Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts by Daniel K. Richter
I have a great interest in Colonial American history. So during a sad pick-over-the-carcass visit to Borders (I could only go the first week, even though the discounts were still relatively paltry; I couldn't bear to go as the discounts got larger but the store grew emptier and emptier. I did that once with a Borders that closed earlier in the year and it was just depressing.) I was pleased to pick up this book by a major scholar in the field of Early American history.
Richter divides pre-Revolutionary history by six character types in the Native and European peoples: Progenitors, Conquistadores, Traders, Planters, Imperialists, and Atlanteans.
The history of the American colonies doesn't start with the Pilgrims or Jamestown or Columbus. (And, no, I'm not talking about Leif Ericsson.) The Progenitors of the medieval period set the stage for the interaction between the two worlds, for both good and ill. Neither Europeans nor Americans came to one another in a historical or cultural vacuum.
The agriculturally-friendly North Atlantic climate of the Medieval Warm Period saw the development of the Anasazi and Mississippian civilizations in America and the Gothic splendor of the High Middle Ages in Europe. The Progenitor cultures that arose in this period set the stage for each continent's circumstances and world view at contact, the Crusading feudalism of the Europeans and the prestige economy of the Americans. The coming of the Little Ice Age, which reversed and then-some many of the advantageous weather patterns of the Warm Period, saw the collapse of the Anasazi and Mississippians and the Black Plague in Europe, but the echoes of each culture and the consequences of their collapse reverberated down the centuries to Contact.
The first Europeans to settle were the Conquistadores. They continued the Crusader zeal of the European Progenitors into a "New" World. But it was not just religious fervor, but ideological fervor as well, that drove them. They wanted to convert the natives, even if they had to kill and enslave them to do it, but they also dreamed of becoming the feudal lords of a new domain, gaining for themselves the positions and power denied them at home as mostly younger sons and lesser gentry. There were really few clear-headed economic bases for colonization. The carving out of "plantations" and some vague notion of Native labor, tenant rents, and such, as well as the ever-popular "there has to be gold here somewhere!" fantasy, were all the Conquistadores had in mind. They were adventurers, not really settlers as such.
But, really, the goal was as much cultural/religious imperialism as actual conquest. They wanted to replicate and improve (because they'd be the ones on top) the feudal system in a new place, as well as bring the Natives into "civilization." The Iberians, already experienced with the conquest and subjugation of native peoples from the Reconquista and the conquest of the Atlantic islands (the Canaries, the Azores, etc.), blazed the path that their European rivals soon followed. But Protestants carried the missionary zeal as much as the Catholics, and had their own colonial experience in Ireland.
The Traders were, as their name suggests, merchants by nature. All people engage in exchange, and both natives and Europeans participated enthusiastically in trade between and amongst themselves, though they did it for very different reasons. For Europeans, trade meant profit, while for Native Americans it was prestige and utility, and neither side ever quite understood that difference, to their sorrows later on. But in the meantime, a very rough, very uneasy sort of balance between native and European political and economic interests emerged. With it, though, came demographic calamity as disease ravaged the Native Americans and brought widespread war as those demographic changes and the demands of trade set tribes against one another.
The vast wave of immigrants who came to the New World in search of land, opportunity, and political stability, as well as religious freedom comprised the Planters, the most famous group of which are undoubtedly the Puritans of New England. They weren't just gentlemen adventurers bent on conquest as the Conquistadores, or merchants bent on more-or-less peaceful trade, as the Traders, but farmers, craftsmen, and most importantly families. But they were a rather distinctly English phenomenon, by and large, while Dutch, Spanish, and French colonialism remained largely in the mode of the Conquistadores and the Traders, and the populations of the non-English colonies in North America remained small. The Dutch, Traders par excellance, though, did help to incubate the African slave-owning that grew to characterize the Planters of the Chesapeake and the Caribbean.
