Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here. 

For much of the seventeenth century, according to Alden Vaughan, few Native American travelers crossed the Atlantic Ocean to England. Such was also the case in France and Spain, two of the other principal colonial powers in the Americas. France had in the sixteenth century received Carijo princes, Guarani archers, Huron chiefs’ sons, and bewildered Miq'maqs, but in the 1600s Indian visitors fell off. Perhaps this overall decline resulted from the changing dynamics of European colonization. Once English and French adventurers had established relatively stable settlements in the Americas, they no longer needed to transport Indians as living promotional displays for colonial projects. Translators they could now train in America, either by bringing Native children to European outposts or placing European children with Indian families. And while Europeans would always want Indian slaves, they could now more profitably employ them on New World plantations, rather than pay to bring them into western Europe’s oversupplied labor market.

Granted, none of these rules held hard and fast. One of the first Indians to visit France in the seventeenth century, a Huron named Savignon, sailed to Honfleur to become a translator. Samuel de Champlain wanted him trained in the French language for the benefit of New France. The visit did not leave Savignon well-disposed toward his patrons. After his return home in 1611 he reportedly told his kinsmen that he had found Europeans’ practice of capital punishment and their maltreatment of beggars appalling. Meanwhile, Champlain had taken a preliminary step toward making such dangerous (for the Indians) oceanic transits unnecessary: he sent a French boy, probably future trader Etienne Brule, to live with a Huron family. Subsequently trade and intermarriage would make formal language training increasingly unnecessary for Quebec’s Indian neighbors. (Harald Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," 187; Denys Delage, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America [UBC Press, 1995], 126.) 

Traders did not constitute the only European interest group in New France, and one of the colony’s more well-connected groups of newcomers, Catholic missionaries, shipped additional Native travelers to France later in the century. In the 1620s the Church sent over Huron Louis Amontacha and Montagnais Pierre-Antoine Pastedechouan, and from 1635 to 1637 the Society of Jesus transported another seven Huron and Iroquois boys and girls for religious training. The Indian students would advertise the success of missionaries' efforts in New France and bolster Church and royal support for the mission. What the converts* thought of Europe is hard to determine, but most probably found it a crowded, hungry land full of sicknesses and strange smells. One girl either hated France or fell homesick, and demanded return passage to Canada. Her father insisted that she sail back to France and finish her education. Another student, Louise, decided to settle permanently with the Hospitalieres Religieuses in Dieppe. Not everyone was as disenchanted with the Old World as Savignon.(Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism, 218-20).

(Above image of the Chateau de Dieppe, in Louise's European hometown, courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Wikimedia Commons.)

* Given their Christian names, I assume the travelers had at least been baptized.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Pacific America and the Wider World before 1700

Scholars tend to take for granted the profound isolation of the pre-Columbian New World from the Old. After the last migrations across the Bering Strait, circa 1000 BCE, and apart from sporadic contact between the Norse and the Inuit after 1000 CE, the peoples of the Americas lived lives wholly separate from those of the rest of humanity. Or so we usually think. Actually, the corridor that ancestral Native Americans used to colonize the Western Hemisphere never completely closed. Rising sea levels inundated the Bering land bridge, but several groups of migrants (Athabascan, Inuit, Aleut) crossed the strait by boat, and no practical barrier subsequently prohibited other northeastern Asians from traveling to Alaska and points south, or prevented Native Americans from communicating with Siberia.

Archaeologists from Purdue University have now confirmed that cross-Bering communication did occur in the relatively recent past. H. Cory Cooper reports that Inuit of the Thule Culture buried artifacts of bronze, an alloy no New World culture ever produced, on Cape Espenberg, Alaska. The bronze artifacts were buried between 1200 and 1500 CE, but their creators made them much earlier, perhaps a thousand years earlier, in northern China. They passed hand to hand from their place of manufacture to eastern Siberia and America. The Thule Inuit incorporated the Chinese bronze wares into a toolkit that already included beaten-copper points, like fish hooks and needles. They surely recognized that the bronze beads and buckles they had received in trade were exotic, but did not consider metal itself foreign and weird. It is instead modern scholars who should consider these tools usefully strange: they prove that medieval-era Inuit were either trading with Native Siberian travelers or crossing into the Chukchi Peninsula to do so themselves.

