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  • Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail by Matthew R. Bahar
Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail. By Matthew R. Bahar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 301 pages. Cloth, ebook.

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 of “Father Rale’s War” (1722–27) and persecution of Wabanaki “pirates” (179) further heightened Natives’ anti-British sentiments. Thereafter, Mi’kmaqs and other Wabanaki warriors targeted the British in Nova Scotia, selling captured goods, people, and ships to the French in a black-market economy that undermined Britain’s control of the colony. Only when Britain defeated not the Wabanaki but the French in Canada and elsewhere in the world—formalized by the treaty conference in Paris in 1763—did an even greater tide of British settlement overwhelm the Wabanaki and, in the process, cut off their access to the sea. [End Page 130]

Bahar employs on a vast range of manuscript and primary sources from archives in France, Britian, and Canada as well as the United States to build his case. He also draws on the most important work in Native American, colonial/imperial, maritime, environmental, and other historical fields and from archaeology, material culture studies, linguistics, and other specialized disciplines. Though many readers will be familiar with Metacom/Philip of the Wampanoags in southern New England, they will learn here of such equally extraordinary figures as Madockawando, the Penobscot leader whose vision inspired Wabanakis for decades; Mogg Heigon, a naval commander whose forces drove most Maine settlers to Boston during King Philip’s War; and Nescambiouit, whose feats in defiance of the British led him to be received and knighted by Louis XIV at Versailles.

Storm of the Sea constitutes an important historiographical intervention in several ways. Perhaps above all, it shifts maritime developments in the colonial Northeast from the periphery to the center. Instead of constituting a minor annoyance to French and British efforts to dominate the region, Wabanaki maritime warfare emerges in the book as the primary barrier to early European success there. Although Andrew Lipman offers a comparable study of the coastal region from Cape Cod to the Hudson River during the seventeenth century, his maritime Indians were at best a brief and partial obstacle to colonization.3 At the same time, Bahar’s Wabanaki differ from Indigenous seafarers such as the Makahs, as depicted in Joshua L. Reid’s aptly titled The Sea Is My Country. Whereas Makah maritime power in the Pacific Northwest was firmly established before the advent of Europeans, the Wabanaki built much of theirs on the colonizers’ technology.4 Bahar also gives substance to Jace Weaver’s contention that Indigenous Americans were integral to the Atlantic world.5 Bahar joins these and other authors in an emerging scholarly movement focusing on Native Americans who were water-based or waterborne rather than, as conventionally presupposed, primarily landlubbers. This movement in turn feeds a larger consideration of oceans and waterways as keys to understanding global history. Bahar’s book, then, resonates loudly within its own field and with larger trends in historical scholarship.

As powerful and insightful as it is, Storm of the Sea has some limitations. It is a book about the “performance of manhood” (5) by “marine-warriors” (56) that does not explore the wider gendered context in which these men [End Page 131] acted. The most extended attention to women occurs in the first chapter, where Bahar draws from oral narratives—mostly published in the nineteenth century—in which Gluskap and some Wabanaki men encounter female seductresses and witches at sea. But he neither historicizes nor critiques these accounts and flatly asserts that they are “largely reflective of the historic gender roles central to most hunter-gatherer societies” (227 n. 15), ignoring the nuanced work of Eleanor Burke Leacock and later feminist scholars on gender in hunter-gatherer societies in the Northeast and elsewhere in colonized North America.6

Bahar also refers to oral accounts of “a massive [Wabanaki] flotilla of warriors” attacking their “old foes” (20), the Mohawks, on the Saint Lawrence River before 1500, yet he offers no citation for this dubious assertion. In fact, as Gordon M. Day demonstrated in 1971, the Abenaki homeland extended westward to Lake Champlain, and the earliest Wabanaki-Mohawk contacts were terrestrial.7 Indeed, though geographically peripheral to Bahar’s much-needed corrective, landed Wabanakis have a place in his story. During the seventeenth century, Wabanakis fought frequently against Mohawks and other English-allied Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) nations in wars on land that were closely integrated with those on the coast.8 Though Bahar appears to believe that interior Abenakis were not part of a confederacy that included their fellow Abenakis on the coast, the formal Wabanaki Confederacy was far more extensive than the “fundamentally maritime” (221 n. 4) entity that Bahar presents. Its diplomats joined those representing France, its many Indigenous allies, and diverse groupings of Haudenosaunee, in reaching the Grand Settlement of 1701 in Montreal. Among other terms, the Five Nations Haudenosaunee agreed to remain neutral in subsequent Anglo-French wars, thereby freeing Wabanakis from the obligation to fight the Native peoples who had so ably aided the English since 1664. After the settlement, the confederacy coordinated Wabanaki internal affairs and diplomacy, especially with the French-allied [End Page 132] Seven Nations, based at Caughnawaga (now known as Kahnawake) near Montreal.9 Essential elements of Wabanaki politics and diplomacy were focused inland throughout this period.

