I read and reviewed Oliver Platt’s Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age over a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get one small story from the book out of my head.
In 1793, the British government launched the Macartney Embassy, the nation’s first formal diplomatic mission to China. A few ships led by statesman George Macartney set sail from Portsmouth, England, traveled down to Rio de Janeiro, then around the southern tip of Africa, across the bottom of the Indian Ocean, up through Indonesia, along the Chinese coast, to finally arrive at Beijing. The whole journey took ten months, and the diplomats played cards, drunk tea, looked out for exotic wildlife, and watched crew whippings to forget about being bored out of their minds.
While in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the crew spotted a tiny volcanic island. To their surprise, there were two men on the land desperately waving a makeshift flag in the air to get the crew’s attention. Macartney assumed the men were shipwrecked sailors, and he quickly ordered the ships to stop to lend assistance.
On the island, the crew found five men – three Frenchmen and two Americans (from Boston). Surprisingly, they were not shipwrecked, but were living on the island voluntarily under contract with a French merchant company. Their jobs were to harvest seal pelts to sell in Canton, China. They had been alone on the island for six months and had wracked up 8,000 seal pelts, and they still had another year to go on the contract before the merchant company picked them up.
This seemingly deserted 21-square-mile spit of land, was actually Amsterdam Island, one of the most remote pieces of land on earth, located more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent. The hunters had managed to create a makeshift village of stone huts and dirt paths on the opposite side of the island from the hunting grounds. But aside from that, there was no settlement, no port, and no other trace of human contact.
Platt doesn’t say why the seal hunters waived the ships down in the first place, but I’m guessing they did so out of boredom. It turns out the hunters didn’t actually need any help or anything else, so after a short but unspecified amount of time (maybe a day at most?), Macartney and the diplomatic mission sailed on.
That’s insane. The whole situation was insane. Those people were insane. The more I think about this, the more insane it gets.
Five men agreed to live on a deserted 21-square-mile island in one of the most remote places on earth for 1.5 years. Platt doesn’t say whether/how often these men were resupplied during their 1.5-year contract, but given the expense of shipping at the time and the remoteness of the island, I’m guessing they were never resupplied after being dropped off. So they had no man-made goods besides what they initially brought, no housing besides what they made, no toilets or plumbing, and no correspondence with the outside world. They probably only had whatever alcohol and food they brought along except maybe what could be harvested from a small garden and a few animals (though Platt doesn’t mention either). Also, no medical care, so any significant injury could have resulted in death.
And what did these guys do all day on this tiny island in the middle of nowhere? They clubbed and skinned seals… and a lot of them. Let’s do some basic math:
8,000 seals/180 days = 44.44 seals per day
44.44 seals per day/5 men = 8.89 seals per man/per day
So each of these five men woke up every day to bludgeon nine seals to death with clubs (feel free to Google “clubbing seals” for images I don’t want to put here). Then to get the pelts, they skinned these nine seals, which surprisingly only takes about six minutes each according to this NSFW video (2:52-8:40). And then… that was it for the day. I guess they just lounged around the rest of the time and shot the shit until nightfall.
That’s what these men did. Every day. For 1.5 years, or 18 months, or 548 days. With no human contact beyond the other four men on the island, and I guess the very occasional passing ship. And with no women. And with no technology, amenities, luxuries, or entertainment except what they initially brought. They just got up each day, bludgeoned and skinned nine seals, and then sat around on a deserted island. For 548 days. VOLUNTARILY.
And keep in mind that the five hunters could fail. Any man could get injured and die without medical attention. The trading company could default on the contracts and refuse to pay what was owed. The company could go bankrupt and just not bother picking them up. Slavers from south-east Asia could swing by and make their lives an even worse hell. If the work was commission-based, I wonder if any of the hunters were tempted to murder other ones to claim their pelts…
EDIT – I forgot to mention that it would take about six months for the five men to sail to the island from France, and then another six months to get back to France. So add another year to the isolation for a full accounting of the costs.
I can’t wrap my mind around it. The isolation, the microscopic social circle, the brutal work, the barren terrain, the risk, the long time-frame… it all seems perfectly calculated to make a man go insane.
How much money would you have to be paid to accept their contract? That is, to live on a 21-square-mile island in one of the most remote places on earth, with no contact with the outside world, no amenities except what you initially bring, with four other men (or women if you’re a woman) for 1.5 years to kill and skin seals all day? What would you have to gain to sacrifice that much quality-of-life for that long?
My answer – To agree to such a contract, I think I would need to be financially secure for most or all of the rest of my life. I wouldn’t need to be able to retire to a mansion and a yacht, but I would need to have enough money to at least coast by comfortably on savings + investments for the rest of my years. That would be my price to sustain a rock-bottom quality-of-life, to perform a nauseating job, and to basically sacrifice 1.5 years of my life. I say this as a 28 year old with honestly not that well-developed of a social life.
While the misery of the island life would be bad enough, the biggest cost in my mind is the time, which is something I can’t buy back, especially youthful time. By accepting the contract, I would miss out on 1.5 years of friends, family, romance, sex, entertainment, the entire range of ordinary life experiences, etc. I value that opportunity cost in the millions of dollars.
