Strother E. Roberts
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019, ISBN: 9780812251272 ; 280pp.; Price: £36.00
John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester
Date accessed: 4 December, 2023
Environmental history is one of the most dynamic, innovative, and though-provoking areas of current academic enquiry, and the connection between environmental change, imperialism, and expanding global economies has recently received increased scholarly attention. Building on the foundational works of historians such as William Cronon, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy explores the intricate relationships between ecological change and economic expansion in the early modern British-Atlantic. The dust-jacket of the book claims that Roberts’s history refutes two ‘common misconceptions’; that globalisation is a recent, modern phenomenon, and that New England’s puritan founders were disinterested in the wider economic potential of the lands they had settled. Perhaps these claims are aimed at marketing the book to a more general readership, but these are, of course, questions that have already been addressed in detail by historians of the early modern period. Scholars such as Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez have, for example, examined the origins of global trade in the 16th century, and historians such as Karen Ordhal Kupperman have long since complicated the image of the economically-disinterested puritan settler. As Kupperman demonstrated in her book of 1980, Settling with the Indians, even the staunchly puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay was not immune to economic considerations.
The claims made by Roberts in the actual book are far more nuanced and robust, and in many ways more compelling for those who are interested in environmental and ecological history. Roberts examines the role played by global commerce in the transformation of American ecologies, arguing that colonial actors and indigenous communities responded to market incentives, both local and international, which in turn led to the creation of new landscapes that offered ‘ecological challenges and opportunities’. New England, and particularly the Connecticut Valley, became an integral cog in Britain’s developing imperial economy, with this commercial participation having a range of intended and unintended repercussions on the ecological make-up of the region. The book is structured around five key commodities that exemplify these processes in action: furs, agricultural crops, firewood, timber, and livestock. The result of this analysis is a narrative of human ingenuity and imagination, but also one of destruction and unintended consequences that illustrates the power of the environment to exert its own influence over human affairs.
Chapters one and two are the strongest, introducing key themes that are returned to in the later chapters. Chapter one explores the ecological consequences of European demand for beaver furs. Roberts traces why furs were so highly prized by Europeans and why indigenous communities were willing to engage in this type of trade. Roberts argues that various Native American groups of the region were drivers of the fur trade and that participation in this trade revolved around shifting intra-indigenous rivalries between a variety of Native nations. The Pequot, for example, used the strategic benefits of the trade in furs in an attempt to create political hegemony in the region. Roberts then sets out the ecological consequences of the fur trade. With the decline of the beaver population came a decline in trade (which indigenous communities had become increasingly reliant on), the loss of other native species, the destruction of thousands of acres of wetland, and increasing indigenous land dispossession as communities were forced to sell land to the European colonisers to survive. Roberts is clear to point out, though, that there were also perceived benefits to this decline of beaver. Through the draining of lands caused by beaver loss, arable land, pastures, and meadows expanded, which in turn benefitted the English style of agriculture in particular. Whilst human actors, driven by the economic incentives of the fur trade, had irrevocably altered the New England ecological landscape that beaver had engineered over centuries, these changes nonetheless presented new environmental opportunities.
These new opportunities are explored by Roberts in chapter two. Once again, Roberts connects changing ecological realities to market forces by examining the development of farming in the Connecticut Valley. English settlers increasingly encroached upon land that had previously been cultivated by indigenous communities, in many cases seizing or purchasing lands to be given over to agriculture. The Connecticut Valley, unlike the rest of New England, was particularly well-suited for growing the English staple crop of choice, wheat. Just like the fur trade before it, wheat cultivation anchored this particular region of New England to the broader British Empire. Whilst beaver pelts had been shipped back to Europe, wheat grown in the Connecticut Valley reached a wide Atlantic market, with the plantations of the Caribbean becoming particularly reliant on foodstuffs produced in mainland North America. Indeed, Roberts goes as far as to suggest that it was the agricultural wares, including wheat, from the Connecticut Valley that made the slave plantations of the West Indies possible. Outsourcing farming allowed for regional specialisations – colonists in the Caribbean could focus all their attention on sugar cultivation as they could rely on the New England settlements for regular shipments of staple foods. After establishing the connection between New England farming and the wider Atlantic economy, Roberts then moves on to assessing the ecological consequences of such developments. Wheat harvests became more infrequent due to nitrogen depletion (something that had been mitigated against by indigenous farmers through the practice of mixed cropping), English settlements in the Connecticut Valley continued to spread in search of new soils to cultivate, and New England farmers attempted to diversify their crops, producing other useful commodities such as rye, cider, and even tobacco. These ecological changes, and this agricultural adaptability, so Roberts argues, was the result of New England settlers wishing to participate in an Atlantic economy that provided an outlet for their produce whilst also being a source for the importation of luxury goods from elsewhere in the Empire.
