The Question of Cargo

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (Yali’s question to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 14)

In Diamond’s prologue to his Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), he restates Yali’s question above as “Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way; Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents” (pp. 15-16). Diamond offers the following explanation as an initial response:

…those technological and political differences as of A.D. 1500 were the immediate cause of the modern world’s inequalities. Empires with steel weapons were able to conquer or exterminate tribes with weapons of stone and wood….The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas today. (1999, p. 16)

While this explanation certainly provides an overview as to why Westerners ended up with the cargo, the complete list of cause-effect situations is certainly more complex and specific.

Since Yali, a native New Guinean, posed the question, I’d like to respond directly to him.

Dear Yali,

That certainly is a good question! First let me tell you about white people and their cargo, and then I’ll tell you about how and why we brought it to New Guinea. I’m sure you have an idea in your head as to what this cargo is – books, clothing, tools, food, machines, etc. It would seem that because of the long history of trade throughout Europe and Asia, and then later, throughout the Americas, white people have had the opportunity to not only acquire, but also create and imagine new types of cargo. With trade, came not only new cargo, but new ideas about how to produce and use that cargo. It’s like when someone creates a new way to hunt, using a new type of weapon: No matter how good that weapon is, someone else will probably find a way to make it better, stronger, easier to use, etc. So just imagine all of those different people, over so many years, trading and buying and producing and improving! Imagine all the different types of cargo we’ve been able to acquire!

And you’re correct, we brought this cargo with us when we came to New Guinea. Every time we discovered a way to make our lives easier, more entertaining, more affordable, we gave up our old ways for these new ways. For example, we use guns now instead of knives or spears because of how useful these weapons are, and how effective they are in battle. Wherever we go, we want to take these items, this cargo, with us to new places so that we may continue to live our lives comfortably and as we are accustomed.

Now, as for the question as to why the white people have so much cargo, and the New Guineans have less, let’s think about how often both whites and New Guineans move around, visit new places, or are visited by people from other places. Because of the location of New Guinea, only a very limited number of outsiders have visited, and only a few New Guineans have been able to visit other places; whereas in places like Europe, people from various countries, islands, etc all interact, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. With this greater number of people from different backgrounds interacting, you can imagine how many types of cargo were exchanged, sometimes stolen, sometimes purchased.

In short, it is probably the white man’s geographic location and ability to travel and communicate with others that has allowed him to acquire so much cargo, whereas New Guineans have had limited contact with others and fewer opportunities for travel and trade.

I hope this helps!

Warmly,
Marlen

References

1) Diamond, J. (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton.

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About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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