Buried Lives


It must be said immediately that its first two volumes get The Oxford History of the British Empire off to a strong start.* Both books consist of essays that break much new ground and do so with a confidence based on extensive research and with refreshing lucidity and frankness. The authors, rightly, often use direct quotation. There is none of that extensive resort to paraphrase, which can so easily be used to inflect an account in a particular direction that the documents in question, when directly examined, fail to sustain. The most flagrant effort in this respect in modern American historiography was Dumas Malone’s six-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson. With copious resort to paraphrase, Malone managed to produce a sanitized and sanctified Jefferson, one not borne out by the original documents once they were carefully scrutinized. There has been quite a lot of that kind of writing, but there is none of it in these volumes.

These two books are likely to shock some of their readers. For example, the sentimentalized and idealized version of American history, which luxuriates in popular works and is more subtly present in much academic history, finds no favor with the contributors to these volumes. This is very clear in the matter of the dealings of the settlers with the native inhabitants of the American colonies. Consider, for example, Anthony Pagden’s account of the different approaches of three sets of European colonizers:

The Spanish sought to integrate the Indians into a miscegenated society, albeit at the lowest possible social level, and the French attempted to “Frenchify” their indigenes. The English, after decades of moralizing, sought only to exclude the Indians or, where expedient, to annihilate them.

Pagden also writes that

Early contacts, which had made the settlers dependent upon native agriculture, soon gave way to policies of either segregation or, when the Native Americans seemed to threaten the existence of the settlements, attempted genocide.

The attempted genocide was mostly the work of the settlers, but it was justified by respected British commentators. Pagden quotes Locke’s presentation of the comparative rights of European settlers and of American natives:

The association between the historical need to press the claim to res nullius, and what is sometimes called “the agriculturalist argument” became, in effect, the basis for most English attempts to legitimate their presence in America. That so many of the examples Locke uses in his Second Treatise are American ones shows that his intention was to provide the settlers, for whom he had worked in so many other ways, with a powerful argument based in natural law rather than legislative decree to justify their depredations.

Also, Pagden observes, “since any man who refused to accept the Europeans’ right to appropriate ‘vacant’ lands was in defiance of the natural law, he might [wrote Locke] ‘be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, or one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security.”‘ Similarly the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.