- Atlantic Histories
Scholars have been thinking of the early modern Atlantic as a distinct historical subject for almost four decades, beginning with Jack P. Greene’s establishment of the “Atlantic Seminar” at Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s. From the start, the concept was inter-disciplinary (Greene helped create the Hopkins anthropology department, so as to better draw upon anthropological approaches), comparative (within the Americas as well as across the ocean), and trans-national (at least in terms of eschewing a teleological reading of the later rise of nations back into the colonial era). In many ways, the original concept has changed little. But the conceptual acorn has since engendered a forest (or perhaps more accurately, felled a forest). In the past eight years alone, more than fifty books focused on the early modern era have been published with the terms “Atlantic” or “Atlantic World” in their titles.
The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624 is based upon papers presented at a conference held in Williamsburg in 2004 and was published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown. In the introduction, the book’s editor, Peter C. Mancall, offers a history of how Jamestown has been commemorated that illustrates how the discipline of history itself has changed. In 1907, the ceremonies marking the tri-centennial depicted Jamestown as the cradle of the American nation. The 2007 ceremonies, Mancall notes, were far less celebratory and more circumspect. As the conference program (printed here in an appendix) reveals, Jamestown is now seen as the contested site of endings as well as beginnings, and is placed not in the context of the later nation, but as a part of a larger, contemporaneous, Atlantic world.
The book is divided into five parts. Part one, “Native American Settings,” with essays by Daniel Richter, James Rice, and Joseph Hall, is the section of the book most closely concerned with Virginia. In their essays, Richter and Rice, reexamine the encounter between the English and the Indians in the decade after the establishment of Jamestown. The authors largely adopt the Indians’ [End Page 6] perspective, referring to Virginia by the native term, “Tsenacommacah,” for example. In this era, the natives still set the rules of engagement.
Richter details how native rulers like Wahunsonacock, or Powhatan (the name of his natal village), cultivated power through the redistribution of status goods. The perpetuation of this “prestige-goods economy” required that the ruler’s coffer be constantly replenished via tribute, trade, or conquest. The authority of native leaders was closely tied to their ability to quite literally “deliver the goods.” The native term “werowance,” which the English usually translated as “chief,” actually meant “he is wealthy.” By their actions, the English inadvertently played into or against these native protocols. The first commander at Jamestown, Christopher Newport, sought to obtain Indian cooperation by bestowing lavish gifts. In doing this, he behaved just as natives expected a wealthy and powerful person should. After Newport returned to England however, John Smith’s determination to drive harder bargains and to compel the Indians to submit to English rule created tensions that soon erupted into violence.
Hall’s essay on Spanish Florida examines the same phenomenon in another region. When DeSoto marched through the Southeast in the mid-fifteenth century, he sought to subdue the natives with the sword (he had earlier taken part in the conquest of Peru). However, the decentralized character of Southeastern Indian societies made such a military conquest impossible to achieve. There was no Montezuma or Atahuallpa for DeSoto (or John Smith) to depose and replace. Eventually, about the time that the English arrived at Jamestown, the Spanish in Florida were forced to adopt “softer” (we could say native) modes of control. From St. Augustine, Spanish governors dispensed “gifts,” missionaries, and Spanish names and clothing to win over native elites. Ironically, these methods gave the Spanish far more influence and greater reach throughout the Southeast than they could have hoped to achieve through...