An additional conduit that brought both metal wares and people to Pacific America has been known for some time, though I myself discovered it only recently in the notes to Paul Mapp's Elusive West (North Carolina, 2010). During the Tokugawa regime in Japan, when the shogunate prohibited nearly all foreign contact, a large (60-plus) number of coastal cargo ships lost their rudders or masts in storms and blew out to sea. The Kuroshio and North Pacific currents then carried them north or east to regions inhabited by Native Americans, but within the ambit of record-keeping Europeans. These ships had small crews and usually carried cargoes of rice and other foodstuffs, which allowed at least some of their crew members to survive long periods at sea if they could acquire (through rainfall) enough drinking water.

Charles Brooks studied over thirty of these "sea drifters" from the period 1600-1870. Half were rescued at sea by European mariners, but the others washed up on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and northwestern North America. Mike Dash, in a 2010 blog post on the storm-tossed Japanese mariners, provides some remarkable stories of Japanese sailors who peregrinated about the Atlantic and Pacific for years before finally returning home. It seems likely, however, that some of the sea drifters crossed the Pacific unrecorded by Europeans, leaving their bodies (live or dead) and the cargo and fittings of their ships in the hands of Aleutians, Tlingits, and other coastal Native American groups. Dash suspects that some of these crossings predate the start of Brooks's study in 1600.

Add to these discoveries the likelihood of contact between South America and Polynesia, evidenced by the westward spread of sweet potatoes, and we can see that there was a nascent "Pacific World" of sorts before the nineteenth century. While we generally consider Indian-European contact to have begun on the eastern coast of North America, it appears that, thanks to Inuit and Japanese and Polynesian mariners, pre-Columbian western North America was less isolated from the wider world than the Atlantic seaboard.

(Above image of Japanese junk via

Friday, September 09, 2016

Year of the Tie-Breaker

The United States, I am reliably informed, will hold presidential and Congressional elections this year. The strong partisan alignment of the American electorate, the archaic structure of the American Constitution, and the contingencies of judicial mortality and Senatorial retirement have all produced the possibility of a cascading series of stalemates that would resolve themselves in the most partisan fashion possible. This possibility is slight but real; I suggest it more as a nightmare than a prediction. But consider:

The presidential election, as we were all reminded in 2000, is resolved not by popular vote but by the Electoral College. The winning candidate, which will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, needs a majority of EC votes (270). There is, however, a slight chance that the electorate will hand each major-party candidate the same number of Electoral College votes: 269. This will occur, for instance, if Secretary Clinton carries almost all of the states won by John Kerry* in 2004 - CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA – plus CO (Democratic-leaning), NM (solidly Democratic since the GOP’s white-supremacist turn), NV (potentially Democratic for the same reason), and VA, but loses Scott Walker’s WI to Trump.

In the event of an Electoral-College tie, Amendment XII provides that the U.S. House of Representatives select the president from the top three EC vote-recipients. Each state's House delegation receives a single vote in this election. While it is impossible to predict the composition of the new House of Representatives, Republicans currently dominate 33 of the 50 state delegations, and I find it unlikely that this will dramatically shift in the 2016 election. The new House of Representatives, in the event of an Electoral College tie, would almost certainly award the presidency to Donald Trump.

