Thursday, August 13, 2015

Q&A with Kathleen DuVal

Kathleen DuVal is the author of the new book Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution. Her other books include The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. She teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Q: You write, “This book focuses on the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Louisiana, because of the astounding number of competing interests that came into conflict there.” What were some of the most important interests?

A: In the battles on the Gulf Coast, the British fought against the Spanish empire, not against the rebelling American colonists. The king of Spain hoped to take advantage of the American rebellion to attack Britain and seize some of its North American colonies for the Spanish empire.

Besides the two main competitors, there were countless smaller groups with their own reasons for fighting in the war or trying to stay out of it.

There were European colonists who had come to North America seeking land and prosperity from their homes in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Spain, the German provinces, and other parts of North America.

There were enslaved and free people of African descent. And there were American Indian nations who were still in control of most of the North American interior and did not want any Europeans to take possession of their lands.

Q: You focus in the book on eight people. How did you select them, and what do they represent?

A: Because the 18th-century Gulf Coast was complex and will be unfamiliar to most readers, I follow eight people through the course of the war and its aftermath.

I chose people who represent groups who were important in the war on the Gulf Coast but who also have interesting individual stories and who left enough primary sources in the historical record so I can know quite a bit about their lives.

They include the Chickasaw leader Payamataha, the Creek and Scottish diplomat Alexander McGillivray, the Irish Protestant merchant Oliver Pollock, the Irish Catholic Margaret O’Brien, the Scottish plantation owners James and Isabella Bruce, the enslaved man called Petit Jean, and the Acadian refugee and soldier Amand Broussard.

Q: How did you conduct your research for this book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Most of my research was in the colonial archives of Spain and Britain as well as in the manuscripts collections of the Library of Congress.

Fortunately for historians, wars create a lot of paperwork, and we can learn about people who might not have appeared in peacetime archives.

For example, Petit Jean served as a spy and courier for Spanish military officers, who wrote about him in their correspondence with one another.

Most enslaved people appear in historical documents only as numbers and perhaps names and ages. I would never have learned about Petit Jean if he hadn’t become involved in the war. More importantly for him, he gained his freedom because of his wartime service.

Q: Why did you pick “Independence Lost” as your book’s title?

A: We tend to think of American independence as an unequivocally good thing for everyone involved (except, I suppose, for King George).

My book tells the stories of people who didn’t celebrate American independence. Many of them fought on the opposite side.

Whichever side they chose, they fought not because they loved the British or the Americans but for their own independence every bit as much as the minutemen in Massachusetts fought for theirs.

Many of these people, most obviously American Indians, lost independence as a result of the American victory in the Revolution.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have become fascinated with the Spanish general and governor of Louisiana Bernardo de Gálvez, who led the Spanish forces to victory at the battles of Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola.

I am starting to work on a biography of him, perhaps a dual biography of him and his wife, Marie Felice de St. Maxent, who was a French Louisianan. They were sort of a “power couple” of the 18th century.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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