Seeing Colonial North America through a Glass, Darkly

The Barbarous Years

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 is a decidedly unromantic account of seven decades of life in seventeenth-century British North America. Rather than seeing the earliest colonial settlements as stable, coherent, rapidly maturing communities, Bernard Bailyn, the Adams University professor emeritus at Harvard University, views them as brutish, nasty, disordered outposts that were quite often lucky to survive. That they did survive, Bailyn suggests, is largely because just enough new migrants arrived at just the right time and because Europeans committed acts of unspeakable violence against indigenous peoples. Native Americans contributed to this dystopian environment by fighting fire with fire, by engaging in destructive, vengeful raids that sparked still further European murderous deeds. Everyone in this unsettled colonial realm “felt themselves dragged down or threatened with descent into squalor and savagery,” the author writes. “All sought to restore the civility they once had known.” (xv)

Bailyn presaged aspects of this gloomy story in two earlier works that are part of the same “Peopling” project. In The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, he not only sketched the broad contours of “the massive transfer to the Western Hemisphere of people from Africa, from the European mainland, and above all from the Anglo-Celtic offshore islands of Europe,” but also emphasized the peculiar “mingling of primitivism and civilization” that characterized colonial American society.[1] In Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution, Bailyn painted a vivid portrait of the 9000+ emigrants from the British Isles to North America and the Caribbean in the years 1773-1776. The social reconstruction of the 1773-1776 settlers’ lives was a remarkable achievement of quantitative analysis and anecdotal vibrancy—the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Bailyn’s second Pulitzer—yet commentary about civilization and savagery was also present.[2] “Civil and incivil, cultivated and half-wild, sophisticated and deeply provincial, [British North America] was a society of jarring contrasts,” Bailyn asserted.[3] Thus when Bailyn writes, in The BarbarousYears, of “confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility” among Europeans in British North America, he is returning to a theme he has been thinking and writing about for a long time. (xv)

Befitting the “Peopling” project’s ambitious scope—“a large-scale narrative from the beginning of European colonization to the advent of the industrial revolution”—and the author’s standing as one of the most well-recognized and accomplished scholars of early America, The Barbarous Years is sweeping in its coverage and magisterial in its fluency with the material.[4] The book reads like a textbook on steroids, like an in-depth survey of every regional cohort in British North America buttressed by a generous sampling of primary sources. All the legendary players of seventeenth-century British North America—Powhatan, Pocahontas, John Smith, the Calvert family, Petrus Stuyvesant, William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Anne Hutchinson, among others—are there, but so are a host of lesser known characters, including William Claiborne, Willem Kieft, Pieter Plockhoy, and John Lyford. The detail provided is extensive, and nothing seems to matter more to Bailyn than detailed stories. The Barbarous Years is a collection of “studies within stories,” the author informs us, and there is no doubt that Bailyn revels in his role as storyteller. (xiv)

The tales that Bailyn tells are generally dark ones filled with pettiness, opportunism, in-fighting, starvation, disease, and savagery. The first three years at Jamestown, for example, were undermined not only by drought, but also by “conflicts of purpose,” with some individuals vainly searching for valuable minerals and a passage to the South Sea, others trying to find the survivors of Raleigh’s Roanoke misadventure, and still others attempting to attend to settlers’ immediate needs by building fortifications and homes, planting crops, and establishing relations with Indians. (52) The consequences of these cross-cutting objectives were disastrous. Less than half of the original 108 settlers were still alive in January 1608, and even though new shipments of settlers arrived in the next few years—there were 400 individuals alive in the encampment in the spring of 1609—starvation and disease hit especially hard again during the “bitter winter” of 1609-1610. (60) “Death was everywhere,” Bailyn states, and a few people even resorted to digging up corpses to eat. (52)

John Smith missed this gruesome winter because he left for England in October 1609, but he does not emerge from the chapter on Jamestown’s first three years unsullied. The majority “of his contacts with the natives were ruthless raids on their villages to extract corn and other supplies for the starving settlers,” the author writes. “When his demands were not met, he threatened murder, took hostages at gunpoint, ‘negotiated’ by intimidation, and without hesitation seized from the natives precious supplies that were necessary for the tribes’ survival.” (59)

Considering the prevalence of death, disease, and tension with Native Americans, it is no wonder that the “remnants” of the settlement still alive in June 1610 packed up their meager belongings, boarded ships, and “abandoned the Jamestown settlement.” (62) The “remarkable coincidence” of an arriving fleet of settlers (with bountiful supplies) meeting the departing survivors just as the latter were moving downstream toward the ocean enabled the reestablishment of the colony, thus ensuring Jamestown’s place as the first permanent English settlement in North America. (63) But Bailyn has made his point: the heroic adventurers of legend had actually given up, and their survival in North America beyond June 1610 was, at some level, more a matter of chance than determination, skill, and cooperation.

