Thursday, May 28, 2020

Noeleen McIlvenna's "Early American Rebels"

Noeleen McIlvenna is professor of history at Wright State University and author of A Very Mutinous People and The Short Life of Free Georgia.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640–1700, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Officers of Crown or corporation were empowered to show no mercy; the savage brutality that accompanied England’s theft of the world’s people and commodities over the next two centuries was unleashed in full now. Tens of thousands of Africans in the 1680s and 1690s suffered the Middle Passage, to die from overwork and malnutrition on Caribbean sugar, Chesapeake tobacco and South Carolinian rice plantations. Millions would follow in the eighteenth century.

All of this was made possible by the investment in and development of the British navy, both merchant and military, and as the empire expanded, the financial sector, which shifted from Antwerp in the Netherlands to London in the late seventeenth century. The Royal Greenwich Observatory opened in 1675, to pinpoint longitude for better navigation. The Royal Navy blurred the line between private and public, protecting English merchants as it simultaneously protected the royal treasury’s interests through customs enforcement. Manned increasingly by impressed sailors, the ships themselves were a microcosm of the brutal hierarchical empire. Marcus Rediker describes the grim reality of Britannia’s glory: “For sailors, the press-gang represented slavery and death: three out of four pressed men died within two years, with only one in five of the dead expiring in battle. Those lucky enough to survive could not expect to be paid.”

The early 1680s also witnessed attempts by colonial governors to flush away all democratic ideology in the English-speaking world through a reassertion of hierarchical right, tight judicial discipline, and direct rule from London.
Page 99 gives the reader the larger, Atlantic context of the second half of the book. The work as a whole covers the years 1640-1700 and looks closely at people living in the Chesapeake. It features a network of democratically-minded families and neighbors trying to find ways to gain a say in their own governance. Page 99 describes how the Stuart kings attempted to expand globally while stamping out such revolutionary ideas. I think the test works well: here is the background for 1670-1700; now read to see how these changes affected our protagonists.

Until page 99, you will read about how the Leveler ideas of the English Revolution and the overthrow of monarchy, aristocracy and censorship spread across the Atlantic to Maryland and from there spread into Virginia and North Carolina, through the activities of these protagonists. Colonies usually studied separately are revealed to be very connected by this network of neighbors, who tried to achieve their goals through appeal to power in London, but were not averse to creating new multi-racial communities outside the reach of local governments nor to taking up arms when that seemed the only means possible. The introduction of mass slavery, however, brought a new dimension into the region. Will our protagonists continue to embrace egalitarian ideals, or will the temptation of enormous wealth lure them to abandon democracy?
Learn more about Early American Rebels at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue