“Barbarians”: a Justification for Oppression

In Chapter 8: “Puritans and Indians, 1600-1700” of American Colonies, Alan Taylor addresses a series of violent conflicts that occurred between the New England Indians and the Puritans shortly after Puritans founded the Plymouth settlement. While Taylor focuses on an overview of the wars until the Indians’ defeat following King Phillip’s War in 1676, he also outlines Puritans’ justification for aggressive action against the Indians, which often included massacres of Indian women and children. Puritans, who perceived themselves as “God’s Chosen People,” considered Indians to be “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and treacherous.” Throughout Taylor’s text, as well as in many other academic histories I have read, white western Europeans frequently describe Indians and other non-Aryan races as “barbarous” in comparison to their own “civilized” society.

Coincidentally, just before reading Chapter 8 of Taylor, I read Walter D. Mignolo’s The Idea of Latin America for my Spanish seminar, “Latin American Culture and Literature Before 1900.” The central argument of Chapter 1: “The Americas, Christian Expansion, and Racism,” affirms that European colonizers justified their dominance over South and North American Indians by categorizing them into varying degrees of “barbarous”, thus affirming Europeans’ superiority over them. Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish friar who participated in the colonization of the Americas, outlined the racial inferiority spectrum, dividing “barbarians” into four distinct categories. The first form of barbarians exhibited irrationality and “a degenerate sense of justice reason, manners, and/or human generosity.” The second categorization deemed barbarians to be a group of people who lacked a written alphabet and language system mirroring Spanish’s appropriation of the Latin language. Third, barbarians did not have a formal system of law and justice as defined by the nation-state. Finally, groups of people who rejected the Christian faith were Pagans, and consequently, barbarians.

While the Puritans did not specifically utilize Las Casa’s system for barbarianism as justification for their violent oppression of the Indians, it is a useful template to understand the complex system of racialization that cemented Puritans’ sense of superiority. In her blog post, “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies,” Rebecca articulates Puritans’ religious rationalization for the massacre of Indians, who “claim they are permitted to exploit others because they are in God’s favor.” Rebecca does an excellent job of explaining this vicious cycle; Puritans’ successful massacre of Indians served as Divine validation for their superiority, thus perpetuating Puritans’ belief that they were “God’s Chosen People” and Indians were Pagan barbarians. Following Las Casas classification of barbarians, Puritans primarily grouped the New England Indians under the fourth category—Pagan barbarians who rejected Christianity. Puritans, whose entire society centered around conservative Protestantism, judged Indians with respect to their religious beliefs. It is significant to recognize that other colonizers, like Spanish conquistadores, may have placed a larger emphasis on different types of barbarism in affirming their superiority over Indians. For instance, South and Central American Indians’ lack of a conventional language and alphabet system highlighted their alleged barbarity in terms civility and intellectual capabilities.

Most importantly, I believe one must recognize that Europeans did not cognitively articulate the grounds for Natives’ inferiority that justified the oppression and annihilation of Indian population. Rather, during the period of colonization, the complex system of racialization that still polarizes modern society was already cemented in the collective mindset of Europeans. Indians’ barbarity need not be articulated, it just was. In the study of American history, we must consciously acknowledge the racialization that shaped society and not ignore it as relic of antiquity, or risk being complicit in the institutionalization of racism.

Knowlton, Rebecca. “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies.”

Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

 

 

Violent Puritans and the Not-So-English Middle Colonies

Focusing now on how the Puritans interacted with the Indians, Taylor develops significantly the portrayal of New England from last week’s reading. His descriptions of Puritan anxiety to suppress natives and of imbalanced trades capture the darker facets of New England, practically unmentioned in chapter eight.

