72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
To a reader like myself who's fairly familiar with aspects of British and Irish history but hardly at all with American history, especially early stuff, this is fascinating. I didn't know that the earliest efforts to colonize Virginia were such a disaster -- people were dying like flies over there, even as entrepreneurs sought recruits to sail to new lives in what was presented as a terrestrial paradise. The lure of land, the development of the tobacco trade, and later the fur trade, the relations with the indigenous peoples, the blending of religious and commercial motives, the context for the behavior of the natives -- Bailyn lays it all out very deftly, blending a chronological organization with a geographical one. The cases of Maryland and New England are very different from Virginia's (and each other) despite the overlap in time. The idea of colliding cultures (English and native American) that one finds in the blurb oversimplifies things. There is no single English or European culture, and the native tribes have likewise their own pressures and agendas. So it's a complicated story to tell, and at times the reader might be overwhelmed with colonists' names and Indian place names -- and more maps would help, I think -- but the main lines of the various stories (for there isn't just one) are clear. Bailyn seems to be aiming at the general reader, but some work is required. Some Tudor and Stuart background helps, and it helps to know, for example, what a joint-stock company is and what English policy towards Ireland was in the early 17th century. Readers who aren't up on such things need to do a little work, but it's worth it. A couple of impressions to indicate what I find fascinating: first, the juxtaposition of the almost Darwinian struggle against nature, disease, and indigenous natives that is being waged in Virginia c. 1623 by people struggling also to just stay alive, while back in London very sophisticated financial transactions (and political transactions) are being undertaken to get people to a place where most of them would die in fairly short order. Second, I didn't know that Maryland was founded by Catholics who sought to establish a colony of tolerance but who found, when the Jesuits insisted on proselytizing both the natives and the Protestant colonists, that they (the Catholic governors) had to appeal to the Pope to get the Jesuits to back off. They were afraid that the English government -- trending increasingly Protestant prior to the English Civil War -- wouldn't support, maintain, or fund an aggressively Catholic colony. So . . . if this kind of stuff is news to you, get this book.
80 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2013
Bernard Bailyn is a titan in the field of early American history and the 529 pages of text in this book display his mastery of that field. The Barbarous Years presents in thorough detail the first six or seven decades of the Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York settlements and to a lesser extent Delaware and Maryland as well. Certainly anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of these events should read this book.
The Barbarous Years is, mainly, an overview, but, as the title indicates, Bailyn emphasizes the barbaric circumstances of the settlement experience in an attempt to establish thematic unity. He relates in graphic detail the killings, tortures and massacres committed by the European settlers and Native Americans against each other, particularly in the chapters on Virginia. But he takes pains to note how each such group inflicted identical horrors upon its own members as well. In a similar vein, he sets forth the details of the deprivations the Europeans endured in their earliest years, the mean conditions of their daily lives and the astonishingly high mortality rates.
There is also substantial demographic analysis of the settlement communities; significant description of the conditions and events in 17th century England that caused the exodus to America; and a detailed exposition of the diverse viewpoints on religious and other issues, such as land management, within the several communities, and the roots of those differences in England.
The reading experience, however, was not commensurate with the scholarship. Having read Philbrick's "Mayflower" and "The Island at the Center of the World" I was already familiar with the Massachusetts and New York narratives. Those books, particularly Philbrick's, are written more as narratives than expositions, and held my attention better than this one did. There is just a lot of exposition in this book . I am not referring only to the passages on demographics and land management practices, which, being new topics to me, held my interest initially for some time, but just went on too long. But the book often had that "no index card left out" feeling to it. Every person mentioned seems to get a short biography. I would have liked a little editing to focus more on the people who were truly important.
Last, the author is just verbose. Rarely is a person characterized by just one phrase or quote; three seems to be the median. Few nouns go without the company of an adjective and the same for verbs. In a span of just 8 lines on page 431, Roger Williams is described as "self-confident", "self-willed," , "self-conceited", "stubborn", "spiky", "uncompromising", "assertive", "imaginative", "attractive", "insensitive", "unquiet", "turbulent", "stiff", and "uncharitable". Surely some of these are redundant. John Winthrop, Jr., is introduced on page 401 as "the most accomplished among them, the most cosmopolitan, worldly, sophisticated and intellectually adventurous". Cosmopolitan, worldly and sophisticated? It's like a thesaurus entry. On page 405, a group of persons is described as "equally experienced in practical affairs, equally contentious, equally contrary-minded, equally argumentative, sensitive to slights and relentless in following through on their own opinions." Are not the phrases "equally contentious" and "equally argumentative", if not others, sufficiently "equal" that one could have been deleted? As a reading experience, it was unfortunately more of a slog than I had expected. I see the Publishers' Weekly review uses the word "weighty" to describe the book and that's not a bad choice, in both its favorable and unfavorable senses.