Both chapters focus well on Roberts main theme (the connection between Atlantic economies and regional ecological change), but they also introduce a number of other ideas that become more prominent later on in the book. The tension between existing indigenous ecological practice, and the introduction of European forms of environmental management is a key theme in both chapters. For example, in chapter two Roberts outlines in detail the use of seasonal fires to prevent woodland encroachment, arguing that indigenous communities utilised this process frequently to create lands ready for farming, whilst the English grew increasingly sceptical of this seasonal regime due to the risks that were involved with setting fires close to settlements. This erasure of indigenous environmental management had ecological consequences, leading to an increase in insects and snakes in the region and causing fire-resistant hard woods (that were prized by settlers as firewood and building materials) to lose their advantage over less valued shade-tolerant species. As well as analysing the ecological changes caused by English failures to incorporate successful indigenous management practices, Roberts also explores how English attempts to preserve their Old World way of life also had a significant ecological impact. By insisting on recreating English crops in the New World, most notably wheat, colonists fundamentally altered the soil composition of the Connecticut Valley.
Chapters three and four develop some of these ideas in more detail. Chapter three examines a regional commodity, firewood, and it is here that the focus on the relationship between Atlantic economies and New England ecologies begins to breakdown. Indeed, Roberts admits in the introductory passage to the chapter that firewood is a local commodity, rather than an imperial one, and thus perhaps an odd choice to include in a book about the development of an Atlantic economy. Roberts attempts to get round this by arguing that the gathering of firewood was a daily necessity that allowed the agricultural activity, outlined in chapter two, to flourish. This argument, however, is not entirely convincing and I was left wondering what the significance of this chapter was to the broader stated topic of the book. Passages in this chapter were also rather repetitive, especially the material on fire-setting that had already been analysed in the preceding chapter. Despite these problems, chapter three does contribute to some of the other key themes of the book. Roberts once again outlines the tension between innovation and tradition in New England ecological practices, demonstrating, for example, the negative consequences of trying to replicate English habits in the vastly different environment of North America. As Roberts suggests, the need for firewood was exacerbated by English colonial house design, which incorporated the broad, open fireplaces that were typically found in English homes. Other traditional English practices aimed at stimulating tree growth, such as coppicing and pollarding, were not recreated in the woodlands of New England in an attempt to protect supplies of timber. Chapter three also continues the story of colonial ‘spread’ that was introduced in the earlier portions of the book. Just as settlers sought new, fresh soils, they also sought new supplies of firewood. The spreading of English settlements, then, continued to be the product of ecological demands. As in the earlier chapters, Roberts concludes his analysis of firewood by exploring the environmental changes wrought by the clearing of woodlands. The felling of more and more wood had a climatic impact, increasing the likelihood of drought and floods due to more erratic patterns of rainfall.
Chapter four continues the story of New England woods through an examination of the trade in timber. In many ways, the material in chapter three could have been successful incorporated into this chapter, resulting in a less repetitive portion of the book and one that is more clearly focused on the relationship between economy and ecology. Chapter four follows a similar pattern to chapters one and two, firstly examining the role played by Connecticut Valley timber in the wider imperial economy, and secondly analysing the ecological fallout of the trade in New England timber. As in the book’s first two chapters, Roberts identifies a tension between ecological preservation and the pursuit of profit. In the case of timber from the white pine, which was valued as a building material and for naval construction, the market was victorious. The profit to be made from this trade was prioritised which in turn resulted in extensive deforestation.