The special attention given to King Philip’s War certainly addresses Shane’s concern last week, that Taylor writes of “internal problems” in New England with little regard for potential “external threats.” Charlotte, similarly, wrote that the violence present in Jamestown seemed to create a contrast to New England relations with natives; like the Americans of classic Thanksgiving stories, the Puritans of chapter eight appeared “democratic” and “egalitarian.” Although Taylor mentions the persecution of religious dissenters, until chapter nine, the harshness of the Puritans is far from apparent. Instead of families searching for religious freedom and harmony, the Puritans referenced in King Philip’s War feel “compelled to destroy their Indian enemies” to prove “their own worthiness” in God’s eyes (200).

This point also raises questions about religion as a justification to exploit native people, an issue which Taylor does an excellent job of highlighting. Puritans claim that they’re permitted to exploit others because they are in God’s favor, but the fact that they do so successfully is also used as proof that God does in fact favor them. The rationale seems circular and flawed, yet the Puritans saw no faults with it, and their religious convictions only increased violence in their interactions with natives.

I appreciate Taylor’s emphasis on the effects of King Philip’s War within English colonies, as I was mostly familiar with its damages to the many native tribes involved in the war. Taylor’s observation that the New English faced “shocking and demoralizing” losses and mass destruction from the Indian rebels creates a more complex context for colonies in the New World. The New English may have decimated the natives in some respects, but both sides suffered dramatic losses, and English losses often left settlements vulnerable to their European enemies, such as the French. Taylor’s forte as a historian is arguably showing the complexity and diversity of American colonies over time. Though he struggles to incorporate all elements of the story at times, the story he does tell challenges common notions of colonial America and reveals much overlooked in a high school US history course.

This trend of pulling focus from the English continues in Taylor’s description of the middle colonies, when he devotes almost half of the chapter to the Dutch Empire. I found the detailed information on Dutch activity in the New World especially intriguing because in my former experiences with US history, the Dutch are merely mentioned in passing. The brief background usually presented only serves to clarify later English activity, yet Taylor closely examines the Dutch in their own context, thereby enriching the following account of English middle colonies. I didn’t realize how extensive the Dutch Empire was in the New World, and while Taylor’s focus on the non-English has some flaws, in this instance it also created a richer context for the middle colonies, much more diverse than New England and the Chesapeake Bay colonies.

Taylor’s writing best suits one already acquainted with American history, for his approach to history, while a fresher perspective than that of a textbook, does overlook points generally emphasized in the history of colonial America. As someone mentioned earlier in class (my apologies, I don’t recall who), John Smith, a renowned and significant figure in American history, receives little attention, while Taylor’s account of the French fur trade spans a considerable number of pages.

In these chapters on the English middle colonies, Taylor once more struggles to include the important information about the English without giving them the spotlight. He provides invaluable and often overlooked information in many instances, but his writing is best used when supplemented with other material and discussion; it perhaps lacks the focus to serve as a fundamental resource on American history. I enjoyed reading about the Dutch history in the region but was surprised by the resulting lessened importance of English colonies. I’m left wondering: what exactly is best to include in an account of American history?

More to the Davis’ Story: examining slave resistance and African slavery

Davis demonstrates how there are many sides to every story, shedding the light on information and perspectives that many of us were never exposed to in our elementary studies of slavery, but even Davis is unable to share the whole truth. In his blog post, “Early African Slave Treatment” Dana discusses Davis’ arguments that slavery was present in Africa before European arrival, writing, “Davis shows that slavery amongst Africans was not a new practice and their treatment, in some cases, was much better than it could have been if they were not taken from Africa.” I would challenge this assertion as I do not feel that ever explicitly makes this argument himself. Davis does write “Even the slaves could benefit, it was claimed, since they were rescued from being killed, starved or cannibalized in primitive Africa” (81), however I believe Davis is trying to share a common argument justifying slavery at the time. That said, he comes across as supporting this argument because he does not take the time to address its fallacies. Many regions and kingdoms in Africa have long histories of slavery, but slavery pre-European arrival was very different from the notions of slavery we are familiar with having studied North American history – “chattel slavery” did not exist and slaves were still part of their societies’ kinship systems, affording them the opportunities for social mobility. Slaves were also traded through the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trade routes before European arrival, but even abroad slaves in the Arab world, India and Indonesia slaves worked primarily in the home as domestic servants and their children were often freed and integrated into society. Furthermore, even when African slaves were treated humanely in the Americas, they still had to endure the 6-7 month journey from the African interior to the coast (during which 400-600 in every 1000 slaves died), before reaching the deplorable conditions of the slave ships. I not want to discount the great examples Davis provides of when slaves were treated with some measure of humanity in America, nor do I mean to imply that all African slaves were better off before European arrival, I simply want to address what I see as a gap in Davis’ examination.

