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July 27, 2006

The Character of British Imperialism - An Instructive Episode : Negotiating for Georgia: British-Creek Relations in the Trustee Era, 1733-1752 - Julie Anne Sweet

Posted by Jeremy Black

Negotiating for Georgia: British-Creek Relations in the Trustee Era, 1733-1752
by Julie Anne Sweet
Pp. 277. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005
Hardback, 30.50

This is an effective and well-grounded account that adds significantly to our understanding of relations with Native Americans in the eighteenth century, and serves as a useful counterpoint to a tendency to emphasise violence and coercion, not least the smallpox episode during Pontiac's War.

Rather than assuming the validity of an overall model, Sweet, Assistant Professor at Baylor University, argues the case for the need to understand the role of very different circumstances, which ensured that the "middle ground", to employ a recent term in the literature, meant very different situations.

The role of individuals in mediating relations emerges clearly in this account with James Oglethorpe, the British leader, and Tomochichi, the Lower Creek leader, each playing key roles. Tomochichi indeed visited London. On the whole, thanks to the co-operation between the two men, the relationship between the new colony and the Creeks was a good one, and certainly contrasted markedly with the situation in the Carolinas.

Co-operation was important because there were major cultural differences between the two sides that threatened to accentuate specific points in dispute. The two parties, for example, had, as Sweet points out, conflicting notions of diplomacy. Whereas Europeans and European-Americans viewed treaties as permanent and absolute contracts that applied to all members of the nationalities that had accepted the conditions, Native Americans, on the other hand, saw treaties as temporary arrangements that would remain in force until conditions or leadership changed and that were binding among only the participants who were involved in the process of making those arrangements.

This contrast, which needs to be qualified by due note of the way in which colonists repudiated earlier treaties in their quest for land, helped make the practical implementation of agreements difficult, but, in the case of the British and the Creeks, there were also the challenges posed by differing British views about the most appropriate governmental form for the new colony, as well as the dynamic provided by the other players involved, which included both other Native Americans and other European colonists.

Thus, Oglethorpe wanted the Creeks to play a role against Florida during the War of Jenkins' Ear. As Sweet shows, there was important co-operation, but also major differences in warmaking. The Creeks were more effective than the European-Americans, and, in his second advance on Saint Augustine, Oglethorpe found it appropriate to adopt some of his allies' military techniques. Their value had emerged in the earlier attempt on the Spanish base.

Sweet's book also throws light on the problems that affected the relationship between the Trustees and the colonists. As the latter became established, they stepped up their pleas for relief from the burdens imposed on them by the administration overseas. The Trustees, however, denied repeated requests to lift the regulations on land ownership, alcohol consumption, and slave usage. In the end the Trustees surrendered the charter. A fine book on an instructive episode.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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