Colonial North America

After the Spanish destroyed the French pirate base at Fort Caroline (near St. Augustine in Florida) in 1565, subsequent French and English settlements in North America were made much farther to the north. There is a tendency among modern historians to ridicule the English colonists for having brought along soldiers rather than farmers and artisans, but the very real fear of Indians was less a reason for being well-armed than knowing how Spaniards dealt with heretics who intruded into lands they might want to exploit themselves at some later date.

There were many misunderstandings of what the natives in the American woodlands were like. First of all, no one should have called them Indians, but Columbus believed that he had reached Asia, and the native peoples did not look or dress like Chinese; moreover, the name America was first used for the new continents only in 1507, when a cartographer got it into his head that a Florentine traveller, Amerigo Vespucci, had actually discovered the New World, when all that he had done was to demonstrate that these lands were not in Asia. As for what to call the tribal leaders, ‘king’ seemed appropriate at first, reflecting as it did a hope that the explorers had come upon a great kingdom, and afterward the title of chief, or chieftain, prevailed.

Modern misunderstandings abound as well. Everyone could see the different skin colours, but racism did not yet exist. If Europeans were confused and sometimes appalled by the customs they encountered, so too were the peoples the Europeans were meeting.

There would eventually be great nations in North America, but only after English colonists interacted with the native peoples on their periphery, then in bits and pieces occupied their lands. Within a century and a half of the first colonists establishing rude settlements on the coast there were over two million English-speaking peoples pushing up to the Appalachian Mountains and a few venturing beyond. These people were, as it were, on the periphery of the British Empire; and they were increasing unhappy about being treated as outsiders, an unhappiness that eventually led to the American War for Independence.

No one anticipated this when the first English settlements were founded shortly after 1600. The region between Chesapeake Bay and Labrador was not a terra incognita, since explorers and fishermen had visited the coasts often, but relatively little was known about the interior. Tropical crops such as sugar were impossible there, but the climate was good for familiar crops and animals which could feed Caribbean slaves, and there was a new crop, tobacco, that could be grown by slaves without the horrendous death toll of those used to harvest sugar cane. The early emphasis was on trade—mainly fur—and on catching cod for sale in Europe, enterprises supported not by royal aid, but by joint stock companies. Trade with the natives was often justified as a first step in converting them to Christianity; the Indians, however, were generally as resistant to English religious practices as they were to English clothing. What the Indians wanted was military aid in their wars against other Indians, or at least weapons that would allow them to seize their neighbours’ hunting grounds.

The Indians appreciated some Western technologies, and they soon became addicted to trade goods such as cloth, iron pots, rum and good tobacco. Wise men warned that European goods would undermine their society, and that contact would bring diseases which could destroy them. But few could afford to listen—once the Indians were involved in global commerce, they could not turn their backs on it. The losers in inter-tribal wars generally fled westward, sometimes pushing other tribes farther west and sometimes amalgamating with them. Since many tribes had moved great distances over the centuries, migrating west would have been no great hardship if the circumstances had resembled returning from their summer hunt to safe winter quarters. Now, however, there were no fields of maize waiting. Hard hit by disease and starvation, their women and children captured and enslaved, the refugees nursed a terrible anger. They sought allies who could perhaps help win back their lost lands or, at a minimum, save them from yet another mass flight westward. They found these allies in representatives of the kings of Spain and France.

The Spanish had trading posts and missions in Florida and along the Caribbean coast all the way to Mexico. The one gap in their chain of possessions was in Louisiana, where the French had built a large town at New Orleans. The Indians’ principal complaint about the Spanish was their reluctance to sell them firearms—the king wanted to discourage warfare and encourage conversion.

The French, who had settled in Canada and Louisiana and along the rivers linking these places, limited emigration. This was partly to ensure royal control of the economy and guarantee that the Roman Catholic Church was not challenged, and partly to persuade the Indians that they were not intending to take their lands. The large reinforcement to the Louisiana colony by French refugees from Arcadia was allowed because they had been expelled by the British, who had renamed their peninsula Nova Scotia. These newcomers, known in America as Cajuns, spread through the swamplands along the coast; wherever war made navies too busy to search for pirates, they assisted buccaneers in robbing European colonists.

English kings did not provide the kind of planning and consistent enforcement that the Catholic monarchs proudly made central to colonial policy. They, like Parliament, saw America more as a convenient place to send religious radicals, the occupants of work houses, and petty criminals—the kinds of people the French kings would never allow to settle in their colonies—and to get needed raw materials—lumber, tobacco, and food for Caribbean slaves. As a result, although French fur traders eventually formed close ties with Native American tribes and spread along the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, the number of colonists in Canada remained small; in contrast, England’s settlements grew in size beyond anyone’s expectations. Apparently there were more undesirable Protestants in England than saintly Catholics in France.

