Here Be Fog

J.H. Elliott

  • The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-63 by Paul Mapp
    North Carolina, 455 pp, £44.50, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 8078 3395 7

Has heaven reserv’d, in pity to the poor.
No pathless waste, or undiscover’d shore;
No secret island in the boundless main?
No peaceful desart yet unclaim’d by Spain?

The answer to the question posed in these lines quoted by Paul Mapp in The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire turned out to be a resounding yes. In 1738, when Dr Johnson wrote his poem, some two-thirds of North America was still terra incognita, as far as Europeans were concerned. A vast expanse of territory, home to a variety of indigenous peoples only some of whom were in direct contact with white traders, figured on European maps as a blank, sprinkled sparsely with names added as much in hope as in knowledge. This cartographical ignorance and its implications for 18th-century European diplomacy and imperial rivalries are the theme of Mapp’s path-breaking book.

Mapp is himself entering into relatively uncharted territory. His incursion is an indication that a new approach to the history of colonial North America is gaining impetus. Like other fields of history, the study of British America has been affected by a new emphasis on the cultural and social, which embraces everything from gender studies to the cultural and political implications of a rapidly expanding market for consumer goods. A stream of monographs and articles has greatly enriched our knowledge of the colonial societies of mainland North America, although it could be objected that the desire to cover all aspects of colonial life and behaviour has led to a blurring of focus. The history of the 13 mainland colonies was once seen as the relatively straightforward story of a settler population moving towards political and social maturity. It has now become infinitely more complex.

For all the awareness of these new complexities, however, a teleological approach, reaching its logical culmination in the Declaration of Independence, still hovers over North American colonial history. It also remains deeply entrenched in the minds of the mass of the population, for whom Jamestown and Plymouth Rock continue to define the boundaries of the national story. That story, however, has come under pressure as Native Americans, African Americans and, most recently, Hispanics, demand, and receive, their own place in it. The story is thus being modified, with results that are still uncertain, although it has become very clear that not everything can be traced back to a shining city on a hill.

In the search for a framework that will accommodate the disparate new trends, one of the most striking developments has been the growth of ‘Atlantic history’. A transatlantic relationship shaped by British imperial policies has always been integral to North American colonial history, but the massive increase of interest in the history of slavery and ethnic origins has shown up the inadequacies of the old approach. Traditional imperial history, based on a study of ministerial actions and colonial reactions, has given way to a more broadly conceived history of the Atlantic world, a world in which there was a continuous movement of people, commodities and ideas, both across and around the Atlantic Ocean.

Ideally, this new Atlantic history would show the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa and the Americas. In practice, this has proved to be a tall order. British and North American historians have, on the whole, confined their interests to a resolutely British Atlantic world, paying little or no attention to those other Atlantics – Iberian, French and Dutch – that need to be included if we are ever to arrive at an integrated history. Even so, this geographically restricted approach has yielded rich rewards. There is a greater awareness of the importance of migratory movements from continental Europe, as well as the British Isles, to British America in the 18th century; intensive study of the slave trade has shed new light on its impact on both African and American societies; and, partly as a consequence, a narrative long dominated by the 13 colonies is now restoring to the British Caribbean islands something of the importance they possessed during the colonial period itself.

At the same time Atlantic history has revealed some of its limitations. In particular, it is difficult to decide how far it properly extends. Should it include the tribes of the American interior, who were to experience the ripple effect of European settlements on the Atlantic seaboard? And what of the Spanish borderlands to the south and the French settlements in the Great Lakes region and Louisiana? One of the effects of the new Atlantic history has been, perhaps inevitably, to reinforce the traditional tendency to concentrate attention on the eastern seaboard, at the expense of the vast expanse of territory populated largely by Native Americans. Not surprisingly, this in turn has triggered a reaction in favour of what has come to be called ‘continental history’, although ‘continent’ itself is a word with a history of its own.

During the first part of the 18th century, the British colonies were regarded simply as colonies located on the American continent. Following the Seven Years’ War and France’s surrender to Britain of its American possessions in the peace of 1763, British Americans began to arrogate the word ‘continent’ to themselves, just as they were soon also to arrogate the name ‘America’. Rebellious colonists convened their first ‘continental’ congress in 1774, and General Washington would command a ‘continental’ army that was very far from being continental in its scope or composition. Washington’s continent barely extended further west than the Ohio Valley and the part of Louisiana lying to the east of the Mississippi that was ceded by France in 1763.

