Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: "The Barbarous Years"

The latest volume in Bernard Bailyn's cycle of books on the peopling of British North America is The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). The timeframe in the subtitle proves important: some reviewers have questioned why Bailyn doesn't use this book to discuss French Canada or Spanish Florida, but those areas weren't British-controlled during the period covered here. The British settlements in the Caribbean also aren't considered, though they are often mentioned in the context of the mainland settlements.

The book opens with a short introduction to the project in general, in which Bailyn lays out what quickly becomes a major theme of the book: that the experiences of European settlers in mainland North America "were not mainly of triumph but of confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility as they tried to normalize abnormal situations and to recapture lost worlds, in the process tearing apart the normalities of the people whose world they had invaded" (xv). There follows a fascinating chapter on the native inhabitants of eastern North America in the years leading up to European settlement of the area, highlighting their vastly different cultures and lifestyles and the ways in which these were disrupted by the arrival of Europeans with their unquenchable desire for furs and with their virulent diseases.

Three sections on the major areas of European colonization are at the core of the book: Virginia and the Chesapeake region, the Dutch and Swedish settlements in what is now New York and along the Delaware River, and the Pilgrim/Puritan colonies in New England. For each, Bailyn focuses on the tenuous nature of the settlements: the mismanagement and demographic troubles that very nearly put a quick end to the Virginia endeavors, the religious and bureaucratic wrangling over the Chesapeake, the squabbly nature of the Dutch commercial outposts in New Amsterdam. He does a fine job of describing the interesting Swedish and Finnish settlements along the Delaware, first taken over by the Dutch and then reverting to English control in the 1660s.

It is the New England section, of course, where Bailyn is most at home and comfortable, and this section of the book is chock full of fascinating details (even more full than the other sections). He analyzes the origins of settlers in various towns, explores the trend of reverse migration back to England in the years following the fall of Charles I, and delves deeply into the great conflicts at the heart of early New England: how to divide up the land, how to establish new towns, how to deal with religious and political controversy, how to live a goodly and godly life. He delves deeply into the antinomian controversy, and explores the many criticisms of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies leveled by those who fell afoul of their civil and religious leaders. All the while Bailyn stresses the difficulties, the stresses, the conflict points that made life for the early generations of Europeans in America no cakewalk, and which destroyed the cultures of the region's prior inhabitants through brutal conflict.

As other reviews have pointed out, Bailyn doesn't do as much as he might have with the interactions (both peaceful and armed) between the Europeans and the American Indians, particularly in the sections on the Dutch-controlled region and New England. And while the practice of forcibly importing African slaves is mentioned (at 174-177; 242-243; 257-259; 508-510, for example), there are perhaps additional sources Bailyn might have drawn on to bring the experience(s) of the few thousand Africans brought to North America during this period more to the fore (likewise with the enslavement of Indians at various points, which is mentioned only in passing).

I don't normally read reviews of books prior to writing my own, but I made an exception in this case and looked at a couple. I found much of Charles C. Mann's critique in the New York Times to be fair (he mentions the lack of attention to enslaved Africans and the Indian conflicts), but must take issue with his statement that Bailyn "appears to give some credence to John Smith's story about Pocahontas saving his life, for instance, though most anthropologists dismiss it out of hand."  Here's Bailyn on this point: "... Smith recorded the story of his captivity at first briefly and with little drama (he 'procured his owne liberty'), then elaborated it in retelling, finally embellished it as an elaborate ceremony centered on the tale of how Pocahontas 'the King's dearest daughter' (who was eleven at the time) 'got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death'" (58). I don't see this as giving credence to the story at all, merely pointing out how Smith's telling of it changed over time.

A thoroughly interesting and important book on the subject; not without faults, certainly, but filled with intriguing characters whose stories Bailyn has told clearly, well, and in the service of his larger study.