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The Course of Empire: A history of three centuries in which a new race engulfed a continent
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The Course of Empire: A history of three centuries in which a new race engulfed a continent

A glittering tome replete with fire and fancy. Historian DeVoto details the inundation of North America by Europeans and the tearing of the veil of ignorance that lay over the continent of mystery coming gradually to realize that it is not an extension of Asia, that its lands are not dotted with cities of gold, and that no water passage to the Pacific exists anywhere in its geography. Each chapter begins with a map with unexplored territory marked in grey; in each chapter the grey grows less as explorers, bloody fanatics, and imperialists push the boundaries of knowledge further back with each generation.

He follows a constant theme: the naked ship-wrecked fugitive Cabeza de Vaca’s extravagant tale of jewels and cities was the “first whorl” that in time became a whirlwind, leading in the 1760’s to a climactic global war among the “four empires” of France, Britain, Spain, and the United States, which began and ended around the strategic Mississippi, and which culminated in Lewis and Clark’s headlong rush to the mouth of the Columbia in 1804, barely beating out British explorers still intent on fencing in an expanding “imperial” United States.

Entirely unlike contemporary academic works in style, with their courier newspaper-headline prose and careful nodding to the modern Tammany Hall corruption of multiculturalism, DeVoto has not a trace of political correctness. In its pages, Lewis and Clark’s men brag at how many Indian girls they got pregnant on their journey. Indian tribes drive French fur traders “crazy” begging for communal “drunks” where liquor removed all their inhibitions resulting in savage beatings, vengeful murders between spouses, and accidental shootings of their own children. Tribes gloat at their prowess in annihilating entire villages of enemy tribes, including the meticulous slaughtering of their children. Still other tribes guard their privileged monopoly in European trade-goods with fierce jealousy, both blocking Europeans from penetrating west, and using their newly-acquired European guns to punish any tribe who might attempt to evade their monopoly and trade directly with the Europeans.

Indian tortures of luckless European settlers and of other Indians is remorselessly described, including the connivance of French priests who at times encouraged boiling captives alive lest the fur trade be interrupted—after all, infidels are destined for the flames; what’s the harm in allowing “our loyal Indians” to bring it to them a few years sooner? Likewise, European traders were not loath to force Indian girls into slavery, and many tribes were eager to trade their girls for a few trinkets and knives, while in other tribes the women, married and unmarried, would persistently offer themselves to any European who happened along out of mere curiosity or “for a kind word.” Different climes, different values.

Neither are modern orthodoxies spared. Far from painting North America as a fairy-tale land of pristine wilderness and timeless beauty, DeVoto describes how each spring witnessed the drowning of tens of thousands of buffalo as the branches of the Missouri broke their ice, plunging the animals into the depths, such that it was possible to walk along river-banks for great distances upon their carcasses—those not being eagerly scavenged by Indians—and driving people far from every river-bank for several weeks each spring due to the stench of their decaying bodies. And after the annual spring drowning came the grass-fires, with herds of buffalo burned and blinded by flames staggering into boulders and tumbling down hills and bank, both horrifying and pathetic. A phenomenon far from the salons of Paris where fans of Rousseau discussed the virtues of nature and its noble savages over tea-cups with up-ended pinkies. Far from the fate of luckless settlers and the smallpox epidemics that turned populous Indian nations into ghost-towns long before most settlers arrived, the kings and emperors of Europe, apprised of the fate of their distant subjects, shrugged and resumed moving pawns and queens across maps of the world. —SiriusReviews.com.

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The Course of Empire: A history of three centuries in which a new race engulfed a continent, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
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