The Barbarous Years

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 is the third volume in historian Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the growth of British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Bailyn discusses the settlement of British North America within the context of both the Native American cultures of the region and the broader political context in Europe. He gives as much importance to Powhattan’s expansionist policies in Virginia as to the Dutch rebellion against Spain, the Thirty Years War, and England’s subjugation of Ireland. The resulting “conflict of civilizations” occurs on many fronts: nearly a century of brutal encounters not only between European settlers and native peoples, but among the Europeans themselves.

In addition to what Bailyn argues is a “single, continuous Euro-Indian war” from 1607 through the 1670s, settlers suffered continuous and destabilizing conflicts within and between the colonies. British settlers found themselves at odds with the Dutch, Finns, Swedes, Walloons, Germans, Danes and French Huguenots over religion, culture and commerce. Large-scale landowners of all nationalities competed with both small planters and land-poor freedmen.

Bailyn’s style is a successful balancing act between erudition and storytelling, large-scale history and telling detail. The general framework and many of the characters in Bailyn’s stories are well known to anyone with a basic knowledge of early American history; the details are not. Poised as a refutation of what Bailyn describes as “gentrified” histories of the early colonies, The Barbarous Years is a blood-soaked–and illuminating–version of a familiar story.

This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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