I was also surprised and disappointed that Davis did not give greater attention to African resistance to slavery in these chapters. He gives a couple examples, such as slave ship mutinies and Stono Rebellion (Davis 139), but these imply that the only way slaves resisted was through armed conflict, which is not the case. In HIS 168 we discussed how every action from taking longer to perform a task, to retaining an independent culture and language, to running away, can be seen as a form of resistance. Davis seems to make a concerted effort to condemn slavery and celebrate the instances when slaves were treated with respect and granted additional rights, but he focuses on these example from the white American/European perspective praising these cases for their morality, without acknowledging the role that slaves played in advocating for change and better treatment. Resistance is fundamental to slave identity and humanity, to overlook it is to enable the images of slaves as broken and helpless or inferior human beings. I would argue that Davis’ top down, systematic approach the issues and institutions of slavery subtlety and unintentionally perpetuate dehumanizing views of slaves as “the other”, undermining his seemingly progressive arguments.

 

Works Cited:
David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 77-140.

The Necessary Evil

Different from American Colonies that discusses the general colonial approaches of how various European powers conquered parts of America, Inhuman Bondage focuses on a specific aspect of the colonial life—slavery. These chapters provide the historical context and economic reasoning that the Atlantic Slavery System was able to thrive in the Americas. Moreover, Davis examines different models of slavery trade in North America and the Caribbean to demonstrate that the slavery system was operated differently in different American colonies.

In addition to commodity trading such as fur and tobacco, Europeans also captured their economic interests in slave trade. The Atlantic Slavery System exemplified an early form of international trade system that is based on international capital investment and regional comparative advantage. The successful slave trade resulted in low labor costs; so slave-produced goods had a distinct price advantage in the global market. Interestingly enough, under the principle of profit maximization, there should have been white slaves from the very beginning of international trade. Davis explains that the poor white Christians were protected due to their religious affiliations with the church, which have protected the poor from being taken as slaves. At the same time, sugar gradually became one of the most popular products consumed in Western societies, which resulted in transporting millions of Africans to the New World. Driven by economic interests, European colonists imported a large amount of African slaves to replace Native American labors. The colonists agreed that the productivity of one black was worth that of several Native Americans. Black slavery was indispensible to the rapid economic development in America.

Due to waves of African slaves being shipped to the New World, there were more frequent slave insurrections in the Caribbean because slaves often outnumbered whites as much as nine to one. The slaves from the Caribbean often engaged in negotiations with their masters and they managed to create an African-Caribbean culture. Unfortunately, their counterparts in North America would be outnumbered by whites and placed under their constant supervision and control. Nonetheless, within the North American region, there were also variations about the evolution of slavery.  Slaves in the North were treated in a much more humane way than in the South. Slaves across different regions in North America have mastered different skillsets due to regional development. Compared to the slaves who lived on the Deep South farms, blacks in the North lived together with their masters. Consequently, there was far less racial segregation by residence in the mid18th century than in the early 21st century. Under supervision, the slaves could work alongside white farmers. Unlike in the Caribbean or Brazil, slaves did not have to transport privileged whites in sedan chairs. Moreover, during holy holidays, New Amsterdam blacks and whites dunk wine together and danced to African as well as Dutch music. There was also a kind of paternalism that existed in which masters supervised black life and give them advice. The great majority of Southern slaves were subjected to a harsh regimen of labor, and they had far less social and cultural autonomy in the colonial period than slaves in the North.