A similar narrative is presented in the final chapter of the book detailing English practices of husbandry. In many ways it replicates the key themes and ideas presented in chapter two. Roberts clearly ties Connecticut livestock to the wider British colonial project, demonstrating that it was this produce that kept British soldiers and the sailors of New England’s merchant fleet fed. Just as the Valley’s natural environmental advantages made it suitable for wheat cultivation, its vast meadowlands also made it ideal for raising cattle, horses, and sheep. Just as settlers remade the land to suit English agricultural crops, the Valley’s landscape was adapted to accommodate the needs of English domesticated animals. Native grasses were slowly replaced by European grasses that were more suitable for European livestock, and there were attempts to rid the landscape of native predators such as wolves. But just as wheat cultivation, and the spread of agriculture more generally, had consequences for New England’s ecology, so too did English husbandry. As English livestock took over more and more land, native species, particularly deer, declined due to increasing competition for grazing. This decline of native species also had a direct impact on the region’s indigenous communities, providing fewer opportunities to hunt and forcing native groups to raise their own livestock in order to survive.
Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy sets out to recreate the history of an integrated Atlantic economy and its impact on the local ecology of New England. Whilst Roberts’s argument that the two are intrinsically linked is persuasive, on occasion this investigative focus is lost, particularly in the latter half of the book. The second half of the book is also overly repetitive, leaving the reader to wonder if all the material presented was necessary to the overall argument. Despite this, the conclusions of the book are in many ways still compelling and of significance to the broader field of ecological history. Roberts demonstrates how and why ecological change happens and how messy and inadvertent the consequences are. Each chapter traces the connection between environmental autonomy and human intervention, the tension between innovation and preservation, and the fluctuating commitment to indigenous ecological knowledge on the part of English colonists. The result is a book that presents neither a narrative of ecological progression or regression. Instead, Roberts’s analysis reminds us that the history of ecological change in the Americas is neither one of absolute gains or absolute losses, but one that has messy outcomes and is often grounded in the mundanity of everyday life and the need to feed oneself, heat one’s home, and create economic stability. Whilst Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy may not transform our understanding of New England ecology, it undoubtedly complicates it, reminding readers of the many pitfalls of humankind’s attempts to control and master the environments they inhabit.
 For some of the most recent scholarship see Sam White, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Cambridge MA, 2017); Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (New York, 2016); Christopher M. Parsons, A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America (Philadelphia, 2018).
 In particular see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, revised edition (New York, 2003).
 Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, “Born with a "Silver Spoon": The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6 (1995): 201-221; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Settling with the Indians: The Meetings of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640 (London, 1980).
 Strother E. Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England, (Philadelphia, 2019), p. 20.
I would like to thank Dr. Winchcombe for her praise of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy and especially for her words of appreciation for the book’s first two chapters, which I believe lay the ground work for the rest of the book by highlighting the astonishingly profound ecological changes that English colonial commercial networks were able to wreak upon New England within just a few decades of settlement. Towards the end of her review, Dr. Winchcombe refers to the book as a study “grounded in the mundanity of everyday life,” a phrase that eloquently captures my intentions as a scholar. The word “mundane” is very rarely employed as a compliment, but here I like to think that it is. That is certainly how I take it. To strip the word down to its Latin roots, my intentions always were to present a very “worldly” or “earthly” history that firmly grounded itself within modern research in the natural sciences as a way to better understand the material ecological relationships that undergirded historical commercial expansion. It is gratifying to know that at least one reader has appreciated my efforts to explain how worldly commercial concerns led ordinary 17th- and 18th-century men and women—both settlers and Native peoples—to radically transform the ecology of one corner of the rapidly globalizing early modern world.
