© 2001 Alan Taylor
American Colonies is a sweeping history of the New World, one that attempts to convey the full American experience, beginning with the arrival of natives and then covering Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and Russian colonial efforts in turn. (Hawaii is also addressed, though it’s a bit of a two-thousand mile stretch to call it ‘American’.) Taylor’s declared intention is to tell more than simply the Anglo-American story, which relegates the Indians and other European powers to the role of villains. At this, he is largely successful, providing a complete survey of native and European settlement and rendering the history of their relations with one another. The work demonstrates how profoundly diverse both the natives and the Europeans were, documenting the extent of their tangled military and diplomatic relationships. The tacks taken against the natives by Europe varied not only from country to country (in Spain’s case, no tact was involved), but from colony to colony, as varied geography and the nature of the neighbors demanded intelligent adaptation. The story of the New World is not simply one of Europeans plowing over the war-and-disease-ravaged lands of peoples like the Iroquois and the Lakota, however, for Europe’s nations also waged war against one another in this new battlefield.
Taylor’s narrative style is pleasant enough, even if bothered with a little factual repetition. The content itself is a different story, being nearly five hundred pages of disease, war, slavery, misery, and death. No group discussed here comes off particularly well, not even the one-paragraph Vikings. Both the European and native powers wage war against one another and themselves, and in utterly vicious ways; every chapter brings descriptions of women raped, children executed, homes and fields burned, men tortured. There are no noble savages here, and no exemplars of Christian civilization — only ambitious and wrathful men with blood on their hands.
Taylor also puts forth a few theories of his own, all rooted in a worldview that sees economic warfare as the driver of everything else. In his view, the French and Iroquois maintained war between themselves for economic advantage, as the warzone between their territories prevented regional competition with other powers for their goods. Though no fan of capitalism, Taylor’s punches against mercantilism could be thrown by Adam Smith himself, pointing out how mother-country meddling smothered economic development time and again. Intriguingly, he suggests that the tax policies that sparked the American Revolution were not simply enacted to cover the costs of the French and Indian War, but to discourage too much emigration to the colonies.
American Colonies is a book to be considered, taking on centuries of North American history and taming it. Taylor’s stated goal was to go beyond the English colonies on the seaboard, and this he does — taking the reader as far south as Mexico, and galloping through the plains of the Apache to the northern wastes of Alaska. He makes the complex comprehensible and is especially valuable in the time spent on Spain and France. He has a particular animus against the English and their American ‘spawn’ that grows tiresome; to his credit, however, he does not make their rivals into moral paragons. Perhaps it’s not so easy to be detached from one’s ancestors as those in academia might wish.
- 1491: The Americas Before Columbus, Charles C Mann
- The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, James Wilson
- Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond