Seasons of Misery

Seasons of Misery offers a boldly original account of early English settlement in American by placing catastrophe and crisis at the center of the story. Donegan argues that the constant state of suffering and uncertainty decisively formed the colonial identity and produced the first distinctly colonial literature.

Seasons of Misery
Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America

Kathleen Donegan

2013 | 272 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $24.95
American History
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Unsettlement
Chapter 1. Roanoke: Left in Virginia
Chapter 2. Jamestown: Things That Seemed Incredible
Chapter 3. Plymouth: Scarce Able to Bury Their Dead
Chapter 4. Barbados: Wild Extravagance
Afterword: Standing Half-Amazed


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 against the colonists after a year of atrocious violence. Whatever happened, those who were there agreed that the incident was "one thinge amongste the rest . . . very remarkable."

What should we make of the affliction that beset those men that night, when they suddenly saw themselves and their fellows as Indians? A fantasy possessed them; they were no longer English, and yet as English soldiers, they were compelled to attack their non-English selves. The figure running outside was only "like an Indian," but the settlers' chant of "Oho Oho" and their "breakeinge one anothers heades" were real. They were both the aggressors and the victims of their own violence. What happened that night was an extraordinary materialization of the settlers' pervasive confusion about their own identity. This pell-mell self-attack stands as a remarkable example of what one colonist called the "mixed suffrances of both body and mynd" that were experienced in early settlements "daylie." As the story demonstrates, incidents such as this could be recalled and narrated in part, but they were also defined by mystery and silence. And while the tale reflects the escalating hostilities between natives and settlers that characterized early English settlements in America, it is also marked as "colonial" by the aggression and delusion it portrays, by the material and psychic expression of the men's disorder, and by the self-strangeness of their unresolved bewilderment. Englishmen at evening prayers suddenly breaking into Algonquian chants and attacking each other becomes a most uncanny scene of colonial estrangement. Always tassantasses (strangers) to the natives, the colonists were also often strangers to themselves.

This book is a study about the unsettling act of colonial settlement, and how English settlers became colonial through the acute bodily experiences and mental ruptures they experienced in their first years on Native American ground. It is also a study about writing, and how the first distinctively colonial literature emerged out of the crisis of colonial settlement. Settlements were brutal places characterized by disease, death, factions, violence, starvation, ignorance, and serial abandonment. When settlers wrote of these things, they told the truth. But their accounts reveal more than factual descriptions of their circumstances, and the texts they produced provide more than evidence about a material world. Settlers were not simply reporting on present conditions; they were also struggling to construct an identity out of the incommensurable experiences of being English and living in the New World. Catastrophe was more than a description of calamitous events. It became a discourse through which settlers witnessed themselves and registered their shock at unprecedented circumstances that they could neither absorb nor understand. Both as an event and as a discourse, catastrophe marked a threshold between an old European identity and a new colonial identity, a state of experiential and narrative instability wherein only fragments of Englishness were retained amid the upheavals of New World experience. Most profoundly, writing settlement as a catastrophe linked the settlers' own suffering to their acts of violence, and this conjunction between suffering and violence came to express for them the inescapable condition of becoming colonial. Understanding early colonial identity, then, requires telling a new story about its beginnings, a story in which crisis and catastrophe are placed at the center of the first years of English settlement in America.

A World of Misery

"There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Countrey in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia," one settler wrote, decrying a state both physical and psychic. In this lamentation the settler tries to make a connection between Englishmen who were never "left in a forreigne Countrey" and those who were. However, the wished-for connection is doomed from the start because of the vastly different worlds that define the two subjects. The audience to this plea necessarily exists outside the nature of the settler condition; indeed the claim that this condition is unprecedented, even unimaginable, is exactly the point. The speaking subject, "left" at the outpost of a fledgling empire, becomes colonial through the deep estrangement that "such miserie," suffered at such a distance, effects upon his former ties. As the psychoanalysts Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Guadillière write, in situations of social or historical catastrophe, "the destruction of all reference points" leaves "the subject who is confronted . . . in a state of total estrangement, of absolute aloneness with regard to all the ties that, up to that point, were familiar." The breakdown of those alliances and customary identifications is a disaster that subjects "reveal at the price of their own identity." And yet in the literature of settlement, such expressions of colonial misery were everywhere. In Roanoke "the country was to them miserable & their reports therof according." In Virginia settlers lived in "a world of miserie." In Plymouth the "First Comers" were in such "sad conditions and trials" that subsequently arriving immigrants "fell a-weeping, fancying their own misery in what they saw now in others." In Barbados the settlers lived "wearisome and miserable lives" and suffered "miserable long sicknesse." What does this excess of misery tell us about the colonial condition apart from the unforgiving New World environment? It is an indication that misery was not only a material condition but also a language through which new settlers revealed how the social links that tied them to England, and to their own sense of Englishness, were breaking down. Never, they attested, were there Englishmen like them.