The history of slavery and detailed evolution in different parts of America was not new to me. However, it is interesting to think about the notion of “American free society” was made possible by black slave labors. No other society has been able to commit to a full set of contradictory ideas of oppression and liberty for decades. Without Atlantic Slave System, North America’s trade with the West Indies and export of Southern agricultural products would not have been possible. The American economic and political supremacy was created at the expenses of slavery despite its modern embodiment of freedom and liberty.

Varied Colonial Slavery

In Human Bondage, Davis attempts to inform us about the vast extent of slavery during the colonial period of North America. He reveals to us, through historical records of the slave market and through written works of colonists and ship captains, slavery existed long before the colonization of what is now the United States. Although, it was losing popularity as form of labor, slavery existed within Europe and the United Kingdom before colonization. In fact, slavery was most extensive within the Caribbean, West Indies, and Brazil long before North American colonies became dependent on slaves.

Slavery played a vital role in the success of the colonies and is a large part of our history. As such, we have each learned different aspects of the history and each have our own impressions of this point in history. I myself, thought slavery had originated mainly due to a desire and greed for free labor by the colonists and that Africans were chosen simply because they were different. However, Davis shows that slavery was much more complicated than that. There was not a colony that was created (except South Carolina) with the intention of using slaves as a source of labor. The companies had hoped to utilize indentured servants or criminals and the poor to keep the streets of England clear. Furthermore, there were colonists who protested the use of slaves. As Dana stated, slaves were not originally treated differently solely due to skin color. Although still treated as beneath others, the reasons were more class based and it was not until slavery became a common system that racism proliferated.

As we have discussed in class, each colony at the time was different due to varied European origins, as such, each colony treated slaves differently. Although classmate argue that it is meaningless to state which colony treated slaves better, I would contend that this is a very vital part of our history. Davis would like us to see that slavery was a varied form of labor and not just a malevolent, universal plantation system we are usually exposed to. I am by no means, diminishing the inherent immorality of slavery but rather ask us to see that humans are complicated and thus, so is history. As such, we should potentially consider all cultural aspects behind slavery including how “better-treated” slaves affected other “worse off” slaves, colonists, and slavery itself and not just study history with a set belief or idea about that period in time. In this way, we can learn more about history and how it affects us culturally today.

The New Cash Crop: Slaves

Chapters four through six of Inhuman Bondage gave an elaborate overview of slavery.  As we have discussed in class, the Europeans were very concerned with their economic success.  In need of cheap labor, they looked towards enslavement.  They could not justify enslaving white people because of a sense of unity and freedom, so they turned to Africa. The color black to them symbolized “depictions of black demons, devils, and torturers.” (79) “By 1820, nearly 10.1 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World, as opposed to only 2.6 million whites, who had left Europe.” (80) Because of these high numbers, it can be implied that the New World could not have been created without the African slaves.  Ironically, these slaves were not necessarily planned to help settle the Americas. People who crossed the ocean at first were just trying to find gold and silver. They did not want to work on the extensive labor jobs, so they needed slaves. Once cash crops became popular, slave labor increased. Sugar and tobacco became such high demand products for the Europeans and that transcended into a need to transport millions of African slaves to the New World. The slave trade ripped Africa of men. The population was left dwindling, and despite the government officials making lots of money, Africa did not experience a huge economy boost.

