The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis.

The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis. Liveright, 2017.

Professor Jack Davis covers a relatively short period in the history of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Pleistocene, two million years ago, to the Twenty-First Century AD. The Gulf is an enormous body of water that drains a vast land area, the basins of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the rivers that deliver freshwater to the Gulf from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. His study of the Gulf is modeled after Alexander Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Davis keeps his sense of humor despite the bad news that flows from his word processor. The subject of his history, he laments, has been “a sandbox for the earth-sculpturing [by the] US Army Corps of Engineers.” Their dike building along the Mississippi River is only a small part of the trouble, however. The Gulf has also become a dump for the numerous industries that have clustered around its waterways.

Add to that the more recent discovery of off-shore petroleum deposits and their exploitation. In April 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of those off-shore oil rigs, blew spewing two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. But that is less, Davis reminds us, than the annual dose of poisons that comes down the Mississippi River from our Midwestern agricultural heartland. Nor was this the first time that the Gulf has been contaminated by discharge from an off-shore oil rig.

Those ‘tarred and feathered” birds that attracted so much attention during the press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill should remind us that the Gulf is a major path for migrating birds. Billions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. It is a six-hundred mile trip for many of them, but shorter ­- “as the crow flies” – than any passage over land.

Many of the migratory birds are in their breeding plumage. Look back at photographs of fashionable, turn-of-the-last-century females and you will find their hats decorated with plumage, feathers from egrets, herons, spoonbills, and other mostly wading birds. They were harvested by shooting, hence a rapid reduction in numbers. (Fortunately women’s hat fashion changed during WWI).

Their men folk joined clubs and hunting lodges and, for the sport, aimed their guns at those same migrating birds. For the gentlemen, there were shooting excursions by steam boats up the St. Johns River.

Wading birds may have seemed like ‘small potatoes’ to some hunters, but there were alligators fashioned into ‘big game’. They were an impressive prop in a photograph of the dead animal and its sportsman hunter. Or for fishermen; tarpon were popular fish for the sports fisher, their size, according to Davis, would satisfy the national masculinity zeitgeist.

The hoteliers, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, were happy to supply these gentlemen and ladies with luxury accommodations. Both were railroad men, presiding over a transition in the Florida tourist trade. From vacationers arriving by rail, many were now traveling to Florida in automobiles. And staying in Plant’s Gulf coast hotel in even larger numbers.

The Gulf of Mexico became a second home near the beach. And that in turn led to the rows of high-rise condominiums. With them more roads, more malls, more fast-food restaurants. And up-rooted mangroves.

Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a major docking facility for container ships. The widening of the Panama Canal resulted in a major transformation of shipping in the Gulf. Huge new machinery, lifts, etc. were necessary to handle these containers.

Sand has always been a tricky foundation for a building of any size. And that became a problem as condo’s etc. were allowed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Moreover, existing regulations, if enforced, have not made allowances for sea level rise and more Hurricanes and tropical storms. The slowly-disappearing beach needed to be armored and nourished.

Gambling. It was decided that the best way to add gambling to the Gulf and keep it more-or-less out of sight was to position it off-shore. That particular gamble however, did not pay off. It didn’t count on an uninvited participant – Hurricane Katrina. The casinos, washed out to sea, were rebuilt. They are now back on land, and paying taxes.

Jack Davis ends The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea on a positive note. When the State of Florida banded gill-netting in 1994, Cedar Key fishers began exploiting a new fishery, clam farming. And the town changed from one where those fishers lived to vacation condominiums for the well-off. Most of the employed population live inland.  So be it.

Historic Pensacola by John Clune, Jr. & Margo Stringfield. 

Historic Pensacola by John Clune, Jr. & Margo Stringfield.  University Press of Florida, 2016.

Pensacola, West Florida can claim to have been initially settled in 1559. More accurately, a Spanish ship captain, Tristán de Luna, led an expedition to Pensacola Bay and a settlement he established lasted for a few years. It is the basis for Pensacola’s claim to being the oldest European settlement in North America and a rival to St. Augustine on the Atlantic side of the Florida peninsula.

The area was largely vacant; its native population had been decimated years before by European diseases that had been spread by the native population’s “first encounters” with sick crews on the Spanish galleons.

Several surprises. While we learn of the exploration of Hernando DeSoto in our grade-school textbooks, there are other Spanish explorers that did not find a mention. Also the authors, John Clune, Jr. and Margo Springfield, call attention to the sophisticated and elaborate town planning that these Spanish explorers brought with them to the New World. Pensacola was laid out in a grid pattern with room set aside for a fortified presidio and a Church.