Given the acts they undertook in England's name, why does it matter if settlers suffered as they colonized? One reason to pay attention to settlers' misery and the discourse surrounding it is to complicate an account of conquest that sees English colonists as imperial agents who imported and enacted the prerogatives of possession based on convictions of cultural superiority, legal entitlement, and religious imperative. Imperial agents they were, and enact these prerogatives they did, but such an account is incomplete. The colonizers' power, agency, and subjectivity were often tenuous, at times crumbling in the face of catastrophic hardships and at times desperately asserted in panic. Here there is a distinction to be made between colonization as an imperial project and becoming colonial as a lived condition. Settlers were charged with possessing and holding the land, and they came armed and ready to do so. Their personal intentions to acquire land and wealth accorded with the overall mission of colonization. However, the cultural and ideological foundations that undergirded the initial act of colonization depended on a conviction that the colonists were bringing civilization to the uncivilized. As the fantasy of taming a wilderness and ruling its "natural" people gave way to the radical uncertainties of life in the New World, the miseries of settlement proved deeply destructive to the ideals of individual and group civil life. In the spaces of settlement, both habitus—the sense of being surrounded by customary behaviors that reflected cultural identity—and civitas—the knowledge of belonging to a body of people ruled by the same laws—easily broke down. If the English defined themselves as an advanced people existing in well-ordered, civilized groups, that image was shaken by the extreme suffering endured and violence perpetrated in the settlements. Because of their radical displacement, mental confusion, and struggles for survival, early settlers experienced an alienation—epistemological, social, corporeal—that was inseparable from their colonial status. Alien to themselves, they could not control, and many could not even survive, the world they were supposed to possess.

In the language of the English charters, the discovery and possession of the New World were supposed to follow in quick succession. The strings of verbs that described colonization predicted no interval. For example, Queen Elizabeth I granted Walter Raleigh the right to "have hold occupy and enjoy" what "heathen and barbarous" lands he might "discover search fynde out and viewe." Written in London, the charter gave away distant lands with the stroke of a pen, but occupying that land had to be done in person by the settlers who were left to "inhabite or remayne there." Once on the ground, they immediately found that they had no such powers as the charter granted. Habitation and possession turned out to be two entirely different things, and the directives that assumed otherwise were written in a language increasingly irrelevant to the exigencies and atrocities of colonial life. The charter's broad, confident outline of the colonial mission tells us little about the events that marked the colonial condition: mass starvation, sieges, mutinies, desecrated corpses, slaughtered children, shipwrecks, fire, delusional fantasies, and abandonment. These destructive events defined the colonial experience as much as did the inscriptive right to "have hold occupy and enjoy."

Though the colonial context of these disasters was new, when colonists wrote of them, they had a long English tradition of writing about crisis from which to draw, and this tradition informed their New World discourse. English literature had long employed a variety of rhetorical forms to express the shock of sudden calamity, the pain of personal hardship, and the sense of social decay. These ranged from biblical traditions such as psalms of exile and the book of Lamentations; to medieval traditions such as the formal complaint, the litany, or the invective; to contemporary variations on the almost universal theme of providence. Providential thinking especially was a mainstay of popular belief in the pulpits, in the presses, and on the streets at this time, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that God's messages could be interpreted in multiple and competing ways. Recurrent social disasters such as famine, plague, and other diseases likewise produced what we may call an early modern literature of crisis. The publications that came from plague years included a range of medical, literary, and theological texts, as well as widespread news of the spread of the plague, bills of mortality, and weekly tolls of burial. All of these discursive systems were flexible, and writers could use even the most ancient of them in response to situations they themselves might have seen as unprecedented. As the literary historian Lawrence Manley writes, "[T]raditional vocabulary was transformed by the circumstances of its application." These traditions provided tools for making meaning out of crisis; however, they did not fully discipline the jarring details of lived experience. For example, in a 1623 broadside publication entitled The Dolefull Even-song, published on the heels of the collapse of Black-Friar's Catholic Church in London, the writer is convinced that the sudden tragedy is the work of God's justice. But even given this providential conclusion, he does not omit the image that must have been burned in his memory: "that Tragicall spectacle of so many bruised and battered carkases, so many smothered corpses, which yesterday breathed the same English aire with us."

