27 January 2014

Molasses: Historical Significance

Wits may laugh at our fondness for molasses, and we ought all to join in the laugh with as much good humor as General Lincoln did. General Washington, however, always asserted and proved, that Virginians loved molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.
John Adams to William Tudor, 11 August 1818
From The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856. 10 volumes. Vol. 10.

Molasses, of course, was sought by those in New England because it was the principal ingredient in the manufacture of rum. The 1733 tax to which Adams alludes was a protective measure designed to render importation of molasses from French plantations so prohibitively expensive as to eliminate French sources. New England rum distillers would thus be forced to secure molasses from Barbados, Jamaica, and other British islands in the Caribbean.

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, and War in the West Indies (New York: Walker Publishing, 2011), 241, 400 attributes "[m]olasses was an essential ingredient in American Independence" to Novanglus (vol. 4 in The Works of John Adams). Parker also spells his source Novangulus.

04 January 2014

Getting It Right!

Starting out reading Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2006) by J. H. Elliott, I am immediately impressed with the depth and breadth of the author's work. There is much worthy of praise, including a single word in a one sentence: "Cortés, an inspired leader, beached his boats and led his expedition resolutely into the interior of an unknown land to conquer it for his royal master" (emphasis added, 16). Five years ago, I wrote about the common misconception that I had learned decades earlier and held to be true until early 2008 that Cortés had burned his boats (see "the burning of boats"). He did not burn them.

Elliott's bibliography and notes are impressive. There are several citations in the first chapter to Hugh Thomas, The Conquest of Mexico (1993), the text in a 2005 American edition with a slightly different title that set me straight on this small, but not insignificant point. There are several explanations that have been offered by several historians for the long-held and frequently repeated error. Thomas's simple observation of the handwriting in the original primary text offers the simplest and best explanation. Two words are easily confused: quebrando (breaking) and quemando (burning).

Employing the best available scholarship as the basis of his narrative, Elliott gets this detail right.

02 January 2014

The Dog and the Shark

A constant pleasure of history are the little stories that pop out while reading primary sources. Often distracting from the purpose that led to the text in the first place, these episodes entertain and add texture. They also offer unexpected connections to other stories.

As I prepare to teach Atlantic history in the fall, I am perusing texts concerned with the development of the sugar industry in the West Indies. Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011) has filled time-spaces between the social activities of New Year's celebrations the past few days. Parker draws heavily upon Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657). Inasmuch as the 1673 edition of Ligon's text is readily available via Internet Archive, I have delved into that text. Ligon offers three compelling paragraphs concerning "a Fish called a Shark" (5).

Several sharks were taken on board the Achilles, the ship on which Ligon made passage from England to the West Indies in 1647. Once the shark had been landed on board, however, the adventure began. Most of the passengers were afraid to approach it. Only the fearless sailors and a very large dog had the courage.
We had aboard divers mastive [mastiff] Dogs, and amongst them, one so large and fierce, as I have seldom seen any like him; this Dog flew to [the shark] with the greatest Courage that might be, but could take no hold of him, by reason of his large roundness and sliminess; but if by chance he got hold of one of his Fins, the Shark would throw him from side to side of the Ship, as if he had been nothing; and doubtless if he had encountered him in his own Element, the Sea, he would have made quick work with him.
Ligon, True and Exact History, 5.
Reading of the flopping shark's ability to fling this large mastiff across the ship's deck, I am reminded of the fate of the Aztecs who faced such animals in battle.

It is often assumed by those with superficial understanding of history that Europeans prevailed in the New World because they had superior armaments (see "Superior European Technology"). On the contrary, the most important weapon the Europeans possessed was infectious disease. The Aztecs were weakened by disease prior to their conquest in 1521. Their repression of neighboring peoples also helped the Spanish, who were able to recruit allies among enemies of the Aztecs. In battle, guns were insignificant except where cannon were useful. But the Spanish had two terribly powerful weapons of use in close combat--their swords--Toledo steel--and their dogs--mastiffs bred for war.

21 December 2013

Godly Pirates

Clarence Henry Haring, The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century (1910) lacks the reticence of today's historical scholarship. Haring's criticism of Spanish mercantilism and Spanish national character fills the text with the sort of judgement that historians eschew today. The book was an Oxford University thesis for the Bachelor of Letters degree in 1909. Haring earned his B.A. at Harvard in 1907 and then attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. The book marked the beginning of a long and distinguished career in the study of Latin America.

His discussion of the religious motivation of English privateers is typical.
The Spaniards, ever since the days of the Dominican monk and bishop, Las Casas, had been reprobated as the heartless oppressors and murderers of the native Indians. The original owners of the soil had been dispossessed and reduced to slavery. In the West Indies, the great islands, Cuba and Hispaniola, were rendered desolate for want of inhabitants. Two great empires, Mexico and Peru, had been subdued by treachery, their kings murdered, and their people made to suffer a living death in the mines of Potosi and New Spain. Such was the Protestant Englishman's conception, in the sixteenth century, of the results of Spanish colonial policy. To avenge the blood of these innocent victims, and teach the true religion to the survivors, was to glorify the Church militant and strike a blow at Antichrist. Spain, moreover, in the eyes of the Puritans, was the lieutenant of Rome, the Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse, who harried and burnt their Protestant brethren whenever she could lay hands upon them. That she was eager to repeat her ill-starred attempt of 1588 and introduce into the British Isles the accursed Inquisition was patent to everyone. Protestant England, therefore, filled with the enthusiasm and intolerance of a new faith, made no bones of despoiling the Spaniards, especially as the service of God was likely to be repaid with plunder.
Haring, Buccaneers, 33.
The religious conflicts of the Reformation entwine with national rivalries. Privateers were outfitted by their governments and sent out to make war upon sworn enemies. But, if they attacked and plundered ships of the wrong nation, the penalties could be severe.