If I absolutely HAD to put a solid price on how much I would have to be paid to go on this expedition, I think I’d say… $2-4 million. Or at least that’s my current price. If I was 40+ years old and time would feel like it moved faster, and if I had no family, my price would come down considerably.
How much did the hunters earn for their contract? I don’t know, Platt doesn’t say.
But I’m going to do some research to make an extremely rough estimate. If the hunters collected 8,000 pelts in six months, they should have ended up with 20,000 pelts at the end of their 1.5 year contract. I don’t know if they were paid a lump sum or commissions or something, else, but let’s try to see how much 20,000 seal pelts were worth in the 1790s:
James L. Clayton’s “The Growth and the Economic Significance of the American Fur Trade, 1790-1890” puts the price of an Alaskan seal pelt at $5.26 in 1870, and $35.47 in 1890. By admittedly extreme rough inflation adjustments, those prices in 2020 dollars are $102.95 and $999.37. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any prices from earlier years.
Also from Clayton, between 1870 to 1890 the Alaskan Commercial Company (which had a government-granted near-monopoly on the seal fur trade) harvested over 1,800,000 fur seals at an estimated profit of $18,754,000, or $10.42 per pelt ($293.59 in 2020 when converting from 1890 dollars).
Callum Roberts’s Unnatural History of the Sea says that the over-hunting of seals in the early 1800s collapsed the population to the point where hunters stopped going out to look for seals. Rather, ships would engage in fishing or whaling, but might stop and hunt seals if they were lucky enough to find them. Roberts gives an example of a “fortunate ship” in 1848 getting 7,510 seal pelts in a single outing.
Roberts also says that annual seal production in Alaska (one of the biggest seal producing regions in the world) in the 1860s was 30,000-40,000. After America purchased Alaska, production would increase to 100,000 per year in the 1870s and onward.
From the Wikipedia article on seal hunting: “In 1778, English sealers brought back from the Island of South Georgia and the Magellan Strait area as many as 40,000 seal skins and 2,800 tons of elephant seal”
Not as relevant, but Wikipedia also explains that seal pelt prices today are extremely low because seal fur has been outlawed or heavily regulated in much of the world: “Pelt prices were about [Canadian]$21/pelt in 2010, which is about twice the 2009 price and about 64% of the 2007 price.
Based on the above bullet points, 20,000 pelts in 1794 (when the contract ended) were definitely worth a fortune. In 1.5 years, the five seal hunters on Amsterdam Island would produce almost three times as many pelts as a good ship haul in 1848, 2/3rds-1/2 as many pelts as the entire annual production of the Alaskan seal industry in the mid-1800s, and about 1/5th the annual production of the Alaskan seal industry in the late 1800s.
Unfortunately, the only prices I have come from 80 and 100 years after 1794, and they’re for Alaskan seal pelts rather than south-Indian Ocean seal pelts, so take this with a colossal grain of salt, but if the prices ARE comparable, then the Amsterdam Island 20,000 seal pelt haul was worth between $2,059,000 and $19,987,400 in inflation-adjusted 2020 USD.
That’s just raw market value. The profit earned by the French trading company would take into account the costs for shipping, personnel, Chinese taxes, etc. But based on these (again, very very rough) numbers, the five seal hunters on Amsterdam Island were paid nowhere near my $3-5 million demands. If the hunters were paid 1/4 the gross value of the pelts, then each of the five men would receive only about $1 million at the most optimistic price. I’m sure their true payment was far less.
Theory – individuals living in the past (at least pre-1800) placed vastly less value on their own lives than modern people do (EDIT – modern people living in at least average Western conditions).
I wouldn’t want to live on an island in the middle of nowhere with four other men for 1.5 years to bludgeon and skin seals all day because I value my life and time too much. There are too many other interesting, beneficial, fulfilling things I could be doing with my time.
But maybe if I was a bottom-tier British sailor drifting between port towns in the late 18th century, I’d value my life and time a lot less. The opportunity costs of abandoning such a life for 1.5 years would be dramatically lower. The quality-of-life to be gained from a big pay-day would probably be a lot lower in absolute terms, but much higher in relative terms. Especially if I was an individual comfortable with silence and solitude, I’d strongly consider signing up to burn a chunk of my young life for huge financial gains.
(EDIT – The same analogy could be made to the modern average inhabitant of say… Bangladesh).
I wish I could find it, but I once read some sort of diary or will written by the head of a Roman family in a besieged city that was about to fall, and it has always stuck with me. What struck me was how nonchalant the man was. He and his wife and kids were probably about to be butchered (and the wife raped), and his attitude was sort of… “this sucks, but oh well, these things happen. I hope the afterlife is better.”
I genuinely believe that people in past generations just didn’t care about their own lives as much. There wasn’t as much good to live for in the present, so the loss of time or life wasn’t as big of a deal. Plus, more people believed in an afterlife, so the cost of death was significantly lower.