Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Review: "In the Eye of All Trade"

Although it's still early in the year, I'm entirely confident that Michael Jarvis' In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) will be on my "Best of 2010" list. It is a remarkably thorough study of Bermuda's place in the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a fascinating social history of the creative and distinctive maritime culture that emerged there. Since the book is quite hefty (466 pages of text, plus 176 pages of notes), and because it's such a worthwhile topic, this review will be a little longer than most.

Jarvis begins his study with something of a geographical thought experiment - by tipping a traditional map of the "Atlantic World" on its side, a fuller picture of British America emerges, with settlements "arrayed along a continuous curving arc of islands and coastline stretching from Newfoundland to Tobago. Bermuda lay at the center of this vast British American crescent, roughly equidistant from all points on its rim" (p. 2, map p. 3). Taking ocean currents and wind patterns into account "further intensified Bermuda's geographical centrality within British America" (p. 3). By putting Bermuda back in the center, "in the eye of all trade," its role as a dynamic society and a maritime hub within British America can be explored to a greater extent than any author has done before.

The first several decades of English settlement on Bermuda are covered in an introductory chapter, "Colonizing Paradise." Here Jarvis treats the Sea Venture wreck and its aftermath, including the formation of the Somers Island Company in 1615 and the begins of an island society with some characteristics that would remain relevant (dense settlement patterns, close-knit communities bonded by ties of kinship and religion, with multiracial population). The contrasts between early Bermuda and early Virginia could not be more striking, but the limits imposed by Bermuda's small size meant that while mainland colonies could continue to attract settlers and expand its economy, Bermuda was pretty well at its limit by the mid-1620s. During this early period the islanders focused on cultivating tobacco for export to England (until 1625 they shipped more tobacco than Virginia did), but the crop's tendency to wear out the soil (and the inability of Bermudians to just find new fields to plant) brought a quick end to that business model.

By the early 1680s, many Somers Island Company shareholders saw little profit in Bermuda, whose occupants had turned to other forms of agriculture with the collapse of the tobacco economy, and had already begun to branch out into the maritime activities which would prove such a boon in the coming decades. The colonists were none too keen to heed calls to return to tobacco production; they along with disgruntled English allies sought and eventually attained the downfall of the Somers Island Company and the imposition of royal government.

The 1685 change in administrations allowed Bermudians to make a key switch: it gave them "considerable freedom as they turned their attention fully to the sea and embraced trading opportunities that the company had persistently suppressed. Bermudians shifted from agriculture to commerce swiftly and decisively: in less than a generation, they fundamentally reoriented their economy, all but giving up agriculture in favor of a wide array of maritime enterprises" (p. 64). In his second chapter Jarvis highlights the intensity and speed of this massive societal shift, which brought about a period of strong economic growth and prosperity, and meant major changes in the way Bermudians used their land, governed themselves, fed themselves, used their slaves, and spent their time. Instead of stripping the land for tobacco or food cultivation, Bermudians imposed strict conservation measures and cultivated native cedar trees for use in the island's shipbuilding industry (and in so doing began a trend of relying on food imports instead of growing their own). A new assembly was put in place, which Jarvis suggests was probably the most representative in British America. Slaves were integrated into the maritime economy to man the ships and labor alongside their masters in the various commercial ventures they undertook.

One of the most salient points from this chapter that carries through the remainder of the book (and begs several questions of great interest to me) is that there was very little direct trade with Britain during the eighteenth century - Bermudian sloops were much more focused on trade with the Caribbean and mainland American colonies than with the "mother country" (p. 117), and British policy-makers were likewise little focused on this small, seemingly unproductive island.

Unproductive as it may have seemed to London, however, Jarvis' study makes clear that Bermuda was anything but. The third and fourth chapters focus on just how Bermudians made the most of the Atlantic world they inhabited: by engaging in intensive coastal trade (a significant but elusive portion of which involved smuggling) with the American mainland (particularly the Chesapeake and points south) and the Caribbean islands (including Dutch and Danish ports), and working what Jarvis calls the Atlantic commons (raking salt and salvaging wrecks in the Bahamas, harvesting lumber and dyewoods on the Yucatan, &c.). By building distinctive, fast "Bermuda sloops," honing navigational and piloting skills, and keeping costs low by using slave labor aboard their ships, Bermudians flourished and made their island into what Jarvis terms a "great paradox: the island was a vibrant commercial and communications hub and yet virtually invisible and easily missed within Great Britain's sprawling empire" (p. 183).

What struck me most about Jarvis' chapter on the Atlantic commons was how imaginative and creative the Bermudians were in making the most of their situation. By taking advantage of resources in uninhabited, underutilized areas, they supplemented their trade-based economy and adapted quickly and adroitly to changing circumstances and conditions. In the disputed salt-raking and lumbering zones, for example, slaves were generally not used prior to the Treaty of Paris, because they would not be returned if captured by Britain's enemies - once peace was obtained, however, the Bermudians quickly settled slave communities on the salt islands. They developed primitive diving bells for use in salvaging wrecks, and proved themselves excellent privateers during times of war. By pooling family resources, taking and sharing risks, and utilizing skilled slave laborers (Bermuda's ubiquitous slave were probably among the most socially integrated and well-educated of any in the British colonies, Jarvis argues), Bermudians kept their profit margins up. And by interacting with others from across the Atlantic world, they gained a "more cosmopolitan and culturally expansive worldview than residents of the more formally constituted and territorially fixed colonies that we usually study" (p. 256).

