Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail. By Matthew R. Bahar. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. vii + 287 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $35.00)
By Eric Walker Doshisha University, Graduate School of Global Studies
When explaining Native-settler relations during the Age of Sail, scholars of the Wabanaki peoples usually focus on land-based interactions that ultimately led to Indian submission and demise at the hands of triumphant European colonists. In Storm of the Sea, literary scholar Matthew R. Bahar reveals that Wabanaki peoples dominated the early contact period through their masterful use of watercraft and waterways along with their adaptive reflexes to European maritime technology. Reframing Wabanakia transnationally, Bahar argues that “ships eroded barriers of geography and communication” (p. 5), thus forming the connective tissue that allowed Wabanaki peoples form a confederacy in the Northeast that “rivalled the European empires with which its circumstances would always remain intertwined” (p. 3). In doing so, he brings marginalized actors, both Native and non-Native alike, to the forefront and “recovers the experience of indigenous communities that coalesced to achieve stability and growth where Europeans struggled to resist and remain” (p. 13).
Bahar explores the “historically contingent changes in Wabanakia’s project of dominion – its successes, failures, and adaptations” through seven chronologically ordered chapters (p. 13). The first chapter is an interesting foray into pre-contact Wabanaki culture. Bahar weaves an ocean-dependent peoples’ tale which creates the connections needed for understanding Wabanaki actions and reactions during the early contact period and beyond. It also creates a snapshot of Wabanaki social structure for readers to understand how and why Wabanaki peoples changed or remained the same during the various phases covered throughout the book. Continuing in the second chapter, Bahar combines the lessons we learned in the previous chapter with first contact stories. In this way, we can understand how Wabanaki peoples reconciled the European newcomers with the mysterious and powerful oceanscape. The third chapter continues this momentum and introduces the idea of a “Wabanaki Confederacy.” Natives and settlers form a cycle, which is reinforced in chapter four, where foreigners are welcomed by the Confederacy, get out of Native control, and take advantage of the Natives violently and deceptively, so the Wabanaki retaliate by decimating the settlers and “readmitting them on Native terms” (p. 100).
Chapters five and six are full of stories related to trans-Atlantic imperial contests and how the Wabanaki were able to exploit them on the water to further their own Native empire. The flow of goods, people, and ideas flowed through longer, more complicated circuits and worked to fluster the British and French alike. By the end of chapter six, though, the Bahar shows how constant wars, including the devastating Father Rale’s War, “frayed the political ties that bound them to their kin in the southwest” weakening the Confederacy and setting the stage for chapter seven (p. 185). The last chapter shows the Wabanaki Confederacy’s eventual decline, though it is framed to show that they themselves were responsible. Wabanaki headmen allowed treaties to make the ocean off-limits for the younger generation, disconnecting them from the lifeblood that had sustained a stable Indian empire while interior resources began drying up. Bahar hammers home the importance of his maritime focused argument writing, “The crisis of confidence that subsequently consumed local communities revealed just how much the Confederacy depended on the bedrock of maritime power” (p. 188).
The relatively large number of chapters allows for the reader to digest the history at a more consistent and manageable pace, though Bahar’s prose can read a bit densely and his use of quotations repetitive and left without full context at times. Stylistic critiques aside, Storm of the Sea is a marvelously researched volume that incorporates a plethora of primary documents and secondary documents together with “oral histories, linguistic studies, and archaeological analyses” to “afford a more textured portrait of early America… that foregrounds the perspectives of Natives and common Europeans” (p. 15). Moreover, he writes with an urgent pace which emphasizes the anxiety of the early contact Northeast while faithfully using his transnational maritime framework as the thread to tie the history together. And it is incredibly effective done this way, bringing life and validity to his argument that we should pay more attention to the water when considering both Indigenous history and transnational history.