The briganteen, Charles, was outfitted in Boston in 1703, "to War, Fight, Take, Kill, Suppress and Destroy, any Pirates, Privateers, or other Subjects and Vassals of France, or Spain, the Declared Enemies of the Crown of England" (The arraignment, tryal, and condemnation, of Capt. John Quelch ... [London, 1705], 20).

These orders were issued to Captain Daniel Plowman, but there was a mutiny on board the ship shortly after leaving port. The Charles was not specifically named as a privateer ship in its commission and orders, although it was to "take, seize, sink, or destroy any of the Ships, Vessels or Goods belonging to France or Spain" (Quelch, 21). After the mutiny, however, and the actions under the leadership of Captain John Quelch, it became a pirate ship.

Plowman's instructions included moral and religious leadership. Swearing, drunkenness, and profanity were to be punished.
First, You are to keep such good Orders among your said Briganteen's Company, that Swearing, Drunkenness and Prophaneness be avoided, or duly Punished; and that GOD be duly Worshipped.
Quelch, 20.
In the trial of John Quelch, the Charles is termed a "Private Man of War" (Quelch, 2), hence a privateer vessel. Quelch neglected Plowman's orders after the commissioned captain had died aboard ship, orders that required the ship to return to Boston. Moreover, he led the crew, some against their will, to attack and plunder Portuguese ships--a crime against an ally of the queen.
You neglected his Orders, and those of your Owners, to return with the said Private Man of War to Boston, would not set on Shore Matthew Pymer and John Clifford, Two of your Company (who dreading your Pyratical Intention) ernestly desired the same; but bore up the Helm to Sea, directing your Course for Ferdinando Island, and the Coast of Brasil, whereby it is open, manifest, you intended Murders; Piracy, and Robberies; which afterwards you perpetrated.
Quelch, 2.
In the charges against John Quelch detailing each of nine ships plundered over the course of two months, certain phrases are repeated.
[B]y Force and Arms upon the High Sea, (within the Jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England,) Piratically and Feloniously did Surprize, Seize, and Take a small Fishing Vessel, (having Portuguise Men on Board) and belonging to the Subjects of the King of Portugal, (Her Majesty's good Allie) and out of her then and there, within the Jurisdiction aforesaid, Feloniosly and Piratically, did by Force and Arms take and carry away ...
Quelch, 2.
The second charge replaces "a small Fishing Vessel" with "a small Brigantine of the Berthen of about fifteen Tons" (Quelch, 3), and so on.

Under the leadership of Captain Plowman, had he lived, the Charles could have plundered French and Spanish vessels for the glory of England and to God. Doing so would have brought profits to the merchants who owned and financed the ship. The crew would have been godly pirates, thus not pirates in the language of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Under the leadership of Captain Quelch, however, they plundered the ships of an ally, and hence were criminal pirates. For these crimes they were executed.

13 December 2013

Atlantic History: Web Resources

Instead of a European discovery of a new world, we might better consider it as a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World.
D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (1988)
Atlantic history concerns four continents--Europe, Africa, North America, and South America--and the islands between from the fifteenth century to the end slavery in the Americas in the nineteenth century. Its principal theme concerns the movement of peoples, flora and fauna, and ideas. The Atlantic world shaped the foundations of the modern world.

National histories have proven inadequate for understanding such transnational phenomena as slavery, colonialism, disease, the economic expansion of Europe, and environmental transformation.

Oxford Bibiographies asserts the field is "determinedly polycentric rather than monocentric." That is, Europeans are not actors to whom colonized peoples react. Rather, the Atlantic World was one in which diverse peoples interacted in complex and ever-changing ways.

This post lists websites that have value to students and faculty in college courses in Atlantic History (a course that I will teach for the first time in fall 2014). It will be updated. Suggestions are particularly welcome.

General Sites

"Atlantic History," Oxford Bibliographies

H-Atlantic Discussion Group,

International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500-1825, Harvard University,

European Exploration

The European Voyages of Exploration, University of Calgary,

1492: An Ongoing Voyage, Library of Congress,

Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,


The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia,

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database, Emory University et al.,

The African Slave Trade and the Middle Passage (part of Africans in America), PBS,

The Abolition Project, East of England Broadband Network,

African History

African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Maryland, Eastern Shore,

Kingdom of Ghana, African Studies Center, Boston University,

Timbuktu: World Heritage Site, National Geographic,

European History

Internet Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University,

British History Online, Institute of Historical Research and History of Parliament Trust,

North America

American Memory, Library of Congress,

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project,

Latin America and Caribbean

Digital Library of the Caribbean, Florida International University,


Piracy Trials, Library of Congress Law Library,


Sugar in the Atlantic World, University of Michigan,

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