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THE ADAPTABILITY OF THE WHITE MAN TO
By Ellsworth Huntington, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of
Geography, Yale University The tropical portions of America and Africa, as every one knows, are the richest unexploited regions in the world. If ever they are to be developed the work must apparently be done by people of European origin, for the native races seem incapable of doing it alone, and Europe and America are scarcely willing to leave the task to Asiatics. Yet in spite of innumerable attempts during the past four hundred years the problem of the adaptation of the white races to a tropical environment still remains one of the most serious that has ever confronted mankind. Shall the white man forever be an outsider, a mere exploiter, or shall he become & permanent denizen of the regions which he develops? This question has been debated so often and so vainly that the present discussion would scarcely be warranted, were it not for two reasons. In the first place, certain phases of the subject do not seem to have received due attention; and, in the second place, recent investigations suggest a new way whereby at least a part of the truth may be discovered. The question to be solved is briefly this: Modern medical science is rapidly enabling the white man to combat the diseases which have been so deadly in tropical regions. In other ways, also, we are learning to overcome the disadvantages of a tropical environment. Does this give us ground for believing that races of European origin can dwell permanently within the tropics and retain not only their health, but the physical energy and mental and moral vigor which have enabled them to dominate the world? The success which has thus far been attained in this attempt can scarcely be considered encouraging, but is that any reason for discouragement in the future?
In order to make our discussion concrete, let us limit it to South and Central America, and to that portion which lies within twenty degrees of the equator. By taking this latitude as a boundary we exclude Rio de Janeiro and the southern part of Brazil, where most of the strength of that country lies, although far the greater portion of the actual area lies within our boundaries. We may also exclude the City of Mexico, although it lies slightly less than 20° from the equator. This leaves southern Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and all except the most progressive part of Brazil. These countries have an area of nearly 5,000,000 square miles, or fully one and one-half times as much as the United States. The population is estimated at only 35,000,000 or 40,000,000. In this vast area the number of genuine white men, that is, people of pure European race, is only a few million, and most of these are confined to the seacoast, or to relatively small areas among the mountains. An area of 4,000,000 square miles is today practically untouched by the white man, except when he comes temporarily in the character of an exploiter, or as an official of one of the South American republics. Nowhere else in the world does there appear to be so vast an area which at the same time contains so few people, and has such enormous latent wealth. It is no wonder that travelers grow enthusiastic over it, and that those who believe that through the elimination of disease the white man will be enabled to live here, are convinced that a wonderful future is in store for it. This is probably true, but before these countries can rival those of temperate regions we must know vastly more than is now the case as to how man is influenced by his environment. Today the most advanced regions within the limits here defined are typified by southern Mexico, with its happy-go-lucky peasants and banditti;Guatemala, with its unchanging, stolid Indians, who literally will not work so long as they have anything to eat; Nicaragua and Honduras, with their constant revolutions; Ecuador, with its callous indifference to the direst plagues in its own ports, and Peru, where in spite of the culture of the small number of Spanish inhabitants, the vast majority are utterly illiterate. We are apt to blame the people of these tropical countries for their backward condition, but in that we sadly wrong them. They are not backward because they want to be so, and they would gladly make progress if they could. Something holds them back against their will, and we who have the good fortune not to be thus held back can do no greater service either to ourselves or to them than to discover exactly what that something is. In order to do this, the first requisite is a clear understanding of our problem. Therefore it will be well to review some of the conditions which for ages have acted as handicaps to every race whose lot has been cast in tropical America. Let us first consider the effect of these conditions upon primitive people, and then see how far there is a reasonable prospect that the white man can overcome them. Some of the conditions which we shall consider are familiar, and have been much discussed, but others have received relatively little attention.
