David Center for the American Revolution Seminar: "'All Nature's Face, is dug, pitch'd up & tore': The Loyalist Environmental Imagination from Occupied New York City" with Blake McGready
Following the Seven Years’ War, colonial New Yorkers celebrated Britain’s imperial glory with a newfound delight in their environmental conquests and transformations. Statesmen boasted about the colony’s natural resource output, writers and artists used their pens and pallets to capture sublime scenery, and ordinary farmers prided themselves as part of a divinely authored agrarian tradition that had cultivated North America’s “wilderness.” The American Revolution, however, disrupted those environmental relationships and this improvement narrative.
As they crammed into the British headquarters in Manhattan, thousands of loyalist refugees strained the island’s ecological capacity and exhausted its urban and rural landscapes. According to these loyalists, the land had already been devastated by an unnecessary war that tore the empire’s environmental bounties asunder. Rebel soldiers, they argued, had shattered pastoral tranquility by confiscating crops, occupying farms, and making war in pastures. “The Rebels fly…And as they flee, they scour & spoil the Plain,” one Loyalist poet wrote of Continental soldiers in Brooklyn.1 Artists emphasized the ways warfare disrupted the environment by depicting battles raging through farmlands or illustrating the devastation of upper Manhattan’s forest canopy. Loyalists also fumed at Crown forces that cut orchards and woodlots, maimed and seized livestock, and polluted watercourses with rubbish and waste. “They were expert at plunder,” the loyalist judge Thomas Jones wrote of the occupying army, “…nothing escaped their hands, and in the course of six weeks not a lamb, nor a calf, a duck, not a goose, a turkey, a pig, nor a dunghill fowl, was to be seen in the town; nor a potato, a turnip, nor a cabbage, in the fields.” 2 The dramatic changes to greater New York City’s environs led loyalists to reject the rebel cause but also weakened their confidence in imperial power.
While historians have argued that the experience of occupation cost the British wartime support among loyal and neutral colonists, scholars have yet to examine how loyalists’ environmental relationships and assumptions shaped their responses to the Revolution. In their correspondence, treatises, essays, sketchbooks, petitions, and more, loyalists deputized the natural, nonhuman world to support their positions on the raging civil war. Some argued that Crown forces must crush the rebellion by targeting rebel agriculture, confiscating fuel, food, and forage from noncombatants, and enforcing martial control of urban resource management. Other loyalists argued that such harsh measures alienated civilians whose livelihoods depended on the land, needlessly impaired the city’s natural resource networks as well as its aesthetic virtues, and revealed Britain’s naiveté regarding the colonial environment. These different approaches to the environmental impositions of war generated divisions among Britain’s supporters. Transformations to New York City’s environment and intensifying contempt for North American nature splintered loyalists’ visions of imperial reunification.