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4: Late Colonial Encounters- The New World, Africa, Asia, and Europe, 1735-1797

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    THIS CHAPTER IS ABOUT colonial culture at its zenith, before the American colonies became a nation. It is also about early consumerism. During the second half of the eighteenth century, patterns of consumption in the colonies changed dramatically. European Americans especially of the upper classes-developed increasingly sophisticated tastes. They supplemented locally made products with more expensive imported items. Rather than drink cider made from local apples in wooden cups or pewter tankards they preferred to sip imported tea from a delicate cup of Chinese origin, poured from a teapot made of Mexican silver. This preference for "high end" items suggests the ways colonists shifted gears over the course of the eighteenth century: they developed a new taste for luxury objects, dependent on international commerce.

    Life in colonial America was increasingly saturated with objects from elsewhere. Imported items were adapted for domestic needs, and foreign goods were imitated in local materials. These combinations yielded objects that were sometimes new, sometimes traditional, and always expressive of cultural change and adaptation.

    We examine this pattern of contact and exchange-and the new types of art that it produced-through a variety of lenses. We look first at the world of Africans and those of African descent in North America. Despite enslavement, Africans carried memories of their homeland with them. They blended African forms, objects, and architecture with New World materials. At the same time that African Americans were adapting to their changed circumstances, European Americans were planting their feet ever more firmly on North American soil. As they did so, they kept a steady gaze over their shoulders at developments across the ocean. In the Southwest, Spanish-speaking populations looked south to Mexico as they adapted past forms to present conditions. What they found-or remembered-drew on even older traditions of Muslim-European contact in late-medieval Spain. This, then, is our story: the memory of African customs and artifacts among enslaved and free blacks; the remarkable marriage of Catholic, Muslim, and Native American traditions across the Spanish Southwest; and the centrality of global trade and European fashion among colonists up and down the eastern seaboard. It is a tale first about slavery (how a global export market depended upon a labor-intensive economy); then about taste (how trade allowed for ever greater levels of "refinement" among colonial elites); and finally about class (how new social divisions fueled higher levels of consumption).

    Thumbnail: San Xavier de! Bae, near Tucson, Arizona, J783-97.

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