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Book Review


Goode, Michael and John Smolenski, eds. The Specter of Peace: Rethinking the Violence and Power in the Colonial Atlantic. Leiden: Brill, 2018.


     This volume, a result of the Conference at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah in 2015, explores histories of peace across the Atlantic, revealing the intricate role peace plays in understanding negotiations between conflict and compromise. Whereas contributions to peace studies are dominated by political science and international relations, the historians in this volume aim to reinvigorate the field of peace history by taking a revisionist approach to what they view as the reciprocal concepts of peace and violence. The authors illuminate the spectral presence of peace in early American history, showing how "[t]he quest for peace [was] almost always contained within its missteps, missed opportunities, and moments when the coin flipped from collaboration to violence and then back to collaboration again" (20). Contributing to peace studies, Atlantic World studies, and histories of peace, this volume reveals the quests for peace found buried within violent uproars that have been overlooked by scholarship for far too long.

     Comprised of seven essays, in addition to a forward, an introduction, and afterword by the editors, this volume covers a vast temporal and geographic range, resituating the importance of peace in the scholarly agenda of historical research. The micro-histories examine and conceptualize peacemaking as a process and, taken together, show how the meaning of peace varied widely across time and space, as did its construction and maintenance. Staying in line with peace studies these essays clearly illustrate the necessity of historicizing peace to demonstrate not only how violent conflict was managed by peoples of the past but also how they envisioned harmony. More specifically, the scholars address the ways peacemaking, or idealized forms of "right ordering," was used as a tool to form alliances to promote economic benefit, reputation, negotiation, and/or security and protection in the colonial Atlantic.

     Mark Meuwese and Dylan Ruediger examine the negotiations of peace and violence as avenues for the economic benefit of white colonizers. In his contribution to the early history of colonial Brazil, Meuwese offers an insightful take on how the non-violent and restrained episodes between the Dutch and their Iberian counterparts shed light on critical factors in the rise and fall of the Dutch. Arguing that the Dutch promoted peace through efforts of incorporating the Luso-Brazilian population into its empire and restraining warfare to spare the economically productive sugar mills, Meuwese highlights the important role peace played in creating avenues for economic benefit as well as efforts to maintain a respectable reputation as public criticism against the war in Brazil grew. Ruediger's essay, examining the tributary submissions of Indians of Southside Virginia in the fifty years following Bacon's Rebellion, congruently examines attempts to negotiate peace as a means for economic fruition. Although noting that there are "multiple histories of peace and violence [that] shaped the political landscape of Virginia's Southside," and that the indigenous history, or side of the story, is unknown, his analysis concludes that while the intentions of Englishmen were characterized by self-interest, those of the Native Americans were of desperation and agency (71). Governors used tributary peacemaking to mitigate and manage violence in the area. By claiming that tributary status was a form of protection for the indigenous inhabitants, they placed indigenous populations in subordinate positions for the economic benefit of Virginia.

     The analysis of peace for protection is a common theme. Brendan Gillis's essay comparing the theory and practice of keeping the peace within the British colonial empire, reveals the nuanced nature of peace and violence. His analysis aligns with Meuwese's and Ruediger's, as he shows how efforts at peace were framed as a way to protect the indigenous and other marginalized populations. Gillis investigates the culture of legal peace present in British America and India, arguing that considering them together reveals how the mutable nature of English law enforcement enabled local agents to improvise policies and take into consideration cultural diversity in the effort to maintain a harmonic state. Cristina Soriano, similarly looks at the idea of peace as a form of protection but her research rather highlights the deeply seated fear prevalent in white society and the need for protection against those groups marginalized by the colonial and imperial order. Her investigation of print culture and the oral transmission of media in the late colonial period, elucidates not only the intrinsic fear officials had of the circulation of this knowledge but also the agency of marginalized populations, slaves and free peoples of African descent in Venezuela, to learn and disseminate information regarding revolutionary agendas. Soriano's analysis of censorship and the modification of discipline show how the fear of insurrection hence created new spaces for negotiations.

     Rounding the volume, Geoffrey Plank, Micah Alpaugh, and Margot Minardi, offer further insights into peacemaking in the revolutionary Atlantic World. Plank examines discussions of war and peace in periods of foreboding upheaval. Aptly arguing for the historicization of peace in studies of the past as a way to better comprehend its nuanced nature and its intrinsic link to violence, Plank provides a general analysis of transatlantic war in the eighteenth century. Alpaugh and Minardi look specifically to instances of peacebuilding and peacekeeping before and after times of war, to restore a balance to a historiography preoccupied with violence (159). Alpaugh's analysis of positive peace in the years leading up to the American Revolution, flip the coin showing how the specter of violence was used to achieve and maintain order, or positive peace. In a similar vein, Minardi's analysis of the letters of a fictitious man from the Loo Choo Islands, shows the extent leaders of the American peace movement would go through to get Americans to reflect on the shortcomings of their customs (in this case, the custom of violence).

     Taken together, these essays illustrate how different perceptions of peace and violence develop from socially constructed understandings of these concepts that, in turn, have often led to misunderstandings rooted in cultural difference. While studies of these misunderstandings, specifically, have previously received little scholarly attention of the colonial Atlantic, this compilation illuminates the importance and need for these studies. The traditional focus on violence has masked the presence and power of peace. The authors in this volume address this deficit and illustrate the central role peace and peacemaking played in affecting imperial and colonial relations in the American Atlantic from the Age of Exploration and Conquest through the Age of Revolutions. While the shortcomings of this volume, including the primarily Eurocentric gaze of the essays and the imbalance between works representing Latin America and more specifically, Africa (none of these essays speak directly to the continent), are not unfamiliar to Atlantic World histories, this book is an important contribution to professors and students of peace studies, Atlantic World studies, and histories of peace, alike.

     Because of the theoretical nature examining the intersecting and interdependent relationship between peace and violence and the complexity that lies in the numerous ways that the two are perceived, contextualized, and, hence, defined in the colonial Atlantic, this volume, in its entirety, is best-suited for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students. That said, individual essays could readily be incorporated into introduction level courses that seek to begin conversations about the spectral presence of peace and violence not only in the past but also in the present.

Shayna Mehas received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Atlantic World and Latin American History at Elon University. She can be reached at


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