Colonial writers too drew on prior modes of expression to capture their experiences of catastrophe. Their texts are literary creations as much as they are historical artifacts, and in them we can find traditional vocabularies persisting, even if they are transformed. However, the crises that settlers suffered and tried to represent took place far from the material and social world of printing presses and street criers, bookshops and broadsides, preachers and readers that contextualized other crisis literature. Settlers most emphatically did not breathe the same English air as the battered corpses in The Dolefull Even-song did just yesterday. The distance and the difference were immense, and defined their experience. Even everyday life in the early settlements exerted what the historian Robert Blair St. George calls "a kind of emergency pressure." How much more did disaster confirm a state of unparalleled crisis? While it is difficult to construe this colonial experience apart from its modes of representation, it is precisely by reading the literature of settlement as literature that we can see gaps, omissions, turns, confusions, falls, excesses, urgencies—all of which point to junctures where the adaptive capacity of older, collective forms no longer worked to translate colonial situations. Their new "world of miserie" thus not only represents their lived experiences but also represents the fractures between those experiences and a literary heritage that often could not contain them. Although English discourses could sometimes give colonists a language for their pervasive crises, at other times that language did not suffice; and this too colonists revealed "at the price of their own identity."


Settlements are liminal places that exist between the wonder of New World exploration and the stability of established colonies. In a trajectory that moves from New World contact to European hegemony, settlement marks a central but fraught moment: central because it represents the decisive moment when European people decided to stay permanently and import their culture with them; and fraught because these efforts so often resulted in chaos and failure. Therefore creating a developmental narrative that links early settlement to viable colonies always requires the turning phrase "but then": but then the settlers adapted their English lifeways to the American climate; but then family-based migration stabilized the population; but then they developed a staple crop and a consumer market was created; but then Indian resistance became weakened by the rampant spread of European diseases; but then they created a vast labor force through the enslavement of Africans; but then a society began to form. These constructions indicate a shift between the messy uncertainties of early settlements and the moment when their settled colonial histories began.

Following this trajectory, the disasters of early settlement can be likened to a process of seasoning writ large. "Seasoning" was a term that originally referred to hardening wood by exposing it to environmental conditions. Seasoned wood was strong and dry and would function in a wide variety of conditions. By the turn of the seventeenth century, "seasoning" was also used in reference to people who were fortified through exposure to difficult circumstances. "Seasoned" people were either metaphorically or literally acclimatized. By the century's end, however, "seasoning" was being used specifically in reference to what happened when people moved to the colonies. As the historian Joyce Chaplin writes, "A seasoned colonist was an altered person, a contrast to untested newcomers." Seasoning was something to pass through, an inevitable by-product of settlement, just as historiographically settlement is an inevitable stage to pass through in the establishment of colonies.

I have titled this book Seasons of Misery because I want to dwell in this seasoning time rather than pass through it. I am interested in the present tense of this moment because I believe that colonial settlement can be more fully understood if we try to see it as a cluster of unassimilated events rather than as an established body of forward-leaning facts. Hayden White elucidates this distinction: "An event cannot enter into a history until it has been established as a fact. From which it can be concluded: events happen, facts are established." According to philosopher Alian Badiou, the event must contain a supplement to "what there already is—the situation of knowledge as such—generated by nothing other than repetition. . . . This supplement is committed to chance. It is unpredictable, incalculable. It is beyond what is." Thus, while the "situation" is defined by an ordinary state of affairs in which all things can be accounted for, the "event" forces a rupture, a break with previously known forms. It is "something that happens in situations . . . that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for . . . something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in 'what there is.'" In this way, the event forces change because it suddenly reveals that the rules of a given situation, which once appeared total, are in fact inadequate to comprehend a new and insistent reality. Following Badiou, White writes, "Event occurs when knowledge of some hitherto unknown aspect of being has to be added to what had been previously known about being. It is, as it were, this 'shock' to the knowledge-system by the insistent nature of a newly discovered truth about being that registers as an event to consciousness." In my reading, the unpredictable, incalculable initiation of colonial experience happened in this kind of evental space and registered as a series of shocks to what had earlier been considered a stable cultural sense of being.

