Let's say it's the 1500s, and a new continent is discovered; people flock there to settle, farm the land, and collect the many natural resources there. Think the discovery of the Americas, for example.

The new continent has many wonderful resources that make colonization there a good idea: plentiful fishing, creatures with warm furs for trapping, good land for growing crops, gold deposits in the mountains, etc. -- there's just one problem.

It turns out some vitamin essential for human life can't be grown/made/found there, but has to be imported from overseas. In the old country (which is just a few weeks' travel by sea away) this vitamin can be acquired very easily, and it doesn't really go bad over time.

What does this do to the long-term development of colonies on the new continent?

  • $\begingroup$ You should state the tech level of your world. Is it XV century? XX century? Answers will vary wildly depending on what technology is available. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Mindwin, 1500s, same as the discovery of the Americas, basically. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Mar 18, 2016 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the simplest answer would be this new colony would be very dependent upon other nations, and withholding of resources would garuntee this nation would not gain its independence. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ How is this different than the artificial setup involving the transfer of raw materials to England, and the transfer of "finished" goods to America? You may be able to capture a great deal of content from that historical interaction. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 18, 2016 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Have you read Glory Road by Larry Niven? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Mar 18, 2016 at 21:53

4 Answers 4


This isn't all that hypothetical. The specific example is, but new colonies almost always need things from "civilization" that they can't produce locally, because they haven't yet built up the economic base. Few nations today are totally self-sufficient. Every country in the world imports something. How dependant they are on that import varies. Take it down to a low-enough level, like one city, and no city is completely self-sufficient.

The people supplying a vital resource may think, "Hey, we really have these folks over a barrel. We can charge outrageous prices, force them to support us politically, etc." But in real life, usually not. If the price -- whether that price is cash or some other concession -- gets high enough, the buyer will usually find an alternative source. Either somebody else who can also supply the same product, or some similar product that can satisfy the requirement.

Like during World War 2, the Allies blocked shipments of rubber to Germany. So the Germans found ways to recycle old rubber products and to produce synthetic rubber out of other materials.

In the 1970s, the Arab oil-producing countries used oil as a political weapon against the West. The West responded by finding new sources of oil, such as the North Sea and northern Alaska, increasing energy efficiency to reduce the demand, and to some extent tinkering with nuclear, solar, and other sources.

You can write a hypothetical situation on a piece of paper, "This resource is vital to human survival, it is impossible to produce locally, and there are no substitutes." But in real life such a situation rarely, if ever, happens. It may be very difficult and expensive to produce locally, but it's usually not impossible. If the suppliers demands are great enough, you can bit the bullet and do it. There is almost always some substitute. If we can't get peanuts, we can get walnuts. If we can't get oil, we can burn coal. Etc.

Developing an alternative can take time and effort, so the supplier may be able to inflict short-term pain. But unless they can literally destroy the society, their gains are as short-term as the pain. An embargo is most effective in war time: If you cut off some crucial resource, you can reduce the enemy's ability to fight, and then defeat them before they have time to develop an alternative.


The colonial powers (hereby called metropolis) will control supply and shipment of the "vitamin", to keep the colony in check.

The distribution of the "vitamin" is controlled by the metropolis, with a thriving black market. Smugglers would make fortunes shipping "vitamin" to the colony, and the metropolis navy have their hands full on both smugglers and pirates.

Control of the "vitamin" allows the metropolis to keep criminals in check (since evading the law means you can't get the "vitamin" legally - black market is expensive).

People resent the metropolis for this choke over the vitamin distribution. Once shipments fail due to storms or other hazards (or sheer incompetence from the bureaucrats) unrest spikes really fast.

If you ever plan a revolution, here is your trigger. Just like the tea tax in the North American british colonies.

Insurgents would desperately attempt to find a "vitamin" source in the colony mainland. Or at least reproduce the manufacture.

Also you don't have "native indians" in your continent. Or maybe they are well-hidden, and can get "vitamin" rather easily. This could lead to exploration and adventure.


They likely stay colonies forever, never gaining independence from the old country. Other than that, growth continues unabated.

The old country has massive leverage over the colonies. If the colonies start acting up, the old country can delay shipments to keep them in line. If the old country needs to make some extra money, taxes on vitamin shipments go up, and there's nothing the colonies can do about it.

The colonies might begin to employ state-sponsored pirates (similar to Privateers with their Letters of Marque, only authorized to engage ships outside of wartime.) These "legal" pirates would get rewarded for capturing ships with vitamin cargo, as the state would get the vitamins for cheaper than they would by buying them from the old country.

If, as time goes by, they are granted their independence (which doesn't seem all that likely, because why would the old country let them go when they could keep taxing them?), they'll still rely on imports from the old country, meaning that the colonies had better have some good resources of their own to trade, because the old country has all the negotiating power.

One side effect is that it would likely kick-start the supplement industry. It's much easier to transport a large shipment of vitamins in pill form rather than in a natural source (e.g. Vitamin C supplements vs crates of oranges).

Of course, this is all assuming that in this world people in the 1500s had knowledge of vitamins and don't come to a "less natural" conclusion, like that God doesn't want them to live on this new continent because everyone who moves there dies, or something like that. Depending on their scientific understanding, they might not be able to establish permanent colonies until much later - for instance, we didn't know that Vitamin C was what prevented Scurvy until the 1900s, which would have made settling a continent with no Vitamin C rather difficult.


This made me think of a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine species called the Jem'Hadar, who were genetically engineered by another species to essentially act as their military force. They were engineered to not be able to produce a key nutrient, and had to rely on a supply of this nutrient (ketracel-white) from the creator species. Obviously more sci-fi than your scenario, but it might be worth watching some DS9 to see the interactions between the two species.

  • $\begingroup$ In their case, only their overlords could produce the nutrient. In the question above, I'm picturing a scenario where something that's widely available in the Gamma Quadrant turns out to be impossible to make on our side of the wormhole, but any merchant from back home could supply it. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Mar 19, 2016 at 22:27

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