One part of Chapter 4 that interested me was the comparison of Africans to Indians. The Europeans acted paternalistic towards the Indians, but they “dealt with the Africans as equals.” (88) The Africans had technology. They possessed ships and could attack the Europeans. The Europeans had to provide ceremonial gifts and to pay fees in order to anchor in Africa. It was disheartening to read about how slaves were taking into custody. People would sell out their fellow friends and the government would sentence people to slavery just to make a profit.  In the Americas, African slaves were preferred over Indians because they were “familiar with large-scale agriculture, labor discipline, and making iron or even steel tools.” (99) Also, later on, chapter 6 discusses how not enough attention is paid to this complicated relationship. Indians would help track down fugitive slaves, and some even sold slaves themselves.

Drawing on my classmate’s point in The Great Complexity of the Slave Trade, slavery should not have been compared when it was worst or better. Slavery was wrong in general. Innocent Africans got ripped from their homeland and forced onto horrid living conditions. Whites justified this because they felt superior to them. What is extremely ironic is that a supposedly “free society was made possible by black slave labor.” (102) The Europeans left Europe because they felt confined and wanted freedom, and they took away the freedom of many in this new land. Some, including the Quakers were very against slavery. The Quakers compared “those who were oppressed for conscience sake with these oppressed who are a black colour.” (126)

The Great Complexity of the Slave Trade

These chapters of Human Bondage are certainly eye-opening to the sheer size of the slave trade in the new world. We have already discussed the complexity with generalizing within native cultures or European colonizers, but these new interactions weave an entirely new web. In the fourth chapter Davis attempts to convey how the many European powers began to involve slavery into daily lives and constructs the argument for the inherent racist nature of slavery in Europe. He says that white Christians found it naturally wrong to enslave other white Christians, but even by simply having darker skin they are more like the “devil.” It seems that religion plays almost as key of a role in justifying slavery in these chapters as it did with subjugation and colonization of the natives in Taylor’s American Colonies.  It is also overwhelming to learn how many players were in the African slave trade market, from the Portuguese to the Dutch and how many places African slaves could find landfall after their departure. The mass displacement of persons and the disproportionate amount of males could have had extreme effects on populations in Africa as well. Although Dana mentions that it was commonplace in Africa for enslavement to occur, it was undoubtedly influenced by the high demand the new world was placing on the market.

As to where slaves would find landfall, the enslavement system, labor and life seems to mimic or at least echo colonizations and some of the themes we discussed in class. If I were to generalize, colonies typically attempt to find the most economically sound product and utilize the cheapest labor. This is why many slaves in Brazil and the West Indies would be in the sugar cane industry and why eventually the American South would find cotton to be invaluable to their lifestyle. Even as far as New York slavery would be found in houses and many markets would take place to enhance the economic prowess of the colony. One thing I generally disliked about the reading and disagree with Dana’s point is the quickness with which when discussing slave history, we wish to find the definitive location where slavery was “the worst” or “the best” or where they would have picked for themselves. Slavery was an inherently evil construct and while it is obviously incredibly important to remember and discuss slave conditions in different colonies and areas of the Americas, trying to deduce or argue about who treated slavery worse for what reasons is fruitless and ultimately ties back to how the colonists could abuse and utilize them for economic gains. Davis does an incredibly good job at depicting the lives of slaves in each area of the world and how they were consistently humiliated and degraded and that, in my opinion, should be the history remembered most vividly.

Early African Slave Treatment

Chapters 4 through 6 of Inhuman Bondage covers a large frame in the timeline of the African Slave trade. Davis shows the transitions of how the slaves were brought to new areas and how they lived in those new areas. Davis shows that slavery amongst Africans was not a new practice and their treatment, in some cases, was much better than it could have been if they were not taken from Africa.

Slaves that were taken from Africa were part of a culture where it was not unusual to be put into slavery. Rival tribes often took prisoners of war and turned them into slaves. The introduction of the European market did not bring about the slavery, but they did make it into a profitable business for many African chiefs. The trading of slaves did however increase the capture and warring between peoples in Africa. Those chiefs that were powerful enough wanted to make as much profit as they could by selling African slaves. The continued trade with the Europeans created an economy in Africa that became dependent on the trade of slaves. The increase of taking people to trade as slaves was problematic in many respects. The majority of slaves taken were male, changing the demographic. The continued wars were taxing on the people and many lives were lost, and of course many lives were ruined once sold as slaves.

