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Book Review


Olwell, Robert and Alan Tully, eds. Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2006). 386 pp, $50.00.

     Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America focuses on the expansion of Great Britain's colonies in North America. Taken together, the essays in this anthology revolve around British identity as the American colonies were settled. As the essays progress throughout the book, the text clearly centers on the concept of a distinct American character and culture vastly different from its British parentage.

     Well-written and extensively researched, this work provides an analysis of the development of a specific American persona that builds upon its British roots. This ideal of an American personality is clearly separate from the idea of nationalism as discussed by historians such as Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism, [Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1983]). The editors of Cultures and Identities in British Colonial America divide the book into three areas that explore the roles environment, trade, and politics play in a newly settled region searching to claim its individuality and create its own place on the world stage. Each section examines a particular facet of society and how it constructs culture in the burgeoning societies of colonial British America.

     One thesis that pervades many of the essays is that the colonists became exploiters themselves rather than merely victims of a controlling mother country. In the first article, entitled The Nature of Slavery, S. Max Edelson argues that imported African slaves were indispensable to the success of Britain's colonies because they served as a vital labor force and provided a barrier between the untamed land and the settlers. Edelson suggests that the colonists perceived the African slaves as savages in tune with the wildness of their surroundings. Many slaves brought to the colonies endured the hot, humid tropical weather patterns because these climatic conditions reflected the African environment from which many slaves originated. Africans more readily adapted to these conditions than Europeans who typically had little experience in this type of landscape. (31) This natural ability made the slaves more capable of the hard physical work required to forge plantations than the European settlers who found the environment extremely trying.

     Accomplishing the task of 'civilizing' their surroundings required colonists to maintain good health. Rudimentary medical care involved a heavy dependency on various herbs and primitive practices. Taking advantage of African knowledge of medicinal plants enabled the colonists to monitor their physical condition even though some feared poisoning from vengeful slaves. Many slaves were permitted to maintain their own vegetable and herb gardens on plots of land eked out from the main plantation fields or carved out of less desirable back country. Much of this productivity was subsequently traded or sold to the slave owners and some slaves eventually received manumission for their pharmaceutical efforts. (29)

     Part II of the book opens with an essay "Beyond Declension: Economic Adaptation and the Pursuit of Export Markets in the Massachusetts Bay Region, 1630-1700" by James E. McWilliams. The author does an excellent job bringing to light the extensive array of income-producing activities in colonial America. A number of useful tables and charts depict the variety of goods and services available as well the profitability of these business ventures. McWilliams' case study of merchant George Corwin takes on the formidable task of evaluating the colonial economy beyond bartering products such as foodstuffs. He also examines the development of an entrepreneurial class possessing characteristics markedly different from its British counterpart. McWilliams' work traces Corwin's efforts to navigate the world of trade external to the colonies. Using commodities received as payment from colonists, Corwin exchanged home-grown goods for imported items which he subsequently resold for a fair profit. (144) According to McWilliams, the colonists' goal of obtaining wealth (regional differences in available products notwithstanding) actually "provided seventeenth-century British American colonies with an overarching, even unifying, common pursuit." (146)

     Women's roles in settling the British colonies have long been accepted as more varied and complex than simple cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Indeed, according to James H. Merrell in "The Other "Susquahannah Traders" Women and Exchange on the Pennsylvania Frontier," women played a vital part in establishing trade and diplomacy between native and colonial peoples. Merrell argues that even though "women, native and colonial, are hard to see, they are not invisible." (202) Few written records document women's active participation in exchanging goods but "women were never far from a treaty ground." (202)

     Merrell suggests that native and colonial people, especially the women, did not markedly differentiate between trade and hospitality. Prepared food became a common exchange item, as did shelter and the occasional bout of nursing or midwifery. In some instances, Native American women performed more trade tasks with colonial shopkeepers than their male counterparts. One encounter related by Merrell involved the exchange of sewing services for liquor, a practice that eventually led to "female liquormongers" becoming prevalent enough that provisions were made so that "their women may not have too long a way [to go] to fetch it." (207-208)

     Enterprising women existed on both sides, as evidenced by Merrell's extensive use of shop records, diaries, and letters. Merrell suggests that the traditional idea of the "fur trade" as a male-dominated field must be modified to account for the fact that women played a highly influential role in establishing trade in remote regions. Additionally, he argues successfully that the term itself "fails to encompass the range of activities and encounters that comprised cross-cultural exchange, a range that included diplomacy and hospitality, nursing and sex." (219)

     In 1925, Aldo Leopold wrote in the Journal of Land and Policy Utility Economics (Volume 1, 398-404) that "many of the attributes most distinctive of America and Americans are the impress of WildernessÉits distinguishing marks are a certain vigorous individualism..." The collection of essays under consideration here introduces a new, more intimate view of colonial life and the crafting of a unique American personality that drifted away from its European roots. The idea of wilderness and the attendant social isolation must be taken into account to explain this trend. All of the writings in this work relate to the creation of these circumstances.

     Both undergraduate and graduate students will find much of interest in the essays as they develop specialized interests in seventeenth and eighteenth century America. High school teachers may refer to the book to flush out interesting details of the colonial period, but are unlikely to find the text significantly effective in a general classroom setting. Advanced placement students may have difficulty in understanding many of the nuances because their background knowledge base often lacks sufficient depth.

     In terms of world history, this book fails to provide sufficient analysis of how the developing American society was understood by other countries or even by Great Britain itself. However, the colonists' interactions with other cultures, such as African slaves and Native American tribes, would be of considerable value to students exploring trade connections and a rising merchant class in a broader world context than that found solely within the American colonies.

     Overall, historians can find many excellent reasons to add this text to their bookshelves. Essays addressing a wide gamut of historical work such as women and African-American studies, economics and politics, and agriculture and environment present beneficial information with a fresh perspective.


Marjorie J. Hunter
West Memphis High School


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