A truly continental history needs to take in the whole interior of North America stretching westwards from the Appalachians all the way to the shores of the Pacific. This is what Mapp has given us. While many historians have concentrated on the history of different North American regions away from the eastern seaboard – the lands belonging to the Indian ‘nations’, the Spanish-American borderlands, the Pacific coastal regions and the frozen north – Mapp has sought to integrate their histories up to the 1760s into a single coherent narrative. He does this by way of a cartographical approach, intended to show both the knowns and the known unknowns of North America’s geography; why it proved so difficult to fill in the spaces on the maps; and how the combination of knowledge and ignorance, understanding and misunderstanding, shaped the attitudes and decisions of the ministers responsible for the colonial policies of the rival imperial nations – Britain, France and Spain, with Russia’s expanding Asian empire thrown in for good measure.

He begins his story with Spain, the initiator of what he calls ‘modern Europe’s engagement with western North American geography’, by looking at the consequences for European geographical knowledge at the start of the 18th century of the information and misinformation relayed to the imperial authorities by explorers, missionaries and potential conquerors about the remote regions lying to the north and northeast of Spain’s Mexican territories. Sixteenth-century Spaniards were responsible for the most potent and durable of all the myths surrounding the geography of North America: the existence somewhere to the north of a Strait of Anián, better known to the English as the Northwest Passage, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Spaniards, too, fell under the spell of the Seven Cities of Cíbola; these fabled places lured Coronado north to the plains, where he found neither great cities nor gold, but a few Indian villages and a ‘lord’ wearing a copper medallion around his neck.

This and similar disappointments did much to reduce Spanish enthusiasm for the systematic exploration and charting of the lands to the north and east of New Mexico, itself a remote and costly possession on the northern fringes of Spain’s American empire. But Mapp also shows how difficult it was for Spaniards and other Europeans to secure accurate information about those distant regions, where, in contrast to central Mexico and the Andes, there were no indigenous empires to provide some degree of administrative uniformity and centralised sources of knowledge. Indian tribes were often hostile, and those that did not attack the white intruders were all too happy to provide false information that would persuade them to move on. Even where the Indians proved friendly, the variety of languages in a single region made it hard for the Spaniards to understand and assess the information they received, and when native informants drew maps for them, they were very different from the maps to which Europeans were accustomed. In any event, the priority for the Spanish authorities lay in the silver-producing regions of their empire, and the Spanish crown tried to keep geographical information to itself in an attempt to leave its European rivals in the dark.

Mapp reveals the French, rather than the Spanish or the British, as the great cartographers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and passes over in silence the contribution of the Dutch. Although some information was provided by fur traders from Canada who penetrated deep into the interior, the French, too, were defeated by western North America. Drawing a fascinating contrast between the sophisticated mapping of France in the reign of Louis XIV and of China by French Jesuits, he shows that, in addition to the problems faced by Europeans in their efforts to obtain accurate details from the Indians, effective cartography was dependent on a system of state control, whether European or non-European, that allowed officials to assemble information and surveyors and cartographers to go about their business.

The British, it transpires, were laggards. Even in the mid-18th century they, Anglo-Americans included, remained surprisingly unfamiliar even with the geography of the east, and the Board of Trade complained in 1764 that ‘we find ourselves under the greatest difficulties arising from the want of exact surveys’ of the territories brought them by their victories in the Seven Years’ War. The board’s concern was not surprising. Imperial rivalries had glaringly exposed the need for accurate information. Even if, by 1764, the French had been eliminated from the scene, the British were faced with the many problems involved in establishing control over enormous stretches of newly won territory, some of which brought them into closer proximity to a Spanish empire once again in expansionist mode, as well as to the lands and hunting grounds of an indigenous population whose hostility grew as increasing numbers of colonists from the eastern seaboard pressed into their territory.