The Americans, as the English colonists were eventually called (because it was too awkward for writers to list even the most important colonies on the mainland and in the seas roundabout), generally remained confined east of the Appalachian mountains, but many adventurous individuals considered the Indian lands to the west to be essentially empty—in short, farmers had priority over deer.

Through these years Great Britain (as England and Scotland were known after the 1707 union) fought a series of desperate wars with France, relying on allied powers to tie down French armies in Europe while the British navy dealt with its French counterpart. Indian tribes, their numbers reduced by epidemics and intertribal wars, chose sides reluctantly, but the most important Indian confederation—the Iroquois—realised that British numbers would prevail over the French; with British weapons they swept their native enemies from the hunting lands in Ohio and Kentucky.

The Indian tribes thus evicted from ancestral homes found themselves with no good options. They lived with memories of ancient wrongs inflicted on one another, they had no common tongue to facilitate communication, and tribal and clan leaders had only limited ability to make individual warriors follow their decisions. Freedom was the boast of the warrior, but it was so extensive a freedom that it precluded the organisation of a modern state with a standing army, tax gathering powers and judicial bodies. Male pride discouraged commerce and industry—even farming was women’s work. Men were hunters and warriors, but since they were responsible for feeding their families, they were reluctant to risk becoming crippled or killed. To avoid casualties they attacked by stealth and surprise, and they so strongly objected to pitched battles or storming battlements that Europeans incorrectly thought them cowardly. This put them at a disadvantage in fighting Europeans armed with muskets and cannon, who were not only more numerous, but also accustomed to risking everything in hand-to-hand combat. While the Indians did what they could to buy muskets, they could not produce these weapons themselves, and gunpowder and lead were difficult to obtain. Alliances with the French and Spanish helped, but the monarchs of those states believed that restricting the availability of firearms would reduce the number of wars.

The only way for Indians to stop the decline in population from disease, alcohol and war was to avoid contact with Europeans as much as possible, and to steal women and children from other tribes—not as slaves, but to increase the number of warriors; this encouraged the continuation of tribal wars, and those tribes which fled westward were not likely to join the British or the Americans who had supported their Indian foes. The French and the Spanish were natural allies, but the Indians remained minor players in the Great War for Empire that was known in Europe as the Seven Years War (1756-63), in America as the French and Indian War.

The long string of British successes between 1689 and 1763 ended only when a constitutional dispute with the American colonies led to Holland, France and Spain making a worldwide assault on British colonies and markets. Outnumbered even in the number of ships-of-the-line, Britain was on the defensive from 1778 to 1783, with a declining economic base. Imperial overstretch and overbearing attitudes, however, were matched by France’s self-destructive desire for revenge.

This had been foreshadowed a decade earlier by Britain’s own suicidal polices in America. At first it had seemed quite logical to ask Americans to bear part of the immense tax burden brought on by the Seven Years War. As Niall Ferguson noted in Empire, the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes, while the average American paid one; as a result, Americans seemed wealthier, hence better able to pay. Americans, in contrast, understood how British efforts to avoid inflation made it almost impossible to pay taxes in hard cash; their economy stressed barter and credit. Moreover, they believed that they had paid their share of the costs of the war in blood and suffering—contributions that British officers and politicians had mocked. In any case, given the nature of British trade policy and the practices of British banks, ready money was hard to come by. However, the bone of contention was not taxation, but a constitutional principle that Americans summarised as ‘no taxation without representation’. That is, America had no representatives in Parliament. British leaders haughtily responded that most Englishmen and Scots didn’t, either, but that the elected members of Parliament represented everyone, which included all colonists; thus, even distant Americans had, in the words of the day, ‘virtual representation’. Americans did not agree. More importantly, Americans resented being treated as outsiders, as a lesser people, more like Scottish tenants or Irish cottagers, than a swiftly developing society with scientists, artists and political leaders of talent and energy. This was the sticking point, where the pride of the parliamentary leaders and the army prevented compromises that would have defused the explosive situation—and, as some Whig leaders tried to remind the government, kept the rapidly growing American population loyal to the crown. Restraints would have changed British history forever, and probably for the better, but long term prospects were sacrificed for short term taxes that the government had little chance of collecting.

British arms were sufficient to win most of the battles in the ensuing war, but the number of redcoats in America was insufficient to occupy the vast region; and when European powers, both ancient foes and recent allies, saw this as an opportunity to embarrass the over-mighty Britons, they aided the rebels. The lesson: superpowers are always viewed with jealousy and suspicion. The British government, recognising that it could not afford to waste its army and navy on an area peripheral to its main interests, reluctantly made peace with the Americans.

In the future British governments would permit appropriate measures of self-government in the remaining colonies, more for those settled by Britons, less where Britons were few in number. For some colonies already existing—Ireland, the West Indies and India—the inertia of tradition was too strong for reform proposals to prevail. Resistance sometimes led to proposals for reform, which, since they failed to satisfy everyone, were followed by another revolution. Repression just required more repression.


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