77 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2013
This is an odd book for one of America's premier historians. It isn't a bad book -- a person of Bailyn's erudition couldn't write a bad book -- but it doesn't hang together well. The author does not really have anything new to say and a historian of the Early Colonial Period will quickly recognize the usual sources. It is hard to see exactly what historiographical niche this book fills.
Even the title is misleading. Sure, Jamestown was barbarous enough by our standards and New Amsterdam was plenty harsh. But, the Bay Colony was, by the rough-and-ready standards of 17th century Europe, pretty civilized. (Compare it with the contemporaneous English Civil War or the Thirty Years War.) As for "Conflict of Civilizations," there was certainly enough of that but the most interesting part of the book, the last third or so on the Bay Colony, is largely an account of Puritan theological quarrels.
In fact, one senses that Bailyn felt like he was "home" when he wrote about the Bay Colony. He has, after all, written about New England since 1955 ("Merchants.") He gives the reader a clear account of the theological duels between Winthrop, Cotton, Hooker, Williams, Hutchinson and others. But, others have done this as well or better.
Bailyn all but ties himself in a knot to be politically correct toward the Native Americans. For every Indian atrocity he finds a matching atrocity in European civilization. Still, if captured in war one was likely to be a lot better off among the English, French or Dutch than the Pequods. A LOT better off!
This volume is part of a series that explores the settling of North America and hardly anyone is better equipped for this than the author. But, what begins as a good account of the horrors of Jamestown drifts into a twice-told tale of the niceties of Puritan disputation. It is almost as if Bailyn got bored half-way through and started channeling Perry Miller.
A good book in its way and quite useful for an upper division course or first-year graduate seminar. But, not well-written enough to snare the casual reader and not original enough to snare the professional historian. An odd number.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2013
I feel a little silly writing a 3-star review of a book written by Bernard Bailyn, who is one of the most accomplished living American historians. But.... this book had some undeniably odd aspects that detract from the overall quality. I will discuss a few of them. First, the book opens with a chapter describing life as a Native American (NA), in particular from a psychological standpoint. While beautifully written, and conveying some good information, the chapter was also nearly cringe-worthy. Bailyn's psychological analysis was clearly conducted from a Euro/Western mindset- how a white European would think about, feel about, react to things. NAs existed within a completely different framework, having markedly different beliefs regarding spirituality, conflict, possessions, etc. To assume that they would regard and react to a given situation in the same way that a European would is absurd. To be clear, Bailyn never says that he is evaluating the NAs from a Euro-centric standpoint, but he absolutely is.
Bailyn fails to place the "barbarous years" in the new world within the context of the greater world. That failure, along with the title itself, make it seem as if relations between the settlers and the NAs were unusually brutal. But they weren't. The 1600's were incredibly barbarous (by modern Western standards) throughout the world. The conflicts within the new world were nothing unusual.
An exhaustive history and a readable history are not necessarily the same thing. This book is very well researched. And it is well-written. But by the time about two-thirds of the book have passed, when the chapter about the conflicts between the NAs and the Swedes appears, the endless litany of conflict becomes extremely repetitive. Again, this is a good history for research purposes. But it becomes a bit of a slog at that point.
