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America: ‘Into the Heart of Darkness’

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
An engraving of the 1622 Virginia Massacre, in which some 330 English colonists were killed by Powhatan Indians in a few hours. Bernard Bailyn writes that the engraving, by the German Matthaeus Merian, ‘is a work of the imagination, but it…conveys accurately [the Virginia Company secretary Edward] Waterhouse’s sense of the wild frenzy of the attack and the settlers’ complete surprise.’

A half-century ago the historian Herbert Butterfield usefully distinguished between “studies” and “stories” as ways of writing about the past. Studies were exercises in analytical scholarship: they presented evidence in the form of arguments that answered carefully defined questions, and were typically static. Stories showed past worlds in motion, as places in which the reader “can never quite guess…what is going to happen next.” Butterfield argued that historical writing, at best, would be

both structure and narrative combined. This has been achieved on occasion by scholars and writers; and here, where history is both a story and a study, one may gain a profounder insight into both the ways of men and the processes of time.1

Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, makes a nod to Butterfield in presenting The Barbarous Years as a series of “studies within stories,” analyses of episodes woven into a complex narrative of the seventeenth-century founding and evolution of England’s North American colonies. Taken together, they are scenes from a journey into the heart of darkness.

It seems unlikely that Bailyn anticipated how dark this story would be in 1975, when he embarked on “a large-scale project” to investigate and “describe as a single story the recruitment, settlement patterns, and developing character of the American population in the preindustrial era,” with special attention to the migrations that brought European and African colonists to North America.2 The first two installments appeared in 1986. The Peopling of British North America described four major “propositions”—concerning migration, settlement, labor recruitment and land speculation, and culture—that would be central to a multivolume narrative.

Voyagers to the West was the first of those volumes, although chronologically it fell at the end of the projected series.3 In detailed quantitative analysis and vivid short narratives it described the experiences of several thousand British subjects who moved to North America between December 1773 and March 1776. Most of these emigrants built new lives there, in

a risky world where one lived not [as in Europe] in a dense and elaborately nuanced human environment that nourished and civilized but also limited one’s activities, but in a loose, still-forming society where it was possible to proceed alone, free of encrusted burdens and ancient obligations, and to become, like the emigrant Yorkshireman Luke Harrison, “independant.”4

Those concluding words connect Voyagers to a familiar immigration narrative, in which the struggles and adaptations of ordinary people contribute to shaping a relatively open society and an individualistic culture in the United States, creating a new identity for themselves and their descendants. Anticipations of the American Dream, however, are absent from The Barbarous Years, chronologically the first of Bailyn’s volumes. Here the years from 1600 to 1675 appear as an American nightmare of savagery, suffering, and squalor. European colonists, seeking to establish order, created

confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility as they sought to normalize abnormal situations and to recapture lost worlds, in the process tearing apart the normalities of the people whose world they had invaded.

What invaders and invaded alike lost becomes clear from comparing the opening and closing chapters of the book. “The Americans” surveys Indian societies east of the Appalachians on the eve of colonization in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Indigenous peoples were competing and warring among themselves with growing intensity as a consequence of contact with European fishermen and traders who arrived annually on the coast bearing both the manufactures Indians coveted and epidemic diseases that decimated their populations. Even so, the Indians’ eastern seaboard was not a bad place to live. Their world was “crowded” with spirits and significance; they had adapted well to their environment, and lived about as long and as comfortably as contemporary European farmers.

“The British Americans,” by contrast, describes native people around 1675 as living in a blighted world. Their populations had declined from wars with colonizing Europeans and epidemic diseases, their hold on the land had weakened, and their dependency on European trade goods had greatly increased.

The colonists, hardly triumphant, “lived conflicted lives.” Their provinces had coalesced into three regional societies but remained ill-led, violent, riven by ethnic and other divisions, and imperfectly adapted to their environments. Their half-formed vernacular cultures created little unity; their ties to the metropolitan authorities in England served less to create order than to remind them of their provincialism. Atlantic commerce promised greater economic and cultural integration with Europe, but they lived “in a still barbarous world, struggling to normalize their own way of life, no less civil, they hoped, than what had been known before.”

Thirteen intervening chapters describe the transformation of eastern North America in a grim three-phase narrative. Six chapters trace the founding and evolution of the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland. Three describe the creation of New Netherland, its absorption of New Sweden, and the English conquest that turned the region into New York. Four explain how the convergence of Puritan energies on New England produced the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Bailyn populates this story with vivid characters, whom he describes in brief, deft portraits. Here, for example, is his sketch of the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who arrived in Salem in 1630:

In outward manner he was cool, austere, constrained, unbending, proud, and remorselessly purposeful, but his interior self was passionate, fervent, and sensuous. Though unbending in his belief that it was proper for women’s roles to be restricted, his heart-wrenching, prayerful deathwatch over the demise of his second wife—an exultation of piety and love which he recorded almost hour by hour for two weeks—and his deeply affectionate letters to his third wife, Margaret, testify to the force and warmth of his private emotions, however discreet and sober he appeared in public. When he and Margaret were separated for extended times they pledged to commune with each other telepathically—“to meet…in spirit before the Lord”—each Monday and Friday between five and six.
Severely self-disciplined, he knew the truth and sought to engender it in a world mired in error and corruption. He had the vigor, intelligence, and passion for the achievement of a commander, a leader of men, but he was a leader with a rigorously logical mind capable of fine discriminations in theological debate and a sense of human frailty. His greatest virtues were the clarity of his vision, his resolution, and his managerial skills; his weakness was his single-mindedness, which made him seem at times self-righteous. But he was always a commanding figure, and he dominated the circle of able men who shared in the leadership of the Puritans’ Great Migration.

