This is a review of the book, "The Course of Empire," by Bernard DeVoto, winner of the national book award. It is a novel -- a "factional" account as it were -- of the struggles for empire during seventeenth and eighteenth century North America. The narrative focuses sharply on the two hundred and eighty four "missing years" between "first landing" in 1492, and the American revolution in 1776, a period that, except for the French-Indian War, and the revolution itself, gets scant attention in American History books.
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The author's purpose here thus has been to use the geography of the land as his canvass to paint a picture that explains what actually happened on the continent during those three missing centuries. How, for instance had it occurred that by utilizing different approaches, each of the competing powers -- Spain, France, England, and to a lesser extent, the Netherlands -- came dangerously close to succeeding at achieving empire and becoming the dominant power over the North American continent? It is a richly textured, sometimes very ugly story that must be told.
What we now know for sure is that in the 284 years between Columbus' voyages and the American Revolution, bands of illiterate white men, fresh out of the Dark Ages, were sent to the "New World," most as loosely defined contract employees of European kingdoms, or as indentured servants, which at the time was a euphemism for "slave."
They came, following the model of conquest set by Spain a century and a half earlier, in search of gold and other booty, and to eventually establish a North American Empire for the Kingdoms of Europe.
These bands of men, mostly seafaring pirates, privateers and buccaneers, and in the case of England, disguntled religious sects, as well as men and women indentured servants, did indeed converge on the continent from different directions:
The Spanish came from the south and were bent on repeating the successes of Mexico and Peru in North America. The English, Swedes and Dutch followed Columbus' route across the Atlantic and landed on the Eastern seaboard.
The Dutch, a tiny country, a seafaring state, punching well above its weight, came only to get rich by selling beaver furs and then to take the money back to Amsterdam, which at the time was the most prosperous city in the world. And except for a challenge from the English that would eventually ejected them from the continent in 1684, the Dutch came very near becoming the only empire in North America.
The Swedes on the other hand, came to settle on the land, live peaceably with the Indians, and farm. However, they too were ejected from New Jersey first by the Dutch and then later by England.
And then finally we get to the French, which, for reasons that became obvious as the narrative progressed, was covered in much greater detail.
France and England were the main protagonists of this narrative. They both came exclusively to establish an Empire on the North American continent for their respective Kings. But the two countries went about the process of empire-building in entirely different ways.
It is how these differences got played out that make up the main story of the book. It is a story about how in the end none of these competitors were able to achieve their aims. Somehow each of them found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, squandering away their opportunity to build an empire in North America.
The climax of the book is the surprise that history has presented to us about what the failures of the competing powers meant: History records that instead of achieving empire for one of them, their defeats merely left the spoils to be picked up by a loose collection of thirteen "English colonial city-states," made up of a ragtag bunch of English settlers -- privateers, seafaring buccaneers, religious fanatics, and indentured servants, all fleeing the hardships and oppression of the European Feudal Dark Ages.
These British subjects would inherit the wind, the waters, the land, and in the end, the spoils of the competition taking place above their heads, a competition that would allow them to go on to become an empire themselves -- even before they had become a nation!
As the author's story unfolds, we learn that what separated the European competitors from each other was not heroics on the many battle fields taking place during the period (they were uniformly horrible soldiers), or advantages in technological prowess (iron muskets were no match for the long bow until deep into the 19th century), or even superior European civilization (they were just beginning to wake up from the horrors of feudal Europe). But somewhat surprisingly, we learn that it was colossal ignorance of geography, bad judgment, bad timing, bad decision-making, badly composed and badly played-out geopolitical strategies, internal bickering, geopolitical posturing, hubris and colonial overreach, calculated duplicity in negotiations and in business practices, and racism against the Indians (even when their lives depended on tribal assistance for survival) -- that separated them and got in the way of achieving empire.
But equally, the main focus of this book, is also about the astonishing degree of ignorance of the land generally, and the interior of the North American continent in particular. It thus is not an exaggeration to say that, to an embarrassing extent, this book highlights the role ignorance of the geography of the interior of the North American continent played for 250 years in framing the continent for empire-building.
In the end, this thus is a dense, rich, often ugly, but always honest and entertaining narrative picture of how blind greed and royal hubris intersected with duplicity and colossal ignorance about the land, to undermine the attempts by competing European powers to forge a North American empire.
The crescendo of the book occurs in the aftermath of the French-Indian War, with the Louisiana Purchase, where the century of mutual geographic ignorance and duplicity reached a climax that conspired to checkmate the two rival powers, France and England, leaving the backdoor open for the thirteen colonial city states to pick up the pieces and "back into" empire by fiat.
Other things being equal, the author makes clear that what served as a dense counterpoint to the infinite beauty and grandeur of the land, was this almost indescribably complex matrix of hubris and instability of European leaders, their inability to plan and execute sound geopolitical strategies an ocean away, their relationships with Indian nations, lack of support from the home office, the wars taking place all across the globe, and especially the French-Indian War (and the role Indians and African slaves played as proxies in it), as well as the skill of the Europen powers in competing in the fur trade. It was these and much more that served as the backdrop that set the parameters for empire in North America.
