Eric's Reviews > American Colonies

American Colonies by Alan Taylor
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May 18, 11

bookshelves: americans, history, lurid, massacres, war, westward-ho
Read in May, 2011

Some reviews on this site mention Taylor’s “leftist bias,” allege a soft-pedaling of Native American violence and environmental impact. I don’t really see it. Sure, Taylor has his moments of passionate phrasing, but a work of this scope and synthesis (all colonial experiments in North America, and most in the Caribbean, from Columbus to the California missions) is a poor vehicle for agitation; the reading, and perhaps the writing, of any lofty historical survey insinuates an abstraction, a detachment, invites a vast indifference. This book can no more take a side than a time-lapsed film of mold spreading on a sandwich can sway one to the mold or to bread. Reading Taylor’s descriptions of the genocidal microbes explorers unwittingly carried, the livestock breeding feral packs that devoured unfenced Indian crops, the hardy Old World weeds that spread in the over-grazed landscape, I begin to think of the Europeans as simply the most sentient and motivated organisms of a rapacious ecosystem, their mastery of navigation just a transit of creatures.


It’s an immediate humanitarianism, without aims of conclusions, that overwhelms me now. I feel a tenderness as if I were seeing with the eyes of a god. I see everyone with the compassion of the world’s only conscious being. Poor hapless men, poor hapless humanity! What are they all doing here? I see all the actions and goals of life, from the simple life of the lungs to the building of cities and the marking off of empires, as a drowsiness, as involuntary dreams or respites in the gap between one reality and another, between one and another day of the Absolute. And like an abstractly maternal being, I lean at night over both the good and the bad children, equal when they sleep and are mine. (The Book of Disquiet)


What a panorama of enslavement and extermination the New World presents! Barbados was almost totally deforested and planted with sugar cane “even to the very seaside.” (From the trees that remained recalcitrant slaves were suspended in cages, for slow exemplary deaths from thirst and hunger; a practice called “hanging a man out to dry.”) Food, livestock and lumber had to be imported from New England. As in Brazil, the planters found it cheaper to work slaves to death and purchase replacements, rather than invest in diet and housing. Of the 130,000 Africans brought to the island between 1640 and 1700, only 50,000 were alive in 1700. And it didn’t get any better. During the eighteenth century, at least one-third of slaves died within three years of arrival. Infant mortality hovered around 50%, a figure containing an unknowable number of desperate, Beloved-style infanticides. Suicide is another theme. An English slave ship captain noted that “the Negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of the canoes, boat, and ship; they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we can have of hell.” Successful planters, Taylor writes, “sought to escape the profitable but troubling world they had made.” Perhaps justly, most died before they could return to England, felled by tropical fevers and an evil-sounding array of pathogens introduced by their slaves—“yaws, guinea worm, leprosy, and elephantiasis” “Parish registers from the 1650s for the white population list four times as many deaths as marriages and three times as many deaths as baptisms.” England; gentility; a green estate…ambitions nearly achieved, flickering finally as the figments of a deathbed delirium…while outside: the sweltering, shade-less island of mass graves!


The holy wars of the New England Puritans and the Pequot, Wampanoag and Narragansett make a grim old chronicle—carved boards, metal clasps and corners, massacrous woodcuts. The Plymouth and Connecticut colonists won the Pequot War of 1636-38 with a massacre whose curt decisiveness fits my image of a more than usually self-righteous people. Guided deep into Pequot territory on the Mystic River by Mohegan allies, the colonists ringed a major fortified village with ranks of musketeers, set the wigwams alight, and cut down anyone who came fleeing out of the flames. Only five of the village’s four hundred inhabitants survived. Plymouth colony governor William Bradford saw his god working in the Puritan victory:

It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.


The heavy death toll from epidemics, defeats like the Mystic River Massacre, and the steady westward encroachment of the colonists discredited tribal shamans and convinced many Indians they were forsaken by their gods. So it was an experience of renewed spiritual power for Wampanoag and Narragansett warriors to wipe out entire settler families and torch their farms when King Philip’s War broke out in 1675. Roger Williams recorded a Narragansett as boasting that “God was with them and Had forsaken us for they had so prospered in Killing and Burning us far beyond What we did against them.”


