American Reading: History

 

book collection verticalEven when I’m not travelling to America I continue reading books on that subject. Today I would like to share with you three fascinating titles about the early colonial history of America. The first two especially are close to my interests as they investigate in depth early British – American links.

So, the first book I would like to mention is Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker. It describes in great detail the crucial events of the late 16th and early 17th centuries which lead to the establishment of the Plymouth Plantation by the “pilgrims”. Actually, this book is as much about British history as it is about American. In fact it probably tells us more about Britain and Europe in those years than about America. The book concentrates on the Puritan movement which developed at that time and which flourished in a few regions of England from where the majority of the influential pilgrims came from. Bunker concentrates on Nottinghamshire and some parts of Sussex. He also describes the political and religious situation in Britain in those years as well as the European wars, politics and economy (which all contributed to establishing New Plymouth). This book is well researched and investigates many different angles to an otherwise well known but often simplified and stereotypical story of the pilgrims. There is for example a great chapter describing puritans exiled in Leiden which provides great insight into Dutch history and British – Dutch links.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Some reviews on various websites are a bit critical, especially about the author describing lots of detailed facts and not linking them as well as he could or, on the other hand, stretching some links too far. For a non-historian like myself (though with a great interest in history) this criticism is too harsh. Also, living in London I really enjoyed all the small facts and links to the whole history to London, like mentioning inns and churches where Puritans met in the City, or streets where prominent backers of the whole colonial enterprise lived.

The second book I want to write about today is Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire by Dan Snow. It describes events almost exactly 150 years later than the first book. By then the British and French colonies in America were well established and had started playing a major role in those countries’ history. They were no more peripheral outposts but places crucial to the development of the great colonial empires. As the title implies the book concentrates on the battle of Quebec in 1759 in which British forces defeated the French and took over North America. As with the aforementioned story of the pilgrims this is another detailed and well researched book focusing on a relatively narrow subject. It describes the British military machine of that time (including many technical aspects of the Royal Navy and British Army) and colonial societies, but it concentrates on this one particular military campaign. There are a lot of references to diaries and letters by British and French officers (especially the British commander general James Wolfe) which gives the book quite a personal feel. As a geographer I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of local topography and wider geography and how it influenced those historic events. The author describes for example how tides on the St Lawrence river influenced manoeuvring by the navy or how the steep slopes on the both banks of the river limited landing possibilities. Overall this book is a great read for a history buff like me.

Now, what I also really enjoyed is how these books connect to my travels. A couple of years ago I managed to visit Plymouth, Massachusetts, where pilgrims established their settlement and the last year I visited Westerham, Kent, where general Wolfe was borne and where he lived in house which is nowadays called Quebec House (more about the visit here). Now I would definitely like to visit Quebec to see the places described in the second book. However, that has to wait as I just came back from another of my US adventures and need to replenish my budget.

And that’s where I have to mention the third book I wanted to write about today: The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. Yes, you guessed it. It is yet another detailed historical book concentrating on a fairly narrow subject. But don’t worry, it’s not as narrow as the previous two. Basically it is a history of the first 100 years of New Orleans. And what a fascinating history it is. For a start the city is located in the wrong place. Literarily. Its founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, ignored orders from France and established it in a less than ideal site (with limited commercial or agricultural merit, founded on unstable soil, and subject to heat, disease, floods, torrential rain, and hurricanes) in a place where he had some properties and personal interests. As you can see corruption is not a new phenomenon. The book covers the period starting from founding of New Orleans in 1718 and ending in 1815 by when the city is already under control of the young United States. In that span it switched from French to Spanish hands (1763), was burned and flooded a few times, moved back under French control (1801), before being taken over by the Americans and fighting off the British. All this is interesting in itself but the best aspect of the book are the parts where the author describes its geographical, demographic and social background.

New Orleans has developed distinct ethic and cultural mix and source of this mix is in those first 100 years. It always had a large slave population but under French, and especially Spanish, rule that society developed in a distinctively different way to other parts of the American south. Part of the reasons were the different cultural attitudes of French and Spanish to race that was distinctly different to the Anglo-Saxon attitude . Also, the Spanish slave code was “more progressive” (if we can ever call it that) compared to anything the English, or even the French, society ever came up with. All this made New Orleans a city like no other.

The book is at times quite heavy in details. For example the author describes the legal nuances of French and Spanish law (especially regarding the slave codes) as well as lists plenty of names of local dignitaries. But all those details really help to understand why New Orleans developed the way it did. And besides, for me the more detailed the book the better, I simply hate simplified histories.

So, that’s it for now. All three books are well worth a read. If you only have time or patience for one of them start from the one most relevant to your interests. Oh, and as soon as I read something good I promise to share it with you again. In the meantime there will be more travel stories coming, including of course the fabulous New Orleans.Bourbon Bar

 

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