In passing, it must also be said that serendipity played its role too. As but one example, a reader will be hard-pressed to find anywhere in American history books, the fact that a mini Ice Age was in progress during the last half of the seventeenth century, and that it was this climate change more than anything else that made trade in furs and other materials for European clothing so much more valuable than gold.
During this cold and dark period of nearly 300 years, the world economy (like would later be true of tobacco, sugar cane and then slavery and cotton), turned on the axis of the North American fur trade, that is to say it turned on beaver and otter pelts.
Likewise, the wars in Europe coupled with the slave revolts raging across the Caribbean, especially the war in Haiti, played a decisive role by sapping the energy and strength of both Britain and France, permanently weakening them in their quest for empire.
The slave revolts in particular, were responsible for the embarrassing collapse of Napoleon's army (as well as the 50,000 British troops that came to rescue it). By its end, both the British and the French economies were on the brink of collapse. But no doubt the greater damage was done to France, which had its own revolution to attend to going on back home.
One thing the reader will discover with France's lost of place and geopolitical status after the defeat in Haiti, is that American history has minimized the role France played in establishing a North American empire. Perhaps one reason that this is so is because of the complex maneuvers taken by the French King to reassert French dominance in the aftermath of France's fall from grace, which since it failed, in the end only opened the gates for colonial America to become an empire itself.
What at the time must have seemed like either a supremely clever or a colossally stupid way out his difficulties, was Louis XIV's strategy of first "quick deeding" his North American possessions to Spain for temporary safekeeping. And then, within twenty days, selling them all to colonial America for 23 million dollars?!
Among other things, the crafty French King knew his sale of the Louisiana territories would not only temporarily thrust the little weak set of colonial city states onto the geopolitical stage as a sworn enemy and rival of England, but as a bonus, it would also make them a permanent geopolitical thorn in England's side, hopefully paying dividends to France well into the future.
If the strategy had succeeded, the French King believed it would serve to slow down England's designs for Empire, allowing France the time and space to fully recovered from its debacle in Haiti. After which, dispatching of both Spain and England's colonial irritant, would have been a routine matter for restored French power.
But as reality would have its say in the matter, things got played out quite differently, and the wish that had propelled the French King to sell Louisiana turned out to be little more than a royal "wet dream." For the Americans and the British did indeed become enemies as he had predicted. But despite this, it did not prevent them from forming ad hoc military and trade alliances against France.
It was these temporary alliances designed specifically to stop France's attempt to reassert its power on the North American continent that proved to be France's Achille's heel. One worked especially well against France's century long monopoly of the Western fur trade, as the Hudson Bay Company was brought in to stalk the French fur trade all across Canada as well as across the western colonial territories, greatly interrupting the hard currency pipeline going back to Paris, and stalling French attempts to reassert its dreams of achieving a North America empire.
But there is another more important historical twist to this saga. When France sold Louisiana to America, no one knew exactly where the northern and western boundaries of the "Louisiana Territories" actually were?
Unbelievably, for fully 300 years -- until after the American Revolution -- when, Jefferson secretly (and deviously) sent his two military spies Lewis and Clark to investigate and find ways to finesse the border issue, the American colonial settlers, despite lush tales of the heroics of a handful of intrepid frontiersmen, like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, were in fact deathly fearful of exploring the western territories.
They were deterred as much by myths as by hostile Indians, who not only were seeking to protect their hunting grounds, but also had become aware that being close to white men meant a mysterious certain death to Indians.
But providence would come to the rescue of the weak wayward but crafty little set of colonies. In perhaps the most stunningly brilliant stroke of political genius ever executed -- certainly the most astute move during the entire colonial era -- Jefferson took full advantage of the general ignorance of the geography of the North American continent, by sending two military spies, Lewis and Clark, to "map-out" the Louisiana territory so that the boundaries Jefferson would later use at the negotiating table, would present the two main protagonists, Britain and France, with little more than a carefully "pre-cooked" geographic and a geopolitical fait accompli.
Since neither power was in a position to challenge Jefferson's unilaterally determined border designations; and since both, for their own reasons, were content with America being at the center of the North American empire, rather than their rival, the negotiations to settle disputes over the borders that would double the size of America, was a "no lose situation" for the colonies, one that at the same time checkmated the main competitors for empire on the continent.
Thus, Jefferson's unilateral boundary designations for the Louisiana territory, sealed the deal for America as the unchallenged inheritor of North American empire. The French King's strategy had not only failed but had back-fired and rebounded to the benefit of a single geopolitical player: the colonial settlers.
In one stroke of the pen, the King of France had catapulted a disorganized bunch of colonial city-states to the very top of the North American empire-building pyramid. Thus creating by fiat, a North American empire that no one had expected, and that the colonies, not yet even a nation, could not have acquired in any other way. Five Stars