In which we see journeys made by motley crews who travel in hope, wonder, and terror.
OK, kids. I’m guessing that some of you did the reading last night.
—Thanks for the vote of confidence!
Sorry, Emily; let me try again. Since of course you all did the reading, I can just quickly review the highlights. Europe the relative backwater. The desire for trade with the East, a way to get around the Venetian grip on the Silk Road to Asia. The Portuguese, sailors extraordinaire, start things off: Bartholomew Diaz rounds Africa’s Cape of Good Hope; Vasco de Gama sails to India, which has great tea. China’s got the silks and pottery.
The competition is intense. New entrants try to find another way, a “Northwest Passage” that goes west instead of east. Seafaring explorers play for whatever team will take them: the Genoa-native Columbus sails for Spain; Englishman Henry Hudson sails for the Dutch. Spaniard Ferdinand Magellan, flying under a Portuguese flag, proves the earth is round by leading an expedition around it (even if he doesn’t actually survive the trip). They’re all looking for shortcuts to China. But Columbus is the one who bumps into a whole new set of real estate. He claims it for Spain, but new European investors follow quickly in their wake.
—Is all this stuff going to be on the test?
Don’t worry about that now, Kylie. Keep your eyes on the road. You can circle back later.
The scramble to cross the sea now becomes a scramble for control of land. Spaniards lead the way: Hernan Cortez flattens the Aztecs, Francisco Pizarro the Incas. Hernando De Soto and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado slice their way into the North American interior. Frenchman Robert de la Salle rappels his way down the Mississippi River in the name of New France. In their wake come wave after wave of subsequent arrivals, who try to wrest a new life for themselves in this vast, uncertain galaxy, part of a colossal drama that transforms the universe that is the earth.
These were the adventurers. They were individuals of fierce ambition willing to endure tremendous stress in making the journey. Some, like Columbus, were upwardly mobile strivers who came from middling backgrounds. Others, like William Berkeley, who dominated colonial Virginia for decades in the mid-seventeenth century, were younger sons in noble families who would not inherit estates. They were willing to roll the dice and face the prospect of disaster, whether in the form of financial ruin, violence at the hands of enemies (as well as supposed allies) or exposure to elements that ranged from microbes to roiling storms on the high seas.
—You make it sound like an action movie.
It is an action movie, Ethan. With lots of heroes and villains. Cortez and Pizarro were legendary for their savagery. But tyranny was the order of the day on lesser scales as well. Like Captain John Smith, who helped founded the colony—Jamestown, Virginia—Berkeley would later fashion into an aristocratic playground. Actually, there had been an English settlement in Roanoke, in what is now modern-day North Carolina, back in 1585. But when the people who dropped the settlers returned two years later, they had disappeared.
Nobody knows. Did they get sick? Move away? Get attacked by Indians? Get assimilated by Indians? Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, though that’s putting it a bit generously. The people there (mostly men, mostly hoping to make a quick buck) almost starved to death, and they got involved in some nasty wars with the Powhatan Indians down there.
—There was also whole John Smith/Pocahontas thing.
Right, Sadie. The whole John Smith/Pocahontas thing.
—Did that really happen?
Well, sort of. John Smith went along with the adventurers of the Virginia Company. He had a lot of military and organizational experience. But he was also widely considered a pain in the ass. On the trip over, his irritated colleagues threw him in the brig—in effect, they jailed him. Then they opened up their instructions, and discovered that he was supposed to lead them. Which Smith did—with an iron hand. The going got tough, and he laid down the line: You don’t work, you don’t eat. Smith’s major frenemy, though, was the Native American chieftain Powhatan, who eyed the newcomers warily, not sure whether to consider them a potential ally against his rivals or a threat against his own rule. At one point, he captured Smith and looked like he was about to kill him. Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, had befriended Smith and successfully pleaded for his life. So that part is true. But it was another Virginian, John Rolfe, who Pocahontas actually married. They had a son, and went back to England, where Pocahontas was celebrated but also fell ill and died. John Smith, in the meantime, went back to England and continued his efforts to develop what was now called “The New World.”
In the aftermath of Smith’s departure following his injury in gunpowder accident in 1609, the colony teetered on the edge of destruction—about 90% of the settlers perished. While it’s not hard to imagine that another settlement would have followed in its wake, it’s intriguing to consider how American history might have been different if a ship bearing supplies had not arrived on the horizon in 1610 at the very moment they were heading back home.
Great risk, great reward. You make these trips because you’re trying to make a huge score. Is it worth it?
—Well, like I said yesterday, no.
Yes, Sadie. I remember. And Jonah said he was game. Have you reconsidered, Jonah?
—Still sounds pretty exciting to me.
—C’mon, Jonah: you wouldn’t want to make this trip.
—Didn’t you hear what Mr. K just said? Ninety percent died?
—That was just one place.
—Don’t be stupid. It wasn’t just one place. You know that if you really thought about it you wouldn’t go.
