverly disguised brief lecture on the theory of international trade and a savvy comment on the “buy local” movement. Yet the two stories are linked.

It was one of those bone-warming, sunny fall afternoons that I have only known in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had a slow day somehow, in the midst of a long period of hard work. I went to sit right on the edge of the bay to relax. The Marina Green, where people play soccer on Sundays, was at my back. Alcatraz Island was ahead and to the right, emerging from a light mist. Before my eyes, the unusually calm waters reflected the red gold of the late afternoon sun. I relaxed so well that I was soon in a pleasant, sensuous daze, nearly in a state of self-hypnosis.

I woke with a start, realizing that I had been staring vacantly at something odd right between my knees. I was sit- ting by the water, my feet resting on the large debris rocks that were used to create new land in the bay, a long time ago, on the occasion of an international exposition that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. What was so eerie that I thought I was dreaming was the half-erased but legible writing on two of the rocks, less than three feet from my face. The rocks were actually shaped, regularly cut, rectangular black granite stones. The inscription on one read, “Marie Le Pen, née [erased] décedée Ie 4 Avril 1842.” On the second stone, you could barely decipher the words, “[Erased] Guillou, [erased] – dée, le [erased] 38, Saint-Brieuc.”

Now, Saint-Brieuc is a middling-size port town on the English Channel, in the north of Brittany, the westernmost province of France. My grandmother had a house not ten miles from there, a house where I spent the only memorable moments of my childhood. “Le Pen” and “Guillou” are typical Breton names from that area; in fact, they are almost stereotypical names for the area. Granite is the common building material of the region. Almost all houses are made of it. “Décedée” means, of course, “deceased.”

I was looking at the tombstones of women from an area I knew well, an area in France, of all places, while I was on the other side of the globe. The material and the inscriptions indicated that these two women had died at home, not in exile in America. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I was pretty sure that granite does not float. The question then was: how did the stones make it to San Francisco, thousands of miles from their place of origin?

Now, if you have read so far, it’s worth your time to close your eyes for a minute and try to answer this simple question. (It took me more than a minute to answer it, I must admit.)

The dates on the stones are the starting point on the way to a solution: one woman died in 1842, the other, probably in 1838. Their simple rectangular gravestones, of the most

If you crave paying six times more for organic local apples than for the same variety of nonorganic apples, bless your heart!


common material, indicated that they were not rich. In the unsentimental, rather implacable French municipal grave- yard system, you buy a burial plot for 20, 30, 50, or 100 years. Once your lease expires, you are out. Your bones, your grave- stone, and all other personal accoutrements are removed to make room for others. Period! It’s simple: the richer you are, the longer you are allowed to stay put. These two women, then, had not been wealthy. Hence, the grave markers must have arrived on the west coast of the United States sometime between the twentieth year following the burial, about 1860, and 1914. The next question was: Why?

Stones used to fill up a watery area are obviously not worth importing deliberately. Besides, there are plenty of rocks in California; San Francisco itself is partly built on a granite substratum. Thus, the two tombstones must have been brought over by accident, or for some other purpose, and had only incidentally been dumped into the bay. They would probably have come by sea and around Cape Horn, since they had arrived before the opening of the Panama Canal, and they were not valuable enough to be freighted overland across the isthmus.

In the second half of the 19th century there were plenty of steam freighters, but there were still many sailing ships left. They were used to transport cargo that wasn’t very perishable or in any other way in a hurry. Fast sailing ships cannot travel with their hulls empty; a crosswind would capsize them. They need ballast!

The two stones must have come from western France as ballast. They were dumped somewhere in San Francisco, near the bay, or in the bay proper, so that the ships could load something for the return trip. What then was the east-bound cargo?, I wondered.

California doesn’t have any valuable minerals, except gold, of course, but there was never enough of that to keep filling ships. The last three-mast sailing ships carried up to 10,000 tons. That’s enough for all the gold in California and most of the silver that trickled out. In any case, the Gold Rush lasted only a short time. Entrusting gold to sailing ships would not make sense when there were steamships and even trains that were much less hazardous.

What cargo, then, could travel slowly from the west coast of the u.s. to the west coast of France and still be price- competitive when it arrived? That is, even after all the expense of going down North, Central, and South America, around the Horn, up to Brazil, and diagonally north and east across the Atlantic to the English Channel? It must have been some kind of agricultural commodity.

Cotton comes to mind, because California now exports vast quantities of cotton to Europe. But that’s relatively new. Large-scale cultivation of cotton didn’t begin until California’s Central Valley was irrigated, thanks to federal investment, in the 20th century. What is left, by process of elimination, is grains – probably wheat, because Western Europeans didn’t use much corn until recently, and because other cereals were falling into disfavor in the 19th century (see below).

So here we have it: Sometime before 1915, possibly as early as 1860, little more than 10 years after the large white settlement of California, wheat was produced there so efficiently that it could compete in price in the European market with wheat produced in Europe itself, even after a slow 10,000-mile journey. It could compete despite the fact that the carrying vessels might have made the return trip partly empty and needing to take ballast aboard. Saint-Brieuc, the port town where (according to my explanation) the California wheat was unloaded, is itself in the middle of a wheat-growing region. Apparently, California wheat was able to compete with the wheat grown a mile or less from the harbor where the product was unloaded.

As I and my betters have pointed out many times, “globalization” – whatever exactly that means – is not a new phenomenon. But what of its social consequences, ask my concerned, militantly localist friends? Well, some French wheat farmers may very well have been displaced, beginning with those who were not very good to begin with, but including those who could not produce wheat efficiently for a variety of other reasons, not their own fault. In the middle run, it does not really matter why; less expensive wheat beats more expensive wheat of the same quality. That’s what a high standard of living means: you don’t have to spend a lot, or work long hours, for necessities.

Some displaced farmers went to work in industry, leaving behind what Karl Marx called “the idiocy of village life.” Many adapted by switching to other agricultural products. Today, Brittany supplies much of Europe with fresh green vegetables and strawberries, both enormously more remunerative for small plots than wheat.

What we know for sure – because the French, for all their faults, keep good statistics – is that during the period when California wheat was conquering France (and much of Europe), its population was becoming richer and healthier year by year. That particular kind of globalization seemed to have caused no misery. It must have made bread – and, indirectly, chicken and pork – cheaper for all. It was a common phenomenon: the much-preferred wheat displaced inferior local cereals such as barley, which then become available to feed small farm animals. Everyone benefited, except perhaps the chicken and the pigs. Barley was not siphoned off from breweries, as one might fear, since beer production also grew at vertiginous speed during the same period. Life expectancy rose fast, while infant mortality steadily declined.

There is a fetching economic sequel to this story. Today, Saint-Brieuc is an important global center of food production, in particular of wheat flour biscuits. I don’t know why, and I am not necessarily crediting California wheat for this source of local prosperity, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt much.

To wrap up: this has been a story about facts and their logical implications only. As a libertarian, I believe entirely that your money is your money, that you may spend it in any way you wish. If you crave paying six times more for organic local apples than for the same variety of (nonorganic) apples from somewhere not next door, bless your heart! The local apples may even taste better if they really reach your table faster. If you want to pay 50% more for local organic peaches than for equally organic Mexican peaches, go right ahead! Be aware, though, that Mexican growers buy stuff from American producers – lots of stuff, it turns out, if you care to look it up. And isn’t it true that they have to earn money by selling some- one peaches in order to pay for the things they buy from your neighbor – or, possibly, your employer?

At any rate, please, please, don’t go all sanctimonious on me. I have already conceded that you are entitled to your folly.


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