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.

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