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By Chris Cotton, ProQuest Senior Product Manager

Over 350 years of British colonial activity and its associated conflicts are documented in two ProQuest historical collections — Colonial State Papers and British Periodicals. The former presents documents pertaining to the administration of Britain’s North American colonies during the period 1583-1757, while the latter features reporting, discussion, and analysis of the myriad aspects of British colonialism from the late-17th through to the 20th centuries.

Colonial State Papers

Notwithstanding the widespread melioristic rhetoric in these documents about “civilising” indigenous populations (CO 1/19, No. 143), conflict with both natives and other European colonial rivals is a pervasive feature of Britain’s activities in North America and the West Indies.

Despite the efforts to trade and ally with natives — one correspondent describes how “the Sachems thankfully received two coats in his majesty’s name” (CO 1/19, No. 143) — the colonists elsewhere resignedly make such claims as “[there is] no hope of subverting these barbarous and perfidious Indians but by stratagem as neither fair war nor good quarter is ever to be got” (CO 1/3, no. 1).

Nevertheless, this dubiety about the prospects of “fair war” did not prevent the colonists frequently resorting to belligerence against native populations. Notably, the First Indian War of 1675-78 is documented at length in Colonial State Papers and induced many desperate laments such as that of Governor Sir William Berkeley, who wrote in 1676 that “[i]f this war lasts a year longer, they in New England will be the poorest miserablest people of all the English Plantations in America” (CO 1/36, No. 37).

The challenges of conducting war in unfamiliar conditions, and against an unpredictable enemy are captured here; a revision of traditional European methods is required and it is explained, for example, that in Boston “there are no pikemen, they being of no use against the Indians” (CO1/37, no. 70).

More customary foes were, though, encountered in the form of the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch, whose own expansionist objectives frequently intersected and clashed with those of the English. Greater familiarity brought little comfort, however. We can read accounts of English sailors’ sufferings at the hands of the Spanish. One prisoner, Jonas Clough, relates how the English “were landed and packed into a close and stinking tan-house” where they were “almost poisoned by the stench of raw and putrid hides” before being starved for three days and then “employed in carrying away sand in handbarrows” (CO1/47, no. 95).

Elsewhere the extremity of English actions to inhibit French attempts to take up positions in the West Indies is described. Lieutenant Governor Stede explains in 1687 that “I have lately sent the Mary Rose to St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Dominica to disturb the French from settling there, and have burnt their huts and sent the people off in their own ships” (CO 1/63, no. 38).

Aside from the turmoil induced by the act of colonization itself, the material in Colonial State Papers demonstrates how the febrile English domestic politics of the 17th century ramified into the colonies.

The obligation of the natives of the colonies to submit to the vicissitudes of the period of the Civil War and Restoration is clear in many of these documents. In 1650, the year after the execution of Charles I, a group of merchants and planters wanting to trade in Barbados suggest a series of propositions that the islanders should submit to, including the requirement that “the government of the island does solemnly and publiquely renounce and disdaine all obedience and submission to Charles Stuart” (CO 1/11, No. 23).

Anxieties about the continued political volatility during the Interregnum are apparent in the severe treatment of any perceived rebels at this time. We find a bill of indictment from 1652 against Isaac Cloake of Barbados for pro-royalist rhetoric, his being “willing to excite and animate the hearts of the people of this island to a mutiny and disturbance of the public peace” (CO 1/11, No. 53).

Later, at the time of the Duke of Monmouth’s attempt to overthrow James II, there are documents attesting to the treasonable support of this rebellion by certain colonists, and the efforts of the authorities to subdue these disputants. It is reported that one witness “heard Robert Burnham say that there was no speaking of treason at present against the King, for there was no King; that the Duke of Monmouth was proclaimed and crowned in Scotland, and gone for Ireland where he had raised an army” (CO1/57, no. 117).

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24 Nov 2014

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