Sicko on Fabel, 'Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775'

Robin F.A. Fabel. Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. x + 282 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1798-3.

Reviewed by David A. Sicko (Department of History, Mississippi State University at Meridian)
Published on H-Florida (October, 2002)

Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775

Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775

In the last few years historians have been paying closer attention to the intersection of imperial authorities, colonists, and Native Americans in the South, as evidenced in recent works such as John Stuart and the Struggle for Empire on the Southern Frontier by J. Russell Snapp, and Peace and War on the Anglo-Cherokee Frontier, 1756-1763 by John Oliphant. In Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs. 1775-1775, Robin F. A. Fabel adds his own worthwhile contribution to this discourse. Fabel examines the lives of Native Americans in three disparate regions--the Cherokees in the southeastern Appalachians, Native Americans along the border of British territory on the Mississippi river, and the Black Caribs of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. His focus is on relations between indigenous peoples and British imperial authorities and settlers. Overall Fabel draws larger conclusions on the nature of the British Empire as well as the direction it was headed by the early 1770s. He highlights the inconsistency of British policies, and the differing strategies employed by Cherokee, Mississippi tribes, and Black Caribs in their efforts to influence and shape those policies. Finally, Fabel tries to put it all into the context of larger British concerns and European rivalries, and the complex web of interactions between individual representatives of Indian groups, the Empire and British colonists in each region.

The first five chapters of Colonial Challenges concern Anglo-Cherokee relations at mid-century, and especially the Cherokee war. This is well-traveled ground, having been explored by Thomas Hatley, and most recently as the main subject of Oliphant's Peace and War. Fabel provides a well written, clear and concise overview of this crucial period, although his conclusions concerning the Cherokee inability to unite misses the point by trying to force a European context onto Cherokee actions. Fabel and Oliphant agree on the roles of British colonists and the incompetent South Carolinian governor Lyttleton in fomenting war. Both men also successfully capture the essence of Cherokee politics and diplomacy, which is essential for understanding both the conduct of war and the negotiations for peace. Fabel contradicts Oliphant's assertion that the British military establishment, and especially the commander of British forces during the Cherokee War, Lieutenant Colonel James Grant, were peacemakers, and that Grant ameliorated the harshness of his campaigns in Cherokee country. Fabel also provides compelling evidence that the "scorched earth" campaign by Grant failed to create famine in most of Cherokee country, calling it a "pattern of big efforts achieving small results" (p. 79).

Fabel next turns his attentions to British West Florida, and especially the so called "small tribes" and mixed towns along the Mississippi River in the 1760s and 1770s. Here he sheds light on a much less well known and understood colonial relationship. By analyzing the actions of minor officials such as British Lieutenant John Thomas and French Captain Charles Descoudreaux, he demonstrates how "minor agents at the periphery could guide the course of empire" (p. 105). Acknowledging the role of European officials is not intended to suggest that Native Americans were passive, and Fabel emphasizes the ability of the small tribes to influence relations, suggesting that Indians demonstrated a pragmatic willingness to forget their pre-1763 hostile relationship with the British in order to improve their own situation. Native Americans exploited Anglo-Spanish rivalries and British fears of Indian alliances such as the "Scioto coalition" (p. 108). He argues that the small tribes assumed an important role as brokers between Europeans that before 1763 had been held by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creeks. On the whole Fabel provides a valuable glimpse of a heretofore largely ignored region, although his argument would have been stronger with a clearer impression of the patterns of life and society in Indian towns. The tantalizing glimpses and insights he does provide only whet one's appetite for more.

The last section is an analysis of the conflicts between British settlers and Caribs on and around the Caribbean island of St. Vincent during the 1760s and 1770s, and particularly the Carib war of 1772-73. Focusing on the Black Caribs, Fabel provides a brief introduction to their origins and relations with the British and French. After 1763 direct British government led to an influx of settlers who were especially interested in Black Carib lands, which promised to be ideal for sugar cultivation, and in their efforts to obtain this territory British settlers instigated war. The ability of settlers to manipulate the imperial system was demonstrated by the activities of the Commission for Land Sales on St. Vincent as well as the outbreak of the war itself. At the same time Fabel illustrates the limits of imperial influence, as well as the ability of the Black Caribs to successfully resist militarily. Black Carib resistance proved to be much more effective than the settlers expected and the negotiated peace that ended the war represented a compromise, guaranteeing a Black Carib reservation. He concludes that French-Carib ties which existed before the war were only strengthened as a result, which was the opposite of one of the key British imperial aims of the war. As in the cases of the Cherokee conflict and relations with the Mississippi tribes, the British were forced to accept a compromise that reflected the influence of Native American groups.

In his conclusion Fabel attempts to account for a miscellany of additional variables, including the impact of British domestic politics, and the role of trade and economic policy upon Anglo-Indian relations. Finally, he suggests several "lessons" learned by all parties as a result of the Cherokee and Carib wars, and how these would influence the conduct of future war with the American colonists. The effectiveness of the navy would lead to an over-estimation of its role in the Revolution, but of even greater significance, the scornful opinion that men like James Grant took away with them from their experiences with provincial troops would encourage a serious underestimation of American military capabilities in the future.

The greatest weakness in Fabel's study is his effort to draw larger conclusions on the nature of the British Empire. His analysis of each region is cogent and well supported, but overall it remains fragmented, and needs to be more cohesive. A more systematic exploration of policy and influences in each region linked together within the body of the text as well as in the conclusion would have helped considerably. Despite these reservations, this is an excellent study, two thirds of which covers completely new ground, and is therefore highly recommended.

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Citation: David A. Sicko. Review of Fabel, Robin F.A., Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. October, 2002.

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