Monday, October 13, 2014

1592 and All That

By 1592, a century after Columbus’s first voyage and nine decades after his death, Spain had created an empire as vast and ruthless as the Mongols’. Spanish officials and soldiers ruled much of the Western Hemisphere, from Florida to Peru, and Spain’s banners flew over much of western Europe as well. By then, too, Spain’s imperium was beginning to suffer from imperial overstretch: King Felipe II’s finances were deteriorating, his New World subjects were dying en masse from smallpox and enslavement, and Dutch rebels and English heretics preyed on his European provinces and American treasure ships. It was in this context that the engraver Theodore de Bry published one of the more influential visual representations of Columbus’ “discovery.”

De Bry (1528-1598) made the picture for a series of illustrated volumes on the European voyages of discovery. It shows a well-dressed Columbus, accompanied by soldiers, encountering a party of Indians, who present him with gifts of jewelry. To one side several Europeans erect a cross, legitimizing the Spanish conquest, while in the background other Indians flee from other disembarking explorers.

I learned of this engraving from a recent article by Michiel van Groesen, who notes that De Bry’s engraving established an iconic image of Columbus’s landing that recurred in European illustrations throughout the eighteenth century. Van Groesen suggests that De Bry wanted an illustration that appealed to Europeans’ superiority complex, emphasizing their material culture (clothes, weapons, ships) as well as their more confident bearing and Christian faith. At the same time, though, De Bry had a less-than-favorable view of the Spanish, having been driven from his native Liege for practicing a faith (Calvinism) that Spain considered heretical. Hence, there are at least a few subversive elements in the picture: some of the Indians are clearly frightened by the intruders, and their offering of gold reminds viewers of Spain’s greed. Since De Bry was publishing his books for Europeans of all confessions and nations (so long as they could read Latin), he didn’t want to alienate Spanish or Catholic readers, but there is at least a whiff of the “Black Legend”* in this ostensibly celebratory engraving. 

* Introduced by the reformed encomendero and slave-owner Bartolome de Las Casas, whose accounts of Spanish cruelty in the Caribbean De Bry covered and illustrated in his series.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Giving Currency to Native American Women

Indian Country Today has proposed removing Andrew Jackson from the 20-dollar bill, on the grounds that Americans should not so honor an Indian hater and genocidaire, and replacing him with a Native American leader. Though I believe many other people deserve the blame for Indian Removal, I have no brief for Jackson and no problem finding new heroes for our national currency. I do, however, find ICT's list of suggested replacements a bit dispiriting, even stereotypical: ten Indian men, mostly from the West, nearly all of them war leaders. Perhaps the authors were looking for well-known people and figured most readers could not identify Native women or civil leaders, but there is something to be said for using currency to popularize less well-known leaders who nonetheless reflect useful virtues: endurance, business acumen, organizational ability, political activism, and artistic virtuosity. To this end, let me propose the following substitutes:

Matoaka, alias Rebecca Rolfe, alias Pocahontas. Powhatan chief's daughter, endured captivity under the English, converted to Christianity, and became a diplomat and traveler – one of the first Native Virginians to visit London.

Weetamoo, or Wettimore, Wampanoag sachem, wife of sachem Quannopin, co-leader of the insurgency known as King Phillip's War (1675-77). Captive Mary Rowlandson described her as haughty but a snappy dresser, which, given Rowlandson's Puritan worldview, is probably an exaggeration.

Nonhelema, or Catherine Grenadio, Shawnee businesswoman who provided intelligence to the Americans during the Revolutionary War, sold cattle to the Continental Army, and attended the Fort McIntosh (1785) treaty council.

Gertrude Bonnin, alias Zitkala-Sa, Sioux activist who attended Earlham College, taught at Carlisle Industrial Training School, later proponent of cultural preservation and organizer of the National Council of American Indians.

Maria Martinez, Pueblo ceramicist who rediscovered the thin-walled, shiny black pottery-making technique for which Pueblo potters would become famous.

Wilma Mankiller, author, Alcatraz occupier, and first female principal chief of the western Cherokee Nation.

