City Minutes: Colonial America

The first Federal Democracy on the American
continent was not the United States, but rather a confederation of indigenous nations collectively
known as Haudenosaunee. Their name means “The People of the Longhouse,”
and refers to the big communal Longhouses comprising their towns as well as their overarching
political structure of five nations within one house, working together for hundreds of
years to make laws and conduct diplomacy. This arrangement started around the 1400s
as a way to stop Iroquoian-speaking nations from fighting over resources and prestige,
but their truly immaculate statecraft made them a staggeringly-powerful force in the
Beaver Wars. Okay sure that sounds silly, but the competition
to catch and sell beaver pelts to European merchants was so fierce in the 1600s that
the Iroquois conquered in every direction to control the trade routes: causing a mass
migration of displaced tribes to west of the lakes, and showing French colonists up the
river how little their claims of dominion actually mattered. The Iroquois’ knack for diplomatic chess
served them well through the following century, as they allied with Britain to defeat France
in the 7 Years War – but chaos followed the American Revolution, as competing alliances
ripped the Haudenosaunee apart. While the new United States diligently emulated
the Iroquoian government, no amount of respect could stop the cruel irony of their eager
and endless push west. The main goal of French colonization in the
Americas was not to create large urban settlements, but to get tons, and tons of money. Sailing in from the Atlantic down to where
the St Lawrence river narrows, the port city of Quebec opened up to an expansive continental
operation. As if fur trading around the Great Lakes wasn’t
big enough business, New France reached down the Mississippi river and all the way to the
Caribbean sugar fields. Operating this vast network required a great
deal of land and people but not that many French people, so by the mid 1700s, the population
of Nouvelle France was less than an 8th of Paris. Little Quebec had just 8,000 permanent residents,
but its vital strategic position as the gateway into the continent warranted some hefty fortifications:
adding stone walls atop the city’s already-imposing cliffs and arming the coast with cannons-for-miles. But in 1759 there was no accounting for slapstick
serendipity, as British forces stumbled through a cavalcade of pure dumb luck to capture the
city and swiftly confiscate half of North America for itself. But despite the new management, French Canadians
could keep their culture, customs, and language due to the Quebec Act of 1774 – and shock
of the decade, being treated like people really takes the edge off thoughts of Rebellion. Clearly, this was not a universal experience. Now it should be obvious that Colonialism
is an elaborate form of theft, but Britain really played this to the hilt, not just in
Quebec but also New York. Originally founded as New Amsterdam by Dutch
fur-traders on the south shore of Mana-hata Island in 1626, Britain conquered the city
in 1654 as part of their quest to paint the coast red. But as in New France, everything beyond the
cities was a dynamic mix of colonists and indigenous nations and not a purely British
domain, so New York cleverly played the charm game to win over the local Dutch population
and also forge a useful alliance with the Iroquois further inland. New York’s vantage at the base of the Hudson
and Mohawk river valleys gave the city easy access to a wealth of upstate farmland; so
as the population grew, the economy boomed. And this proved quite useful for the British
Crown, who had a lot of debt to pay after confiscating Canada in the 7 years war, and
so levied a stamp tax on the colonies. Things… escalated, and so after decrying taxation
without representation, boycotting British imports, suffering a massive fire, fighting
a whole-ass Revolution, and finally kicking the British out of the colonies in 1783, New
York took pride of place as the cultural and economic powerhouse of the new American Republic. If New York was the jewel in Colonial Britain’s
crown, Boston was the pain in its ass. Settled in 1630 by Puritan Protestants whose
primary goal was to be As Far From The Church Of England As Possible, Boston’s independent
spirit was only briefly checked by London’s attempt to impose a colonial governor, but
the locals imprisoned him and continued gleefully snubbing English authority into the 1700s. Boston’s location on a peninsula in the
middle of the Massachusetts bay made it a great harbor for shipping, and naturally they
were all too eager to turn this around on Britain during the Stamp Act import boycotts. After this success, those rambunctious Bostonians
got bolder, leading to a full redcoat military occupation of the city in 1768 to try and
impose order – but this literally backfired two years later when soldiers shot into a
crowd of unarmed civilians, and news of this Boston Massacre only heightened rebellious
sentiment. A new tax on Tea in 1773 was welcomed by,
let’s say, oversteeping some green tea in the Boston Harbor, and two years later when
British soldiers tried to forcibly disarm the colonial militia at nearby Concord: shots
were fired, and the fight was on. General Washington drove the British out of
Boston in 1776, and Bostonians have been riding that high ever since. The Revolutionary War certainly marks a Starting
Point for the United States, but it just as clearly signals the End of a dynamic network
in the continental Northeast. Far from a case of Europeans sauntering in
and manifesting their destiny in 6-to-10 business days, the colonial powers in the 16 to 1700s
were economically and diplomatically reliant on the knowledge and skills of indigenous
nations who were more than capable of playing the colonists against each other. Each player in this system had their own objectives
– whether to expand their territory, make fat stacks of cash, or create a settler colony
a sixth the population of Britain – and while it was the Americans and British Canadians
who ultimately came out on top, those societies remain shaped by influences like Haudenosaunee
government or French Quebecois culture. Does that make this a happy outcome? Eheheheh, eheh, God no, this is colonialism
– but the point here is to look past simple “winners” and “losers” to understand
the complexity and appreciate that there is, in fact, more to American History than the
United States. Thank you for watching. Seeing as the 4th of July and Canada Day both
landed earlier this month, I thought it’d be neat to look at cities in competition rather
than just one state’s team. Thanks as always to our lovely patrons, and
shout-out to Nick from LA, who recognized me by voice alone and specifically told us
how much he enjoys the City Minutes. This one’s for you, my guy.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFPxPruAX5o

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