Traders wanted to exchange with Native Americans, not necessarily take their land, and Conquistadores could at least often be satisfied by notional control and labor, but the Planters were the real nail in the coffin of Native autonomy, with their thirst for land. Families meant population growth, and population growth meant ever-larger numbers of Europeans ready and eager for more land. The Planters were "small-folk" squeezed out of the chance for land ownership in Europe and all the more eager because of it to grab it in the "wild" "untamed" New World with its vast expanses of "emptiness." From then on, Native Americans would be pushed, prodded, cheated, and killed for territory to fill this need.
The Imperialists arose in the aftermath of the English Restoration, and envisioned a centrally-controlled regime dominated by the monarch. English colonies were sources of royal income, controlled by royal favorites, and governed without recourse to even the quasi-democratic institutions that Virginia and New England enjoyed. Trade was strictly prohibited in order to maximize royal revenue. African slavery, controlled by many high-ranking courtiers, was encouraged. Religious tolerance was stressed. Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam was taken; the Carolinas, theoretically Spanish territory, were granted to a group of "proprietors." The French in Canada and the Mississippi basin, spread thin as they were, also tended toward the same sort of centralization.
The erasure of the Dutch from the political and economic scene disrupted Indian economies, which, in addition to Planter land-hunger and general antipathy towards Natives and despite the preference of Imperials for peaceful relations with Natives (to better profit off of them and also to better aggrandize their empires with theoretical subjects), eventually led to Native/colonial strife in King Philip's War (New England), the Pueblo Revolt (New Mexico) and flares of violence in Florida. Internally, the centralization of the French and particularly English authority caused civil strife, including Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia.
After the Glorious Revolution in Britain, colonial assemblies and other quasi-democratic bodies became more accepted by the court. Proprietorships ceased. But centralization for the sake of military coordination continued, especially as conflict with the Native Americans increased and the rivalries among the European colonial powers heated up.
Increasing interconnectedness and commerce, both economic and intellectual, characterize the world of the Atlanteans. The economy boomed as the Navigation Acts finally became an asset rather than a hindrance to the colonial economies, giving them incentive to trade between themselves and to be the main suppliers of the British Caribbean colonies. Atlantic trade flourished as New England fishermen, North Carolina rice farmers, Native American deer hunters and beaver trappers, small farmers, and port craftsmen all competed to feed the hungry maws of foreign demand. Blessed with abundant timber and other "naval stores" that overcutting had deprived British shipbuilders of easy access to, American shipbuilding to carry on all this commerce exploded.
Transatlantic trade was not just colonies feeding a gluttonous mother country, though. A consumer revolution brought with it new styles of architecture (Georgian), new customs at table and beyond, new needs (including the tableware necessary to make the new etiquette work), and new products such as china, cloth, and tea. Books and newspapers abounded, tying most of the population into the intellectual life of the Atlantic world.
Slavery was central to the Atlantean world. The slave population increased exponentially, as both royal and colonial governments actively encouraged the trade and new laws enshrined the status of all children born to slave mothers as slaves. Indentured servitude declined as conditions in England improved and the planters of Virginia and Maryland consciously discouraged it due to the threat the eventually-freed could present to their power. Indeed, slavery was as much a cultural as an economic statement. Much of the South was settled by Barbadoans and other British Caribbean colonists for whom slavery was ubiquitous. To have a slave was a mark of power and social standing.
Atlantean America became increasingly multicultural. In addition to African slavery, immigration from not just England, but Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, and Germany, swelled colonial populations. Places such as Pennsylvania provided easily-accessible, cheap, plentiful, and fertile land for settlement and the chance at prosperity that home couldn't provide, and the Quaker governments provided the religious freedom many craved.
Native Americans were fully integrated into the Atlantic trade. In addition to the aforementioned deerskin and beaver pelts, they traded meat and captives from enemy tribes to be sold as slaves in exchange for copper kitchen implements, guns, horses, and woven cloth. Indeed, goods were made specifically for the Indian trade, according to their specific needs and desires. Both politically and economically, Native nations played European powers against one another. Though the British produced more and better goods, options were always carefully kept open with Spain and France. They'd learned that over-reliance on single source was unwise.
