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Reviewed by:
  • New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas
  • Richard J. Bell (bio)
New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas. Edited by John Smolenski and Thomas J. Humphrey. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. vi, 362. Cloth, $49.95.)

In his erudite introduction to this bold new collection of essays, a distillation of work presented to the 2001 McNeil Center for Early American Studies conference of the same name, John Smolenski argues that the ordering of colonial societies in the Americas relied upon a link between authority and violence. The creation of colonial order, whether in Caracas or Connecticut, could not be accomplished solely by the formation of a coherent ideology of domination in the metropole. Order, Smolenski argues, was negotiated on the ground, where it was promoted and contested through violence. In practice this meant that colonizing agents sanctioned both legal and extralegal forms of violence in order to construct and maintain their authority. Public executions mandated by the workings of the criminal justice system, public and private beatings that colonial officials refused to prosecute, their selective enforcement of statutes against violence, or their extension of jurisdiction over autonomous populations were all ordering mechanisms by which authority was instantiated in the Americas. The result, Smolenski argues, was a colonial order forged by violence: "Colonial identities were created in some degree through economies of violence—the range of permissible exchanges of violence in colonial society that defined who could inflict violence against whom and under what conditions" (14).

Eleven essayists evidence this hypothesis across the four discrete sections [End Page 196] of this volume. In Part One, Richard Price and Christopher Tomlins consider how authors use stories of violence to breed common identity. In Part Two, Kimberley Gauderman, Cécile Vidal, and Sharon Block examine how the sanctioning of particular forms of intimate violence gave shape and substance to various social inequalities. In Part Three, attention turns from social spaces to questions of political authority as Mark Meuwese, Cynthia Radding, and Matthew Dennis analyze how colonial authority was slowly accreted and occasionally eroded in the jurisdictional battles that erupted in the wake of episodic acts of violence, particularly murders. Finally, in Part Four, Tamar Herzog, Gene E. Ogle, and Ann Twinam deliberate the power of citizenship as a colonial signifier.

This volume, then, charts myriad attempts by figures on all sides to contain the violence inherent in the colonial encounter and turn it to their advantage. While agents of the Dutch, Spanish, French, and English empires were largely successful in creating sanctionable forms of violence to do the work of colonization, the authors in this volume are also sensitive to times and spaces in which minority populations—including married women, slaves, nonwhite immigrants, and indigenous groups—turned the tables by contesting the meanings of violence, resisting jurisdictional control or employing its mechanisms to protect themselves or advance their own causes.

Fine contributions from Tomlins, Block, and Dennis fly the flag for English North America. In the first and most dazzling essay in this rich collection, Tomlins provides a model of how scholarship from the English Atlantic can prove pertinent to scholars considering the ordering of competing colonial projects. With typical eloquence Tomlins parses Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (c. 1591) as a commentary on the ability of words and texts to do literal harm in the colonial world. Arrows wrapped in petitions and supplications wrapped around knives are two of the many text-weapons used by the Roman Andronici family against their foreign enemies in this bloody revenge tragedy. To these portrayals of legal and quasilegal texts doing literal violence, Tomlins links the colonial charters beginning to issue from the Elizabethan court. As if concealing their own deadly weapons, these English colonial charters licensed England's appropriation of space in America by a "cartography of legality and violence" (35). In what one later commentator described as "the English mode of warfare," London's lawyers and mapmakers together [End Page 197] violently cleansed new world territory of its native population and extended English jurisdiction over the empty space (46).

Tomlin's discussion of the interplay between violence, legality, and authority is complemented...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 196-198
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-23
Open Access
No
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