Culture’s Role in History

As I mentioned the other day, I picked up in the bookstore a book by Colin Woodard entitled American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. After finishing Chapter 2, “The Founding of New France,” I wondered if it was worth my while to continue. While I was in Quebec, I desperately wanted to assimilate successfully and one way to doing that was by trying to learn as much as possible about what I assumed at that time would be my adopted homeland. My ex was a Quebecois separatist who told me many times that his ancestor had come over with Champlain and that he was “pure laine” and “Quebecois de souche.”

Woodard refers to Francis Parkman’s famous sentence: “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.”

What is important about this phrase is an unstated assumption, one that I suspect most readers make as well, that Spanish civilization in North America is represented by Mexico, English by the colonies that became the United States, and France by Quebec. When we consider that each of these three groups settled multiple areas and we consider the history in light of the finer detail that provides, the statement appears gravely in need of qualification. The economic conditions in each of what eventually became Quebec, Mexico and the United States differed vastly. If we examine regions where the environmental, and therefore economic, situation holds true, a different pattern emerges, one in which the three empires behaved in similar ways.

There were colonies from all three Empires located on islands in the Caribbean.  Spain was the first to arrive in the region and settled the islands we now know as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, Guadalupe, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Trinidad. France established colonies on the islands of Saint Kitts in 1625,  on Guadeloupe and in 1635, and on Saint Lucia in 1650, and on the island of Hispaniola they established Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti, in 1664. The British settled the Bahamas, Bermuda, the British Leeward Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the British Windward Islands, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Many of these islands, such as Saint Kitts, were claimed alternately by each empire, while others, such as Hispaniola, were shared.

On the Caribbean islands, all three empires did their best to massacre or expel the native inhabitants. (I’ve come to dislike the use of the word “extinct” when applied to human communities. Many people appear to make an analogy with animal extinctions in which no living member of that species remains and assume that the “extinction” of a tribe means that every last man and woman died without any offspring. In fact, it means that the group no longer exists as a political entity. Frequently, descendents remain. The majority of contemporary Puerto Ricans are descended from the Taino. Actually, as I was looking for a link for that, I saw that even academics are confused about the different uses of the word. Perhaps, I should do an entire post on this.) All three empires imported slaves from west Africa, whose descendants became the majority of the population on many of the islands. If we want to compare how cultural factors affected the treatment of native peoples under different European empires, we would do better to compare the empires under similar environmental conditions.

Similarly, where both the French and the English profited from the beaver trade, the native tribes were treated as trading partners. It was only after the collapse of the fur trade that European interests in the northern areas of North America turned from trade to settlement and the change in treatment of the native tribes changed accordingly. By this time, however, the English had defeated the French in Quebec and it is not possible to tell if the French policies would have changed as well.

Perhaps we should not even say that “the English defeated the French” so much as the Iroquois defeated the Huron. What we in the U.S. call the French and Indian War was, in many ways, the Indian and Indian War. Woodard makes much of the French settlers’ “cultural openness” citing alliances with the Huron and others. However, the British Empire allied themselves with the Iroquois. In fact, I have often quipped that the French chose the wrong Indians. The Iroquois are not a tribe, but a confederacy of several tribes, six today and five at the time of the French and Indian War, and were far more numerous and powerful as a group than the culturally and linguistically similar Hurons.

I don’t mean to imply that cultural factors have no bearing on historical events, but we need a much more balanced view than Woodard is giving us. I’ll deal with numerous errors he makes in recounting the settlement of New France in a separate post. It’s very disturbing to see because we don’t have many good books in English on the subject. Woodard appears to lean heavily on David Hackett Fischer’s book Champlain’s Dream, which I haven’t read.


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