Few colonial historians are as well known and respected or as prolific in their publications as Bernard Bailyn (PhD 1953, LLD 1999), Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard; he has won the Pulitzer Prize for history twice, a National Book Award, a National Humanities Medal, and a Bancroft Prize. Bailyn is also the father of Atlantic history, having founded and directed the influential International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World at Harvard (established in 1995), and his most recent work has focused on Atlantic migration and the peopling of British North America during the colonial period. The Barbarous Years is the third installment in a longer series on “The Peopling of British North America,” which began with the publication of a brief overview The Peopling of America: An Introduction and the detailed tome, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the American Revolution (both 1986). The latter, for which he won a Pulitzer, provided a comprehensive, in-depth analysis of every recorded departure from Britain for North America between late 1773 and early 1776. The current volume is quite different both in time and in substance, moving back in time to the earliest years of the British mainland colonies from 1600 to 1675 and offering a more impressionistic, though intensely and impressively researched, portrait of those difficult formative years.
With his deft pen and deep understanding of the colonists who are his primary subjects, Bailyn paints a masterful portrait of the appalling conditions under which they labored to established a precarious foothold in North America. No romantic cavaliers or Thanksgiving love feasts appear in these pages. Instead, readers are exposed to the grim realities of daily life in early America as Bailyn takes his readers on a tour through the Chesapeake colonies (Virginia and Maryland), the Middle Colonies (New Netherland and New Sweden), and New [End Page 594] England (Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay). The unique details of each colony as well as the personal stories of colonists, both prominent and ordinary, are skillfully and compellingly portrayed, but the overpowering theme is the startling similarity of their experiences: the colonists everywhere were “a mixed multitude” (p. xiv) and “Death was everywhere” (p. 52). In Bailyn’s portrait of seventeenth-century North America, violence and chaos reign—between the colonists themselves and especially between the European newcomers and the indigenous populations they encountered. By foregrounding the brutality that colonists and Indians inflicted on each other in all of its appalling savagery, beginning with the title of the book, Bailyn provides a useful corrective to the sanitized and often-romanticized narratives of the nearly forgotten first century of British settlement in North America.
While there is much to admire in The Barbarous Years, the book is also disappointing, particularly in its treatment of the original inhabitants Bailyn labels “The Americans” in the opening chapter. Bailyn, clearly at his best when dealing with his European subjects, is less reliable in his treatment of the native side of the “conflict of civilizations.” The problem stems from overgeneralization, as well as some unfortunate choices of language (James Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly 69 :451-512). While Bailyn makes clear that the continent was inhabited, he then describes Indian activities and cultures in ways that undermine the importance of their presence. “Few in number by modern demographic standards” (p. 3), Indians managed their landscape through “deliberate burnings and small-scale efforts” at brush removal (p. 11). “No one was completely sedentary”; villages were occupied only seasonally, and even then, most people periodically “wandered out” to fish or hunt (p. 12). Their “cultivation of the soil was superficial” and the land was “not plowed but simply scratched and punctured, with sticks and shells” (p. 13).
While Bailyn’s descriptions are accurate for particular peoples, times, and places, his unfortunate word choices undermine his depiction [End Page 595] of Indians. Similarly, while...