Review: Alejandra Dubcovsky, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South

Alejandra Dubcovsky, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

61VAwsW64fL._SL500_Alejandra Dubcovsky’s Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South is an ambitious book. She analyzes how information was communicated throughout the early South, a region that was without a regular mail system or print culture prior to 1730. The “early South,” as Dubcovsky acknowledges, is an “ambiguous” term (3). Her “early South” includes much of the lands from the Jamestown settlement south, and from the Mississippi River east. The result is a vibrant blend of Native American peoples, Africans, and European interactions that both complicate and enrich her analysis. Her sources include not only English, French, and Spanish, but also a number of Native American sources, including Timucua. She draws not only on written sources, but linguistic and archaeological evidence as well. This interdisciplinary approach allowed for broader inclusion of non-European networks than appears in many studies. Networks, as Dubcovsky defines them, are a “pattern of ties connecting discrete places or peoples”(4) She discusses a number of different types of networks—economic, political, religious, diplomatic, subaltern—but depicts all nodes as uniform in size. While some might take issue with this approach, the uniformness of the nodes makes sense, given the book’s goal of decentralizing European power structures, and does not detract.

Dubcovsky is interested in how the exchange of information across these different colonial spaces helped to spread news and ideas. The book is divided into three parts. Part I: “What: Making Sense of La Florida, 1560s-1670s,” describes what sort of information people wanted. It explores the development of Native American networks before and after European colonization, and how information circulated. It also discusses the emergence of La Florida, with the arrival of the Spanish, as a colonial space at the center of competitive imperial rivalries and colonial developments. To Dubcovsky, the goal of determining what information the participants (European, African, and Native Americans) wanted allows us to see what mattered (and what that changes) in the early South (6-7, 11-98). Part II, “Who: The Many Faces of Information, 1660s-1710s,” is focused more on the participants themselves—who acquired and carried news across networks. This focus on who disseminated information is crucial to Dubcovsky’s discussion of the regional entropy, as well as the interdependence of Native Americans and Europeans (7, 99-158). Part III, “How: New Ways of Articulating Power, 1710-1740,” traces how Indians, Europeans, and Africans moved information, with particular attention (using the Yamasee War) to the ways war rendered existing strategies for sharing information inadequate. The result was the creation of new parameters and priorities (7-8, 159-210). Dubcovsky does not get into why people disseminate information, because the motivation is self-evident: power and control (8).

The channels of communication described in these three parts, she argues, could “transcend cultural, political, and linguistic divides,” and were an essential part of not only European, but also Native American geopolitics (4).[1] More than just establishing connections, Dubcovsky argues, these channels helped to establish values, priorities, and hierarchies. For example, in one evaluation of Florida, she uses a list of Timucua caciques  (leaders) who attended the 1657 general assembly in San Pedro to assess Governor  Diego Robolledo’s desires for networking Spanish Florida. This Robolledo-centric version of Florida’s network places the Governor directly in the center, with the Timucua caciques on the periphery. In another figure, Dubcovsky reorders the same list to privilege inter-Timucua relations. The Timucua-centric table is far more complex than its Robolledo-centric cousin; it has no clear center, and incorporates more nodes and more connections. The point was to demonstrate how different participants in networks could re-envision the networks by reordering information and account for a rapidly changing world (3). It also serves as an interesting model of how historians working on networks might produce multiple meaningful interpretations from the same limited data.

Among Dubcovsky’s key contributions are both her discussion of intersections across empires (including Native American ones), and also her consideration of communications that occur outside of urban centers and European power structures. There have been some  very good studies  in recent years that take into account how the exchange of information helped to create spaces (83, 94). There has also been some important recent scholarship on networks.[2] The range and complexity of networks Dubcovsky discusses, and also her diversity of sources are a big part of what makes this book stand out. She also does a fine job of integrating native-dominated networks into a multi-imperial world.


[1] See, for example, Susannah Shaw Romney, New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). I reviewed O’Neill’s book last fall.

[2] Notably, Robert Paulette, An Empire of Small Spaces: Mapping the Southeastern Anglo-Indian Trade, 1732-1795 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Christian Ayne Crouch, Nobility Lost: French and Canadian Martial Cultures, Indians, and the End of New France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Heather Miyano Kopelson, Faithful Bodies: Performing Religion and Race in the Puritan Atlantic (New  York: New York University Press, 2014).

3 responses

  1. It’s too easy to forget that almost all of the human beings born in the last several hundred years haven’t had cell phones.
    This is a tempting review—Dubcovsky’s book is on my TO READ list as of now.
    Here’s a book to add to the bibliography:
    Katherine Grandjean’s American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England

  2. Pingback: Q&A with Alejandra Dubcovsky « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Junto March Madness 2017: Winner « The Junto


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