Early American Environmental Histories
By James D. Rice
Environmental history came of age as a distinctive field, with its own journal and professional association, in the 1970s and 1980s. A disproportionate number of the most enduringly influential publications from that era centered on or dealt extensively with early America, but from 1990 until fairly recently environmental historians shifted their attention toward other times and places. This essay uses that divergence, together with a recent revival and convergence of early American scholarship with environmental history, to consider an array of issues that are central to both fields and to historical scholarship as a whole, including the relationships between decisions about periodization, scale, and theories of causation; the nature of power within and between societies; and the possibilities and limits of interdisciplinary scholarship. The essay concludes with considerations of what we might better understand about environmental history as a whole in light of recent early Americanist scholarship and what we might learn about early America by attending more closely to the broader field of environmental history, as well as with reflections on the creative tensions between modern, premodern, Americanist, and global histories. This article is based on the 2017 WMQ-EMSI workshop, “Early American Environmental Histories.”
Insects as Agricultural Pests in the Early Modern Caribbean
By Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart Schwartz
Among the many environmental hazards that challenged European efforts to colonize the early modern Caribbean were insect infestations of one kind or another. Though scholars have long highlighted the dangers associated with mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases, they have paid less attention to the impact of insects on agriculture, the economic foundation for empire in the Caribbean. At various times, caterpillars, grasshoppers, or so-called sugar ants (sometimes labeled the “blast”) destroyed fields of sugarcane and other export crops. They also ravaged provision crops, threatening the lives of inhabitants and the stability of colonial societies across the region. Infestations could force planters to abandon one crop in favor of another, sometimes temporarily, but at times permanently. Though insects posed problems from the earliest years of colonization, the threat grew more pronounced as plantation monoculture took hold across much of the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perhaps the most dramatic infestation occurred in the 1760s and 1770s when swarms of ants and associated homopteran insects devastated sugar fields in Martinique, Grenada, Barbados, and several other islands. Combating insects became an important goal for planters and entomology a necessary science of empire.
“Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws”:
Certificates of Freedom and the Multiple Fates of Black Citizenship in the Early Republic
By Sarah L. H. Gronningsater
Black voters in early republican New York played a critical role in the development of antislavery politics, partisan practices, and definitions of citizenship in the nascent years of American democracy. As increasing numbers of black New Yorkers became free during gradual emancipation, more black men went to the polls. They often, if not always, voted for Federalists. In 1811, the Republican-led legislature enacted a controversial law requiring black men to obtain “certificates of freedom” before participating in elections; a second certificate law passed in 1815 further targeted New York City’s black voters. The paperwork produced by these two laws comprises a rich, underexamined source base. Surviving certificates demonstrate that black men voted throughout the state, at times holding the balance of power in rural areas and smaller cities that rarely capture scholars’ attention. Ongoing debates about the certificates and black voters’ political activities shaped prominent state politicians’ views of slavery and citizenship. Significantly, state representatives took these ideas to the U.S. Congress during the Missouri Crisis (1819–21). In 1821, proponents of black citizenship were disappointed both by the results of the Missouri Compromise and by New York’s new constitution, which erected stiff new property requirements for black voters. That said, black men’s decades of electoral participation created important and enduring minority conceptions of political belonging and equal citizenship.
Sources and Interpretations
Friendship Poetry by Petrus Stuyvesant and Johan Farret on Curaçao, 1639–45
By Joanne van der Woude and Jaap Jacobs
The poems exchanged by Dutch West India Company officers Johan Farret and Petrus Stuyvesant—later director general of New Netherland—during their stay on Curaçao call attention to an understudied genre of friendship poetry within the earliest settler literature from the Americas. The poems’ method of collection and distribution differs from the printed verse that has entered the early American canon. Moreover, Stuyvesant and Farret’s occasional and friendship verse celebrated aspects of the Dutch Empire and thus differs from the familial or religious focus of the canonical poetry by early English or German colonists. Stuyvesant and Farret’s poems participated in a flourishing Dutch tradition of civic verse, which was neither courtly nor churchly. The act of writing such friendship poetry was more important than the poems’ contents, and the poems’ gestures of affection display how male affect and friendship networks channeled imperial ambition and advancement within the Dutch Atlantic. And finally, because one poem concerns Stuyvesant’s lost leg, these works offer an interesting contribution to disability studies. Taken as a whole, these verses alert us to how different literary composition looked on the margins of empire when compared with the writings that are now commonly anthologized. Stuyvesant and Farret’s poems are both strikingly Dutch and remarkably Atlantic.
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