If one strand of The Elusive West is its revelation of the extent of European ignorance, far into the 18th century, of the ‘undiscovered West’ and of the reasons for that ignorance, the other is its painstaking reconstruction of the consequences for international politics and imperial rivalries. Mapp’s trawl through British, French and Spanish archives has enabled him to tell a rich and novel story that will force historians to rethink some of the standard interpretations of the struggle for empire in 18th-century North America.

In a book published in 2002, Voyages of Delusion, the British historian Glyn Williams wrote of the ‘paradox’ that the Age of Reason should have witnessed a revival of hopes for the discovery of the Northwest Passage, and provided a vivid account of the desperate attempts made during the century to find a navigable route linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Mapp’s book makes clear the reasons for that paradox. Britain and France were both obsessed with securing access to the rich silver resources of Mexico and Peru. This was to be achieved either by conquest of the silver-mining regions, which proved to be impracticable, or by infiltrating Spain’s transatlantic and Pacific silver routes, including the route to the Philippines, which would connect them to the fabled riches of China and Japan.

Late 17th-century buccaneers had shown that rich pickings were to be made along the coast of Chile and Peru, and French merchants took advantage of the Bourbon succession to the Spanish throne in 1700 to engage in an open or clandestine South Sea trade. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, however, declared the Pacific the exclusive domain of Spanish shipping, with the result that both France and Britain, while defying Spanish attempts to prevent their ships from entering the Pacific, began searching for an alternative route through northern America. Guillaume Delisle, Louis XV’s geography tutor, argued for the existence of a ‘Sea of the West’ extending far inland and offering access to the Pacific. An Irish MP called Arthur Dobbs wrote extensively on the subject, and became a persistent promoter of British searches for a passage from Hudson Bay. Simultaneously, interest grew in the possibility of finding an entrance by way of the northern Pacific coast. With each power afraid that the other was stealing a march on it, French and British ministers brooded over every new scrap of information that might offer some hope of finding the elusive passage, or cast light on the Pacific ambitions of their rival.

Mapp’s account integrates the Pacific aspirations of the great powers into the story, and in so doing highlights the limitations of the new Atlantic history. But he also shows how those imperial ambitions were constantly inflated and distorted by European ignorance of the coast to the north of Baja California. It was only slowly that the ignorance was dispelled, as European ships probed the coastline and Spaniards began moving north from New Mexico, impelled in part by fears about French and British intentions. A comparable ignorance existed about the true extent of the vast French territory of Louisiana, and how and where it might connect with New Mexico.

Just as inadequate cartography served to increase the tensions between the great powers so changes in knowledge were liable to lead to significant changes in ministerial priorities. This is particularly striking, as Mapp shows, in the case of Louisiana. For the first half of the 18th century Louisiana appeared to be a land of almost infinite potential in the eyes of French ministers. But then, as knowledge increased, doubts began to grow. Increasing scepticism about the credibility of the map-makers, and about the possibility that the colony would really connect the French with Mexican silver and a trade route to China, led to a downgrading of Louisiana’s importance. In 1762, France’s leading minister, the duc de Choiseul, handed western Louisiana to Spain in order to secure backing for his plans for a peace settlement. As Mapp observes of his decision: ‘At the end of the Seven Years’ War, French diplomats treated the unknown as expendable.’

The picture that emerges from The Elusive West is one of three great powers – Britain, France and Spain – blundering their way through the American fog, tripping over obstacles they failed to see and imagining dangers that did not exist. The picture is a plausible one, and Mapp paints it well. His book, however, makes for dense reading. It is heavily based on archival research, and it shows. There is a relentlessness about his approach as he goes over the ground and fills in the blanks on the historical map. Yet for all that the book stands out for its historical intelligence and its ability to throw new light on old questions. First, and most obviously, its effective incorporation of the North American west into the strategic calculations of European statesmen will compel historians to review their ideas about the great struggle for empire in the 18th century. Second, by showing how those calculations were influenced by perceptions and misperceptions arising from the inadequacy of maps, it demonstrates the value of cartography to historical understanding. Beyond this, however, by emphasising the continental dimension of North American colonial history, it suggests some of the weaknesses in treating it as no more than the history of 13 mainland colonies along the eastern seaboard.