Bernard Bailyn has written seminal books in the field of Atlantic history, a new way of looking at the past that argues, against the usual view that America was born in splendid isolation, that the peoples, governments, and economies of Europe, the Americas, and Africa have profoundly affected one another since the 15th century. Now Bailyn provides a powerful synthesis of America’s role in the Atlantic world between 1600 and 1675. Knowledgeable readers of his massive oeuvre may approach this new book confident in the promise of expert, supple prose, dazzling research, a keen grasp of important historical questions, and strong, if not always agreeable, answers.
For those less familiar with Bailyn, consider that he has been awarded two Pulitzers, and is Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History emeritus at Harvard University, where he trained dozens of graduate students who populate the nation’s history departments and frequently win Pulitzers, Bancrofts, and other major prizes for historical writing. After his retirement from formal teaching, he founded the influential International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World at Harvard, which has attracted hundreds of young professors from around the world. Their works provide a good share of the secondary literature of The Barbarous Years. Bailyn, who recently turned 90, sets a lofty example for his fellow historians with his meticulous and extraordinary scholarship.
Bailyn’s introduction indicates that The Barbarous Years is a prequel to his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Voyagers to the West (1986). In Voyagers, he analyzed a massive register of some 10,000 immigrants who sailed from Britain to America shortly before the American Revolution. Bailyn reconstructed their experience by emphasizing these immigrants’ travels, communities, and networks. There were criticisms along with the accolades. Reviewers wondered how Bailyn could conclude that that his voyagers were typical of the time; one reader asked if the many enslaved Africans forcibly brought to American shores might be as characteristic of our colonial forebears as the British immigrants. Still, Bailyn’s demographic work, superb style, and command of sources constructed the emerging architecture of Atlantic history.
In Voyagers and a slim companion book, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (1988), Bailyn argued that the experiences of immigrants in North America were expansions of domestic mobility in their nations, that American settlement was not uniform but highly differentiated, and that the main catalyst for population growth and recruitment was land and labor needs, which were transformed by American conditions. He concluded that American culture in the early modern era was the exotic far western periphery, a marchland of European metropolitan culture.
The Barbarous Years extends Bailyn’s methods in those books back into the 17th century, with important innovations. To support his general argument that every English colony had to go through barbarous years before achieving stability, which was gained only through multiple bloody wars against native peoples, Bailyn has constructed a sturdy narrative. Lacking demographic databases, he primarily relies on personal stories. Sensitive to criticism that earlier books had too narrow a compass, Bailyn now presents a fuller account of native peoples and new arrivals, including English Protestants and Catholics, Walloons, and African, Dutch, German, Swedish, and Finnish immigrants. He investigates the world of native peoples east of the Mississippi and, separately, that of European settlers. Roughly the first third of the book is about Virginia and Maryland. Bailyn then shifts to Dutch New Amsterdam (present-day New York City), followed by a sparkling chapter on New Sweden (in the Delaware River valley). The final third of the book focuses on Plymouth Colony and New England.
For each colony, Bailyn carefully reconstructs settlers’ origins, ruminates on the quality and number of migrants, and reveals the demography and architecture of each settlement. Virginia’s seasoning years were especially bad. Bailyn details the terrible starvation that settlers endured in 1609, when their diet progressed from horses, cats, and rats to shoe leather. The most desperate dug up corpses. According to an English settler, one man murdered his wife, “Ripped the Childe out of her woambe … Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode.” A fleet carrying more settlers and life-saving provisions arrived the following spring.
Gradually, the Virginia Company of London sought much-needed labor. It hoped to recruit skilled craftsmen, but could only enlist immigrants from the “idle crue … of lascivious sonnes … bad servants … and ill husbands” who would rather starve than work, wrote an employee of the company. Joining them were “Hammerours,” roughly 150 soldiers hardened from wars against the Dutch who were imported to prepare the Indians for, as colonial promoter Richard Hakluyt put it, “our preachers’ hands.” As native peoples resisted further incursions inland, Virginians battled them with particular ferocity. The Hammerours were rough masons, Bailyn notes, “typical of the plundering, half-vagabond troops of the time who were traded among commanders like cattle and whose service was likely to be cut short by death under degrading conditions.” The Hammerours, who reappeared in many colonies, soon immersed Virginia in deadly wars against native peoples.
Bailyn’s tight focus on settlement, war, demography, and material culture at times limits other approaches to a new cultural history of the early colonies. For example, while he offers useful demographic detail about the vagrant children sent over as labor in 1619 and the servant women imported as wives, other than short descriptions drawn from ship manifests, few details surface to enable us to see these individuals as more than numbers. None achieve the meaning with which Kathleen Brown imbues the storied Thomas/ine Hall, a transgendered laborer in 1620s Virginia, in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996).