Chris is probably right, Jonah. The dangers are too great for sane people with even a thin cushion of security in their lives.
—Who said Jonah is sane?
Of course not everybody does have that thin cushion. And you didn’t have to be a swashbuckler to decide to take your chances. Which brings us to a whole new set of people. Mingled among the ambitious—and far more numerous—were the desperate. Like convicts given the choice between jail and exile to the far reaches of the universe. More typical were indentured servants. These were people who signed years of their life away in exchange for passage across the ocean and an unpaid job that would provide them sustenance once they arrived. That passage was typically paid for by rich adventurers who were given financial incentives to import labor. Typically it was severe poverty on would lead most people to submit to indentured servitude, especially since it was often experienced as virtual slavery—if and when you actually made it to the other side. Occasionally an indentured servant would finish a seven-year term, get his or her papers, and begin a new life. But it was a difficult thing to count on. Dreams of freedom were more like fantasies.
Then there were the fanatically committed. These were people who were not really out for personal gain, or forced by circumstances to leave their homes. Instead, they were impelled by the force of an idea, almost always a religious one. Some came from the powerful institutional framework of the Roman Catholic Church. Spanish clerics affirmed, and sometimes challenged, imperial authority by ministering to the bodies and souls of native and immigrant alike. Among the most impressive in this category were French missionaries, the so-called Black Robes, who ventured deep into the heart of what is now Canada and lived among Huron and Algonquin peoples—a territory stretching from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard—enjoying some real success in converting them even as they assimilated Native ways of life. Though we today tend to recoil at their ethnocentrism, their sense of devotion could be genuinely heroic.
North America also became a home for all manner of religious deviants who were less interested in converting heathens than finding a haven from persecution. French Protestants, German dissenters, Dutch Jews: the continent became a veritable melting pot of outcasts and weirdoes. The English in particular seemed to have a genius for them: Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers swarmed all over the strip of coastline that ran from Maine (then part of Massachusetts) to Virginia, and then later to Georgia. Many of these people traveled or settled in packs, seeking safety in numbers. To greater or lesser degrees, they were people of modest means—not rich or desperately poor, but of an intermediate stratum whose resources were at least as much social and intellectual as they were financial.
And then there were the people who had no choice at all: the millions of slaves who were forced to cross the ocean against their will and do the brutal work that building a new world entailed. The first European arrivals in the western hemisphere had hoped that they could force the natives to do their bidding. While this happened to a limited degree—Columbus had pretty much sized them up and concluded he could use them this way from the moment he met them—the native labor supply never satisfied European appetites. So they turned to hearty, disease-resistant Africans, borrowing the logic and methods of the longstanding Arab slave trade, which, among other things, involved Africans capturing and selling each other.
—There were slaves in the Middle East?
Yes, Yin. Actually, slavery has been practiced all over the world. In Russia, for example, you had serfs, who were workers bound to the land. They were part of the property. So if the property got sold or transferred, the serfs came with it. This is in contrast to chattel slavery, where people are property that the owner could take elsewhere. In some societies, like ancient Rome, slaves were routinely freed. They also could hold jobs and enjoy a status higher than that of free people, as when a slave managed property or used writing skills that might have been acquired earlier (like before they were defeated in battle).
What made European enslavement of Africans different was that it was based on race. Skin color became a means for classifying people. This didn’t happen right away (we have records of North American slaves sitting on juries, getting legally married, and the like), but became increasingly pronounced over time. The Portuguese were the first to get involved in the African slave trade, followed by the Spanish, French and Dutch. The slave trade peaked under the British, who were the ones who put it to an end.
That’s a good question, Jonquil. Indeed, given the money involved, I’m amazed it ever ended. The fact that it did had a lot to do with some social activism, and the relative lack of power of the slavery industry in Britain relative to some of the other players in the British government. Eventually, the British navy became an anti-slavery police force. But we’ll have to save that story for another day.
Slavery was a complicated and varied institution that played out in different ways at different times. But the most fundamental facts of the experience—the terror of capture; the excruciating ordeal being chained and jammed into the hold of a slave ship as part the so-called middle passage; the disorientation of arrival in an unfamiliar new environment; the brutality and/or tedium of labor in house or field; the dangers and frustrations of having one’s fate bound to the caprices of another—were experienced from top to bottom in the western hemisphere. Countless souls never survived the trip over; countless more perished from being worked to death, particularly in gold mines or sugar plantations of Latin America.
And yet, to a miraculous degree, these African transplants survived: that mother who somehow managed to be a mother after a crushing day in the fields; that uncle who mastered the fiddle; that church which provided comfort to bodies and souls. Even more miraculous, these (often improvised) families and communities forged a culture—more like a series of linked cultures—that blended the folkways of their old homes and their new ones. A saga of liberation and ongoing oppression was woven into the fabric of the American experience. You can hear it every time you stream the music that courses through your earbuds.
Next: The ones who were already here.