Bailyn also analyzes the critical episodes of the history of the period with rigor and specificity, creating a narrative that defies easy summary. Certain broad patterns, however, suggest why these decades were so violent and disordered.

Colonies were organized as businesses; whether their founders intended them to make money or to serve more idealistic ends, every colony was expected to make a profit. The organizers invested colonial governors with great formal powers. Once in place, however, governors found colonists remarkably uncooperative and profits hard to come by. With the exception of New England governors, who confronted different sources of disorder, they complained bitterly about colonists’ laziness and tried to coerce them into working. Colonists resisted; punishments escalated; soon measures of astonishing severity were being used to produce discipline.

This happened not because governors and magistrates were sadists but because they were weak. In England (and Western Europe generally) society’s leaders had a variety of means to enforce labor discipline short of corporal punishment. Where most employment was in agriculture and laborers were comparatively plentiful, the landholders who occupied the highest social levels (and whose families controlled the disciplining mechanisms of state and church) held every advantage: the threat of dismissal sufficed, in most cases, to produce submission. But that sanction had little power in North America, where land was plentiful and laborers were scarce. Ordinary colonists grasped the significance of this fact before their leaders did. When they balked at the backbreaking labor their masters required, colonial authorities turned to terror. The colonies’ parent companies meanwhile sought to recruit more colonists.

Offering free land to settlers who could procure workers on their own initiative increased the labor supply but created independent landholders who competed with companies for resources and authority over local affairs. The Dutch West India Company favored this solution in New Netherland, offering land and trading rights to colonists in proportion to the numbers of workers they could import. This attracted migrants from across northern Europe and around the Atlantic but created a population so mixed in ethnicity, religion, culture, and language as to be virtually ungovernable.

The tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland opted for bringing in indentured servants bound by multi-year labor contracts. This solution mobilized the energies of entrepreneurs who recruited workers throughout the British Isles and transported them to the colonies, where planters bought their contracts; it harnessed the power of courts to back up masters’ efforts to compel obedience. Over the long term, however, this approach aggravated the problem of authority. Because servants were generally young men, those who survived their indentures and became freemen found it difficult or impossible to find wives and form families. Social relations in the Chesapeake accordingly tended toward disorder and violence, and masters came in time to see freemen as an unruly, discontented, and threatening group.

Indians were an obvious labor pool, but refused to subordinate themselves as workers. They would trade with colonists, but only if colonial leaders were willing to enter into alliances on native terms and provide the kinds of goods that Indian leaders could use to advantage in dealing with other Indian groups. The Dutch traders at Fort Orange (Albany) understood this, and created the wide-open commercial community that became the engine of New Netherland’s economy.

From the late 1620s on, this trade tied the interests of the Dutch tightly to those of the Mohawks, and through them to the other peoples—the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—who together comprised the Five Nations of the Iroquois. In New Amsterdam, the governors of the colony understood the centrality of trade to peaceful relations with the Indians less well; in the Chesapeake most colonists understood it not at all. When Indians on the lower Hudson refused to pay tribute or Indians in the Chesapeake declined to subordinate themselves to English rule, colonial authorities sought to compel their cooperation, with disastrous results.

In the wars that resulted colonists and Indians alike resorted to unrestrained terror. Every conflict produced massacres—but especially the Virginia wars of 1609–1614 and 1622–1632, and the war that Willem Kieft, the Dutch governor of New Netherland, fought against the native Lenape people between 1641 and 1645. Colonial troops, unable to come to grips with Indian warriors, attacked native villages and destroyed food supplies; Indian warriors responded in kind. Bounties made scalps and heads commodities in a grisly intercultural commerce. Raids and retaliations, uniform only in their horror, continued until exhaustion brought cessations of fighting, if not peace.

  1. 1

    Herbert Butterfield, George III and the Historians (Macmillan, 1959), pp. 204–205. 

  2. 2

    In the preface to The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (Knopf, 1986), Bailyn noted that the volume’s three essays had originated “in a single paper, written in 1978 to organize my thoughts after three years of work.” 

  3. 3

    Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (Knopf, 1986). 

  4. 4

    Luke Harrison, the eldest son of an emigrant family from Rillington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, moved to Nova Scotia in 1774 at about age twenty. Initially he hated the Chignecto region, where he worked on his father’s rented farm; in a letter to a cousin back home he wrote of his longing to return to Yorkshire. Thirty years later, as the head of a family of ten and owner of a big farm in the Maccan Valley, he wrote to that same cousin that he preferred remaining in Nova Scotia “ten to one” over returning to Rillington. That, he said, he would never do unless “I could live in it independant.” 

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