Slaves in the Caribbean and places where work was hard were treated much worse than in some of the northern colonies. Those that had to work cultivating sugar cane had it worst of all. The work was intensive and almost nonstop during certain stages of cultivation. The hard work cost many their lives and made life miserable for those still working. Slave owners in such areas as the Caribbean also had to be a lot more strict. The population of slaves way out shadowed the population of white plantation owners. Examples had to be made and life was very hard.

In some of the northern colonies Davis makes it sound like life actually wasn’t that bad, at least at first. African slaves were actually treated much the same as white’s of their status. And those Africans were treated almost as equals if they gained any power or monetary status. It’s surprising that Africans of color were not treated badly because of their color. Davis makes this point a couple of times. He wants to make it clear that they were not treated differently for their skin in the beginning. Slaves were often given the opportunity to make money on the side and pay for their freedom. They were allowed to have their own small gardens and in some cases sections of the farm to make some money for themselves. Obviously the owners got a portion of what the slaves made, but it is better than what slaves were given later. This is something that I’ve never been taught growing up, so I found it interesting to read.

Dispelling Myths of the Proper English

 

As Rebecca points out in her post on chapter 6 and 8, Taylor mainly focuses on the different failures and successes of English colonization, and focuses on dynamics and relationship (or lack there of) between the different settler groups and the Indians.

Chapter 6 focuses on the ethnocentric and uncompromising approach of the English, both in Ireland and in the New World. It was interesting to read about the double squeeze happening in England, which is what America was promoted off it, in order to rid the streets of London of the poor, the beggars, etc. However, I found it interesting to read Taylor’s description of a narrowing middle class with higher rates of unemployment and inflation, and an increasing lower class. Although I am no economics students, it seemed somewhat reminiscent to the current economical state of the US since the recession in 2008. Thus, I found it interesting to see how it parallels the motives to come to America, and the promises America may or may not have fulfilled in lieu of current events.

Additionally, this drive to send the poor to America to serve as workers in the tobacco industry supports Grey’s point that the main driver for colonizers seems to be economical, rather than religious. While religion might justify their actions, the main catalyst remains economics. The growth of the tobacco industry gave the English a new foothold in a New World industry that had yet to be tapped by the Spanish or French.

After our class discussion on whether it was important to distinguish between European countries in their colonization of America, I found it interesting that Taylor compares countries against each other, thus creating a scale of which country is more humane. Taylor notes that the way the English acted towards the Irish during war was similar to the Spaniards in their treatment of Indians. In our discussions and blog posts, everyone seems very careful to differentiate countries from each other in their behavior (Dana contrasts the French with the Spaniards in her post). However, here Taylor is showing similarities between countries, and creating almost a scale of which country did it “better”.

In light of the war in Ireland,  I also found it interesting that Taylor seems to dispel myths of the “proper” English by describing them as truthfully and as brutal as they were. Taylor mentions that they were no better than the conquistadors themselves. I found correlations between the picture of the Aztec’s human sacrificing and the British colonel lining a path with human heads of Irish victims — which is an interesting juxtaposition when many other historical narrative I’m familiar with describe the English as proper, humane, and religious peoples.

This very much contrasts the Puritans settlers in New England, and their approach to the land, their neighboring Indians, and their motives for settling in the New World. This was always the narrative of English settlers I have been familiar with — the reason we still celebrate Thanksgiving. It seemed very democratic and egalitarian modest way of living, which is the story of a hard-working American people that history and media today love to glorify. However, I also found it interesting that Taylor points out the religious oppression the Puritans placed on everyone who lived within New England, another aspect to the story often disregarded.