My contention is that before the establishment of socially authorized narratives that told how settlements became colonies—that is, before the translation of events into facts—the insistent nature of these newly discovered truths about being were expressed largely in a discourse of catastrophe. My goal is to recognize this new, unsettling, and insistent state of being as the state of becoming colonial by restoring the sense of the event to the history of settlement. Of course, to write that history is already to give it order, structure, and plot. However, writing about colonial settlement through the lens of the event also means to suggest that settlement itself was a time when the event was ascendant over the fact. The power to provide meaning to what was happening, to narrate what was happening as a series of facts, and to connect what was happening to a previously known situation defined by repetition was constitutionally compromised. Events happen; facts are established. English soldiers spoke nothing but "Oho, Oho" and battered themselves with their own guns. In one sense this is a historical fact. We can locate the episode in time and space and find evidence of its occurrence in corroborating sources. And yet it was also an event; the blows here were not only physical but also assaults on cognition and recognition, on identity and being. The incident was a shock to the settlers' sense of reality and reference, a deep disturbance that was left unresolved. It was "one thinge amongste the rest . . . very remarkable." To stay inside this colonial seasoning, then, means deliberately representing these events in a different narrative form and historiographical frame, one concerned more with the ongoing present of crisis than with the forward movement of chronology. Progressive narratives that are concerned with how rough settlements developed into successful colonies can easily turn proleptic or teleological, structured as they are by retrospectively imposed historical chronologies. To adopt a different temporality, one concerned with what it meant to inhabit the ongoingness of the present, is in turn to recognize the central importance of unsettlement during these acute seasons.

Many historical accounts treat settlement as a prelude, a period that presented a set of problems that needed to be solved in order to create colonies. In this view, settlement was a rough start on the road to more viable social formations. In contrast, this study concentrates precisely on that perilous time after the English formulated the intention to establish permanent colonies but before those colonies could maintain themselves as social and economic entities, viewing the period not as anomalous but as foundational to colonial identity and its modes of representation. Reperiodizing settlement in this way allows for an analytic account of colonial incursion that incorporates its extreme contingencies instead of summarizing and then resolving them. Distinguishing this period and identifying a discourse of catastrophe operating within it offer a way of reading in the documents produced by the first settlers evidence of the traumatic origins of colonial identity. Such an approach finds in our "founding" American texts a story of unfounding. It turns the critical emphasis from settlement to unsettlement, from knowledge production to epistemic rupture, and from adaptation to social and personal breakdown. The creation of colonial identity is often described as an incremental, adaptive process of accommodation that took place gradually over a period of time. However, I would argue that in its first instances, becoming colonial happened more abruptly, through a convulsive series of "nows." It was an unmaking, it was nonadaptive, and it emerged precipitously as a profound reaction to life in extremis. When natives withdrew food, when sickness spread, when settlers died in droves, and when "home" was an ocean away, Englishmen became something they were not before: colonial.

They Settled There

In many ways this field of inquiry is an old one. Colonial historians have long recognized the struggles of early settlement. Writing over fifty years ago, the historian Oscar Handlin proposed that early seventeenth-century colonial life was marked by inescapable hazard and chaos: "Every aspect of their existence combined to produce disorder. . . . The precariousness of existence was at the root of the disorder that overwhelmed them." Handlin argued that as settlers struggled to account for this pervasive chaos, they increasingly relied on a providential worldview to create meaning for their lives in this strange land. If suffering was everywhere, they told themselves, significance must be everywhere too. Indeed these trials, they reasoned, must be the signs of a great mission. Even as they struggled, they saw suffering and survival as emblems of having been selected to pursue a special destiny. The seventeenth century, Handlin argued, was significant because it was in this period that this sense of mission became an essential aspect of English lives in America. Handlin's movement from struggle to meaning is characteristic of his generation of early American scholars. As exemplified in Perry Miller's classic Errand into the Wilderness, struggle was located within the context of American exceptionalism, part and parcel of the Puritans' search for their special fate and mission in America. Thus, Miller could recite a long list of colonial disasters and failures without challenging this exceptional status of the Puritans: the land "had been laid in the covenant before even a foot was set ashore," and there "New England should rest." They settled there, the story goes, and oscillating between failure and fulfillment, they "launched themselves upon the process of Americanization."

The next generation of scholars saw things differently, and focused on a darker aspect of settlement: Europeans invading Native American lands and wreaking havoc on native people, culture, and history. In 1976 Francis Jennings's The Invasion of America performed what one scholar called "the academic equivalent of a scorched-earth campaign" that "changed the landscape of American Indian history forever." Jennings turned settlement history on its head by putting forth an account of violent invasion and brutal expansionism. "The implications of the use of this word settlement are worth noticing," Jennings wrote, noting how the term simultaneously erases the existence of already "settled" Indian populations and masks the Europeans' primary intention to conquer and exploit. From the beginning, he argued, "what made trouble was the European purpose of settling on top." Richard Slotkin too, in Regeneration through Violence, foregrounded the history of violence in both colonization and nation building, arguing that colonial and later American anxieties about "the wilderness" created archetypal dramas unfolding at the edges of settlement. In these dramas an intimacy with Indians threatened a white descent into "savagery," which whites combated through violent acts that renewed or regenerated the progressive march of "civilization" across the American West. Beginning with the first European settlements, Slotkin wrote, "the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience." They settled there, these scholars asserted, and violence was at the heart of that settlement.

