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British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America.

British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America

by Stephen J. Hornsby, University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 2005, xv + 307 pp., cloth US$60.00 (ISBN 1-58465-426-0), paper US$29.95 (ISBN 1-58465-437-9).

In the serious press, reviewers are expected to declare their links (and earlier bickering) with those whose books they evaluate. Looser standards prevail in academia. Friends review friends, former students praise the works of their mentors, and fervent believers flay the ideas of their antagonists with no acknowledgment of the connections between

judgments and personalities, words and convictions. Knowing acquaintances might smile and nod or dismiss critical opinions as prejudice, but those beyond such tight circles of familiarity typically have few clues to assist them in reading between the lines of sycophantic (or disapproving) reviews. True, most academic fields are small, and few among those of us who constitute them are prepared to eschew social interaction with our peers (as George Orwell apparently did) on the grounds that personal familiarity might soften critical instincts. Still, I have to 'fess up': I have known Stephen Hornsby since he began his doctoral program at UBC about a quarter century ago. Appreciating his earlier work, I acquired, read and was impressed by British Atlantic, American Frontier soon after its publication. But I was reluctant to review it. In the end I was persuaded to set aside my qualms of close association because (the former Review Editor told me) no one else would write this review for The Canadian Geographer. Given the book's subject, its value as a study in historical geography, the importance of its arguments for Canadian scholarship, and Hornsby's Canadian connections (he is currently Director of the Canadian-American Center in the University of Maine), a failure to notice it in this journal would have been a sorry omission indeed.

In barely 240 pages of clear and concise prose, accompanied and complemented by a more than a hundred carefully selected illustrations and finely conceived and well-executed maps, the author of British Atlantic, American Frontier takes a considerable stab at rewriting current interpretations of Atlantic America (from Hudson's Bay to the Caribbean) before 1800, and he does so from an indubitably historical geographical perspective. Hornsby's argument is simple, and its power is blindingly obvious--once it has been pointed out. It is this. Early modern British America included three distinctive spaces: a marine empire, a settler empire, and an intermediate space with important links to both of the former. Hornsby calls the marine empire, or oceanic periphery, the 'British Atlantic'. Comprising of Hudson's Bay, Newfoundland and the West Indies, this space was dominated by metropolitan authority and generated an enormous wealth in furs, fish and sugar, although little of this prosperity accrued to residents of the colonies. The settler empire--a territorially oriented periphery of the Atlantic world--is Hornsby's 'American Frontier'. It extended from Maine to Georgia and generally evinced higher levels of local autonomy than the oceanic periphery subject to British naval authority. It was also marked by agricultural settlement, population growth and a propensity to continental expansion. In broad terms, these two spaces are the realms in which two familiar and fundamentally different forms of new world development found their fullest expression. The first is generally identified with the ideas and writings of H.A. Innis (the staples thesis), and the second with the views of F.J. Turner (the frontier theory). Between them, Hornsby interposes an intermediate space, made up of those areas producing 'continental staples' (the New England fishery, Chesapeake tobacco producers, and Carolina rice plantations) and the port towns along the seaboard, which had links to both the interior and the Atlantic trade. In those areas dominated by continental staples, colonial rather than metropolitan elites held power; in the seaboard cities that attracted successful planters and entrepreneurs from their hinterlands, infrastructural underdevelopment and symbolic representations of metropolitan authority (such as parade grounds, Anglican churches, and fortifications) were far less evident than in the emerging urban places of the British Atlantic (think Halifax). Taken as a whole, this intermediate space of staple production and urban-commercial importance functioned as a 'point of connection, articulation and friction between the larger oceanic and continental spaces' (p. 6).

In this broad partitioning of Atlantic American space, Hornsby emphasizes differences and discontinuities rather than sameness and persistence.. Britain's American empire was by no means 'a uniform space or an homogeneous system' (p. 2). Many pages are given to finely turned descriptions of cultural landscapes and their constituent forms, from language patterns to vernacular architecture. Here Hornsby's efforts parallel those of Donald W. Meinig in Atlantic America, (1988) although he differs from Meinig in his conceptualization of the workings of Atlantic networks. More than Meinig, too, Hornsby is at pains to demonstrate and analyze the complex and evolving patterns of economy and society across the broad swath of early America. Here his prose and his arguments reflect the inspiration of Cole Harris's earlier work on the simplification of Europe overseas, as well as an engagement with more recent ideas, broadly associated with the sociologist Michael Mann (1986), recognizing the efficacy of 'multiple overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power'. Taken in sum, British Atlantic, American Frontier is a prodigious and intelligent work of synthesis. One might quibble about some of its generalizations--trading networks are notoriously difficult to disaggregate; how does one calibrate the balance between New England's territorial and oceanic economies?--and find the nucleus of its argument (minus the important spatial accent) in one or two works by historians. Still, Hornsby's discussions of the northern fisheries and fur trades (in chapter 2 where they are illuminatingly considered alongside the sugar colonies) are as deft and clear and as useful summaries of these important early 'Canadian' enterprises as we have, and there is a welcome liveliness and freshness to almost all of this book's arguments.

In the final analysis, I think that British Atlantic, American Frontier makes several exceptionally important contributions. First, Hornsby's insistent and convincing argument about the importance of space (or as he sometimes expresses it, on page 5, for example, '[distinctive] geographical configurations of power') to understanding the history of early modern America offers an invaluable demonstration of the value and vitality of a geographical perspective on the past--and thus of historical geography. Second, by insisting, intriguingly, that the fracturing of British America brought about by the American War of Independence occurred along structural fault lines 'embedded in the continent's evolving human geography' (p. 7) and defined by the oceanic and territorial spatial systems, Hornsby helps untangle a conundrum that has puzzled historians since John Bartlett Brebner asked why Nova Scotia failed to join the American Revolution, as he breathes new life into Carville Earle's (1992) claim that geographers' contributions are likely to be most valued when they improve understanding of major historical problems. Third, I would suggest that British Atlantic, American Frontier warrants the attention of environmental historians anxious to bring their concerns into the mainstream of history; not least because Hornsby's spatial perspective is a broad one, concerned not simply with where things happened but also with the ways in which space, both locational and ecological (in the sense that biophysical considerations shaped possibilities for economic activity), influenced the how and why of events. I suspect that Hornsby is as uneasy as I am with Earle's view of historical geography (or 'geographical history') because it tends to render our field the handmaiden of history, and that he will disagree with me when I nestle his historical geography alongside the endeavours of environmental historians. Be that as it may, this book is remarkable for its presentation of a coherent and compelling geographical interpretation of early America, and for the ways in which it challenges readers to rethink and refine their assumptions about, and approaches to, the past. With British Atlantic, American Frontier, Stephen Hornsby takes his place in the front rank of historical geographers of his generation.


EARLE, C. 1992. Geographical Inquiry and American Historical Problems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

MANN, M. 1986. The Sources of Social Power: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MEINIG, D. 1988. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Vol. 1: Atlantic Canada 1492-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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Author:Wynn, Graeme
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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