Mildred Loving, Rappahannock woman, identified as black under Virginia law, who became one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case Loving versus Virginia (1967), legalizing interracial marriage. Putting her on American currency would cause Sean Hannity's head to explode.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Hostage Situation

Those familiar with U.S. Indian policy know that few elements of it have generated as much controversy as education. Until recently, schools for Native Americans were almost exclusively run by whites, who sought to turn Indian children into Anglo children. Boarding schools like Carlisle Indian School, with their uniforms and short haircuts, their military-style drill and ban on Native languages, sought, in the words of Carlisle's founder, to “kill the Indian and save the man" - the normative man being, in this case, a white one. Earlier missionary-run academies had similar goals, though they pursued them without the same level of military discipline. Only a few Indian nations, like the Cherokees, maintained control over their own educational system prior to the late twentieth century.

The early years of American Indian educational policy have received less attention from scholars, though Margaret Szasz has written thoughtful monographs on colonial Indian education, Bernard Sheehan and William McLoughlin have noted the obvious cultural imperialism in early nineteenth-century “civilization” policy, and Christina Snyder is completing what will surely be an exciting and thought-provoking study of Richard Johnson's Choctaw Academy. Here I want to add just a small observation on the earliest years of U.S. Indian schooling, more specifically the era of the American Revolution and the quarter-century following it: even before it began paying missionaries to set up Indian schools, the federal government had been placing Native American leaders' sons with white families who took charge of their education. During the Revolutionary War Congress paid Indian agent George Morgan to board and train the sons of prominent Delaware chief White Eyes, and in the early 1790s Secretary of War Henry Knox placed about twenty Iroquois, Creek, and Cherokee children with Pennsylvanian Quaker families, who agreed to train the boys as farmers and the girls in home economics. While I have not been able to determine if all of these children came from prominent families, at least a few of them, including the nephews of Creek "Beloved Man" Alexander McGillivray, did. Knox's successors continued the practice into the early nineteenth century, when Secretary Dearborn, for instance, took charge of educating the sons of Chickasaw magnates William and George Colbert.

I want to suggest here that this policy grew not out of cultural imperialism (though there was some of that), nor benevolence, but rather out of an old imperial custom: taking the children of conquered peoples' leaders as hostages. Education allowed empires to impress their customs and values on those who would eventually grow up to govern subordinate nations, and it also gave them an excuse to hold children whose vulnerability would deter their parents from rebelling. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, the Assyrians took “aristocratic children” from conquered provinces to Ninevah for schooling, and the Romans and Byzantines educated elite youths, like Herod Agrippa (well known to fans of I, Claudius) and the Gothic princeling Theodoric*, in their capitals. I suspect medieval courts followed the Roman example, and when the English began colonizing Ireland in earnest, they on at least one occasion (1615) took hostages from the children of northern Irish landowners and brought them to England for indoctrination. The American Revolutionaries recognized the political value of the practice, and when the United States' demands for adult hostages from the Great Lakes Indians (1784-86) generated hostility, officials like Henry Knox switched to a subtler approach. The War Department never acknowledged it was essentially holding chiefs' children as hostages, but a Spanish observer in New York City suggested Knox was doing something of the kind when he took custody of Alexander McGillivray's nephews.

By the early nineteenth century missionaries were beginning to establish schools in Indian communities – at Springplace in the Cherokee nation, for example – and the War Department provided these schools with subsidies, at first sporadically and then to the amount of $10,000 a year under the Civilization Act (1819). I suspect that prominent Native American parents supported these schools because they taught some skills, like textile-making and English literacy, that they considered valuable. They also gave them more control over their children, whom they could more easily bring home than if they had moved to Pennsylvania. I also suspect many had come to recognize the implicit danger in allowing federal officials to take their children away, however willingly, for education and training, though some allowed their older children to attend boarding schools like Choctaw Academy and the ABCFM's Foreign Mission School. If the War Department no longer placed Indian children with white families in the east, it was because officials recognized the United States' growing power lessened the need for hostage taking, and because they now primarily valued the cultural-imperialist aspect of education. The militarized boarding-school era lay several decades in the future, but one could by the 1820s begin to perceive its outlines.     

Sources: On Assyrian, Byzantine, and English education of hostages, see Simo Parpola, “Assyria's Expansion in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries and Its Long-Term Repercussion in the West,” in William Dever and Seymour Gitlin, eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past (Eisenbrauns, 2003), 99-111, esp. 101-102**; Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford UP, 2014), 471-475 of 9215 (Kindle); Tim Harris, Rebellion: Britain's First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642 (Oxford, 2014), p. 163. I discuss Knox's placement of Indian children with Quaker families in Red Gentlemen and White Savages (Virginia, 2008), pp. 122-123, 178. For the War Department's education of the Colbert brothers' children see Henry Dearborn to William Claiborne, 6 Dec. 1802, and Dearborn to George Colbert of 24 Sept. 1805 and 17 Sept. 1807, all in War Department, Letters Sent, Indian Affairs (Washington, DC: Natl. Archives Microfilm M-15), 1: 297, 2:110-111, and 2:307. Rowena McClinton has translated and published two volumes of diaries on the Moravian mission and school at Springplace: The Moravian Springplace Mission to the Cherokees (Nebraska, 2007).

