- At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America
Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall have successfully synthesized the complex world of British backcountry resettlement in a brief, readable format. They cover the principal events, rationales, and themes of English colonization in North America from its advent to the American Revolution. As is now widely accepted, they begin the analysis with Ireland, Elizabethan England's first colonial "backcountry." The English developed basic beliefs and colonial policies in Ireland, particularly regarding land seizure, colonizing settlers, and brutally subjugating the Native population, and exported them to the "backcountry" of North America's Atlantic coast. The backcountry and the authors' narrative proceed westward from the tidewater to the headwaters, across the Appalachian Mountains to the continental interior.
The text reflects much recent scholarship, such as favoring the term "borderland" over "frontier." New Western historians have assailed the Turnerian frontier concept as too white male centered, among other problems, and in adopting the multicultural approach of "borderlands," Hinderaker and Mancall attempt a balanced narrative. They include brief introductions to the indigenous concept of usufruct land ownership to offset the more familiar English concept, and they include many native historical figures. Still, the attempt falls short of balanced integration. Native beliefs are not well maintained in the subsequent narrative, which focuses on colonization. Moreover, the authors continue the facile rejection of the term "holocaust" to describe the near annihilation [End Page 377] of the native population (p. 15). No, the Europeans did not intentionally introduce pathogens previously unknown in the Americas, but they did (as evidenced in this text) consciously exacerbate the effects and make it almost impossible for the stricken native population to recover from the epidemics, conflicts, and colonization of their lands. "Holocaust" is an ancient word, applied in many contexts. I find it tiresome and shameful that Western historians refuse to apply "holocaust" outside the context of Hitler's modern murder state as if the Nazis set the bureaucratic parameters for the term's use. Perhaps, however, the scholarly consensus backs the authors, and it is simply their statement on a contentious and fundamental issue in the history of backcountry colonization.
Largely, though, if the text has an overarching problem, it lies with overstatement. The authors seem at pains to centralize the British backcountry of North America in a history in which it was only one constituent part. They were likely trying to overcome the scholarly slight of the backcountry in favor of the Atlantic seaboard and Europe. They overplayed their hand. One might read this text and think, for example, that the twin defeats of George Washington and Edward Braddock in the Ohio Country, 1754–1755, singularly launched the global Seven Years War. What of Prussia's invasion of Saxony in 1756 and the European leagues that divided the continental powers and eventually spread their imperial clash to India, the Philippines, and the Caribbean? French-British competition in the North American backcountry was a significant factor in that world-shaping war and should be restored within its proper context. Also, focusing on the subject, in this case the backcountry, is obviously paramount, but excluding other crucial factors is misleading at best. If, to paraphrase one historian, any good new idea is worth an overstatement, then the authors needed to have offered something more than a general synthesis of established scholarship to justify the exaggeration of the role of the North American backcountry.
Still, these qualms do not undermine the general usefulness and successes of the text. Lecturers should find it an effective reference and a guide to presenting seemingly disconnected events in British backcountry colonization. Similarly, I would recommend it for an intermediate undergraduate readings course or as a brief text for graduate students to read alongside an article or two with competing visions on key points. As always, in a seminar, the weaker points of the narrative and analysis can be quite valuable in stimulating discussion.