Abstract: Courses on colonial North America are world history courses. This article discusses some of the parameters used in developing and teaching this course and the ways world history narratives continue to fall short when it comes to this era of history.
Key Words: Teaching, colonial North America
One day I was walking to work, blithely minding my own business, with Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, on my mind. On this day, one of my colleagues stopped me. He told me that he and others were organizing a conference on globalization, and would I contribute? I thought about it for a minute and said something like, “I cannot talk with any kind of expertise on twenty-first century globalization, but I can talk about how I use the concepts of world history and connectedness in teaching my course on colonial North America.” This casual agreement on a street corner led me to think seriously about the parameters I use, consciously and unconsciously, in developing and teaching this course. The process of interrogation further strengthened my belief that a course on colonial North America is, in its very nature, a world history course.
Tisquantum was on my mind because I was preparing for teaching a class on colonial North America later that day. I was thinking about this Indian who really did come out of the woods of North America to talk to the Pilgrims in English. We do not know for sure Tisquantum’s life-story, but we think he was captured in the early 1600s by an English trader along the Atlantic coast. At this point, the English had no permanent settlements in the northeast, but they and other Europeans fished and traded all along the coast , and sometimes seized Indians for the transatlantic slave trade . From his home, Tisquantum was taken to Malaga and then made his way to London where he lived with an Englishman. In 1619, the year before the Mayflower voyage, he returned to his Pawtuxet village to find his fellow villagers dead from another global traveler, disease. His story is the story of an Atlantic world where Europeans, Africans, and Indian people traveled as slaves, servants, and freemen, a world that was interconnected. His place was not some isolated American continent, or “howling wilderness.” In fact, that world existed nowhere in 17th century reality, although it maintains a powerful hold on the American imagination.
But, I am going to move away from Tisquantum, because he is not the beginning of this story of globalization; his is but a small piece of a longer and larger story. Where do we start? Historians struggle with periodization because we like to know when things started or stopped, we like to place things in their chronological context, a sometimes impossible task. Should we go back to the introduction of Asian spices such as nutmeg and pepper to Europe in the 12th century? How about the Venetian Marco Polo’s travels to the court of the Chinese emperor sometime in the 13th century? Or should we go back even further to the height of Muslim commercial activity in the eighth century? What we can see simply by asking the question, “Where do we start?” is that three major continents were interconnected well before the Americas were colonized.
As an academic and a teacher, I am often almost paralyzed by the decision making that faces me as I prepare for the next semester’s classes. In addition to periodization, the other concept I find daunting is geographic scope. How much of the world can I include? The introduction to a 2006 forum in the William and Mary Quarterly entitled, “Beyond the Atlantic,” asks: “What makes a geographic region a logical unit of historical analysis?” I do have an answer to that question, but it is not necessarily the right answer. Even if we confine ourselves to the Americas, geographic scope remains difficult to delimit. . One of the plenary sessions at the 2009 Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Conference was entitled, “Placing the Trans-Mississippi West in Early American History.” In this session, scholars asked a host of questions about geography including: “Can we talk about early American history in the singular?” “What was European?” “By adding the west, can we get a better sense of time?” When designing a syllabus for colonial North America, I keep these questions in mind, using secondary sources such as J.H. Elliott’s book, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 to, at the very least, keep reminding myself and the students that North America was highly contested colonial territory with borderlands and frontier zones that were often fluid and inhabited by a multiplicity of people.
Ideologically, I want very much to follow the direction offered by the World History Association (WHA) to: “[stand] back from … individual elements in that mosaic to take in the entire picture, or at least a large part of that picture.” The WHA asks us to “[study] phenomena that transcend single states, regions, and cultures, such as cultural contact and exchange and movements that have had a global or at least a trans-regional impact.” Practically, how do I encapsulate that into a 16-week semester? In order to stay committed to the ideology, I have to shake the old narrative of American history out of my brain, and come up with an overarching theme or question to guide the course. It is hard not to feel as if I am leaving something out, because, inevitably when I stretch the boundaries of what colonial North America means, I leave out some part of the narrative as it still exists in the textbooks.
Columbus still provides a convenient starting point for the semester, a practical answer to the question, “Where do I start?” This is not because historians believe he discovered the New World, but because it was in the wake of Columbus that existing globalization accelerated. As we know, Columbus was not searching for unknown lands, but was searching for a trade route to the Indies, and believed he had found it. As we know, he had not found that trade route, but he did bring knowledge of his route and detailed descriptions of the lands he had collided with back to other Europeans. Although he did not find that sea route to the East Indies, he did connect parts of the globe that had not been previously more continuously connected. One textbook version of this is provided by Eric Foner in Give Me Liberty! An American History: “There was a vast human diversity among the peoples thrown into contact with one another in the New World…. All these peoples were changed by their integration into the new Atlantic economy. The complex interactions of Europeans, American Indians, and Africans would shape American history during the colonial era.”
While Foner includes the European, American, and African continents and peoples in this passage, I also include Asia, for that continued connection for Europeans between the riches of the east and the explorations to the west provided context and economic motive for conquest and colonization. As the European explorers came to understand that there were continents west of them that they had not previously known, they continued to search for sea routes around or through these continents. In his 1584 Discourse of Western Planting, Richard Hakluyt, the English promoter of exploration and colonization, hoped that English explorers would find: “That by these Colonies the Northwest passage to Cathaio and China may easely quickly and perfectly be searched oute … by river and overlande.” The continents west of Europe were interesting and exploitable even in their own to conquerors and kings, but they were also a gateway to a part of the globe that remained a symbol of potential wealth and power, through their vast underutilized resources.
