Book Review: The Barbarous Years

The Barbarous Years:  The Peopling Of British North America:  The Conflict Of Civilizations, 1600-1675, by Bernard Bailyn

This is not a book to be devoured in my usual fashion.  It is a book that requires a fair bit of time to read, with over 500 pages of material, and also requires at least a little bit of reflection to digest it.  Being fond of reading material about the colonial period of my country as well as material about the regional cultures that developed in British North America [1], this book proved to be an immensely detailed account of the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century in the area from Virginia to New England, and how the desire to both overcome the problems of home and replicate what they were familiar with ended up proving to be impossible in the face of the pressures of continual anxiety and threat.  In writing this book, Bailyn appears to be wrestling with the darkness at the heart of American culture by looking at the origins of our own violent history and pervasive sense of anxiety in our history and specifically in the turmoil of our founding, where violence was at the heart of so much that went on all over the colonies of North America that later became part of the United States.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book is both chronological and regional in its approach.  The book opens with a chapter on the worldview of the indigenous people and their native cultural beliefs as well as the pervasive violence in which they lived their lives even before the arrival of the Europeans.  There are no noble savage myths here to be found. The vast majority of the book is spent on the second part, exploring the behavior of the Europeans along the Atlantic seaboard during the 17th century and their own hopes and wishes and tensions and disappointments.  Four chapters look at the difficulties of early Virginia, including the threat of starvation and disease as well as the brutal warfare conducted between the Virginians and their Powhatan neighbors.  After that the author looks at the founding of Maryland and its failed hopes for a Catholic refuge and the new world that was created on the shores of the Chesapeake.  A couple of chapters about the Dutch farrago of New Netherlands follows and then a chapter about the struggles of New Sweden and the importance of some obscure and forgotten Finnish settlers who more or less went native.  A chapter about Plymouth and three chapters about Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island follow, showing the internal contradictions of the New England experiment, the absence of a firm Puritan orthodoxy and the struggle between the desire to preserve the social experiment of New England and the desire for profit that ended up having disastrous spiritual consequences.  The third part of the book ties all of these thoughts together in a single chapter that points out the violence and insecurity that was faced by all of the early colonists, among whom I can count many of my own ancestors, none of whom (alas) are mentioned here.

If you are reading this book you probably know what you are getting–a learned and highly quotable history of the American colonial period that is thought-provoking and that is based on sound insight as well as a deep knowledge of the relevant statistical and historical materials.  Either this book will seem to be an interminable chore for someone who does not like reading long and heavily detailed books or it will be, like everything else I have read from this author, a wonderful and amazing book that will be among the best books about its subject one has ever read.  The more I read from this author, the more I wonder why I never heard about him before and only stumbled upon by accident in looking at the history of colonial America.  Clearly, this historian needs a better marketing team to let everyone know about him, because once you take the time to read this material one finds much to appreciate and even a great deal of insight in understanding ourselves when we see those not very different from us in the past struggle with the contradictions of living their ideals while pragmatically dealing with unpleasant and difficult aspects of reality in hostile territory.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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