Although conquest continued to structure subsequent histories of the settlement era, looking at cultural interactions during this period led another group of scholars to focus on the theme of adaptation. There is a long tradition of studying the transfer of English culture to the New World, but the inclusion of Native American and African American cultures caused the story to be told in a different way. "The tale of the peopling of the New World is one of human creativity," claims the historian T. H. Breen. Although "the challenges were staggering," he writes, each of these groups responded to those challenges through a process of "creative adaptation." The model of creative adaptation has structured local, comparative, and synthetic histories of the colonial Americas, particularly those concerned with the emergence of creole identities and societies. In the study of early settlement, the capacious concept of adaptation has enabled scholars to emphasize the complexity of the process whereby ideas and practices from those contact cultures—cultures which were themselves dynamic and diverse—were modified by daily negotiations under the changing circumstances of the New World. When natives and newcomers "faced off," to use the historian Karen Kupperman's apt phrase, both groups tried to stabilize interpretations of their mutually defining relationships by adapting traditional structures to a changed world. In Kupperman's account, they settled there and eventually made sense of themselves by incorporating their colonial experiences into preexisting social, cultural, and ideological categories.

Suffering, violence, adaptation: each of these successive historiographical approaches to the struggles of settlement gets important things right, but each also closes down some aspect of crisis in the colonial condition. Handlin and Miller understand disorder, but push it toward a meaningful resolution. Jennings and Slotkin understand violence, but overlook the misery and incoherence of the settler experience. Breen and Kupperman understand the complexity of English adaptation to the colonial world, but sublimate rupture into adjustment. The field of historical work around colonial settlement is broad and varied, but a few more examples might suffice to find similar closures. For example, Mary Louise Pratt and Richard White supply the enormously useful models of the "contact zone" and the "middle ground" to interpret cross-cultural interactions; however, reading the discourse of catastrophe, we find that contact zones were also chaos zones, and the middle ground often became visible as a kind of breach appearing discursively as the unmaking of English subjectivity. A range of scholars write about imperialist forms of knowledge production in the New World, but a focus on mastery misses what the anthropologist Michael Taussig calls "the epistemic murk." The colonists' narrative literature shows that even as they were counting tribes and measuring rivers, their experiences in the New World often remained incomprehensible to them. Atlantic studies of migration and settlement patterns provide us a global view of mobile populations, but in that larger frame, interiority is lost in the establishment of broad-scale models. Oceans connected, but they also separated, and early colonial texts record a sense of isolation, distance, and difference in the context of physical incursion and psychic entrenchment.

My purpose is neither to debunk these approaches to settlement history nor to totalize the wide variety of critical discourses that explicate significant aspects of the early encounters. Nor is it to claim that misery has gone unacknowledged. Indeed such seminal works as Andrew Delbanco's The Puritan Ordeal and Mitchell Breitwieser's American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning have brilliantly concentrated our attention on the central experience of loss in the colonial world. My purpose is rather to use the framework of catastrophe to stay close to what is often sealed off in accounts of colonial development: irresolution, misery, incoherence, unmaking, breaches, interiority, murk. I intend to stay close, that is, to acute experiences and their textual representation and, by staying inside the seasons of misery, to find coloniality in crisis rather than in accretion.

This emphasis on crisis has caused me to think through the relationship between my reading of the settlement period and the critical field of trauma theory. I do think that many of the texts I read are acts of witness to nearly unspeakable things and that, in Cathy Caruth's words, "they become themselves the symptoms of a history that they cannot entirely possess." Further, I believe that settlement crises did represent the breakdown of subjects in response to traumatic events, what Judith Herman defines as "threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death." According to Herman, traumatic events "confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe." Certainly this was the case for settlers. In addition I am fully convinced by Dominick LaCapra's insistence on negotiating the affective element of historical understanding and by his model of "empathic unsettlement," in which one recognizes the affective impact of writing about historical trauma but maintains a structure of historical specificity and "a respect for the otherness of the other."

However, my readings of catastrophe in colonial settlement also differ from theorizations of trauma in important ways. First, I am interested in both settler misery and settler violence, and in using the framework of catastrophe to keep both suffering and violence in view. This complicates the premise of the subject primarily as the victim of trauma, because settlement was a historical crisis in which colonists inflicted tremendous harm on others. Indeed exploring that connection is one of my goals. Second, I am interested in the production of historical subjects as well as in the fracturing of subjectivity. I want to trace how the intensities particular to colonial settlement effected a separation from Englishness as it had previously been understood and, in doing so, produced colonial subjects. In the failed attempts to transport and maintain stable forms of Englishness—and amid frequent situations of violence, chaos, bewilderment, and fear for physical survival—settlers became something other. This disordered "becoming" is as much my topic as is the collapse of a former sense of belonging.