But the booming Colonial economies and populations, the insatiable thirst for land and lots of it, brought with it more Native conflict. Great migrations of Native groups occurred all throughout the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, as groups battered by war, disease, slave raiding, and economic disruption tried to find some place, any place, to live without interference. Alas, they never really found it. Many no sooner settled somewhere than they were off again. Many weren't even really tribes, but agglomerations of various groups that ended up together through migration, adoption, or assimilation.
The "French and Indian War" or the more apt, due to the fact that the Indians really were no more allied to the French than they were to the British and fought for their own reasons not the French's, "Seven Years' War," shattered the Atlantean world. British and Indian relations, Colonial and Indian relations, and British and Colonial relations, all broke down as a result of the war. At the very moment of British imperial victory, the seeds of the Revolution were sown, as the Proclamation of 1763 that limited Colonial settlement beyond the Appalachians and the taxes imposed to pay for the war, which led to a general sense of disconnect between Colonial and British interests, alienated the colonists. Meanwhile, the Native Americans were left facing the British alone, their tactic of setting the various imperial powers of North America now void with the French now off the scene and the Spanish not really able to extend their power beyond newly acquired New Orleans. And Colonial animus towards Native Americans had only grown during the war. Sharing was no longer on any Europeans' lips.
Bountiful quotations from primary sources and a focus on the big picture of European colonization make this a solid and important work of history. Though neither as sweeping and awe-inspiring a synthesis as American Colonies, nor approaching that book's erudition and readability, Before the Revolution is still a worthy and pleasurable read for those interested in Colonial history.
In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan
In the midst of WWII, the Holocaust, and the Manhattan Project, a Hungarian physicist invents a half-biological time machine with which she thinks she can end war forever. But it is to an American physics student-cum-jazz saxophonist that she gives the plans and the theory behind the device for development. It is he we follow through the war years and beyond as he struggles with love, loss, friendship, combat, marriage, and fatherhood.
The scientific advances and the soul-searching about those scientific advances of the Second World War and the Cold War that preoccupied so many in that era provides the perfect backdrop for the book, because the story is very much concerned about science and technology, about their use and abuse, about how and even if you can determine what use they're put to. If you can change the past, should you? Who gets to decide?
Jazz plays a large and important role in the narrative. Frankly, though, all the jazz talk, the name-drops and the song titles and such, flew right over my head. I know next to nothing about jazz. I skimmed it, and probably shouldn't have, since obviously there were supposed to be parallels between the jazz and the science. I just couldn't make myself.
If you're one of those hard science fanatics who complain that Star Wars shouldn't count and anything with faster-than-light travel is bullshit, then you won't be pleased with the "quantum consciousness" and "time is all in our heads, maaaaaaaaaan" stuff that comprises the scientific underpinnings of the story. It's all a bit New Age-y, woo-woo, Deepak Chopra-ish for my tastes, but the story is good enough that I could look past that. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and Camelot mythologizing we fall down into at the end, which, for me, seeped out some of the book's enjoyment factor. If there's one thing I can't stand it's Boomers waxing poetic about the Kennedys.
But it is a riveting read, with a great love story. Jazz, time-travel/alternate universes, and WWII. What more can you ask for? A sequel has just been released, which I plan to read, so stayed tuned for that in a future edition of Bourgeois Book Club.
Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia
The tale of a Russian aristocrat's maturation in a rapidly changing Russia. In St. Petersburg, where she is one of the first women to be admitted to university, Alexandra Trubetskaya meets a strange Englishman, befriends Chinese students, and becomes embroiled in international intrigue. Running from agents of both the British and Russian empires, from the canals of St. Petersburg to the streets of Moscow, from Siberia to China, can one girl change the fate of nations and avert a war?
Yet another book in which you don't know you're in an alternate reality until you really start getting into it, and also another entry into the steampunk(-ish) genre, like a locomotive with only half the coal needed for its journey, the story just ran out of steam in the middle. After a good start, I grew progressively less interested until I gave up out of ennui. When it expanded from the confines of St. Petersburg into a chase across Siberia, something just changed. Also, Florence Nightingale is a villain and Spring-Heeled Jack is a thing. Very, very disappointing.