NR Digital


by Daniel Johnson
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675, by Bernard Bailyn (Knopf, 656 pp., $35)

The emergence and ultimate ascendance of the English-speaking peoples — the Anglosphere — is the salient fact of modern history. And the colonization of America is the turning point in that astonishing rise. The historian of its early, decisive phase must be in command of a vast complex of disparate facts: a deep knowledge of utterly different societies on both sides of the Atlantic, of what came before the arrival of the English, and of what happened after the colonists acquired a new identity that came to be seen as American. Bernard Bailyn knows more about all of this, and much more besides, than any living scholar; and the present volume crowns a 60-year career that has worked steadily through the entire range of his vast subject, from his best-known work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, to The Peopling of British North America, of which The Barbarous Years is the third part.

Bailyn gives this volume a subtitle that is pregnant with significance for our time: “The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675.” The allusion to the present, post-9/11 confrontation between Islam and the West is a reminder that, however innocuous the process of “peopling” the New World may sound, the reality was extremely bloody. In Europe, this was an era of religious fratricide on an unprecedented scale, and the Laudian persecutions that culminated in the English Civil War created a violent context for the colonial project. The Indians of North America provided plenty of violence of their own, of course; their tortures and massacres, both of the intruders and of one another, quickly cured the English of any naïve notions about the “noble savage” they may have entertained. Though Puritans in particular tended to see conversion rather than subjection of the natives as their overriding duty, in practice these were two sides of the same coin.

The “barbarous years,” then, derived their character from the mutual fear and hostility that inevitably accompany the clash of civilizations. Natives and colonists had been separated not only by geography but also by history: Sophisticated as the indigenous peoples were in their adaptation to an unforgiving environment, their way of life was incompatible with the European hunger for land and dominion. Bailyn begins his book with a portrait of the “Americans,” but the term is just as much a misnomer for these miscellaneous tribes of Asian descent as “Indians,” the name given them by Columbus and used indiscriminately by all races for centuries until late-20th-century academics anathematized it. At any rate, the indigenous chiefdoms never thought of themselves collectively as “Americans,” whereas the colonial settlers, despite their disparate origins in regions ranging from Ireland to Finland, had created an identity by the end of the 17th century that was distinct from the European one their ancestors had left behind. A century before the colonies came together to form a republic, they were already “British (and Dutch) Americans” who, from Maine to Carolina, had without knowing it laid the foundations for the United States. Endurance was the precondition of independence.

This alone was an astonishing achievement, given the physical and cultural obstacles they had to overcome. Bailyn does not spare us the details of their tribulations: During the first few decades, disease, hunger, and cold carried off the majority of those who survived the perilous voyage across the ocean. The hardiest lived, but only by the sweat of their brows and on the sufferance of their companions. Judicial and extrajudicial punishments, especially capital ones, were of necessity even more summary than in Europe, whose wars divided the New World no less viciously than the Old. The Anglo–Dutch Wars, in particular, had bewildering side effects on the colonial structures of authority. The eventual emergence of the Anglosphere still lay in the future, and from Canada to Mexico the great Catholic powers of France and Spain loomed over the quarrelsome colonies that clung precariously to the western shores of the Atlantic.

It was, however, no accident that England, Holland, and Sweden, the three Protestant nations that achieved ascendancy in northern Europe over the course of the 17th century, were also the ones that made their presence most strongly felt across the North Atlantic. Bailyn emphasizes the brutalizing experience of total war that many of these “hammerours” (mercenaries) brought with them to New England, New Netherland, and New Sweden. Virginia survived the Indian massacres of 1622 and 1644 only by good fortune; but the revenge of the settlers was terrible. The annihilation of the Pequot tribe by the pilgrims of Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1637 took on the aspect of a crusade. By midcentury this war of attrition had destroyed forever the power of the Powhatan chiefs, whose imperial ambitions collided with those of the invaders from the east. The ruthlessness of the colonists toward the tribes of the Powhatan and Iroquois was matched by that of fellow natives: The very name Mohawk (“maneater”) is a reminder that cannibalism was commonly practiced, whether by necessity or choice. Ultimately the unstoppable force was bound to displace the immovable object, but not without impassioned disputations about the ethics of just war among the newcomers and their sponsors across the Atlantic.           