The confederacy continued to mediate disputes among members until well into the nineteenth century and reemerged in the late twentieth century, joining other organizations such as the Boston Indian Council (whose members were primarily Mi’kmaq) as forces for Indigenous community, cultural identity, and empowerment. A story that makes room for female as well as male urban Indian immigrants, including activists, could have complicated Bahar’s conclusion, which emphasizes Anglo-American triumph and Wabanaki declension. It could also have enabled the opening vignette to show that Wabanakis (the center of the story, after all) participated with Wampanoags and other Native nations in the Thanksgiving demonstration at Plymouth in 1970.10

As serious as these limitations are, they do not detract from the qualities that distinguish Storm of the Sea. Indeed, Bahar has performed a service by highlighting issues that future scholars of the Northeast and of maritime history will need to confront in moving their fields forward. It is important to note in conclusion that Bahar’s writing is consistently felicitous, rendering often complicated material in jargon-free prose that will prove accessible to nonspecialists at all academic levels. [End Page 133]

Neal Salisbury
Smith College


1. Quotation originally from “Gabriel Archer’s Narrative of Gosnold’s North Virginia Voyage,” in New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, vol. 3, English Plans for North America. The Roanoke Voyages. New England Ventures, ed. David B. Quinn with Alison M. Quinn and Susan Hillier (New York, 1979), 3: 353.

2. Quotation originally from John Brereton, A Briefe and true Relation of the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia. . . . (London, 1602), 4.

3. Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven, Conn., 2015).

4. Joshua L. Reid, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, an Indigenous Borderlands People (New Haven, Conn., 2015).

5. Jace Weaver, The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000–1927 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2014).

6. Among Eleanor Burke Leacock’s many works on this topic, see esp. Leacock, “Women in Egalitarian Societies,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston, 1977), 11–35; Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross-Culturally (New York, 1981). Other pioneering studies include Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine, eds., The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women (Washington, D.C., 1983); Hetty Jo Brumbach and Robert Jarvenpa, “Woman the Hunter: Ethnoarchaeological Lessons from Chipewyan Life-Cycle Dynamics,” in Women in Prehistory: North America and Mesoamerica, ed. Cheryl Claassen and Rosemary A. Joyce (Philadelphia, 1997), 17–32; Laura Jane Moore, “Lozen: An Apache Woman Warrior,” in Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives, ed. Theda Perdue (New York, 2001), 92–107.

7. Gordon M. Day, “The Eastern Boundary of Iroquoia: Abenaki Evidence,” 1971, in In Search of New England’s Native Past: Selected Essays by Gordon M. Day, ed. Michael K. Foster and William Cowan (Amherst, Mass., 1998), 116–22.

8. Colin G. Calloway, The Western Abenakis of Vermont,1600–1800: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People (Norman, Okla., 1990).

9. Willard Walker, Gregory Buesing, and Robert Conkling, “A Chronological Account of the Wabanaki Confederacy,” in Political Organization of Native North Americans, ed. Ernest L. Schusky (Washington, D.C., 1980), 41–84, esp. 52; Calloway, Western Abenakis, 98–99; Bruce J. Bourque, Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine (Lincoln, Neb., 2001), 236–40; Gilles Havard, The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701: French-Native Diplomacy in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott (Montreal, 2001).

10. Jeanne Guillemin, Urban Renegades: The Cultural Strategy of American Indians (New York, 1975); Walker, Buesing, and Conkling, “Chronological Account,” 52–79; Jean Susan Forward, “Ethnicity and Education: The B.I.C. Innovative Culture Broker (Boston, Massachusetts)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1985); Willard Walker, “The Wabanaki Confederacy,” Maine History 37, no. 3 (Winter 1998): 110–39; Bourque, Twelve Thousand Years, 240–48; Pauleena MacDougall, The Penobscot Dance of Resistance: Tradition in the History of a People (Durham, N.H., 2004), 16–35; Christine M. DeLucia, Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast (New Haven, Conn., 2018), 95–96.

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