* Theodoric's case also suggests one of the dangers of educating potential enemies: they might acquire technical skills that make them a potent threat in the future. As an adult Theodoric returned to Constantinople with an army and threatened the city's aqueducts, whose importance he had learned during his “internship.” The emperor became so eager to get rid of him that the Byzantines cleared the way for Theodoric to invade Italy and establish his kingdom there. (Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, 985 of 9215.)

** My thanks to Corinna Nichols for this source.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploiting the Chickasaw Working Class

Many of my readers know that the wheels of academic writing and publishing grind slowly, but they can grind exceedingly fine. I began work on my book on the U.S. Indian factories, “Engines of Diplomacy” (now under contract with University of North Carolina Press) in the spring of 2004, and am just now completing one of the last (I hope) sets of revisions to the manuscript. One advantage of such a long period of research, writing, and revision is that an author can replace earlier, shallower analyses with much more mature insights long before the book goes to press.

To take one example that has just come to hand: in a section on the trading factory at Chickasaw Bluffs (modern Memphis), I decided to use the post's price records to estimate the approximate compensation of an early-nineteenth-century Chickasaw hunter, measured in dollars and in manufactured goods. I determined that a skilled hunter could make between $25 and $50 per season if he caught between 50 and 100 deer, a realistic estimate according to Kathryn Braund's Deerskins & Duffels (Nebraska, 1993). Perhaps he might make a bit more if he also caught smaller animals like raccoons, whose furs made good hats. I then calculated what this could buy at C.B. Factory: 25-50 pounds of gunpowder (with about 10 shots per pound), 50-100 yards (a few bolts) of muslin or calico cloth, 50-100 tin quart cups, or a couple of hundred small broaches.

This seemed impressive to me when I first wrote this particular chapter in 2005, but I realize now that these were the entire returns of 3-4 months' labor for a hunter and additional work by his female relatives – Indian women accompanied hunting parties to feed their kinsmen and dress their furs and skins. To put it another way, Chickasaws earned no more than half a dollar a day from the federal trading factory for their labor as hunters and skin processors. And factory merchandise prices, while lower than those offered by private competitors, still equaled 150% or more of the prices charged by vendors in Philadelphia, which reduced hunters' wages still further. Small wonder that Chickasaws, like Indians elsewhere in North America, racked up large trading debts. My acknowledgment of the inequities of Indians' compensation, which derived from recent years' reflection on economic inequality in modern America (courtesy of David Graeber and Occupy), allowed me to replace this vague and spineless phrase from my original draft:

“As was commonly the case in the fur trade, the Chickasaws' demand for goods outstripped their ability to pay for merchandise in kind”

with what I consider a more nuanced, and accurate one:

“As returns from hunters' labor remained low, the Chickasaws' demand for trade goods outstripped their ability to pay”

and then discuss that nation's rising debts to both the federal factory and private traders. In my first draft of this chapter I assumed Chickasaws' indebtedness just sort of happened, and implied that their own profligacy may have been to blame. Now I can see that it came from the systematic underpayment of workers in an extractive industry. Granted, other scholars, like Claudio Saunt, made this point over a decade ago, but sometimes it takes a little thought and a little engagement with the real world to catch up with better minds.

(Above images, of an unshaved deerskin and HBC-style point blankets, are from Wikimedia Commons, the latter courtesy of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Battle of Actium

Courtesy of my talented sister Corinna Nichols, a student of ancient Near Eastern languages (and, in a previous life, of Greek and Latin), I am pleased to present a short poem on the Battle of Actium, a familiar subject to fans of Roman history and anyone who made it at least 15 minutes into I, Claudius:


The battle for the Roman world
Came down to boy meets boy meets girl:
Antonius, Caesar’s magister,
Was mired in a love affair
With Cleopatra Philopater
(Who also was his children’s mater).

He picked a very foolish fight--
In truth he wasn’t very bright.
He challenged young Octavian
Agrippa, and his navy and
Then with his queen began a battle
With ships stuffed full of sails and chattel.

