- British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America
Stephen Hornsby, Professor of Geography and Canadian Studies at the University of Maine, describes his work as a "geographical reconceptualization" of the British Atlantic (1). He begins by acknowledging the importance of prior Atlantic studies but suggests they are regional histories that, by their nature, emphasize continuities and interconnectedness. In reality, the places Britain colonized were far from "a uniform space or an homogenous system" (2). Instead, Hornsby identifies two British imperial systems in the Americas. Newfoundland, the West Indies, and Hudson Bay in eastern Canada, from which the British derived cod, sugar, and furs, are grouped together as "British Atlantic" colonies that remained firmly maritime in their orientation and reliant on metropolitan trade, governance, and military defense throughout the eighteenth century. The North American settlements of New England, Virginia, and South Carolina, with their respective cod fishing, tobacco, and rice economies, he calls the "American Frontier." Endowed with better natural resources, these mainland colonies developed settled, self-reproducing communities that encouraged the growth of domestic markets in their western hinterlands and reduced dependence on overseas trade. This rift in British colonial experiences, Hornsby contends, led inevitably to imperial dissolution in 1776.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Hornsby describes the particularities of his six case-study colonies using the "staples approach" pioneered by Canadian political economist Harold Adams Innis. Innis demonstrated how a single industry or commodity determined a region's social, economic, and even cultural development. Ironically, an inverse relationship emerges between a colony's financial success and community maturation, with the two most lucrative commodities, sugar and cod, producing the least well-developed colonial societies. Successful colonists in the "British Atlantic" returned to Britain as soon as they could afford to, leaving overseers or administrators to run their affairs and a truncated society reflecting the interests of powerful merchant firms and absentees.
An inverse pattern developed in the colonies of the "American Frontier." Tobacco farmers initially experienced a more precarious economic climate, but when the industry prospered in the early eighteenth century, [End Page 681] planters invested their wealth in Virginia "great houses" rather than in English country estates. South Carolina rice farmers, though often descended from migrating Barbadian sugar planters, emulated their Chesapeake neighbors. Their plantations remained modest, secluded in the remote South Carolina backcountry along with the enslaved workers upon which their wealth depended. But their profits sparkled in the construction and outfitting of beautiful town homes in Charleston, one of the first modern grid-structured cities in the British Empire.
The second half of the book moves beyond descriptions of landscape, architecture, social structure, and labor systems to grapple with the meaning of these differences for the balance of power within the empire. Hornsby relies heavily on commodity histories for his narratives of places, peoples, and practices, and many of his conclusions will be familiar to scholars in the field. Nor is his argument that inherent structural and cultural fissures existed between the "Atlantic" and "Frontier" colonies new; Andrew O'Shaughnessy, whom Hornsby surprisingly does not engage, came to these same conclusions, demonstrating the roles played by familial ties, absentee/residential patterns, and the post-1763 impositions of metropolitan control in North America in leading up to the American Revolution (An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean ). Hornsby's overlay of spatial analysis onto these arguments, however, is novel. He identifies "distinctive geographical configurations of power" linking the export-driven economies of the "Atlantic" colonies within a tight web of metropolitan control, while the less profitable "Frontier" settlements remained on the imperial sidelines despite the promise of an agricultural empire there (6). Chapters 4 and 5 develop the significance of this "agricultural frontier" and offer an engaging interpretation that credits the backcountry, as much as port cities, for the region's economic diversity and relative self-sufficiency as compared to Britain's Atlantic colonies. Growing populations brought increased...