Other than the presidio, most of the structures were wooden – and subject to destruction by fire either from natural causes or from warfare.

The town of Pensacola moved around within its Bay area. Early it was located up stream of the estuary. But when that created difficulties for sailing ships, the town was moved to the barrier island at the mouth of the Bay, Santa Rosa Island. Better for maritime communications, it was, however, vulnerable to the hurricanes which plow through the area.

The Spaniards were serious about settling Pensacola Bay. One of Luna’s expeditions had eleven ships and over 1,500 settlers. Many of these settlers were recruited from interior Mexican towns and had no experience of living on a restless bay.

From the years of these early settlements, European rivalry created New-World competition. The colonies along the Atlantic Coast were British. The French had seized control of the Mississippi Valley and New Orleans, but it continued to trade with West Florida. The Spaniards claimed Santo Domingo, the wealthiest island in the Caribbean, and the vast lands of Texas, Southwestern U.S., and Florida.

All three European colonial regimes had allied themselves with various Native American tribes, where they still survived. This meant that colonists settling on Pensacola had also to worry about Indian raiders. West Florida, including Pensacola, was a British colony from 1763 to 1781. It then returned to Spain. In 1821 the Adams-Onís Treaty ceded West Florida and hence Pensacola to the young American Republic.

Pensacola avoided the issues over taxation that beleaguered Colonial-British relations. Hence it did not play an important role in the American Revolution.

The town continued to participate in the trade along the Gulf Coast between Mobile and Pensacola. This trade was a monopoly of a chartered company. It stocked the usual luxury goods for its Pensacola customers but made its money buying and reselling deer-skins. Spain recognized the importance of the eighteenth-century “global economy.” They intended to make sure that their administration encouraged that development.

Pensacola competed with Galveston with its Tivoli House. There were gambling rooms and an extensive bar for unruly Spanish soldiers and sailors on leave.

Historic Pensacola is a handsome book, published by the University of Florida Press. Each chapter has a recipe associated with its content. It is well-illustrated and has wonderful maps.  The two authors, John Clune, Jr. and Margo Springfield, teach at the University of West Florida.

Darwin’s First Theory; Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth by Rob Wesson.

Darwin’s First Theory; Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth by Rob Wesson. Pegasus Books, 2017.

Charles Darwin is best known for his On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. His “first theory” however was an important contribution to the science of geology. He received an invitation to participate in the voyage of the HMS Beagle, from 1831 to 1836. Its purpose was to explore and map the coasts of Argentina and Chile. Part of that long voyage was spent hiking through the Andes on field trips.

Darwin was still a young man, twenty-two, having just completed his studies at the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge. He hadn’t yet married, nor established a career. Rob Wesson suggests that he considered his selection to be a big honor. But he needed to bone up on his geology and so he engaged in a ramble through North Wales with a noted geologist, Adam Sedgwick.

Darwin’s cabin mate on the HMS Beagle was Robert FitzRoy, an English officer in the British Royal Navy and captain of the ship. They got along well, though FitzRoy was already showing signs of the depression from which he would suffer later in life.

FitzRoy, like many other scientists who read Darwin became alarmed when his theories were less not easily reconciled with the creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible. True, Biblical stories about a catastrophic flood in the creation of Earth did not necessarily conflict with observations that Darwin and others were making about natural phenomena, particularly of tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. (Tsunamis were in Darwin’s time called tidal waves.) But Darwin was creating a new language that was less and less confirming of the Genesis account.

After their voyage Darwin and FitzRoy were invited to give papers and take part in the discussion of their observations of the coast of Patagonia at the Royal Society. This prompted an often heated discussion over the next half-dozen years about Darwin’s “first theory.” Charles Lyell, British lawyer and geologist, joined the conversation arguing for what he, and Darwin and other geologists referred to as Uniformitarianism – the theory that Earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today.  Lyell popularized the idea of uplift and subsidence, which fit well into Darwin’s observations of the presence of coral reefs now visible well above the surface of the ocean.

Wesson has captured an edifying portrait of the lively scientific community in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. They were not necessarily associated with the country’s universities. There were now many professional organizations that you could be invited to join. Papers were given in rooms of some social clubs if the organization itself did not have a club room.

One of the topics of conversation was “erratics.” These were boulders that were “out of place” and had somehow gotten to their locations by some mechanism, not yet well understood. Some geologists suggested that they were brought to their location by icebergs. The possibility of glaciers transporting them had not yet been proposed because there was no clear understanding of glaciers and what we call the ice age.