Democrats would, however, face an interesting scenario if they won a majority, or even a 50-50 split, in the U.S. Senate. A large number of Republican Senators are defending seats this year, and the GOP only has one likely pickup in that chamber (the seat of retiring NV Senator Harry Reid). Assuming the Democrats only lose the NV seat and pick up at least five Senate seats formerly held by Republicans, they would control the Senate during the organizational votes in early January 2017. (In case of a 50-50 split in the Senate, the Vice-President breaks ties; until 20 January that will be Joe Biden.) Democratic Senators could potentially, in case of an EC tie, elect Tim Kaine as Vice President. I think, however, that Republican Senators would probably refuse to show up for that vote altogether, and the Twelfth Amendment requires a two-thirds quorum (67 Senators) for a vice-presidential election. I am also fairly certain that our news media would blame Democrats for the ensuing vacancy (“Trump deserves his own VP choice!” “Trump/Pence carried 28 states!” etc.), and that enough Dems would break party ranks to make Mike Pence vice-president. I think they would do so even if this effectively handed control of the Senate chamber to the Republicans (50-50 split plus Pence’s vote). Perhaps the GOP would offer them some committee chairs and one or two of the nicer offices in the Senate Office Buildings in exchange for their treachery "reasonableness."

This brings me to a third stalemate: the one that has emerged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia’s death earlier this year has given progressive Americans the hope of replacing him with a more liberal justice, and beginning to reverse the anti-labor, pro-corporate, authoritarian** agenda that the Court has pursued for over thirty years. The GOP-dominated Senate, however, has refused to allow President Obama to replace him, and a GOP-controlled Senate would almost certainly insist on allowing President Trump to replace Scalia with a like-minded (i.e. male, ultra-conservative, and a member of Opus Dei) jurist as soon as possible. A Democratic-controlled Senate might emulate Mitch McConnell and refuse to allow a vote on a Trump appointee, but a Senate split 50-50 with a Republican VP to break ties would almost certainly approve that appointee, and prohibit filibusters if the Dems tried one (just as the Democrats did with other court appointments in 2013).

Thus, a president chosen by the House of Representatives after a tie in the Electoral College could conceivably break a 4-4 tie between liberal and reactionary justices in the Supreme Court by appointing a justice with the consent of an evenly-split Senate whose president (the VP) would serve as tie-breaker. Isn’t that fun?

Fortunately, my Election Day predictions never come true, so I figured that I might as well come up with a crazy one. But maybe it’s not completely crazy. I don’t think an Electoral College tie is impossible, we’ve seen a 50-50 Senate split within the recent past (2000-01), and the Supreme Court is currently divided. And one of the two principal political parties in the United States is dedicated to the proposition that the federal government should not function unless it is completely in their control, so it easy enough to see them wriggling through any Constitutional rathole, or series of ratholes, that would let them take all three branches at once.

* An otherwise-weak candidate who carried all those states through sheer partisan loyalty – that, and widespread hatred of the incumbent.

** Giving the Devil his due, Scalia was notably anti-authoritarian when it came to upholding the Fourth Amendment.

(Image above via

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Seventies Sucked Everywhere

Including Newfoundland, it seems, though less because of economic depression (that came later) than because the island's inhabitants remained isolated and what they received of contemporary popular culture was sad and shabby. From the National Geographic*:

"In many an outport I found one establishment emblazoned 'General Store and Entertainments.'" (This should give you a good idea of what the author was in for.) In "prosperous" fishing communities, the Entertainments "consisted of a pool table and a jukebox; if not, they consisted of a couple of pinball machines." I imagine at least one of these didn't work. The other was emblazoned with clowns. Sad clowns.

Moreover, "in only two outports did I find a movie house, each of them showing a ten-year-old movie on a screen of wrinkled canvas silvered with blotchy radiator paint." The author doesn't say, but I'll bet the movie was the original Ocean's Eleven (1960). A tedious film in the best of circumstances, despite its partial redemption by Sammy Davis Jr.'s singing.

For more provincial fare, Newfoundland residents had access to TV broadcasts from all three of the island's principal towns. And "for a more riotous social life, an outport may stage an occasional net-knitting contest, while fairs may feature competitions in fish cleaning." It almost makes Indiana sound cosmopolitan by comparison. Almost.