Economics and Religion in English Colonization

In chapters 6 and 8, Taylor examines the early failures and eventual successes of English colonies. The British arrived in the New World some time after the Spanish, Portuguese, and French had laid claims to the land, and while the economy the English developed varied significantly from those of the Spanish empire and of the French trading posts, all Europeans came to America with similar objectives. I agree with many of Taylor’s points on incentives to emigrate, and I believe these incentives warrant close study.

In reference to the reading on Tuesday, Dana attributed French and Spanish violence to desire for wealth and greed. European powers saw rivals in each other and relished the chance to change their fortunes in America. Grey’s blog post reinforces the significance of economic incentives in a claim that, for the French and Spanish, the economy outweighed all other factors in New World colonization. Grey even names religion an “afterthought” to “economic conquests.”

This theory, voiced in my classmates’ writing and often inferred in Taylor’s work, often aptly describes European and native relations. Downplaying the significance of religion, however, fails to capture the essence of colonial interactions. Religion plays a crucial role in understanding the cultural differences that the Europeans encountered, and certainly in English colonization, religion and economics serve as interdependent, equally important incentives.

Taylor frames English colonization in Virginia as a strictly economic venture, devoid of missionaries and of the desire to Christianize natives. He does identify the colonists’ intentions to first “absorb[… natives] as economic subordinates” and then convert them, an excellent point, but I feel Taylor detracts too much from religious incentives even in this description. Religion, as much as economics, determines English attitudes towards colonization.

What else but religion do the English exploit to justify seizing the land? The English insisted they could take the land because of a religious obligation to improve it, undoubtedly derived from a passage in Genesis: “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over… every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Taylor also pinpoints an English obligation to “subvert the native culture and transform the Indians into lower-sort English men and women” (128). While the English had economic reasons for subverting the natives, also present is a desire for cultural conversion. Making the natives English naturally encompasses a conversion to Christianity. While the English might have lacked the missionaries of the French and Spanish, religion remained a crucial factor in colonization.

The Great Migration to New England, in particular, perfectly captures the interplay of religion an economics, and I mostly agree with Taylor’s portrayal of Puritan colonists. The Puritans associated “material aspiration” inextricably with “the pursuit of salvation” (166). A hardworking and devout community, the Puritans met the challenges of colonization far more readily than the inhabitants of Jamestown. Puritan emigrants sailed to America with their families and with a sense of purpose, and Taylor describes them as successful, equitable, and determined, even if stern, people.

Largely, I agree with the facts presented. Quite unlike other colonists, the Puritans fared remarkably well in the New World and created communities enriched by religious and educational programs. My only critical response is the tendency of history books to portray Puritans somewhat, well, politely. Yes, Taylor mentions the Salem witch trials, the exile of religious dissenters to Rhode Island, and the tense relations with England, particularly with the monarch. Juxtaposed with the incredible violence of the other colonies, however, the Puritans appear an admirable group, the type of colony, if any, one might want to join. Even with their faults, they aimed to create a moral society, not to exploit natives and make a fortune.

I remember feeling similarly about the Puritans in my high school US History class, but that same year, we also read some Puritan literature in English. The Puritans possessed many talents, but likability was not among them. In Particular, I remember Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Here is a short excerpt:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

(For those interested: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.sinners.html)

I don’t believe Taylor writes about the Puritans incorrectly, per se, but I do think primary sources paint a far more vivid picture of Puritan society than secondary sources. With that sermon in mind, Taylor’s description of the Puritans facing criticism in England takes on a much deeper meaning. One can easily imagine what they might have said of the society allegedly “awash in thieves, drunks, idlers, prostitutes, and blasphemers” (162). No wonder the king threatened to remove them from England; Puritans make poor neighbors.

Regardless of their character, though, the Puritans do exemplify the blending of religious and economic themes in colonial America. Trying to separate the religious from the economic in the colonization of America is as difficult as it is impractical. More beneficial to the study of history is the acceptance of religion and economics as one intermingled and cohesive influence.