Philbrick and Frenemies
Nathaniel Philbrick – the name has a rock-ribbed New England ring to it, doesn’t it? He lives in Nantucket, a town that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times and that was for many years the center of the whaling industry.
Philbrick has written many fine books of American history. I’m going to mention those books but first, I’m going to give the nod to three books that look at our history from a different perspective – that of the British, who were key players in the George Washington-Benedict Arnold story and who have had a love-hate relationship with America ever since.
Maya Jasanoff’s tour de force work of history Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World tells true story of American colonists who remained loyal to Britain during the fight, and what happened to them afterward.
The loyalists were treated with predictable suspicion and antagonism. The war even split families (such as Benjamin Franklin and his son William, who remained loyal to England and eventually moved there). Many fled, scattering throughout the world to other British colonies, leaving behind the life that they had put together in America. They lost their homes, their land and in some cases, their families. Some survived and thrived, others could never recover their losses.
One interesting piece of this story concerns the Indians who fought with the British. One was Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader and adopted son of sorts to an influential British bureaucrat who, before the war, headed up Indian affairs in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Brant joined the British Army. He was educated, well-spoken, and flamboyant – he knocked the socks off the British when he visited England to lobby for his tribes’ rights, dressing up in full Native regalia, including feathers, a tomahawk and a crucifix around his neck.
Brandt’s people ultimately emigrated to Canada and established a new community in Ontario, called Brant’s Town (now called Brantford), located in Brant County. This group’s descendants are today a part of Canada’s Six Nations native group.
Simon Schama is a well-known historian and television personality who teaches at Columbia University. His book Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves and the American Revolution is one of the most moving books I have ever read.
It’s the history of what happened to blacks in America, most of them enslaved, when the Revolution broke out. By the end of the war, up to 100,000 black residents of the colonies had left their plantations and joined the British side, betting that their chances for freedom were better with the British than the Americans.
There are so many stories of courage in this book. The Brits promised some of these refugees a new home in Nova Scotia, where upon their arrival, were denied the land they had been promised and spent a terrible winter in the snows of Canada. They were eventually given passage to Africa by a group of British abolitionists, where they started a colony in Sierra Leone – right in the dark heart of the slavery trade. This book really turns the story of the revolution upside down. Read it – you won’t forget it.
Of course, the relationship between a newly independent America and Britain was just beginning. My next book tells the story of America’s Civil War through British eyes.
Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire is one of the best-written works of history I have ever read. It tells the story of the British involvement in the Civil War.
Each side pressured the British to line up with their cause. Despite Britain’s abolitionist sympathies, other forces were at work – Britain’s dependence on slave-produced cotton to run its textile mills, for one.
There are so many great characters in this book – newspapermen, spies, beleaguered diplomats. Foreman knows just when to drop in a delicious bit of gossip, or a poignant human interest story. This book is a great way to learn about our own Civil War from an entirely different perspective.
Back to Philbrick, another student of American history – his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex might be his best-known book. One reviewer called it both an “eerie thriller” and a “masterpiece of maritime history.”
Here is the harrowing true story – a sperm whale hunted by a Nantucket whaling crew turns on the ship and destroys it. The crew and the captain ponder their options – not good!
They decide to try to rig sales on the tiny whaling boats, in hopes of making their way to South America. Not what you would call a luxury cruise – needless to say, there is a lot of suffering, and not everyone survives.
Does this sound familiar? It’s the true story that the great novel “Moby Dick” was based on. It’s both a nail-biting adventure and a great historical portrait of Nantucket, which in those days was peopled by smart Quaker businessmen who grew wealthy off the whaling trade. And, of course, lots and lots of sailors.
Another highly regarded Philbrick book of history, also about the sea, is Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. This book tells the almost unbelievable true story of the South Seas Exploring Expedition, often known as the Wilkes expedition, funded by the American government with the purpose of charting the Pacific.
This expedition went all over the Pacific, from the South Sea Islands to Antarctica. Wilkes, the head of the expedition, was a bully, a martinet and a paranoiac in the Captain Bligh vein, but he got results. He discovered Antarctica, named it and charted its coastline, among other things. This is one of those books that will make you glad you lead a comparatively dull life!