* G. Jennings, "Newfoundland Trusts in the Sea," Jan. 1974.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The A-Number-One President

I've remarked elsewhere on my fondness for the cult movie Escape from New York (1981), and a recent viewing of the film with my petite amie, along with an email conversation with my brother regarding the director's commentary (which is quite good), got me thinking about what still makes the film compelling. There are many answers to that question, one of which is “first-rate acting.” Adrienne Barbeau turned a throwaway part into a major character; Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, and Harry Dean Stanton showed off their decades of acting experience; Isaac Hayes brought just the right amount of eye-twitching menace to the big villain's part; Kurt Russell, fading teen-movie star, transformed himself into an action hero; and Donald Pleasence played a surprisingly convincing president.* Pleasence's chief executive was one part ineffectual cipher, a blend of Nixon's charisma with Carter's effectiveness, and one part fraying victim-turned-madman, a manifestation of Pleasence's own experience as a POW in the Second World War. I think I would prefer either part to one of the major-party candidates running for president this year. So herewith I offer:

Reasons why The President in Escape from New York was a better president than Donald Trump would be:

1) Had a better hairpiece

2) Showed respect for his social betters (dukes, etc.)

3) Personal jetliner had more modest escape pod

4) At least minimal respect for those who died for their country

5) Able to pray convincingly

6) Understood that tritium creates only one one-millionth of the biological damage of iodine-131

7) Gave useful counter-terrorism advice to member of Ford family

8) Did not insult Native Americans, even when fighting them

9) Maintained a decorous distance from the Russians

10) Didn't need an escalator – could run down fifty flights of stairs.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can Historians Contribute to Society?

A few weeks ago Patrick Johnson, vice-chancellor of Queens University in Belfast, expressed what I suspect is a view of history commonly held by Euro-American elites: “Society doesn't need a 21-year-old who is a sixth-century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyze things, [and] understands...contributing to society.” He then announced the creation of an Office of Analyzing Things and Contributing to Society, and the appointment of a deputy vice-chancellor, two deans, and seven assistant deans to manage it. I'm kidding. (Sort of.)

In response to Johnson's remarks, Professor Jonathan Healey wrote an engaging defense of the formal study of history, which I commend to my readers' attention, Briefly, Healey noted that social leaders like to use historical examples to justify themselves, so society needs good history students to serve as fact-checkers; the general public loves a good story, and historians can provide content to the museums and script-writers who furnish the public with its history; the weirdness of the past obliges students to develop their analytical skills in order to study it; and that very weirdness reminds us that societies do change over time, and that our modern values and hierarchies are contingent and mutable.

Healey's clear, elegant essay makes a nice complement to Timothy Burke's 2008 HNN piece on the purposes of historical analysis. Using Burke's article, I would add that history also helps 21-year-olds more fully understand long-term processes, like human-induced environmental change, that have ongoing consequences in the twenty-first century. It lets us appreciate the importance of individuals in society, particularly obscure characters (like George Robert Twelves Hughes or Domenico Menocchio Scandella) whose lives and thoughts tell us more about the lived experience of an era than those of a Napoleon. Finally, history teaches humility, as students learn that they are not the only generation and that persons in the deep past have solved complicated problems without help from their descendants.

I suspect academic administrators, politicians, and other elites don't want ordinary college students to develop these skills. They want round pegs for round holes, not challengers of the status quo. But, as Healey points out – and as everyone over the age of 35 could attest – the status quo is fragile and as subject to change as any other human construct. We need people who appreciate this fact, who have studied change over time and who have the intellectual flexibility to respond to it. Their willingness to say this explains why history professors are almost never invited to speak at university commencements. It's just as well. 

(Above image, "Clio, the Muse of History," by Giovanni Baglione, is in the public domain.)