In "A Seafaring People," Jarvis' fifth chapter, he provides an in-depth examination of Bermudian society in the eighteenth century, highlighting the key differences between the island and other British colonies. Even among the port cities, he argues, it is "difficult to find one more intensively maritime in character and focus," and only Nantucket even comes close (p. 260). Bermuda tended toward the clannish: in 1727, members of just 57 families made up half the households on the island, and kinship networks ran deep. The high maritime death rate created a deep gender imbalance (there were twice as many women as men in 1727, for example), and women were responsible for much day-to-day management of island business, since the men were so often at sea. The very healthy population tended to skew very young, and nearly all households owned slaves (though each owned very few, and the slave culture was rather different than most other places, as noted above). Inheritance customs were to divide estates equally among all children (including daughters), and island wealth was more evenly distributed than elsewhere (particularly given that both the most ambitiously wealthy and the poorest tended to leave the island). Smuggling and purchasing of goods from Dutch and Danish ports meant that more Bermudians tended to have what would be considered luxuries than other colonials.

Education was geared toward practical uses, and literacy/numeracy rates were quite high, even among slaves. Social gatherings included church events, court sessions, militia-training, occasional theater entertainments and balls, plus Masonic lodges and scattered literary clubs (the role of books and literary culture in Bermuda is a topic of great interest to me which Jarvis touches on briefly; it cries out for further study, and I hope to be able to undertake a project in that area shortly). Jarvis notes that his exploration of Bermudian social patterns begs a very interesting question: "Were Bermudians really demonstrating a British cultural allegiance as they built Georgian houses, drank tea, and danced minuets, or were they participating in an even more complex transational project of Atlantic refinement as they took goods and cultural cues from their calls to Dutch, Danish, French, and Spanish American seaports?" (p. 313-14). It's clear to me that there was nothing simplistic about Bermudian cultural development!

Bermuda's extensive kinship networks extended far beyond Bermuda, as Jarvis makes clear in his sixth chapter. Islanders quickly spread to other parts of the empire and beyond, creating useful contacts for their relatives and fellow Bermudians. More than ten British colonies settled in the period 1630-1685 were populated by Bermudian migrants, and the shift to a maritime economy only increased this trend. The Bahamas, St. Eustatius, Norfolk (VA) and the South Carolina lowcountry were the leading destinations, and to each of these places and others Bermudians exported their distinctive customs, slavery patterns, and ties to the sea. Looking at migration studies from an intercolonial perspective, Jarvis notes, rather than strictly through a transatlantic lens, provides much insight into trends and migration patterns that might otherwise be lost.

In his seventh and final long chapter, Jarvis deftly tackles the difficult topic of the American Revolution and what it meant for Bermuda. Most islanders were probably predisposed toward the mainland colonies (not least because they depended on them for their food supplies), and continued to trade with the thirteen colonies for as long as they possibly could (the rebellion might not have lasted its first years without salt brought by Bermudian ships, and Bermudians even tacitly supported a raid on the island's gunpowder supply in 1775, and would probably have supported an American 'invasion' if one had been mounted). Ultimately, British army and naval forces were stationed at Bermuda and nearly caused a disastrous famine by blocking the importation of food, and loyalists from the mainland used the island as a base for privateer attacks on American shipping (interestingly, island crews forbore privateer attacks against American shipping until late in the war, once French involvement and a hurricane destroyed the salt trade, British forces had taken control of the Southern ports with which they traded most heavily, and loyalists had taken control of Bermuda's government).

With an influx of money from privateering ventures and the sale of surplus goods to the British, Bermuda was able to make capital improvements and ultimately turn the war to its advantage, but the loss of its maritime ties with the mainland ultimately caused Bermuda's trade-based economy to collapse, and the island looked to the British military for future support (it became the main landfall point between the Canadian and Caribbean remnants of the empire). Looking at the American Revolution from the Bermudian point of view, Jarvis makes clear, offers a much more complicated picture than what we're used to: "Had it not been for Bermuda's profound vulnerability to British naval attack, islanders might well have joined the union as a fourteenth state. For a century, Bermuda's commerce and cultural connections with Great Britain were negligible but extensive and sustained with North America" (p. 446).

Jarvis' short concluding section highlights the very aspect of his book that reappears again and again in the notes I took as I read (nearly twenty pages' worth): the Bermudians' "ability to handle contingency and respond to fate were central" (p. 459), and they were able to do both, in a sense reinventing themselves every century or so (p. 460). And finally, Jarvis issues a call to his fellow historians that I think is entirely well-founded: when studying the Atlantic worldview, we "need to pay as much attention to economic, cultural, migratory cross-cultural contact between places on the periphery as we do to contact between periphery and core" (p. 464).

This is truly an impressive book. While extraordinarily detailed, it is also a joy to read. Jarvis' writing is clear, concise and expertly-crafted, free of the narrative-clogging academic jargon that has the potential to gum up works like this. There is much here for historians to chew over, and I hope it gains the wide readership it deserves among not only those focused on the Atlantic, but also those concerned with the histories of the Caribbean, America and Britain during the period. As he notes, there are further aspects which cry out for additional study and comparison (I hope I can provide some myself with a look at books and literary culture, but certainly there is much more ground here for studies of race and gender, cross-cultural exchanges, government structure, &c. &c.).

I can't end this review without noting various other aspects of this book which I enjoyed. The illustrations and maps enhanced the narrative greatly, and I was completely please with the terrific notes which Jarvis provides - I came away with more than a page and a half of books and articles to look up, and I'm sure there are others that I'll find when I come back to this book in future. All credit to Jarvis and his publisher for making them available at such great length.

Future historians will no longer be able to get away with marginalizing this fascinating island: In the Eye of All Trade should ensure that Bermuda's place at the (literal) center of the British Atlantic world (and the historical study of that world) is, at long last, secure.