With regards to Dr. Winchcombe’s critique of the book’s third chapter, it must be admitted that the Connecticut Valley’s trade in firewood was “Atlantic” only in the sense that some shipments found their way into Long Island Sound on their way to satisfy the burgeoning urban demands of Boston and New York. On the other hand, in an age where fuel meant wood, colonial expansion required constant access to hardwoods for cooking, heating, metal smelting, and brick making. Other forms of natural resource exploitation all presumed a population with access to this necessity of early modern life. Without wood imports from the hinterland, Boston and New York could not have grown into the bustling entrepôts they did, and both New England and New York would have languished for lack of a commercial hub to connect them to external markets.
In responding to Dr. Winchcombe’s other major critique of the book, I can only say that there is often but a thin line separating thoroughness from repetitiveness. However, I fear that Dr. Winchcombe’s dismissal of later chapters as “overly repetitive” may obscure for potential readers the historical importance of the differing geographies and ecologies that could be found both regionally within New England and more locally within the bounds of individual towns. Colonial New England (in)famously lacked a foundational staple commodity—e.g., gold or silver, sugar, tobacco—around which its early economy could be built. To overcome this environmental handicap, colonists instead exploited an array of marketable resources. But, importantly, the arable lands where colonists cultivated food crops differed qualitatively from the meadows where they grazed their cattle. The lands that grew the best hardwoods for the intra- and inter-regional trade in firewood were not the same as the lands which grew the softwood pines which made up the lion’s share of New England’s timber exports. The impetus for ecological change on all of these lands can be traced to a common set of causes: the market demands of consumers scattered throughout the Atlantic world, and most especially the need for raw materials and supplies in the Caribbean’s specialized, slave-labour based economies. I can see how the book’s continual return to this organizing theme may, at times, seem repetitive. But it is important to understand that the operation of markets for particular commodities were unique both in their chronology and in the specific economic and ecological pathways through which they operated.
To wit: The fur trade of the early seventeenth century brought the destruction of river-adjacent wetlands that, in turn, facilitated the cultivation on drained lands of field crops for regional consumption and export. By the late seventeenth century, Caribbean demands for barreled pork and beef encouraged colonists to seek pastures and mowing lands beyond the rich bottomlands where they grew their crops, expanding the ecological footprint of English imperialism. Around the same time, the sugar islands’ insatiable demand for timber drove colonists into the pinelands of the Connecticut Valley, urging them onto new northern lands where these softwoods grew the thickest. Without Caribbean and European markets, exploitation of these lands may not have occurred or would have occurred more slowly or at later dates. The production of each export commodity brought its own ecological effect. The timber trade, along with the clearing of woodlands for firewood and new farmland, led to deforestation that, in turn, altered rainfall patterns and brought changes to regional micro-climates. Over-farming and over-grazing led to erosion and the silting up of streams and even of the “Great River” (the Connecticut) itself, imperiling the ship traffic upon which all of this commerce relied.
Each of these ecological transformations (along with myriad others) could be traced to the market demands of the larger British Empire and Atlantic World. But each also operated through different mechanisms on different portions of the landscape, fueling a series of inter-related environmental changes that shaped New England’s historical development. Ultimately, the relationship between these changes and external markets drove New England’s transition from a colonial site for extracting natural resources for the benefit of the British Empire, to establish the region as the industrializing center commanding the raw materials of other portions of the new continental empire of the United States. I regret that this theme – salient in the book’s concluding chapters – failed to capture Dr. Winchcombe’s scholarly attention or find its way into her review.
Of course, no one knows a book as well as its author. Indeed, authors often know their own work too well, blinding them to its lacunae, idiosyncrasies, and (I am loath to say) failings. Which is why the promotional material and dust-jacket abstracts often written by authors themselves could never replace the valuable work performed by reviewers in scholarly journals such as this one. Reviewers represent the voice of the reader and I am grateful to have had Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy reviewed by so eloquent and critically insightful a reader as Dr. Winchcombe.