Text and Story

As a reader of the texts of early settlement, I am interested in both literary exegesis and historical recovery, and throughout this study I use the tools of both literary criticism and narrative history. Textual analysis serves to find pattern, form, and structure in these accounts; to attend closely to their language; and to treat them as literary constructions. Narrative serves to give a deep account of events and experiences as recounted by eyewitnesses, preserving their time-bound, fragmentary perspectives while also creating a wider historical view. These textual and narrative techniques combine to produce what might be called "narrative readings" of the primary source material. Through these readings I recognize the relationship between language and event to be complex, but take up that complexity in order to understand how historical actors grappled with their ability to represent colonial experience. Entering this critical space generates material for constructing new historical narratives about these people, places, and events by acknowledging not only that these writers of "true relations" struggled with their own testimonial imperatives but also that the struggle itself was part of their story.

Doing narrative history from a literary perspective can be said to have two antecedents: the New Historicist anecdote and the new Narrative History. The anecdote, as it was used by the New Historicists, was designed to both import and impart "the touch of the real," to reconnect literature to the unique and eccentric realities of lived experience in the everyday world. Because the intense particularity of the anecdote interrupted broad and supposedly comprehensive historical narratives, it destabilized "history" as a context for any literary work, allowing us to see both the past and the literary work anew. "Old Historicists" selected what they saw as typical and representative, standard and reproducible: small stories that told the one big story. New Historicists did the opposite, choosing the anecdote that would reveal enigmatic fragments, express unarticulated possibilities, or conjure up the "'effect of the real'-via-the-strange." Employing the thickly described, side-shadowing anecdote thus became a move that signaled a new set of questions about literature's relationship to culture—a relationship these critics saw as neither autonomous nor reflective but rather as performative, dialectical, and multiple.

New Narrative History did something similar in replacing overarching historical narratives based on quantitative, structuralist, or scientific methods with thick descriptive accounts of individual events or lives that resisted absorption into those other broad-scale analytic techniques. Questions about local histories, mental structures, or lived experience necessitated a turn back to narrative method. In the wake of scientific historiography, this return to narrative seemed retrograde to some. However, the new narrative studies were distinctly different from the epic narratives of old; they combined narration and analysis, they concentrated on previously obscure populations, they moved from economic and demographic concerns to cultural and emotional ones, and they used accounts of intimate human behavior to shed light on cultures of the past. Narrative History tried to get inside a person's head while attempting to comprehend that person's world through a combination of description and analysis. The new narrative move was "from circumstances surrounding man, to man in circumstances," as the historian Lawrence Stone puts it.

New Historicist and new Narrative methods had key features and influences in common, but there were also important disciplinary differences. New Historicists told the story on the way to analyzing the text, while new Narrative Historians used texts on the way to telling the story. I place myself at the crossroads of these different practices by drawing on both exegetical tools and a sustained narrative schema. I read the documents using well-established tools of literary analysis: an awareness of the differences between signifier and referent; an interest in the operation of discourse; an attention to structure, form, and genre; an ear for tensions, ruptures, and silences. But I also extract a narrative from the texts, constructing a history with an aim to restore the sense of the "event" and include questions of perception and multiple viewpoints in its telling. In this method of critical writing, the narrative arc runs in tandem with the analytic arc, so that "narrative reading" itself becomes a form of argument. A narrative practice yoked to literary analysis tells us about what was happening in a time and place, but it simultaneously makes "happening" itself a point of inquiry. The narrative produced by this method becomes a form of literary exegesis because it is produced by a sustained and close encounter with textuality. The method also arrives at historicity because it shapes the primary source into a sustained narrative that can be mobilized as an argument about the history of settlement. Thus close literary readings of the texts provide the groundwork for new narratives of events, which in turn make critical interventions into received ideas about colonial history.

