- Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759–1775.
In Colonial Challenges, Robin A. Fabel provides case studies of three different indigenous groups (the Cherokees, the small tribes of the Lower Mississippi, and the Black Caribs of St. Vincent) and their complex interactions—diplomatic, commercial, and military—with Britons, primarily British policy makers and diplomats, but also settlers. In each case he explores the circumstances which shaped the relationship of each group or coalition with the British in the brief but turbulent period under investigation. The Cherokees, for example, were poorly placed geographically to exploit European rivalries, and therefore identified an advantage to ties with the British, yet the usual array of conflicts—over killings, over land, and especially over different ideas of justice—hindered this relationship, as, indeed, did pronounced divisions among Cherokee leaders. Only military force and a campaign of destruction by the British forced the Cherokees to sue for peace and to hesitate before taking on the British again. The small tribes of the lower Mississippi, on the other hand, benefited from European rivalries in the region, despite the far greater disruptions they had endured from centuries of European exploration, invasion, and settlement. These tribes, migratory by choice, by force, and by circumstance, could remove themselves from British proximity and could choose among different imperial jurisdictions. Thus many of these tribes were able to retain a degree of autonomy.
Finally, Fabel turns to the Black Caribs of St. Vincent, a population distinguished from the “yellow Caribs” by the presence of ex-slaves and their descendants. Fabel’s inclusion of the Black Caribs is refreshing, as it signals a larger geographic frame of reference than we often see in studies of colonial and Revolutionary British America. The British acquired St. Vincent in 1763, and their struggles with the Black Caribs commenced soon thereafter. The Black Caribs resisted British efforts to “improve” unsettled land for cultivation with a tenacity and ingenuity that frustrated the hopes of would-be sugar planters. Thousands of British troops were dispatched to suppress a few hundred Caribs, but the soldiers suffered terribly from disease and their mission failed. Fabel’s discussion of this military venture is particularly enhanced by his attention to the debate it aroused within Britain, where newspapers followed the war closely and some people spoke sympathetically of the Caribs’ rights to their land. Indeed, the nature of this discussion in Britain, where people debated whether or not Caribs were people and whether they possessed rights, should remind readers of the famous debates held in sixteenth-century Spain on the nature of the people of America, and the debate points to the dramatically different chronological paths of the British and Spanish in their conceptualizations of indigenous people and imperial dominion. In the end, Carib resistance collapsed and peace ensued, and the British created a reservation system on St. Vincent.
Fabel’s focus on the grievances of indigenous people demonstrates that it was hardly only creole settlers of British America who struggled with the British crown and Parliament for autonomy and survival, and indeed for indigenous people the stakes were considerably higher. Fabel argues that the experiences recounted here had important implications for British policy in the Revolutionary period in two respects. First, they led British policy makers to “overrate their ability to manage colonial unrest” (1) with important consequences for British conduct during the ensuing years. At the same time, British familiarity with indigenous groups, and their protracted struggles with them, led the British to what Fabel identifies as their most valuable lesson: they learned not to underrate indigenous people, and understood the urgency of securing Indian allies in the military conflict ahead (213).
As Fabel’s main conclusion indicates, Colonial Challenges is more successful as a study of British policy than of the internal dynamics of each indigenous group he profiles. British policy decisions are traced here in great detail, as indeed are the activities of individual soldiers, politicians, and diplomats; and although Fabel makes every effort to uncover the corresponding motives of indigenous leaders, he simply cannot...