I will conclude with one omission that is so glaring, that I still haven't wrapped my head around Bailyn's failure to mention it. In Plymouth colony, the conflict between the NAs and the settlers in the early years was minimal compared to other areas. (Yes, of course, there was some conflict. Some atrocities occurred on both sides. But overall the interaction was far, far more peaceful than in almost any other area, and for decades.) There is a clear and distinct reason for this. Governor William Bradford and Chief Massasoit (of the Wampanoags) developed a strong and lasting mutual respect and trust. Thanks to these two extraordinary men, many fewer of their people died violently than occurred among other groups in other locations. Their relationship lasted for nearly 40 years, ending only with the death of Bradford in the late 1650's. And it was only after Massasoit's death a decade or so later that the bloody and, yes, barbarous King Philip's War broke out. (Philip was Massasoit's son.) The problem? Bailyn NEVER mentions this relationship or its effect of (relative) peace. Not once. Plymouth is mentioned, Bradford is mentioned. But Bailyn NEVER mentions that Massasoit even existed. His name is not written once. Inexplicable. It is almost as if the Plymouth/Wampanoag situation was ignored because it didn't align with the book's title and thesis. I might expect this omission from a quasi-historian. But from Bailyn? I am stunned. And the glaring omission makes me wonder what other information might have been ignored.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2013
This book provides a fascinating and enlightening analysis of seldom discussed charateristics of the evolution of the colonies in America in the 1600s. It fills an intellectual gap of understanding of the motivation for the colonies, as well as the barbarous approaches employed by both the English and the Native Americans. There is much too little well documented, academic work available on this period of American history and how it influenced different regions of the south and New England. This well-written and very readable book will be welcomed by anyone who is interested in America's roots.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
What a revealing and interesting book. Bailyn is an absolute master historian and this book MUST be read by any serious US history buff. I can't even begin to explain how many myths and tales about the start of this country have been busted with this book. Not that it's all horrible but you must read the book to get a feeling about how violent the early years were and it will blow your mind. I found it fascinating how the author structured his chapters with the many peoples who influenced the early years. Also fascinating is how much change was introduced in 75 years documented in these wonderful pages. In summary, a book well worth your time to absorb and enjoy.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2013
Things are seldom what we think they are and definitely not what our history teachers told us (at least mine). The Barbarous Years gives a vivid picture of the events in America thru most of the 1600s; the root causes of immigration to NA and the effects on both sides of the pond. Read in conjunction with 1491 and 1493 one gets and incredible view of what went on in NA and Europe and how it all fit into the Colombian exchange. Two minor criticisms. (1) I could have benefited from more and greater detailed maps, but that may be just me. And (2) while the Protestant Reformation in England was a major driver of events Mr. Bailyn told me more than I really needed to know about it, particularly that which did not relate directly to immigration in both directions. On balance though it's a "must read".
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2013
This book stands on the impressive career of a principal U.S. historian of 17th century America, among other eras. The theme, barbarity, effortlessly is lifted from contemporary written sources. The book debunks any approach to the period as a time of measured, rational progress. The ups and downs of the English colonial efforts, commencing with the idealism and faith of Plymouth Colony, which ultimately failed, but leading to bloody seizures of land and culture from the indigenous peoples as the Europeans created their New World.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2012
While much of the material will be familiar to anyone interested in American history, there is always more to be learned, especially about the first two or three decades of a colony's existence. While I was generally familiar with the founding of Jamestown--and a poor location and poor choice of settlers it was--I was surprised to learn the founders of the New England colonies were not the monolithic bloc of religious fanatics I had supposed. Indeed, their doctrinal disputes nearly tore the colony apart. While many were obsessed with the tenets of their religion, many more were in North America to make a shilling--or preferably, a good many pounds.
Recommended for the general reader.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2013
This book is clearly intended for those of us (non-historians) curious about what is a dimly perceived period of North American colonial history. Living as I do in Tidewater Virginia, I consider myself fairly well versed with the earliest years of English settlement or invasion, depending on your point of view. But, I was wrong. I had, of course, read about the wretched first two years of the Jamestown enterprise, but I had no idea just how ghastly the conditions of the first twenty years of the English colonial period were. Wave after wave of newcomers simply starved or died of disease in those years. The mortality rate was shocking. So many people were dying off that the local Indians did not even think it necessary to kill these newcomers (which proved a mistake, of course). And this was not just at Jamestown. For example, the author says that in any given year in one county 30 to 40% of the children under the age of eight were orphans. And the origins of many of these earliest colonists -- orphans dumped by local churches, beggars snatched off of urban streets, prisoners marched from gaol to waiting ships, many poor people literally kidnapped or tricked into emigrating -- was eye-opening. Talk about the refuse of British society. (As an aside, anyone whose humble immigrant ancestors came to Virginia in those years can forget about doing any genealogical research. You will never find the answers to your questions.)
This does tend to be a bleak read. One of the things that jumped out at me was the sad, repetitive tale of European-Indian relations. It mattered not where one was. Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Amsterdam, New York, the pattern is always the same. Trade and early friendly relations were quickly undermined by misunderstandings, stupidity, devious tricks, alcohol, and land disputes that led to attack and counter attack and massacres on both sides.
One of the things I did enjoy was the Indians' views of Christianity. Those mentioned by the author viewed it as little more than a strange dream. When the concept of a universal god was explained to them they laughed and called it a silly fable. I can only agree. My respect for their powers of reasoning and perspicacity rose immeasurably. Just who was the savage?