This method is particularly appropriate to the study of colonial settlement for several reasons. First, it slows things down. Slow movement allows one to linger in the uncertainty of "present" moments that mark these texts as colonial. It allows one to grasp the strange, the inchoate, and the "underdetermined," as Myra Jehlen puts it, to better express the violent, the disavowed, the taciturn, and the disorderly in these texts. In a world of radical epistemic shifts, slowing down can ultimately challenge the broader chronology of both standard periodization and synthesized historical narratives by avoiding the teleological thrust of each. Second, narrative readings reframe the question of what counts as evidence. While traditional methods demand that evidence be stable and iterable, we can construct different historical accounts by understanding that textual evidence can also test the limits of iterability. Seeing this instability itself as a form of evidence can change the way we understand disruptions along the horizon of meaning, especially in the situation of settlement, where lack of recognition often precisely signals the colonial event. Extracting narrative from a crisis rather than a stabilization of meaning can capture that unforeseeable break with the known. Third, using literary criticism to open up the historical texts allows us to read these accounts of settlement in terms of their own discursive structures and to narrate settlement from inside the conditions in which colonial representation took form. By foregrounding the document and the reading of the document, the narrative radiates from the space wherein what is internal to the text meets or grapples with the material world. Such a strategy reveals both the junctures and disjunctures between the inner and material world so that we can see how earlier systems of thought and states of being faltered and gave rise to new forms of coloniality.

Sites of Unsettlement

In each chapter in this book I analyze this transformation and its representations in a distinct context: epistemological crisis at Roanoke; abjection and atrocity at Jamestown; mortality and material remains at Plymouth; and excess and ungovernability in Barbados. In each case I am interested in the period of settlement before the organization and stabilization of self-replicating colonial societies. Over the course of the seventeenth century, colonies in New England, the Chesapeake, and the Caribbean were consolidated around different social, religious, economic, and racial systems, which profoundly shaped not only their cultural practices but also their regional identities. However, I have chosen to compose a lateral study of an intensive period across these four sites rather than a longitudinal study of any one region or a comparative account of regional development. This is because I am interested in the phenomena of early settlement itself, and in locating commonalities that become muted when the disorders of settlement function as a prelude to the development of regional colonial formations. When we hold an end goal in sight, we tend to read this early breakdown in terms of its eventual recovery. In doing so, we lose the close grain and critical distinctiveness of the first colonial period, because our interest remains in what comes after. In contrast, when we forgo that resolution, we can read the breakdown on its own terms. This asks us at once to reconsider the temporality of this period and to pay closer attention to its forms. It also asks us to do analytic work within a time of chaos, instead of narrating a linear progression from chaos to order. While this approach presents a more limited archive, it also brings into sharper critical focus the role catastrophe played in colonial settlement—a role that has been both over-read ideologically as an originating act of heroic perseverance and under-read historically as a rough, but brief, transition to colonial societies.

Chapter 1 presents a history of three separate failed attempts to construct a colony at Roanoke. From accounts of these attempts, two interrelated themes provide a discursive lens through which to view early colonial experience: disordered cognition and the threat of abandonment, or put another way, not being able to read and not being able to leave. The chapter's central text is a report by Ralph Lane, governor of the first colony in 1585. Historically, Lane's report has not been a focal point for scholars, especially in comparison to the attention paid to the work of the scientist Thomas Harriot and the artist John White, whose collaborations effectively shaped knowledge of the colonial world for much of Europe. Yet Lane's unstable narrative, with its chaotic structure and many departures from reality, is important precisely because it maps out a disordered epistemology. What looks like flawed rhetoric is actually a volatile consciousness textually preserved. The chapter explores Lane's surreal river journeys, his growing conviction of an Indian conspiracy, and his ongoing relations with the Roanoke werowance Pemisapan, who is ultimately murdered and beheaded. After narrating Lane's ouster from Roanoke and the quick eradication of a skeleton colony left there in its wake, the chapter turns to John White's account of his subsequent colony, the one that was ultimately lost. It concludes by considering everything else that was lost in the attempt to settle Roanoke, including the assumptions that the New World could easily become a known world and that settlement would lead directly to possession.

Chapter 2 turns to Jamestown and contends with the predominance of John Smith as a figure in the history of early Virginia. I argue that Smith's sagas of power and possibility do not touch on the darker discourse that came into being at the same time, one in which extreme suffering and extreme violence defined the colonial position. The central texts are two long narratives by George Percy, whom I read against Smith to argue that while Smith creates the panoramic map of Virginia, the neglected Percy is the key writer of Jamestown itself. In this chapter, I seek to revise our understanding of the settlement through both textual recovery and historical discovery by bringing to light untold histories embedded in Percy's accounts and, even more important, by offering a model of the history of early Jamestown as a descent into abjection. The focus here shifts from identifying the material causes of the settlement's disasters to theorizing the critical function of disaster in settlement writing. Catastrophe almost ruined Jamestown, but it also had a hand in implanting it. Connecting the story of the "Starving Time" to the viciousness of the first Anglo-Powhatan war, I argue that as structures of meaning crumbled in Jamestown, the arena of settlement became a theater of atrocity wherein settlers did "things that seemed incredible." The chapter ends with a reconstruction of the textual traces of Paspahegh, the site where the English set their fort, and with a telling of that story of tragic confrontation through its harrowing human particulars.

