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Reviewed by:
  • Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America
  • Jason Sellers
Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America. Edited by Robert Olwell and Alan Tully. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

British colonists in the Americas created disparate colonial societies as they mixed metropolitan traditions with local innovations in response to the varied economic prospects and historical preconditions confronting them. Despite this process of creolization, the ever-increasing circulation of information, trade goods, and people kept the colonies in constant dialogue with the metropole, inspiring admiration and imitation that nonetheless often met with rebuff. A multiplicity of colonial cultures emerged from the ongoing tensions between creolization and anglicization, a process explored by the essayists in Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America, edited by Robert Olwell and Alan Tully.

The essays with which this volume begins consider the earliest developmental phase of colonization, examining the ways in which immigration forced colonists to think and act in new ways. In response to new environments, settlers modified some existing practices while discarding others. Among essays concerned with challenges posed by nature and geography are pieces that explore Anglo-African identities, the construction of social networks in North Carolina, the conceptualization of African slaves as dangerous natural forces, and environmental management concerns. In his nuanced “Conservation, Class, and Controversy in Early America,” Robert M. Weir contrasts England with mainland America, arguing that colonists presented with nature’s abundance quickly modified traditional practices. While many colonies eased England’s restrictive hunting laws, they also recognized that unfettered exploitation had depleted England’s natural resources and thus instituted statutes to protect timber stands and game populations. Although his analysis revolves around Pennsylvania, Weir effectively refers to an array of colonies-including New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia-to demonstrate that while settlers shared the experience of modifying English practices, they did so in varied ways.

A set of pieces devoted to the second phase of colonial development, in which colonists turned their attentions to securing individual and collective success, clearly demonstrates the powerful pull of creolization. Settlers responding to diverse economic opportunities shaped their colonies in ways that diverged from English models as well as other colonial ventures. Essays on New England’s export markets, Virginia overseers, artisan distribution and employment in the Chesapeake, and women traders in Pennsylvania collectively contend that economic pursuits were of primary importance in shaping colonial societies. While England-and, later, America’s northern states-developed a free market in labor, Virginia and other Southern colonies continued to rely on enslaved workers, a pattern James M. Baird addresses in “Paternalism and Profits: Planters and Overseers in Piedmont Virginia, 1750–1825.” To legitimize slave ownership and distance themselves from the realities of exploitation, planters cast themselves as paternalists and slaves as dependents. By focusing on oft-ignored planter-overseer relationships, Baird highlights planters’ leading role in the increasing Anglo-American commitment to market practices; planters demonstrated this devotion by conceiving of their relations with overseers in terms of employment, rewarding high productivity and thus driving labor exploitation. Concern with market crops and intensifying labor regimens thus undermined legitimizing paternalist claims while reinforcing creolized labor practices. James E. McWilliams describes how the pursuit of export markets shaped New England as well. Constructing a functional internal economy, first necessitated infrastructural development and commercial transactions that colonists later elaborated to access external markets. In each case, colonists created unique economic systems to participate in a wider transatlantic world.

Their economies prospering, colonists next set to improving themselves and their societies, a pursuit addressed by this collection’s remaining authors. Seeking recognition of their political rights as Englishmen, colonists emulated English culture and appropriated political language to claim Anglo identities. Although colonial elites, who stood to benefit most from this anglicization, most ardently pursued it, essays by Daniel K. Richter and Edward M. Cook, Jr. suggest that non-elites and Native Americans also asserted their own expectations, often shaping these claims in unique ways. Essays on the ability of charter privileges to mediate between inclusiveness and elite recognition, the challenge of incorporating Native Americans into a British Empire and emerging British-American racial identity, and the colonial gentry’s commitment to ideas about inherited...

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