Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Reader review: Defying Empire

Continuing our series of reader reviews, James Batty reviews Defying Empire by Thomas M. Truxes.

By James Batty,

Defying Empire throws into sharp relief a period prior to the American War of Independence, when traders in the young British city of New York found profit in trading with merchants in the Caribbean, who either directly or indirectly supplied the French war effort during the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763). The subject matter makes for interesting enough reading on its own, and is full of tales of daring men venturing their fortunes on cargoes that had a large chance of floundering at sea or being taken by privateers or ships of the line. But the book goes beyond these fascinating stories, considering the wider implications of the trade, and ends up drawing a clear line between these increasingly autonomous traders and the eventual schism that occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783).

New York University’s Thomas M. Truxes weaves together both the narrative of these stories and the broad historical argument perfectly. One could read his book in just one session and I had difficulty putting it down. The reader is transported into a vibrant world of traders and administrators, soldiers and sailors, at a time when New York remained a frontier town in a largely hostile continent, but was also developing its own identity and breeding a populace that, while still largely English and empire focused, was increasingly frustrated with the actions of its imperial overlords in London.

During the 18th century, the trading and mercantile community of New York was in the ascendant. An elite of rich and powerful merchants controlled the town, obeying the military and administrative dictates from London only when it suited them. During the first part of the century, this situation worked quite well as London allowed the traders to operate unhindered by much central control; however, the Seven Years’ War changed this fragile but agreeable status quo. As the French and British military machines swung into action, the trading communities up and down the Eastern Seaboard saw opportunity in the melee and pursued a lucrative trade with both the French directly, but also with neutral countries including Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Nevertheless, the authorities in New York and other trading towns were too closely linked to the trade by kin and business relationships to put an end to it. It was only when British military commanders in North America began amassing more troops but were unable to purchase sufficient goods to supply them, that the authorities in New York and London finally started to crack down on the trade. They singled out a few high-profile traders to stand trial for crimes that had been going on undisturbed for a number of years.

Amid the narrative are a number of characters who played significant roles in the future War of Independence and the fledgling United States of America that emerged a couple of decades later. None more so than the original but failed whistleblower of the illegal trading during the late 1750s and early 1760s, George Spencer. A native New Yorker and fellow merchant, Spencer sought to expose the trade early on in the war, but was arrested and incarcerated for 27 months on fabricated bankruptcy charges. He continuously tried to alert the authorities to the illegal trade – and to secure for himself a slice of the prize money to be had in bringing the perpetrators to justice. He failed, but on his release he sailed back to England and never gave up his attempts to bring his fellow merchants to book for their ‘pernicious trade’. Spencer’s petitions to the British Treasury in Whitehall included plans to increase taxes on certain widely traded goods in the colonies in an effort to bring the merchants under more control. One of his last suggestions proved to be one of the most momentous – he urged the government to put a duty on tea.

Details such as this, and especially their repercussions, make this book well worth reading. A real pleasure from cover to cover.

Defying Empire, Thomas M. Truxes (Yale University Press)

James Batty is a History Today reader. He has lived in New York and is particularly interested in the history of the city.

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