Bitter Feast: Amerindians & Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600-64 // Review

Article excerpt

Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600-64 (originally Le Pays Renverse, 1985) Denys Delage Translated by Jane Brierley Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1993. xi + 399 pp. $60.00 (cloth), $29.95 (paper) Reviewer: Virginia P. Miller Dalhousie University

Delage set a formidable task for himself in Bitter Feast: a consideration of northeastern North American economic history in colonial times, from the perspectives of both European colonizers and Natives. He accomplishes this task with an economic perspective focussing on the fur trade, first examining the internal domestic situations of the three major European powers at the beginning of the 17th century: the emerging English capitalists, whose domestic economy pitted cottage industries against large landowners; the tolerant and successful Dutch capitalists, with a thriving peasant class at home; and the French feudal society, with its poor and suffering peasant class.

Drawing heavily on accounts from the Jesuit Relations, Delage then provides similarly thorough descriptions of Iroquois and Huron groups, emphasizing their pre-contact economic practices. He then describes the developing fur trade, which was initially based on Native exchange practices, but which quickly changed as the trade was subsumed by the world economy. The eagerness of both Huron and Iroquois for the goods that the fur trade offered brought about a rapid depletion of beaver pelts in their territories by 1640, causing the Huron to carry out more intensive trade with inland tribes for pelts to offer the French, while the Iroquois intensified raiding to obtain pelts for the Dutch.

From Delage's account, we see that the Jesuit strategy for conversion not only introduced the fur trade to new groups, but Jesuit contact also resulted in the introduction of epidemics of European diseases and large-scale culture change and destruction. The Huron who survived this onslaught lived in a culture that was divided between Catholic converts, who lived according to European standards, and traditionalists, who refused Catholicism.

Delage also describes European rivalry in the New World. After 1620, England encouraged its peasants to emigrate to the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, where these energetic settlers thrived. …