“Season of Misery” for colonial Americans and true Yankees

Guest post by Dane A. Morrison

Recently, the online journal Common-place published a roundtable on Kathleen Donegan’s Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America, a book that has garnered a good deal of attention among early Americanists. The collection of brief essays expands upon a session held at the American Studies Association conference in 2014 and features thoughts from Dennis Moore, Abram Van Engen, Kathleen Wilson, Sari Altschuler, Karen Stolley, and Birgit Brander Rasmussen, as well as a lovely reflection on writing Seasons of Misery from Donegan herself. They present us with one of those wonderful moments of intellectual engagement that challenge historians to reconsider their field in fundamental ways; that leave us not only with an impression of “oh, I didn’t know that,” but, more broadly, “oh, I never thought about it this way before.” The online conversation was particularly interesting to me because my own book, True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (JHUP, 2104), tries to do something similar, extending the argument into a later period and across the globe.

Seasons of Misery asks us to consider the experiences of British American explorers and settlers as something distinct from the regurgitated, pre-packaged events that seem to contain and confine many popular histories. In the words of commenter Abram Van Engen:

For Donegan, the key question is not how settlers became American, but rather how they became colonial. Becoming colonial, Donegan shows, is a process of loss with very little gain; it is the disorientation of no longer being English, but not necessarily the new orientation of being something else either. Donegan dwells in the incoherence of Jamestown because it is precisely that lack of coherence which signaled the new formation of colonial (not American) identity. And in so many cases, the result of so much disorientation and incoherence was a suffering that resulted from, and produced, violence; and a violence that led to further suffering. What we see in Donegan’s book is story after story of bewildering confusion and death.

Or, as Dennis Moore summarizes, Season of Misery “extrapolates from overwhelmingly catastrophic, unsettling details to examine larger questions” of America’s colonial period.

“List of Mens’ Names, Rank, Places of Birth, and What Has Become of Them,” in Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817 (Author’s Collection)

“List of Mens’ Names, Rank, Places of Birth, and What Has Become of Them” in Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817. (Author’s Collection)

I was struck by how much of this conversation overlaps the five narratives that anchor True Yankees, a study of post-revolutionary American journeys to the East and their contributions to constructions of national identity. The experiences of these global travelers and expatriates were frequently punctuated, and as often ended, in “seasons of misery” similar to those that define the colonial era in Donegan’s book. We can recall Amasa Delano’s remarkable chart, which traced the fate of the men who sailed to Canton aboard the Massachusetts in 1790:

Of the 61 men who boarded the Massachusetts in 1790, 48 (78 percent) were no longer living, many having died from disease and accidents at sea. The East, especially, had been a dangerous place for American mariners. They had “died at Macao” and “died at Canton,” were “lost overboard off Japan” or “murdered by the Chinese near Macao,” and enslaved in Algiers. Their remains were scattered across the East, “buried . . . outside of  Batavia roads,” “buried under the walls of Macao,” and “thrown overboard in the Straits of Sunda.” (True Yankees, 63-64)

The vessel’s owner, Samuel Shaw, and two of his brothers would die of tropical fever within the first decade of America’s Old China Trade. As a “projector” of East Indies expeditions, Edmund Fanning lost not only shipmates and crew, but also entire ships which vanished without a trace. Harriett Low’s sojourn in Macao ended when her uncle and patron, William Henry Low, contracted tropical fever and died at the Cape of Good Hope. Robert Bennet Forbes’s life in the East was marked by great wealth and great loss—his brother Thomas, shipmates, friends, and relations.

The Common-place discussion leaves historians of America and the world with a second, broader impression. The essays remind us of how much of global history—at least, the world beyond the Atlantic—still remains outside the ken of early American studies. Karen Stolley observes how Donegan’s book:

raises broader questions . . . about how we do Atlantic Studies or Transatlantic Studies or comparative studies generally in ways that recognize the complexity of metropolitan and colonial networks and that don’t impose contemporary geographic or cultural or disciplinary configurations. How do we go “beyond the line,” to generate a more inclusive consideration of comparative colonial experiences?

This is an important question, of course. As noted above, it challenges us to reconsider how we conceptualize the field. What is curious for historians, I wonder, is how confined that line is, how constraining in narrative construction, analytic authority, and comparative power. By limiting the construct to “Atlantic Studies or Transatlantic Studies,” historians of early America will find it difficult to recover the consciousness—the worldview, as it was called a generation or so ago—that scholars such as Donegan seek to understand.

View of Foreign Cemetery on Dane’s Island, attributed to Sunqua,     1840, was the final resting place for a number of American travelers. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

View of Foreign Cemetery on Dane’s Island, attributed to Sunqua, 1840, was the final resting place for a number of American travelers. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

As True Yankees demonstrates, as early as the colonial period Americans constructed the meanings of their “seasons of misery” in a global context, referencing their participation in the Turkish wars, as pirates in the Indian Ocean, as captives in Barbary, and as victims of the “Asian despotism” and “Turkish tyranny” of George III and Parliament. To recover the meanings of misery and other early American experiences, we need to look farther afield and to the far sides of the world.

morrisonDane A. Morrison is a professor of early American history at Salem State University. He is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount code when you order your copy of True Yankees.