The Sons of Raghnall: Clan and Crown

Although the “North Sea Empire” had referred to itself by that grandiose title since 1385, and had maintained outposts in the Faeroes and in the formal imperial capital at Edinburgh, it had not really had to grapple with the problems of an overseas empire until early in the sixteenth century. The mountainous and forested Scandinavian kingdoms that Gilpatrick and Trond had hammered into a reasonable facsimile of a united state were connected, it is true, by water – Baltic shipping remained the cheapest way of getting goods from Luleå to Narvik (!) as late as the twentieth century. Nonetheless they formed a natural geographic unit; the ocean united rather than dividing. This was not true of the North American settlements.

The MacRaghnall kings and jarls had spent a century and a half gathering the threads of power in Scandinavia into their own hands – one of their favoured methods being to send ambitious and skilled non-MacRaghnalls overseas. This safety valve worked well as long as the colonies were an unimportant fringe of scratched-out farms clinging to a frigid coast and fighting off raids by hostile natives. But as population pressures in Scandinavia mounted, the settlements pushed inland and native resistance faded. Almost without notice by the MacRaghnall court (indeed, they would hardly have allowed it to happen if they had noticed), a second center of power came to exist in what had been their nicely-centralised fiefdom: The lesser noble families – Ynglings, Guldvædders, Dunkelds, even a few remnant Stenkils – had, out of sight and out of mind, carved vast estates from the American wilderness, and now reaped the fruits of their labour. Timber for ships, grain and fish to feed burgeoning city populations, wool to clothe the poor and furs for the rich: There was no end to the wealth to be extracted from an enormous and unexploited continent, and with wealth – especially wealth at a distance from the imperial capital that might attempt to tax it, and defended at need by ruggedly independent colonial militias – came power.

Once they became aware of the problem, the MacRaghnalls were not slow to react; but, canny Scots that they were, they did not attempt – as another imperial power might have done – to impose their rule on their colonists by tightening their law in an effort to make clear who was top dog. (They were, in fact, sharply aware that the answer might, by 1580, turn out to be “not the MacRaghnalls”.) Instead, reasoning that three centres of power might be stable where two were bound to topple, the court at Edinburgh sharply relaxed the boundaries on the governorships, bureaucratic appointments, honours, sinecures, and other patronage that was still within its gift. Formerly these positions had gone to a fairly narrow circle of well-connected nobles or, at least, important landowners, mainly from the east coast. But, although native military resistance had essentially ceased with the Treaty of the Great Peace, the Huron – most especially, that faction of the tribe which descended from Norse prisoners adopted in the three Huron Wars – still formed a separate center of cultural and political allegiance within the colonies. This separate identity was a convenient nucleus on which the MacRaghnalls could build: After 1590, Huron sachems were showered with honours, culminating in the 1601 appointment of Tsongyatan, also called Bjørnar Geirrson, as governor of the Storvann (Great Lakes) region.

Huron culture accepted

This was the first time since 1509 that the Huron had had even so limited an autonomy as having their governor appointed (not elected!) from their own ranks; nor were they slow to demonstrate that they understood the MacRaghnall maneuver and were willing to go along. The Huron well knew that they were weak relative to the “settler jarls” – not a formal title, but an appellation earned by the largest landowners of the east coast through their independent ways and tendency to rule their estates (and the hinterlands of smallholding farmers that surrounded them) like feudal fiefdoms. They also well understood that the MacRaghnalls, although likely still commanding more raw resources than the whole of the colonies, were unable to project anything like their full force across the broad Atlantic, and therefore could not rule either Huron or settlers with the iron hand that either of those two factions might have wished to impose on the other. As the weaker party on the American continent, then, the Huron were natural allies of the court at Edinburgh; and conversely, the MacRaghnalls were a useful, even a necessary, lever for the Huron in protecting their remaining autonomy against the ever land-hungry settlers.

Aware that policies change, and that this year’s favoured faction might be next year’s stepping stools, Geirrson was quick to exploit his perhaps-temporary power to push a project dear to Huron hearts: The reunification of the Five Tribes. If it had to be under the Lion Rampant, so be it; a reunited Huron polity would, at any rate, have a better chance of holding its own against the settler jarls – even if the wind changed in Edinburgh – than was the case in 1600, with the Mohawk, Seneca, and Caygua living under Roman sovereignty. The Roman colonies in North America were something of an anomaly, a legacy of a brief conquering impulse in the early sixteenth century; but between the MacRaghnalls, busy with closer quarrels, and the settlers, happy to see their Indian rivals divided by a national border, the situation had persisted for almost a hundred years.

The Whiskey War, therefore, came about from a combination of several factors: The desire of the Huron to reunite their tribes within one national border, even if under a foreign sovereignty; the need of the MacRaghnalls for some project which would demonstrate their support for the native element in their colonies against the settler jarls, and ideally strengthen them as a bulwark against the independence of the latter; a need to justify the very expensive navy that had been built to defend the Atlantic trade routes against Great-Power attacks that proved very slow in coming; and, finally, plain moral indignation over the abuses that gave the war its name. One of the few successes of the Scandinavian Huron prior to the new deal had been to keep distilled liquors, by and large, out of their lands. But in the Roman colonies they had been helpless, and the settlers had made vast profits by distilling grain and potatoes into “firewater” and exchanging it for furs at exorbitant rates – a trade encouraged by the Roman authorities, such as they were, as keeping their native subjects quiet. The ill effects are too obvious to need enumerating; while the moral indignation the MacRaghnalls professed as their reason for intervening between the Basileus and his colonial subjects would not, perhaps, have pushed them into action on its own – after all, the whiskey trade had existed for many decades – it was, nonetheless, quite real.

A war that would reorder the balance of power in the colonies to better suit the MacRaghnalls; a war to add glory and territory to the empire; a war that could quite reasonably be viewed as being fought over a high moral principle; and a war that, above all, could be fought mainly by the navy, and at arms’ length – the Whiskey War was, in short, the perfect conflict for an Atlantic empire. Or so, at any rate, it seemed in 1603.

— From Clan and Crown: Internal Politics of the North Sea Empire from 1511 to the present
Chapter 3: The Tripod of the Seventeenth Century
Markus af Sortevala
(C) 1965, Stockholm University Press


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