The idea of an ice age also explained another geological puzzle that these geologists, including Darwin, found quite mysterious. Called the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, they were once the various shorelines of ancient, ice-jammed lochs. But there was no sign of what might have blocked the valley to create those various shorelines. Again glaciers became the proposed solution.

There was as yet no speculation on drifting continents, subduction and uplift, although Darwin and his generation had begun to describe the phenomena. Darwin was also beginning to think about species and the mechanism of natural selection that would explain their diversity. We would call this thinking about geological and biological phenomena “thought experiments.”

Wesson’s book is about Darwin’s “first” theory, not about On the Origin of Species. That explains why the famous letter from Alfred Russel Wallace proposing the same mechanisms that Darwin was considering. Wallace’s paper on the subject was jointly published along with some of Darwin’s writings in 1858. Finding out that the idea of natural selection was circulating amongst naturalists prompted Darwin to publish his Origin.

Darwin’s theories were much discussed in Great Britain because he was also an accomplished writer. And there was already a conversation going on about his first and subsequent theories that drew in Wallace, Lyell, Adam Sedgwick, and other geologists and biologists.


The War That Forged a Nation; Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson.

The War That Forged a Nation; Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson. Oxford, 2015.

In Charlottesville, Virginia Robert E. Lee’s statue was recently pulled down and partially destroyed. In Gainesville, Florida a statue of a Confederate soldier was given back to the original donor organization to be displayed at a less public venue. It isn’t much of a task to argue as James McPherson does, that the Civil War still matters. But McPherson’s book was published in 2015. Half the chapters are his reviews of books published over the last several decades and before the campaign against Confederate soldiers and leaders go under way.

As a result of the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), our Nation had acquired new Southwest territory. Would that lead to the expansion of slavery? Would the expansion of a mining industry in the West lead to an exploitation of slave labor? Northern Abolitionists were determined that this would not happen.

McPherson reminds us that dominance of a southern slave-owning elite in the young Republic would need to be reversed. For two-thirds of the years between our independence in 1789 and the Civil War in 1861, the residing U.S. presidents had been slave owners. Moreover the economy of the Southern economy remained dependent upon one cash crop, cotton. The North, on the other hand, was becoming a diversified economy directed by an industrial elite.

One comforting thought for both sides was that they were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The seven states that had withdrawn from the Union were justified in defending themselves in the face of the continuing Northern disruption of their slave economy. They were fighting a jus ad bellum, a just war. The North believed its effort to end that disunity a defensive war and equally just.

In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in territory held by the U.S. army. McPherson contends, however, that the issue for most of the War and its participants was not about slavery but about succession.

It became obvious that the War would not end in a victory for the North – or South – without resorting to “total warfare.” The resources of the Northern economy was eventually harnessed for a total victory. The South “must feel the hard hand of war.” Hence General William Sherman’s “march to the sea”, looting and burning as he proceeded.

One surprise for this reviewer: you might call the spiritual enthusiasm on both sides, a renewal. Many soldiers and their leaders “got religion” on the battlefield; Jefferson Davis received baptism in May 1862! Religion, at least the belief in a hereafter, was, McPherson argues, a comfort to the wounded and dying. The most accepted number who died on both sides in the War was 750,000. How a soldier’s death was dealt with is wonderfully described by Drew Faust in her This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War. She argues for 6,000,000 if an equivalent proportion of today’s population died in the war.

The American Civil War caused much confusion and hand-wringing on the part Europeans, and particularly the British. Their textile industry was dependent upon cotton from Southern fields. British ship yards were constructing “blockade runners” for the Confederacy. On the other hand, the Brits could not in good conscience embrace a country that embraced slavery. But even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Britain held to a policy of neutrality.

In April 1861 Lincoln’s Administration declared a blockade of all Confederate Ports. That provoked an international incident out of the seizure of a British ship transporting two Confederate envoys to Britain and France. They were removed from the ship as contraband of war. There will always be controversy about how successful the blockade of Southern ports was. It may have kept many small operators from participation.

Contraband was also the term applied to escaping slaves upon their entering Union lines. They were property and hence viewed in the same way that any confiscated property is during wars.

Lincoln observed that these ex-slaves were assisting the Union cause which was increasingly being waged in the name of Slave Emancipation. The Confederacy felt differently about the matter and refused to exchange black POWs for white captives in Federal prisons. There were instances in which these black POWs were executed when captured.

