Review of “The Barbarous Years” by Bernard Bailyn

The Dutch buying Manhattan Island from the Manhattan Indians.

The Dutch buying Manhattan Island from the Manhattan Indians.

If you want to immerse yourself in the early colonial period of eastern North America, there is no better place to start than Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America. As the title suggests it covers the conflicts of the era, but not only the armed conflicts. In the heady mix and times of the early colonial period conflict occurred in every arena – religious, political, economic, and cultural – and between nearly every identifiable group. Framing the conflict as European vs Native American or English vs Dutch oversimplifies to the point of uselessness.

There was no unity under those labels. Conflict occurred within and between them. “Barbarous” acts were pervasive and in not constrained by perpetrating group or target.

Beyond this, Barbarous delves deep into the demographics of the colonists and immigrants. This is where the scholarship really shines. Through this analysis we come to understand the tapestry of peoples and cultures who already lived there as well as those who came from Europe and Africa to found and labor in the first colonies. We learn that their reasons for coming to the “new world” varied almost as much as the peoples themselves.

While all groups struggled either to duplicate their home culture or to forge a new, idealized one, few succeeded, and never for long. It truly was a new world, and in it, the volatile mix of religions, attitudes, economic systems, peoples, and beliefs destroyed, fundamentally remade, and created cultures with little regard to the desires of peoples comprising them.

Small wonder that this morass full of distrust and cultural chasms fomented so many barbarous acts!

To be fair, this book does bog down in places, however, the sheer scale of scholarship and research that went into it coupled with the fact that, as fact- and data-dense as it is, it’s still enjoyable as an audiobook says mountains about the author’s ability and earns it a five.

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