Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

Jonathan R. Dull, Review of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York in The Journal of American History, Vol. 96, No. 2 (September 2009), 526-27.

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York. By Thomas M. Truxes. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. xvi, 288 pp. $30.00, ISBN 978-0-300-11840-7.)

In his masterpiece War and Trade in the West Indies, 1739-1763 (1936) the great Richard Pares revealed in passing the extensive trade of Britain’s American colonies with the French during the Seven Years’ War (the so-called French and Indian War).  This clandestine illegal trade was largely conducted through the neutral port of Monte Cristi in Spanish Santo Domingo (now the Domincan Republic).  Amazingly, it has taken seventy years for this fascinating story to receive a full treatment.  One suspects, however, that Pares would have been pleased by the thoroughness of Thomas M. Truxes’s study.

Defying Empire is a major contribution to American and British political, social, economic, cultural, maritime, and naval history.  Although he uses New York as a test case, his findings also discuss the histories of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other American colonies. He also adds greatly to our understanding of the relations between the American colonies and Great Britain.  Of particular interest is his revelation of how important to the deterioration of these relations was the now little-known Flour Act of 1757.  This act of Parliament restricted American merchants from trading with the French through neutral ports in the West Indies, but it did not apply to merchants in Great Britain.  Not surprisingly, American merchants flagrantly disregarded this discriminatory law.  This, in turn, outraged British admirals and generals, who took steps to curtail this trade with the enemy.  After the war, the British government took draconian steps of its own to curtail smuggling, which resulted in American protests.  That spiral of mistrust and retaliation played a part in the coming of the American Revolution.

Truxes examines this important history through the stories of individuals, particularly the New York merchants who conducted the trade and those who tried to stop them.  Giving attention to the human side of history was one of Pares’s great virtues, too.  Truxes’s research is exhaustive and his writing clear and vivid.  Moreover, he pays attention to both ends of [pp. 526/527] the trade, revealing not only the activities in New York and the other northern colonies, but also what happened in the Spanish and French ports that received American produce and other goods in exchange for French sugar.  He describes in detail the activities of American ships, American and British privateers, British warships, and even French fleets.  To make the story easier to follow, he provides twenty magnificent maps, a chronology, and glossaries of persons, nautical terms, and British laws.  His index is superb, and the book’s proofreading and editing are virtually flawless.  I found only one significant mistake: contrary to his assertions on pages 4 and 106 the French never planned to attack New York City as this was logistically impossible

Both Truxes and Yale University Press are to be congratulated for such an interesting, informative, and important book.  Even the clever dust jacket (by Truxes’s artist son) is exceptional.  I recommend this book highly.

Jonathan Dull, Hamden, Connecticut

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