The chapters on early Virginia set the tone, but Bailyn’s gothic vision encompasses every region in seventeenth-century British North America. Highlighted in the account of early Maryland is the “plundering time” of the mid-1640s, when a tobacco trader named Richard Ingle somewhat disingenuously “cast himself as the savior of Maryland’s Protestants,” “drew to his side . . . a motley crowd of the discontented,” and went on a pillaging spree that shook the infant Catholic colony to its core. (155-56) The section on New Netherland devotes significant space to a “succession of directors . . . the chronicle of whose administrations read at times like Tacitus’s annals of imperial Rome, replete with bitter rivalries, scandalous accusations, violent encounters, assassination attempts, executions, and above all bloody massacres of the native Indians and earth-scorching raids.” (201)

The chapter on New Sweden features four-hundred pound Johan Björnsson Printz, a discredited army officer who, in a decade as governor before his unauthorized departure in October 1653, “personally shackl[ed] . . . in irons” Puritans seeking permission to trade in the Delaware River Valley, “forced the English at Varkens Kill to switch their allegiance to Sweden,” wrangled incessantly with Dutch officials over territory and trade, hired Indians to track down deserting soldiers, and so alienated his own colonists that they rebelled against him. (284, 288) William Bradford and the inner core of Pilgrim “leaders” were men “of personal dignity, competence, and presence,” (331) Bailyn acknowledges, but they had to deal with an unruly, frequently irreligious set of settlers, including John Oldham, a “Prickly, rambunctious” trader who “pick[ed] quarrels everywhere, refused all requests for public service, threatened the captain of the watch with a knife, and ‘ramped more like a furious beast than a man.’” (331, 342-343) The last chapter on Puritan New England, finally, is titled “Defiance and Disarray,” and special attention is paid to the “suppression of the antinomian dissenters,” the vicious persecution of Quakers, and “the erosion of values that had shaped the Puritan mission.” (460, 468)

In conjunction, Bailyn’s dark stories have much to tell us about seventeenth-century British North America; at the very least, they remind us that our depictions of colonial settlements like Jamestown, New Netherland, and Plymouth must take seriously the worst sorts of human behavior. Still, it is hard to come away from The Barbarous Years without feeling that Bailyn’s admirable attempt to demythologize colonial life has carried him too far. Greed, plunder, disease, starvation, and Indian-European warfare were powerful forces in early America, but they were not the only powerful forces. The problem here is not inaccuracy; it is proportion, tone, and rhetoric, and the result is a jaundiced rendering of life in British North America.

Take, for instance, the five chapters devoted to Virginia. Four of them deal with the period from 1607-1640, the years when Virginia was a patchwork of labor-military camps so poorly governed and unstable that only 8100 of the nearly 24,000 total emigrants survived. The last chapter treats the period from 1640-1675, the era that witnessed not only a fivefold population increase (to 40,000), but also the establishment of a coherent, albeit extremely hierarchical, social order. Bailyn is not unaware of this transformation, but it is clear he did not want to spend time analyzing it in depth because it would have undermined his favored narrative of death and disorder.

Likewise, if the author had paid more attention to the 1640-1675 years, he would have had to confront more directly the influence of William Berkeley. Bailyn discusses Berkeley and his younger-son royalist cohort on a scant few pages and dismisses them as a “strange, rather disreputable lot” that was “flamboyantly active,” but in no way able to set themselves up as cultural “founders.” (183) Yet Berkeley’s term as governor (1642-1676) coincided almost precisely with the rapid population growth of the colony and its transformation into an economically prosperous, self-reproducing regime, which is partly why other historians have characterized his arrival in Virginia as decisive.[5] Intent on portraying early America as chaotic and ungovernable, however, Bailyn elides the power of a significant ruler and the fact that a small group of that ruler’s elite recruits exercised outsized influence on a colony.

The author also elides the problematic nature of the term “barbarous,” which is used throughout the book and not just in the title. Bailyn has long been justly criticized for characterizing his project in terms of “peopling,” as if Native Americans somehow were not present prior to 1607. Yet in this book he introduces another loaded term without bothering to define or explicate it. In addition, within the pages of The Barbarous Years there are plenty of references to inhumane deeds—torture, devastating military campaigns, kidnappings, forced migration, exploitation of convicts, dehumanizing punishment, and religious persecution—that took place in early modern Europe, which begs the question why Bailyn thinks “barbarous” is a term specially applicable to British North America. Perhaps, in that sense, Euro-Americans between 1600-1675 did not so much experience a “loss of civility” as carry “barbarism” with them across the Atlantic. Or perhaps, in a larger sense, the term “barbarous” is not that useful for historical interpretation because it encourages moralistic condescension, because it forecloses rather than facilitates a deeper understanding of peoples who are already rather alien to us by virtue of their temporal distance.

The Barbarous Years is thus a book that sees colonial British North America through a glass, darkly. One can easily imagine some of the bleak stories that Bailyn limns so adroitly serving as source material for historical fiction or based-on-real-life television mini-series; they are not lacking in sinister drama. Yet in terms of historical analysis, the gloominess of the author’s vision clouds the picture and inhibits more penetrating, evenly balanced insight.


[1] Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (New York, 1986), 5, 131.

[2] Bailyn’s first Pulitzer Prize was awarded for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967).

[3] Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York, 1986), 5.

[4] Bailyn, Voyagers, xix.

[5] Warren Billings, Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia (Baton Rouge, 2004); David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York, 1989), 207-418.

Matthew Hale

Matthew Hale is an associate professor of history at Goucher College and is the author of The French Revolution and the Forging of American Democracy (forthcoming, University of Virginia Press).

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