Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Madisonian Legacies

Several weeks ago there was a scholarly exchange on H-NET (the Humanities Network at Michigan State University) regarding the current obscurity of James Madison. One professor referred to Madison as one of the most "under-appreciated" members of the American Founding generation. Another observed that Madison, who was not only president but also the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, has no monument in Washington, D.C., appears on no coins or currency (except the long-retired $10,000 bill), and graces no best-selling biographies. Little remains of the fourth president, he remarked, except a small Midwestern state capital, a street in New York City, and a mermaid in an obscure comedy film.

Perhaps Americans have forgotten Madison's political accomplishments, and his presidency too (just as well, since it was a disaster), but we should note that his name has not been forgotten. On May 12th the Social Security Administration released its annual list of popular baby names for 2005, and I was pleased to note that Madison remains one of the most popular names for newborn girls in the United States -- No. 3 on the list, in fact. It has held that position since 2003, and was the second most popular name for baby girls in 2001-02. Why parents would name their female children for a short, neurasthenic male slave-owner from Virginia is something of a mystery, though I suspect it has something to do with the mermaid named Madison (played by Daryl Hannah) from the aforementioned 1984 film Splash. I do know, however, that if Thomas Jefferson were to come back to America twenty years from now, and see how many hundreds of thousands of young women were named for his friend and contemporary, he would be jealous.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part VII

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During the first half of the sixteenth century England was a minor maritime power, and few English sailors joined the French and Spanish effort to explore the Americas. One adventurer, though, played a small but significant part in the creation of a trans-Atlantic economy: in the early 1530s William Hawkins of Plymouth (1455-1554) made three voyages to Brazil and West Africa, and introduced the English to Brazilian hardwoods and African ivory. (His son, Admiral Sir John Hawkins, later inaugurated the English slave trade by selling 300 African slaves he had captured from Portuguese traders.) Hawkins returned from his second voyage to Brazil (1531) with a Brazilian "king," who apparently came willingly and became a prized guest at the court of Henry VIII. According to contemporary chroniclers, King Henry's courtiers were particularly impressed with the chief's pierced cheeks and with the great jewel mounted in his "nether lip." Hawkins probably wanted his guest to help inaugurate regular commerce between England and the native peoples of northeastern Brazil, but there's no evidence that the chief learned much English, and in any event he died during the return voyage in 1532. (Alden Vaughan, "Sir Walter Ralegh's Indian Interpreters," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 59 [April 2002], 344; Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000], 7-8.)

Hawkins's Brazilian king made such a splash that several Englishmen decided they could make a lot of money by kidnapping other Native Americans and putting them on display in London. In 1535-36 a company of wealthy gentlemen, headed by the merchant Thomas Hore, organized an expedition to America to seize human trophies. The adventurers hired the ships William and Trinity, sailed from London in April 1536, paused in Newfoundland to take on supplies, then sailed up the coast of Labrador in search of "savages." Finally they encountered a small party of Inuit or Beothuk hunters paddling out to meet their ship, but when the Englishmen attempted to capture the Americans their quarry escaped. The explorers later discovered that the Trinity had suffered so much ice damage that it had to be laid up for repairs. While these were underway the Englishmen ran out of food and some resorted to cannibalism.

Finally, Richard Hore and his followers hailed a French fishing vessel, which they managed to seize from its crew, and returned thereon to England. When the English explorers landed in Saint Ives in October 1536, they returned not in triumph but weak, hungry, disgraced, and empty-handed. Their failure chilled Englishmen's interest in exploring the Americas for another quarter-century. (Milton, op. cit., 9-15. See also Richard Hakluyt's account of the voyage, here.)

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part VI

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A year after Verrazzano completed his reconnaissance of the North American coast, another European explorer, Estevao Gomes -- a Portuguese mariner commanding a Spanish expedition -- retraced part of his route. In 1525 Gomes sailed up the coast of New England and ascended a waterway he called the Rio de Santa Maria, later known as the Penobscot River. At the head of navigation, near present-day Bangor, Gomes and his men encountered a large party of Penobscot Indians, some of whom the explorers enticed aboard their ship and captured. Like his Spanish contemporaries in the West Indies, or like the Corte-Reals a quarter-century earlier, Gomes hoped to make his expedition profitable by enslaving and selling Indians. He made the mistake, however, of bringing his Penobscot captives back to Spain, where royal and noble opinion had turned against Native American slavery.

Fifty-eight Penobscots survived the ocean crossing to La Coruna in the summer of 1525. When Gomes attempted to sell the captives to Spanish merchants, the Crown seized them, baptized them, nominally freed them, and turned them over to royal guardians. Some promoters of Spanish settlement trained three of the captives as translators, in case Spain should wish to colonize present-day Maine, but nothing came of this venture. The rest became their guardians' servants, not quite slaves but certainly not free to find their own employers or leave the country. It is unlikely any ever made it home. (David Quinn, North America, 160-162.)

The Verrazzano and Gomes expeditions proved to Europeans that North America was a large continent that extended continuously from the Tropics to the Arctic Circle. Yet European explorers continued to search for the elusive Northwest Passage, which some believed they could reach via the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1534 the French navigator Jacques Cartier, commanding three ships that carried enough provisions for a trip to China, sailed through the Strait and explored the coasts of western Newfoundland and eastern Labrador. He then crossed to Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe Peninsula, where he met several hundred Micmacs and Hurons who had come to the Bay of Chaleur to fish. Cartier and his men traded with the Indians and captured a Huron chief, Donnaconna, who had come to warn the Frenchmen off; they subsequently released Donnaconna but arranged to take two young Huron men, Domagaya (the chief's son) and Taignoagny, back to France to serve as translators. The explorers and their Indian companions (one might say hostages) returned to St. Malo that September.

By 1535 the two translators had learned enough French to provide Cartier with information about the Saint Lawrence River, which he ascended during his second voyage to America later that year. Domagaya and Taignoagny accompanied Cartier back to Canada on that expedition, during which the Frenchmen discovered and described the Iroquois town of Hochelaga (present-day Montreal), endured a cruel winter on the Saint Charles River, and succeeded in kidnapping Donnaconna and several of his kinsmen. The expeditionaries returned to France in July 1536, accompanied by the chief and the two former translators. (ibid, 169-181.)

Donnaconna remained in France and informed Cartier and the French court that the St. Lawrence Valley was rich in gold and gems, a story that inspired an unsuccessful French attempt to establish a colony in Canada in 1541. The chief himself died sometime between 1536 and 1540, and David Quinn suggests that he was killed by "good living." (181) There was certainly much of that in mid-16th-century France, where wages were high and food was ample; in 1560 a Norman squire reported that "In my father's time, we ate meat every day, dishes were abundant, we gulped down wine as if it were water." (quoted in Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume I: the Structures of Everyday Life [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992], 195.) It is also quite possible, however, that Donnaconna died of disease -- perhaps the plague, which recurred with distressing frequency in 16th-century France. (ibid, 84.)

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