While settlers’ intentions toward native peoples were more liberal in nearby Catholic Maryland than they were in Virginia, Maryland nonetheless descended into a plundering time accompanied by devastating anxiety over Indian attacks. Still, small freeholders arduously carved out tobacco plantations with hard work, discipline, calculation, and some luck. Matching such vaunted qualities was ruthless barbarity toward those who were powerless, be they Indians, Africans, or fellow Europeans. Prosperity came from acquiring indentured servants, some in voluntary service, and many not. As in Virginia, sturdy ne’er-do-wells, prostitutes, and orphaned or kidnapped children constituted coerced labor.
Bailyn argues that the African slave trade was marginal before the 1660s. He dismisses the importance of creole free blacks living in the Chesapeake region before 1670, contending that their numbers were too small and their impact easily exaggerated, an interpretation at odds with that in Ira Berlin’s influential work Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998), in which creoles play a major role. Bailyn had much more to say about slavery in his recent book of essays, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005).
Such diminution of the black experience mars Bailyn’s otherwise nuanced appraisal of the New Netherlands. Beaver pelts proved to be an inadequate staple commodity, and the colony struggled through mismanagement and incompetently waged wars against the Indians. New Netherlands began to thrive in the 1640s as more than 2,000 immigrants arrived from all over northern Europe, bringing the total population to 3,500. As in Maryland and Virginia, their land ambitions reached into Indian territories, sparking violent conflicts in 1641 and 1655. New Amsterdam’s leaders needed an economic rationale for the colony; its farmers needed labor.
Enter the slave trade, with direct imports from Africa; by 1664, blacks, free and enslaved, constituted nearly a quarter of New Amsterdam’s population. In The Barbarous Years, they remain nameless. That’s too bad, because many were interesting characters. Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, “the Giant,” for example, was sentenced to death by lot after a tavern brawl resulted in the death of Jan Premero, another black. Gerrit frustrated his executioner by breaking two nooses and consequently was granted clemency, a decision that married Dutch and African beliefs in supernatural powers. Overall, Bailyn’s portrait of slavery’s emergence in New Amsterdam is somewhat flat. Given his fine insights into the importance of religion in New Amsterdam and elsewhere, Bailyn misses the chance to explain why, for example, Dutch pietists became the most intransigent and dominant slaveholders in the American north, extending human bondage in the Mid-Atlantic well into the 19th century.
Much more satisfying is Bailyn’s recreation of New Sweden along the Delaware River, with its Mennonite settlers, and the visionary Pieter Plockhoy’s passionate plans for human equality. Bailyn’s extensive skills at demography, material history, and ideological history are on full display in this highly original chapter. In 1663, with the colony now under Dutch control, Mennonites, led by Plockhoy, strived to create an ideal society, “free of corruption,” Bailyn writes, “a beacon for aspiring humanity.” Plockhoy’s utopian community did not last long, yet it was a model for innumerable utopias to come.
Another planned paradise was under way 400 miles to the north in Puritan Plymouth. Bailyn reminds us that William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader, would ever deny that the members of his flock were “Familists,” or radical levelers seeking an “ecstatic union with Christ.” They were much more pragmatic, a quality Bailyn unravels in the several chapters on the Puritans.
The Puritans had the advantages of family immigration, that famous work ethic, and, above all, the presence of intellectuals who could guide the colony through its innumerable crises.
Their insights were needed as the Puritans slipped into the barbaric slaughter of Indians in the Pequot Wars, which reached a climax in 1637. As much as the Puritans feared native peoples, they guarded constantly against antinomianism, the belief that faith alone, not moral law, can help the individual achieve salvation, a tenet that undercut the authority of Puritan ministers. As Bailyn details, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Samuel Gorton, and others challenged Puritan orthodoxy and were summarily banished. By the 1650s, merchants, clerics, and university professors topped New England’s social hierarchy.
We don’t learn much from The Barbarous Years about Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or the Carolinas, as those colonies were founded only in the 1670s. Nor does Bailyn spend much time on the French and Spanish colonies. After all, as its subtitle indicates, his book stops at 1675 — the year that saw the beginning of Metacom’s Rebellion, also known as King Philip’s War, which nearly wiped out Puritan society. Simultaneously, a motley crew of angry servants, enslaved blacks, and Indian-phobic farmers led by the sparrow nobleman Nathaniel Bacon almost destroyed Virginia. In American Slavery/American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), Edmund Morgan, Bailyn’s fellow nonagenarian historian, brilliantly analyzed Bacon’s Rebellion as the big bang that created white populism and black slavery. To read Bailyn’s insights into Bacon, Metacom, and Edmund Morgan, I will have to watch for the next volume in his grand series. After reading The Barbarous Years, I can’t wait.
Graham Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University. His recent books include David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (2010) and a revised edition of New York City Cartmen, 1667–1850 (2012).
Reviewed: The Barbarous Years, by Bernard Bailyn. Knopf, 640 pp.