To begin with one of the most familiar topics, the ease with which a living can be made is constantly cited as one of the reasons for the backwardness of tropical people. The importance of this among lower races can scarcely be questioned. If the traditional palm-tree will support a family, the members of that family are not likely to work, except under some unusual impulse. The necessity to provide for a cold winter, or for a long dry season, does not trouble them. Clothing may be desirable because it is the fashion, and because it serves as a means of adornment, but it is not a real necessity. A warm house is equally unnecessary, and a shelter from the rain can quickly be made with a few poles and palm leaves. Where such conditions prevail, progress is almost out of the question, since there is no stimulus-nothing to promote ambition or energy. In Central and South America, however, this most exploited hindrance of equatorial countries seems to be of relatively small importance. In certain regions, to be sure, the means of supporting life can be obtained with great ease, but this is limited to restricted areas, chiefly near the coast, or on the slopes of the mountains. Elsewhere, which means in by far the larger part of tropical America, the case is quite different. Although a small number of people can support a precarious existence in primitive fashion, their lot is by no means easy, and the population cannot become dense, nor can it greatly advance in civilization, because as yet no means have been devised whereby a large number of people can procure a living.
This is due to the conditions of agriculture. The ease, or rather the difficulty, with which agriculture can be carried on in tropical countries is greatly misunderstood. The ordinary traveler sees the luxuriant vegetation and infers that crops can be raised with great ease. Noting, however, that in the few places where fields are cultivated they are usually full of stumps, bushes and large weeds, he promptly accuses the natives of shiftlessness. He sees too that a field is cultivated this year and abandoned next, and proceeds to berate the natives for lack of persistence. He fails to realize that throughout large portions of tropical America agriculture is so difficult that even the white man has not yet learned to carry it on. He may raise bananas and coffee in a few limited areas, but he does not do this in the worst places. Moreover these crops are much easier to raise than are the staple crops which have to be planted every year. I do not mean by this that he could not raise the staple crops, provided fevers did not exclude him from large areas, but merely that he has not yet done it. In the regions to which I refer, that is, such places as large portions of the Amazon Basin, rain falls at almost all times of the year, and the dry season is so short, or at least so interrupted by showers that the forests always remain damp, and vegetation grows with extraordinary luxuriance. Any one who has tried to keep a garden free from weeds during a rainy summer will appreciate the difficulty, but his task is incomparably easier than that of the denizens of the tropics, for he has the winter to help him. Moreover he can cultivate bis land every year instead of intermittently.
As an example of the difficulties of agriculture, let us take the Pacific slope of Guatemala, which is by no means the wettest part of the country. I traversed the region in March, 1913, in the middle of the dry season. The people had recently finished the work of making the season's clearings. The traveler in such a region wonders at first why everyone seems to be clearing new fields. The reasonable thing would seem to be to burn the corn stalks and weeds, and cultivate the old fields again, but this is not done. After a field has once been cultivated it is allowed to lie fallow for four years. The first crop is abundant and requires a relatively small amount of labor, but if the same field is planted a second time, the crop is very scanty. Apparently the soil is quickly exhausted, perhaps because of rapid weathering under the influence of constant heat, and rapid leaching because of constant moisture, or perhaps because of certain bacteria which flourish in tropical climates and break up the nitrogenous elements of the soil thus destroying their value as plant-food. Plowing might perhaps help matters, but it is very difficult-far more so than in temperate regions. In the first place, when a field is newly cleared the roots and stumps prevent plowing. If the field is left until the stumps have rotted, new plants grow up to such an extent that a fresh clearing is necessary, and the process of plowing is still very difficult. At the end of the first year after an ordinary field has been sown, plowing is out of the question except where the most advanced methods are available, and it is of no use to burn the fields over and plant a new crop, for the return will not justify the labor. Hence, after one cultivation, fields must be allowed to lie fallow for about four years. During this period the bushes grow to a height of ten to twenty feet, according to the amount of rainfall, and the ground recovers its vitality. Then the bushes are again cut and allowed to dry, and when the land has been burned off a good crop may be raised. Evidently the clearing and burning of the bushes are essential parts of agriculture. If the dry season is long, this process is easy, for three weeks of steady sun suffice to dry all but the larger trunks sufficiently so that they can be burned. If showers fall every day or two, however, the trees and bushes have little chance to dry. This happened in 1913 in Guatemala, and I saw many fields where the