Thus the once-triumvirate
Their ships with weapons aristate (1),
Met and clashed in mighty fracas
Rome v. posse comitatus,
Led by M. Vipsan. Agrippa
Naval whiz and valiant skipper.

For Cleo and Marc Antony
There would be no amnesty;
In manner most Shakespearian
(Some would say, ophidian)
They shuffled off their mortal coils
Leaving Rome with all the spoils.

Octavian had won the Nile,
Its grain, its every crocodile;
And though the war was slightly civil
No one raised the smallest cavil
Octavian, in fact of matter
Was made a triple triumphator.

And so that day at Actium
Augustus won imperium.
Like a less depressed Aeneas,
(Devoid of any thought impious)
He gave the world the Pax Romana
In truth, Memento Augustana (2).

For more of the learned Mme. Nichols's work, check out her blog, Of a Number of Things.

(1) Bristling. No, I'd never heard it before, either.
(2) Author's note: accusative neuter plural, in case you were wondering.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bruges Welcomes You, Provided You Don't Wear Grey

In the Monty Python song “Finland,” Michael Palin referred to that luminous and chilly country as “A poor second to Belgium / When go-ing abroad.” If this is actually true, I suspect Belgium's possession of the city of Bruges has much to do with its comparative attractiveness. Recently, your humble narrator was lucky enough to visit this medieval port and UNESCO World Heritage site, in the company of my petite amie and some of the three million tourists who descend on Bruges each year. I of course enjoyed the city's well-known charms: its gabled and brightly-painted houses, the narrow canals and the swans that nest by some of them, the cool green isolation of the Minnewater, the beautiful Church of Our Lady, the looming Belfry containing Bruges' medieval charter, and the Groeninge Museum, with works by Van Eyck and Bosch and James Ensor. Somehow I avoided sampling any Belgian chocolate, a peculiar omission given that every other store in Bruges is a chocolate shop. My gustatory adventures I limited to trying a glass of local lager, which was palatable enough, and a plate of spaghetti bolognese, which was filling. The local specialty is moules frites – fried mussels – but I suspect many tourists choose to dine on Belgian waffles instead.

Bruges's story is a typical one in our post-industrial age, though the city went through its stages of decline and revival much earlier than most. It was a medieval cloth-making center whose merchants steadily built up their capital and connections between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. By the late medieval era the port had become a leading destination for ships from Italy and the Hanseatic cities, and by the 1400s its merchants had acquired so much wealth and influence that, according to Fernand Braudel, Bruges and London and Venice formed an axis of commercial power dominating western Europe. Bruges suffered, however, from two geographical problems: the river connecting it to the North Sea had silted up by the late Middle Ages, and the city lay within the domain of the Duke of Burgundy, whose principality fell into civil disorder in the late fifteenth century. Political turmoil allowed the merchants of nearby Antwerp, which had greater political stability and a better harbor, to grab Bruges' trade after 1500, just as northern Europe began to benefit from commerce with the Americas and Africa. (Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century [Harper & Row, 1984], 99-101, 124, 143-44.)

Local investors tried to turn Bruges into a lace-making center in the seventeenth century, and lace remains a prized souvenir for tourists (imported though it now is from southeast Asia), but the economy remained depressed into the 1800s. It was during that era of commodified nostalgia that European and American travelers discovered Bruges, its medieval buildings untouched by industrialization, and helped reinvent it as a tourist destination. Not all foreign sojourners came with good intentions, however. During the First World War, when Germany occupied Belgium, the German Army impressed laborers from Bruges and other cities. The German Navy built a U-boat base in Bruges, presumably because its inland location made it less vulnerable to shore bombardment, and opened a canal connecting the base to the North Sea. In 1916 the Germans brought the captured Captain Charles Fryatt, whom they had condemned for piracy after he rammed a U-boat the previous year, to Bruges and shot him. (Larry Zuckerman, The Rape of Belgium [NYU Press, 2004], 158, 171-72.) During the Second World War the Germans returned and, as the film The Monuments Men recounts, tried to plunder the city of some of its artistic treasures. Time and a couple of hundred million tourists have no doubt effaced most of these memories, but I wouldn't want to venture into Bruges speaking only German.


(Images above are of the Minnewater, with the Sashuis [Guard House] in the distance; the Memling Museum; and the Belfry, a familiar landmark to viewers of the film In Bruges.)