Chapter 3 addresses the issue of mortality in the Plymouth colony by taking up William Bradford's famous report that the settlers were "scarce able to bury the dead" in the first years of settlement. During the desperate mortality crises that defined the period from 1616 to 1622, both Indians and English around the Plymouth settlement struggled to account for their scarce-buried dead. I argue that in this context the ability to read death properly was at once crucial and deeply compromised. Dead bodies became highly charged sites of cultural crisis, and I analyze the problematic presence of those bodies for both natives and newcomers, paying particular attention to how each group looked upon the other's dead. Reading William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation alongside other contemporary reports of the colony, letters, biblical narratives, and a critical piece of court testimony, I tell the story of a complex landscape of power relations among people in Plymouth, in the nearby Wessagusset settlement, and in the Massachusett tribe. Multiple strands of rumors and fear, alliances and competition tied these groups together; those connections also unraveled into starvation, massacre, and social collapse. Violence thus becomes the disavowed underside of the discourse of misery that Bradford stages in his text as he tries to clear the past of its most visible remains and make a bid for possession based on Pilgrim faith and humility. Despite his efforts, however, the dead, and with them the catastrophe of settlement, come in and out of view, continually threatening the stability of both the settlement and its written history.

Chapter 4 turns to Barbados and reflects a shift in early American studies that recognizes the central place of the Caribbean in the colonial Atlantic world. Because this chapter works up to the mid-seventeenth-century sugar revolution rather than taking the sugar economy as an established condition of colonial relations, it traces a much closer connection between tropical and mainland settlements while still registering the unique situation of the West Indies. For English settlers in the first half of the seventeenth century, the West Indies existed as a place of intractable extremes, of tropical excess that was seen to infect those who settled there. Catastrophe lived in that excess, not only in the staggering mortality rates but also in the natural, social, and economic worlds that were considered to be inescapably immoderate. After analyzing the earliest accounts of English lives in the West Indies, I turn to Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Although Ligon's history strives for order, it is continually interrupted by a narrative ungovernability, exposing sites of decrepitude, avarice, violence, and inhumanity. Despite the author's intent to be methodical, this eruptive ungovernability destabilizes his efforts to rationalize colonial activity "beyond the line." Ligon's text represents the multiple orders of colonial knowledge that were being produced in the mid-seventeenth century, and seeks to offer "the sum" of all he knows—both of the prodigious nature of the island and of the exact calculation of what one could extract from it. But even as A True and Exact History demonstrates the production of that knowledge, it is persistently vexed by the violent extremes of Anglo-Caribbean coloniality as the plantation complex was coming into its full expression.

When I began this study, I wanted to write about the first years of colonial settlement because I could not get the stories out of my mind. It seemed to me that they were too easily passed over in formal arguments about how colonies developed or in discussions about the ideological implications of colonialism. The catastrophes of the first seasons could astound, but what could one do except explain the external conditions that led to such acute states and move on? How else could one write it? In his book Metahistory, Hayden White defines the historical work as "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse." He identifies three strategies historians use within that construct to achieve something that will be accepted as an explanation of what happened in the past. One of these strategies is formal argument; it applies the laws of cause and effect onto historical conditions, which results in conclusions that occur "by logical necessity." Another explanatory strategy is ideological implication, whereby the knowledge of past events sheds light on the present day and gives us insight into how ideological structures shaped history then and still do now. A third strategy is emplotment, in which sequences of events are ordered and given meaning by being told as a particular kind of story. Each mode of historical writing formalizes a different kind of "poetic insight" into the materials out of which history is made, and each results in a different style of narrative prose. Historians use and combine all of these techniques in different measure, and the strategies themselves go in and out of style. As White says, there is a choice among interpretive strategies, and the grounds for making that choice are "ultimately aesthetic and moral rather than epistemological."

I have moved through this study primarily by means of emplotment in order to make an argument that remains committed and closely connected to the difficult testimony from this period. I have aimed to articulate both the crisis of colonial settlement and the relationship between its acute conditions and the construction of coloniality by bringing these historical actors and their writing up close. My contention is that we must grapple with this difficult period because it was through early catastrophe that colonial identities were first formed. The shock of early settlement—its suffering and its violence—happened in unknown places that were, by the settlers' very presence, supposed to become English. They did not. What happened instead is hard to read and write about: confusing and often horrid, unthinkable and yet undeniably true. The testimonies and histories from this moment grew out of the rhetoric of exploration and encounter, but it was the charge of settlement—to stay and to possess—that crucially led to the discourse of catastrophe. Catastrophe and colonial settlement became my theme because in my reading of these documents, nothing was more unsettling than that.