- Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail by Matthew R. Bahar
In 1602, an English vessel commanded by Bartholomew Gosnold approached the Maine coast when a Basque shallop carrying six men approached. Thinking the sailors “to bee Christians distressed” (49), the English hastened toward them, only to discover that they were actually Mi’kmaq Indians, some of them dressed in European attire.1 Using “an iron grapple” (48), the men aggressively boarded Gosnold’s ship in search of desirable goods.2 Five centuries later, Gosnold’s surprise in encountering skilled Native American sailors persists among scholars and others who stereotype Native Americans as strictly landed peoples. Matthew R. Bahar’s new book, Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail, will disabuse them of this and other cherished notions.
Storm of the Sea offers a strikingly original history of Wabanaki people (consisting of Abenakis, Penobscots, Passamaquoddys, Maliseets, and Mi’kmaqs) and the colonial and imperial forces they faced from their earliest encounters with Europeans through the late eighteenth century. During that interval, Bahar argues, Wabanakis drew on their spiritually rooted relationship with the sea to develop a highly successful “blue-water strategy” (3) that flouted English and French threats to their sovereignty and peacefully ordered way of life. They did so by selectively adopting the newcomers’ maritime technology, practices, and material assets to wage no-holds-barred warfare and piracy. Along with brilliant diplomacy, in which they played the two European empires against each other, the Wabanakis rendered the English and French presences never more than tenuous and drained their imperial treasuries. Although often threatened, Wabanaki power ended only when one empire, France, withdrew from eastern North America under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763). [End Page 129]
Bahar begins by describing Wabanaki material and spiritual history over the ten thousand years preceding the arrival of Europeans. Wabanakis, meaning “People of the Dawn” (2) or “Dawnland,” considered themselves and the coastal landscape to have been formed by Gluskap, a mythical giant who taught them how to live in harmony with the turbulent ocean. By the fifteenth century, they enjoyed material abundance based on marine technology that facilitated whale hunting and trading with other Native peoples in the far northeastern Atlantic. Bahar then describes Wabanaki interactions with visiting Europeans during the sixteenth century that, when sufficiently amiable, entailed exchanges of food, furs, and material goods. Mi’kmaq men were also drawn to the visitors’ sailing vessels and traded for, stole, or built their own to use in fishing, hunting, trading, and raiding other Indians and Europeans. During the 1620s, their newly adopted watercraft made the Mi’kmaqs the foremost maritime power between what would become Nova Scotia and Massachusetts Bay.
Thereafter power among Wabanakis shifted as Mi’kmaqs, whose forces were unable to prevent English settlers’ encroachments in southern Maine, withdrew northeastward. As King Philip’s War spread to Maine in 1675, local Abenaki warriors seized English ships and captives. Unlike in southern New England, the Indians won in Maine, and the Treaty of Casco Bay (1678) permitted settlers to return so long as they paid an annual tribute to their Native proprietors. But the peace soon unraveled as new English immigrants ignored the treaty and resumed abuses of Wabanaki people, land, and resources. Wabanaki regard for England’s pro-French Stuart dynasty sustained a fragile formal truce until the Glorious Revolution that deposed James II brought the War of the League of Augsburg (1689–97) to North America. Once again, Wabanaki forces rid the Dawnland of English colonists. Nevertheless, when British imperial forces returned during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), the Wabanaki sought to play the two European powers off against one another. But Britain had become determined to crush the Wabanaki. The postwar treaty awarded most of Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia) to Britain without Mi’kmaq consent, and even more intensified warfare followed when Britain’s initiation...