Saturday, June 13, 2015

American Colonies


American Colonies: The Settling of North America
© 2001 Alan Taylor
526 pages          




American Colonies is a sweeping history of the New World,  one that attempts to convey the full American experience, beginning with the arrival of natives and then covering Spanish, French, English, Dutch,  and Russian colonial efforts in turn.  (Hawaii is also addressed, though it’s a bit of a two-thousand mile stretch to call it ‘American’.)  Taylor's declared intention is to tell more than simply the Anglo-American story, which relegates the Indians and other European powers to the role of villains.  At this, he is largely successful, providing a complete survey of native and European settlement and rendering the history of their relations with one another.  The work demonstrates how profoundly diverse both the natives and the Europeans were, documenting the extent of their tangled military and diplomatic relationships. The tacks taken against the natives by Europe varied not only from country to country (in Spain's case, no tact was involved), but from colony to colony, as varied geography and the nature of the neighbors demanded intelligent adaptation. The story of the New World is not simply one of Europeans plowing over the war-and-disease-ravaged lands of peoples like the Iroquois and the Lakota, however, for Europe’s nations also waged war against one another in this new battlefield.

Taylor's narrative style is pleasant enough, even if bothered with a little factual repetition. The content itself is a different story, being nearly five hundred pages of disease, war, slavery,  misery, and death.  No group discussed here comes off particularly well, not even the one-paragraph Vikings. Both the European and native powers wage war against one another and themselves, and in utterly vicious ways;  every chapter brings descriptions of  women raped, children executed, homes and fields burned, men tortured. There are no noble savages here,  and no exemplars of Christian civilization -- only ambitious and wrathful men with blood on their hands.

Taylor's narrative gives a good general view of European evolution, as explorers turned to nation-builders. Death ended to follow in the wake of the pioneers, as many of the diseases Europeans were exposed to as children never existed in the Americas, particularly those which originated from domestic animals, like smallpox.  Early colonists arrived with varying motives; some seeking fortune,  some to create a new society in their own ideal image, and others because it beat starving to death at home.  Invariably they offended their new neighbors, and war erupted.  Conflict between the native peoples and the newly-arriving colonists forced them to adapt to one another:   after seizing Canada, for instance, the English realized it was easier to give their new neighbors tribute every now and again than to maintain a war-footing. The natives, too, had adjustments to make: in the first pitched battle between European forces and Indians, for instance, the tribe in question attacked in a massed formation that fared none too well against organized gunfire. They quickly adopted the guerrilla tactics now associated with 'Indian warfare'.  

Taylor also puts forth a few theories of his own, all rooted in a worldview that sees economic warfare as the driver of everything else. In his view, the French and Iroquois maintained war between themselves for economic advantage,  as the warzone between their territories prevented regional competition with other powers for their goods. Though no fan of capitalism, Taylor's punches against mercantilism could be thrown by Adam Smith himself, pointing out how mother-country meddling smothered economic development time and again. Intriguingly, he suggests that the tax policies that sparked the American Revolution were not simply enacted to cover the costs of the French and Indian War, but to discourage too much emigration to the colonies. 
Slavery is a recurring topic here; a common byproduct of war,  in the age of discovery and colonization it became an economic institution,  especially as practiced in the colonies of the deep south and in the Caribbean.  The sugar plantations of the Indies were particularly dependent on slave labor; for this reason the abolitionists of William Wilberforce’s day avowed that those who took sugar in their tea might as well be drinking the blood of captives. The ranks of slaves were initially more diverse, consisting of captive natives who died in great numbers, and indentured Europeans who ran away and assumed the identity and status of free settlers.  Africans were already accustomed to Old World domestic diseases, and stood out from among both the native and European populations. Consequently,  the plantation lords drew more from African markets, and slavery assumed a racial-and color-based nature, the legacy of which continues to poison the society of the New World.   Before this, however, African slaves had been treated like any other indentured servants,  freed after a time of service and thereafter at liberty to create their own fortune – sometimes by investing in slaves.

American Colonies is a book to be considered,  taking on centuries of North American history  and taming it. Taylor's stated goal was to go beyond the English colonies on the seaboard, and this he does -- taking the reader as far south as Mexico, and galloping through the plains of the Apache to the northern wastes of Alaska.  He makes the complex comprehensible and is especially valuable in the time spent on Spain and France. He has a particular animus against the English and their American 'spawn' that grows tiresome; to his credit, however, he does not make their rivals into moral paragons.  Perhaps it's not so easy to be detached from one's ancestors as those in academia might wish.

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