The New England colonists could not have won King Philip’s war without the aid and instruction in “the skulking way of war” provided by Indian allies, particularly the Mohawk, one of the Iroquois Five Nations. The Five Nations are central to the transformation of intertribal politics and warfare wrought by European guns and germs. In the 1630s, over half of the Five Nations died from European diseases. Dutch-allied, they attributed the epidemics to the sorcery of the Huron, their French-allied rivals in the fur trade. The Huron were also Iroquois-speakers who had insultingly resisted becoming a Sixth nation. Well-armed by the Dutch, the Five Nations launched a “mourning war”—kill the adult males, absorb the women and children, who would take the names and join the families of disease victims—which wiped out the Huron. In the 1650s the war widened to a general rampage around the Great Lakes. A Jesuit priest thought they meant “to ravage everything and become masters everywhere.” The remnants of some Great Lakes tribes withdrew far north, putting a depopulated buffer zone between them and the Five Nations, whose tireless war parties nevertheless periodically erupted out of the wasteland in search of more scalps and captives. Some fled south. One group of refugees, the Westo, who had dwelt near Lake Erie, trickled down to Virginia. Colonists there, mindful of the unconquerable bands of escaped slaves that menaced the Jamaican hinterland, armed and paid the Westo to capture African runaways. In time the Westo drifted to the Carolinas. There they found a profitable niche raiding southerly tribes for captives to sell to Virginia slavers, and later to the transplanted Barbadians who ruled Carolina. “In their violent displacement, new identity, and devastation of other natives, the Westo represented the power of European intrusion to send shock waves of disruption through a succession of Indian peoples living far beyond the colonial settlements.” A jealous faction of Carolina colonists, rivals of the patrons of the Westo, recruited the Shawnee to destroy and enslave them.


The Shawnee, the Creek and the Yamsee were next to ride the tiger of alliance with the whites. This was a Hobbesian nightmare in which, Taylor writes, “victimized peoples desperately sought their own trade connection to procure arms for defense; but to pay for those guns, they had to become raiders, preying upon still other natives, spreading the destruction hundreds of miles beyond Carolina.” In 1702, warriors from the three tribes formed the private army Gov. James Moore led into Spanish Florida. That force destroyed thirty-two villages, enslaved ten-thousand mission Indians and tortured most of their priests to death. Having run out of Indians on which to prey, Shawnee soon fell behind on their debts to the Carolina traders, who hired the Catawba to attack and enslave them. The Yamsee, too, fell behind on their debts; when traders started seizing their children, they revolted, and were soon joined by the Catawba and the Creek; allied, they killed four hundred colonists in 1715, before being crushed by Five Nations Iroquois, who, as in King Philip’s War, hired out their war parties to desperate colonists. The Five, soon Six Nations became a crucial to the balance of power in the New World, playing the French and English off one another, and acting as hired enforcers for use against other tribes. In 1746 the royal governor of New York was sagely advised, “On whose ever side the Iroquois Indians fall, they will cast the balance.” The devastated native world over whose northeastern corner the Iroquois held sway is disturbingly evoked:

Scholars used to assume that nineteenth-century Indian nations were direct and intact survivors from time immemorial in their homelands. In fact, after 1700 most North American Indian "tribes" were relatively new composite groups formed by diverse refugees coping with the massive epidemics and collective violence introduced by colonization.



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Reading Progress

04/23/2011 page 119
23.0% ""Most Jesuits astonished the natives by their single-minded dedication, by their lack of interest in the land, furs, and women that other Europeans coveted. One priest returned to the Huron after having survived capture and torture by the Iroquois, losing most of his fingers. Because the Huron cherished stoicism under torture as the ultimate test of manhood, they honored this priest.""

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message 1: by Geoff (last edited May 19, 2011 07:58AM) (new)

Geoff Reading Taylor’s descriptions of the genocidal microbes explorers unwittingly carried, the livestock breeding feral packs that devoured unfenced Indian crops, the hardy Old World weeds that spread in the over-grazed landscape, I begin to think of the Europeans as simply the most sentient and motivated organisms of a rapacious ecosystem, their mastery of navigation just a transit of creatures.

Terrifying stuff, Eric. Great review.

(And a lovely interjection of Pessoa.)


Eric Thanks Geoff! Loving Pessoa. He imposes a strange pace: I want to read no more than 10 pages at two hour intervals, all day long.


Rebecca Radnor I'm wondering how many students are going to try to plagiarize your post as their reports for class


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