Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement

Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement

Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement

Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement

Synopsis

The stories we tell of American beginnings typically emphasize colonial triumph in the face of adversity. But the early years of English settlement in America were characterized by catastrophe: starvation, disease, extreme violence, ruinous ignorance, and serial abandonment. Seasons of Misery offers a provocative reexamination of the British colonies' chaotic and profoundly unstable beginnings, placing crisis--both experiential and existential--at the center of the story. At the outposts of a fledgling empire and disconnected from the social order of their home society, English settlers were both physically and psychologically estranged from their European identities. They could not control, or often even survive, the world they had intended to possess. According to Kathleen Donegan, it was in this cauldron of uncertainty that colonial identity was formed.

Studying the English settlements at Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados, Donegan argues that catastrophe marked the threshold between an old European identity and a new colonial identity, a state of instability in which only fragments of Englishness could survive amid the upheavals of the New World. This constant state of crisis also produced the first distinctively colonial literature as settlers attempted to process events that they could neither fully absorb nor understand. Bringing a critical eye to settlers' first-person accounts, Donegan applies a unique combination of narrative history and literary analysis to trace how settlers used a language of catastrophe to describe unprecedented circumstances, witness unrecognizable selves, and report unaccountable events. Seasons of Misery addresses both the stories that colonists told about themselves and the stories that we have constructed in hindsight about them. In doing so, it offers a new account of the meaning of settlement history and the creation of colonial identity.

Excerpt

In August 1611 the Reverend Alexander Whitaker, newly arrived in Virginia, wrote to the Reverend William Crashsaw, one of the colony’s major promoters in London. Whitaker had a strange story to tell: “One night our men being att praiers in the course of guard a strange noise was heard coming out of the corne towards the trenches of our men like an Indian ‘Hup hup’ with an ‘Oho Oho.’ Some say that they sawe one like an Indian leape over the fier and runne into the corner with the same noise. At which all our men were confusedly amazed. They could speak nothing but Oho Oho.” Confusedly amazed, each man suddenly believed that he was surrounded by Indians. They all grabbed their firearms and began to attack their fellows with the butts of their guns. Whitaker said that the melee lasted about seven minutes. These were not sleeping soldiers startled by a strange sound in the cornfields. These were men awake and on guard, Whitaker reported, who suddenly began to shout Indian words and reach for their guns. One of the men remembered other details of the incident: “a fantasy possessed them that they imagined the Salvages were sett upon them, eache man Takeinge one another for an Indiyan And so did fall pell mell one upon an other beatinge one another downe and breakeinge one anothers heades, that Mutche mischiefe mighte have bene done butt that it pleased God the fantasy was taken away whereby they had bene deluded and every man understood his errour.” Whitaker used similar terms to describe how the men snapped back to reality: “Suddenly as men awaked out of a dream they began to search for their supposed enemies, but findeing none remained ever after very quiet.” Though they eventually recognized their error, they struggled to understand it. Perhaps, one later wrote, the delusion was “ocassyoned by the Salvages Sorceries and Charmes,” a supernatural retaliation . . .

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