- The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624 ed. by Peter C. Mancall
Like the Columbus quincentenary fifteen years earlier, the commemoration of the arrival of John Smith and his colleagues has created a renewed interest in and demand for scholarship examining the events along the James River in Virginia some 400 years ago. Paradoxically, this collection of eighteen essays, drawn from a 2004 conference sponsored by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, seeks to place Jamestown firmly on the periphery of a larger imperial expansion taking place in the seventeenth century. Indeed, Peter Mancall argues, “Virginia’s story only become intelligible when seen as a small, and not always significant, part of an Atlantic history (25).” By tracing the (sometimes tenuous) connections between Virginia and lands as far-flung as the Spanish Southeast and Central Africa, the authors in this collection succeed in dramatically broadening our perspective on the global context of early American history.
Although the 570 pages of text can be somewhat unwieldy, Mancall divides the essays into five thematic sections, grouping the essays by geographical focus or intellectual currents. The first section focuses on Native American participation in the developing Atlantic system. Daniel Richter argues in “Tsenacommacah and the Atlantic World” that the Powhatan Indians tried and failed to incorporate the English into their pre-existing prestige goods economy, resulting in escalating violence that culminated in the bloodshed of 1622. Joseph Hall finds a similar trend in the Spanish Southeast, where the Altamaha Indians were more successful in parlaying their access to Spanish goods into a source of power and independence in an increasingly fractious indigenous world. In the final essay in this section, James Rice claims that the disproportionate attention given to the Anglo-Powhatan relationship in Virginia obfuscates the significant role “fringe” Indian groups such as the Chickahominies and the Patawomecks played in the history of the region.
While the essays in the first section establish clear connections with the early history of Virginia, the four essays in Part Two: “Africa and the Atlantic” offer more nebulous ties between sub-Saharan Africa and Virginia. E. Ann McDougall and David Northrup begin the section with two essays that provide a solid foundation on trade in West Africa, but with little direct commentary on how the trends they identify shaped events in America. Likewise, Linda Heywood and John Thornton’s study of Central Africa demonstrates the importance of the appropriation of European-style diplomacy, Christianity, and literacy by that region’s leaders in the sixteenth century, but the essay’s only mention of Virginia comes in a brief statement at the end, where the authors argue that “Kongolese and Angolans who came to the Americas were therefore likely to be familiar with aspects of European culture in Virginia,” a familiarity that might “engender both accommodation and resistance (p. 224).” James Sweet makes a more explicit focus on Virginia in his study of the Atlantic slave trade, arguing that Ira Berlin’s formulation of an “African creole” identity is not appropriate in Virginia before at least the mid-seventeenth century.
The next grouping of essays falls under the general category of “European models” for English colonization. Marcy Norton and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert trace the development of a multi-national trade in tobacco despite Spanish efforts to restrict access to the markets and the prime tobacco regions in the Americas. Philip Boucher and Peter Cook draw attention to the often overlooked French presence in the Atlantic; Boucher demonstrates that the French failure in Brazil was due in large part to their inappropriate application of Spanish strategies for conquest, while Cook’s essay offers a fascinating glimpse into how the shifting French notion of kingship affected their interactions with Native Americans. Philip Morgan ends this section with an overview of the more familiar precedents in the Caribbean, arguing that the Caribbean experience was “foundational for understanding early Virginia (p. 344).”
After establishing the regional diversity that characterized the Atlantic, the collection shifts back to England to examine the “Intellectual Currents” evident in English...