By 1505, the Spanish conquistadores connected the globe in yet another way when they brought the first African slaves to the islands where native populations were rapidly dying from disease and conquest. But, how do I talk about slavery? Generally, in both the colonial North America and American Slavery courses that I teach, I take a class to step back in time and explain the already extant trans-Saharan slave routes by which people were bought and sold. I often also tell of the development of sugar plantations in the Mediterranean and on islands off the African coast. I do not tell these histories to absolve the transatlantic slave traders of guilt (as my students sometimes hypothesize), but I tell these histories so we can understand the ever-shifting patterns and trade routes and alliances of which the story of American conquest and colonization, and the development of a transatlantic slave route, is one small part.
Exploitation certainly plays a large part in the history of colonial America and in the early world of globalization, but as a teacher, I cannot forget that agency also plays a role. Africans traveled the globe as slaves, merchants, seamen, and diplomats. In teaching about slavery, I focus mostly on the vast numbers who were imprisoned or captured and sold into slavery (and the ways they exercised agency), but I also tell the story of free African political leaders and merchant elites who played an active role in shaping Atlantic commerce and culture. By the seventeenth century, African envoys were traveling from West Africa, to South America, back to Africa, and to Europe, negotiating with European leaders, other merchants, and sometimes marrying into European families. While European empires—Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch—came to dominate the slave trade, they were not alone in shaping the world in the period of American colonization.
I have to work to convince students that the people we have often thought of in groups only as the exploited, were sometimes not exploited at all, but exerted authority in this connected, global world. As I move through the timeline of North American colonial history, for instance, and teach about the English efforts to colonise the place, I tell the story of Sir Walter Raleigh. There is no question that Raleigh was a conqueror and an exploiter. We know that some of the boys and men who sailed with him vilified him in song as someone who let his own men drown when it suited his purposes. But, Raleigh also understood that cultural knowledge was an important element of colonization. Under Raleigh’s guidance at least 20 native American men traveled to England—including six or more from Roanoke Island and the lower Chesapeake Bay, twelve or more from Guiana and Trinidad, at least three from South America. From all records, these Indians went to England willingly, where they learned the English language, and imparted knowledge useful to the English. Many of them returned to their homes. Some disappeared from the historical record or resisted English efforts at colonization. Others participated—again from all records willingly—with the English as they explored American coastal regions and worked to set up colonies.
This story of active participation by Africans and native Americans continued. Jenny Hale Pulsipher has shown how during the period of the Restoration, American Indians went to England to complain about the Massachusetts Puritans, that they were granted audience without question, and their complaints were part of the equation of the Restoration in the colonies. We know that in the early eighteenth century, four men the English called the “four Indian kings,” coming out of various tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy, negotiated with Queen Anne, helping Virginia’s colonial leaders argue for an invasion of French territory. Tisquantum, therefore, was not the only Indian who shaped cultural exchange in a very connected world.
For those of us who grew up in the United States, and now teach colonial North America, it is necessary, although often difficult, to keep our focus on the mosaic as the WHA asks us to do. Our earliest training and many of the histories we have read focused just on the 13 colonies that eventually became the United States. As we expand our areal focus, it is relatively easy to concentrate on the Atlantic World; it is harder to keep focused on the fact that the creation of Atlantic networks were only one part of continuing globalization.
In most semesters, I lose Asia somewhere along the way. I need to do more work and I need the help of other scholars to continue to connect the Atlantic to the global through the American colonial period. I generally remember Asia when we get to the point in the semester where we begin to talk about the battles for empire that took place throughout the world. By the time we get to the disputes in the eighteenth century in the British North American colonies that eventually lead to the American Revolution, I include the material culture of the period. When the colonists boycotted tea, did this connect the North American colonies to East India? When the colonists tried to get a homespun cloth movement off the ground, symbolically rejecting the finer East Indian materials that came to them through Britain, did this also connect them to other parts of the globe? In some digging into the H-World discussion archives, the only reference I found to this was about merchant ships, stating: “the North American Colonial fleet went all over the world under the British flag and the shipyards in New England built many of the empire's ships…”
In my earlier research with the World History survey, into the ways the American Revolution is taught , I was surprised by my findings. I had imagined that a world history of the American Revolution would reach beyond the Americas and Europe into Africa and Asia, as I attempt to do in my courses. What I found, however, were chapters that might (and probably do) appear in any Western Civilization textbook. The American Revolution is couched in the context of the Enlightenment but it is triangulated between the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution. The rest of the world, in a time of complex global connectedness, is surprisingly missing in this narrative.
I would argue that we need to remember that processes of globalization shaped empires, peoples, trade networks, social and philosophical movements, and wars from very early on in time . Is globalization, then, a new process? Although it has accelerated and changed, although global communication is easier than it ever was before, as a historian, I would ask us to remember that the roots of global interconnectedness are very old, and that much of what we see today was established centuries ago in places not at all far away. Tisquantum comes back to my mind here at the end, because I think he still has something to tell us, in all the languages he knew. He would not have called this thing “globalization,” but he could not have made sense of his life and his world without standing back from the “individual elements” of that life “to take in … at least a large part of that picture.”
(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.