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Revolutionary Monarch

I think many Americans assume that autocratic states rest exclusively on fear, that subjects of a repressive dictator or oligarchy obey only because they and their families will otherwise suffer terrible punishment. Those familiar with the history of monarchies recognize, however, that dictatorships (hereditary or otherwise) also rest on a kind of popular magical thinking, a widespread belief that supreme rulers have powers superior to those of mere mortals. Only a few centuries have passed since Britons believed their sovereign's touch could cure scrofula; only a few decades since Japan was ruled by an actual deity; and only a few years since North Koreans paid their final tribute to Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, whose sacred birth was attended by supernatural omens.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1992), James Scott observes that this tendency to ascribe super-human traits or virtues to monarchs certainly applied to imperial Russia. He quotes Lenin's contempt for Russian peasants' superstitious monarchism, their tendency “naively and blindly to believe in the Tsar-batiushka [Deliverer]” and petition him for redress (p. 97). Accompanying their faith in the Tsar-Deliverer, however, was the peasantry's complementary belief that any evils done in the tsar's name were actually the work of corrupt officials. Peasants could resist those officials while retaining their loyalty to the tsar, confident that “if the tsar only knew of the crimes his faithless agents committed in his name, he would punish them and rectify matters.” The apparently reactionary worship of a semi-divine monarch could lead to insurrectionary, even revolutionary action.

A similar dynamic drove the decade of colonial uprisings preceding the War for American Independence. Opponents of the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the military occupation of Boston, the Tea Act, and the Coercive Acts assumed (or persuaded themselves) that these impositions came not from the king but from a corrupt Parliament. His Majesty was good and patriotic, but in the colonies, away from his watchful eye, his evil ministers tried to plant their boots on freeborn English colonists' backs. Thus Patrick Henry, denouncing the Stamp Act, simultaneously pledged to defend George III to his dying breath. Sons of Liberty settling in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley gave their new townships such patriotic names as Hanover (after Britain's ruling dynasty) and Kingston. New Yorkers erected an equestrian statue of the king in 1771, well into the imperial crisis. As late as 1775, the American rebels referred to the British forces fighting them in Boston as “the ministerial army,” not the king's army.

Brendan McConville pointed out (The King's Three Faces, 2006) that American monarchism had not come over in the Mayflower, bur rather had been built by colonial and imperial elites. By putting royal images in their homes (on tea sets and objets d'art), celebrating royal birthdays, and burning the king's enemies in effigy on Pope's Day, the leaders of colonial society imbued their followers with affection for a distant and artificial* British monarchy. The colonists, however, viewed the king much as Russian peasants viewed the tsar: a benevolent father-figure who would right the wrongs perpetrated by aristocrats and officials. Rebellious slaves, for instance, invoked the king's aid against their masters, and rebellious white colonists considered their resistance to tax collectors and soldiers entirely consistent with loyalty to the king.

The big change, as Pauline Maier reported (American Scripture, 1997), came in early 1776, when colonial newspapers finally reported that George III had declared the colonies in rebellion and withdrawn his royal protection. The king had now publically proclaimed himself the colonists' enemy. Common Sense, published at the same time, made it safe to discuss the superstitious absurdities that underlay devotion to a monarch, and the Declaration of Independence pointedly indicted the king (not the Parliament) for abuse of power. Later in the War of Independence, the new loyalty oaths that the rebels forced upon former royalists helped dissolve the bonds of duty that still bound many to the Hanoverians. Yet the desire to follow or at least show affection for a monarch persisted in the United States into at least the 1780s – for I agree with Forrest McDonald's argument (Novus Ordo Seclorum, 1985) that residual king-worship explains Americans' celebration of the French royal family and their naming of towns and counties for the Bourbons. Arguably, it took the “party war” of the 1790s, in which “monocrat” became a deadly epithet, and the rise of a post-Revolutionary generation to bury American monarchism for good. Until the early nineteenth century, monarchism was as American as corn cakes or witchcraft trials.

So, Happy Independence Day, and God Save the Queen.

* The Hanoverian dynasty was essentially imposed on Britain by act of Parliament, and its first two rulers didn't speak English particularly well.