The North had not yet clarified the status of black soldiers now participating in the Civil War. But the growing trouble over the Civil War’s conscription caused Lincoln to think more carefully about black soldiers. Hence the Emancipation Proclamation recognized not only Lincoln’s evolving views about the War’s objectives but also the fact that by 1864 over 109,000 black soldiers had found their way into the battlefield in support of the North.

The Union was unwilling to offer any terms other than unconditional surrender, and so the bitter war continued. It lingers. We have not found a reconciliation of diverging war remembrances.


Toussaint Louverture; A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard.

Toussaint Louverture; A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard. Basic Books, 2016.

Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary, is credited with having led the only successful slave revolt in the New World. It began in 1791 in French speaking Hispaniola, and Louverture succeeded in keeping the leadership amidst challenges from the Spanish colonial regime in Saint-Domingue, from British Jamaica, Spanish Cuba, Colonial America, and Metropolitan France in the midst of its own revolution.

Haiti was at the time of its slave revolt, perhaps the wealthiest European colony in the Caribbean. That was due largely to its production of two crops: sugar and coffee. It fortunately had good soil, sufficient rainfall, and mostly sunny days.

But it was also a deadly environment for its slave cultivators. The mortality rates from malaria, yellow fever, and other contagious diseases, were so high, (7 to 14% a year) that it had to continuously import new slaves from Africa. Hence Haiti was an active participant in the African slave trade. Louverture grew up a slave, a muleteer. Both of Toussaint Louverture’s parents were African. So recent was their African heritage that Louverture claimed that he was descended from African royalty.

Most of the owners of the Haitian sugar plantations were absentee whites. They employed three different layers of land management: the managers who ran the plantations on a daily basis, attorneys who dealt with legal matters and represented the owners in their court battles, and accountants. Many of the estates were poorly managed. It was possible that black slaves might ultimately be contracted out as a manager of several sugar estates owned by the same person.

Girard explains that the slave economy of Saint-Dominague was initially not a racist society. Louverture, ambitious and black, could rise within the island’s Creole society. But that changed with the rise of racism in Haiti. Girard argues that the racist ideas were useful because that hierarchy, which generally ignored skin color, gave opportunity for a black man of talents to rise. But it also provided opportunity for a fall. Like racism elsewhere in the New World, one drop of black blood made you a Negro. Hence there were two categories of whites – “little whites” and “big whites” and the opportunity to descend in social standing. On the other hand, the Haitian army provided opportunity for movement of blacks and whites in both directions on the social ladder.

There is no answer to the questions who, how, and why Louverture was a “free black.” He began acquiring land, small plots when they came up for sale and then larger estates. Making good money, he could buy his family’s manumission. Unfortunately there is no civic or church record of his changing social status.

The author reminds us also that there was always some level of slave resistance in the Caribbean. There were numerous groups of fugitive slaves (in Haiti they were called Maroons). They congregated alongside working plantations, disrupting discipline and providing opportunities for flight. Good reason for flight; Caribbean plantation owners were known for their cruelty. Maroonage was harshly punished. Men had their bones broken and were often castrated; women severely burned and frequently whipped. The general practice was branding for a first offense, hamstringing for a second, and death for a third. So there was a substantial risk involved in protesting against your slave status by running away.

Toussaint Louverture should be hailed as an abolitionist, if it weren’t for his acknowledgment of the importance of the plantation culture to the economic welfare of its slave population. And vice versa. Louverture, cooperated with Spanish officials in Saint-Domingue in their efforts to restore the colonial economy. In 1801 he agreed to a restoration of the slave trade.

In July 1789, the Bréda family decided to sell off some of their properties and slaves at auction. This always resulted in the breaking up of slave families and Louverture decided that this was a sufficient reason for him to act. He was also being challenged by rivals for the leadership amongst the restless slave population.  In 1791 Haiti’s slaves rose in rebellion.

Girard’s account of Toussaint Louverture’s life was enormously complicated by the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Empire. Louverture, surprisingly, turns out to have been a loyalist, faithful to the Bourbons because of their efforts to establish a set of rules to govern the slave/owner relationship in their colonies and control some of the cruelty, but also introduce what the author suggests is a “pronatalist” policy of supporting slave families and promoting infant care.

Through his alliances with men of power in France, Louverture had by 1801 become both governor of the colony and general of the army. He was also a statesmen who was of sufficient status to be trusted to represent France in negotiations with the British in 1798. As governor, he worked to restore the colonial economy of Saint-Domingue, a restoration from which he would benefit as a major landowner.