American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which dealswith some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)

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