The greatest of Bailyn’s many great subjects is the impact of religious idealism on politics and commerce. The puritanical work ethic that nourished the spirit of capitalism was as powerful in Catholic Maryland as in Protestant Massachusetts, but Max Weber’s “inner-worldly asceticism” is much in evidence throughout this narrative. The story of the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived in the Mayflower has been told so often that it might seem impossible to throw new light on it; yet somehow Bailyn succeeds. His attention to the political theology and religious geography of their mother country is remarkable, and enables the leading personalities — Winslow and Bradford, Hooker and Cotton, the Winthrops, father and son — to emerge as the typical Englishmen, albeit dissenters, of the Stuart era that they were. Bailyn uses the term “New-English Sionists” to convey their utopian but also practical cast of mind, and indeed the parallels with Herzl’s “New-Old Land” project to found a Jewish state three centuries later are striking.

However, the Zionists had the advantage that they could learn from the past: From the first, Israel has given equal rights not only to secular and religious Jews but also to Christian and Muslim Arabs. Such toleration was a long time coming to the Sionists of New England. The experience of intolerance did not prevent the descendants of the Plymouth Pilgrims from later turning on the Quakers with no less ferocity than Archbishop Laud in his Court of Star Chamber had directed toward their forebears. New Netherland had its own utopian visionary in the shape of the Mennonite Pieter Plockhoy, who tried to recruit Oliver Cromwell and the English to his cause with a series of pamphlets, but whose earthly paradise at Whorekill fell victim to Anglo-Dutch rivalry. Still, the Dutch tradition of religious toleration exerted a benign influence on the English colonists long after New Amsterdam had become New York.

Where the New-English Sionists undoubtedly excelled was in transforming their zealotry into prosperity. Capitalism flourished as the “companies” or conventicles of Puritans became limited-liability companies, eager to exploit the unlimited resources of the hinterland. Within a few generations, the British Americans were living longer, having more live children, and enjoying better health than their contemporaries in the Old World. By the end of the period chronicled by Bailyn, the colonies were approaching the point of demographic takeoff. The Great Migration from England had unleashed the greatest human enterprise in history. And Bernard Bailyn’s magisterial history of the peopling of America is worthy of its great subject.

On one issue only I must part company with the author. He cannot avoid the vexed subject of slavery — nor does he try to do so. But he accuses Elizabethan and Jacobean England of harboring an “assumption of the blacks’ cultural baseness, of their inborn inferiority in the scale of human development, and their complete alienation from English cultural values, that, together with the rapidly increasing demand for labor, made possible the barbarism of their reduction to the emerging legal status of ‘slaves.’” Here Bailyn’s knowledge of the English context seems surprisingly sketchy. The Elizabethans were by no means unfamiliar with, or generally hostile to, black Africans. Recent scholarship has uncovered many cases of black people’s living in England, apparently with equal rights,  during the period of the colonization of America. It is true that plenty of the colonists were indentured servants, while others were vagrants and orphans forcibly transported from the streets of London. But none of these were black, nor were they de jure or de facto slaves, for the excellent reason that the English legal system did not recognize slavery. Indeed, the institution of slavery had been outlawed ever since Saint Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, declared it incompatible with the Gospel in the early twelfth century.

The slave plantations of Virginia and Maryland had almost nothing to do with England, but a great deal to do with transatlantic slave traders, many of them English, who supplied Spanish and Portuguese America and the English and French colonies of the Caribbean with Africans sold by their own rulers. Once the slave trade had spread from the Islamic sphere of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, Christians soon overcame their aversion. But slavery was alien to the English; its legalization in the West Indian and American colonies was a badge of ignominy in the eyes of the majority, indeed all those who did not profit from it. When the American colonies rebelled, Samuel Johnson mocked them for their hypocritical boasts of liberty; his compatriots sang, “Britons never shall be slaves,” and they meant it, too; the British led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, the first campaign of its kind in history. Americans can legitimately blame their English cousins for many things, from taxes to tuxes; but slavery is not one of them.

– Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, a London-based political and cultural monthly magazine.

Send a letter to the editor.