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Conversations with America: Conquest and Contact Populations

Updated on April 19, 2011

More on American Indians and Colonial Englishmen

Before the Revolutionary War, the New World was governed in the interests of the Old, and it was this that, beyond the rhetoric and conjuration of a republic the like of which had never before existed, common to independence movements in the New World, including that of the English colonies, that the Revolutionary War was about.  Independence was about escaping the Mother Country after a period of increasing divergence from it.  The colonials no longer felt themselves well-served by distant dynasties framing their laws and policies that failed to satisfy local interests and ambitions.

The early English settlers needed England.  The settlers were few and the wilderness, occupied by intransigent natives, was disturbed.  There was little colonial industry to provide desired goods.  The wealth of the North American colonies was not built of gold and silver mines, but of commercial activity, shipping and tobacco.  It was a wealth of the market, dominated by a British monarchy and Parliament that thought the proper role of the colonies was to enrich the people at home.  Religious and political refugees provided the colonies with colorful personalities, to be sure, but these men were not the makers of revolution. The leaders of the American Revolution were businessmen, even the Virginia gentry who made such a fetish of the gentleman.

In addressing the Native Americans, colonists responded to local incidents with hostage-taking, crop destruction, and massacre.  The natives responded with guerilla tactics and massacres.  Both were indiscriminate in who amongst the enemy population was massacred.  Massacre is a thing of categories, not persons, and so during this land and culture war membership in the enemy population--being a savage or being a settler--was sufficient for inclusion as a target.  As is usual in such cases, women and children in the most exposed areas paid for the sins of the soldiery and the governing men.  Friendly natives were punished for the insults and attacks of the unfriendly.  Local causes became imperial enterprises, as in King Philip's War, under more or less spurious justifications.

Explanations of the English colonial failure to intermarry and incorporate Indians into meaningful relationships with the settlements tend to separate English colonial actions from Spanish colonial actions by focusing on the presence of suitable English marriage partners and family migrations.  Such explanations are, I think, insufficient.  Early settlers were overwhelmingly male, and Pocahantas's life story is but one example, although a very well-known one, of marriage across cultural boundaries.  Settlers went native and either joined the tribes or imported Indian ways into settled communities.  Other factors were clearly involved in the continued hostility between the settlers and the Indians.

Perhaps one key to probing this problem lies in the different methods of English, Spanish, and French settlement.  It may lie in the difference between a contact population of natives and a conquered one.  The Spanish came to conquer.  They did not imagine an unpopulated wild space, but a realm of peoples to control through their armed men, the private entrepreneur-soldiers known as the conquistadors, and to convert to the true religion through the activities of their priests.  As slave laborers, subject peoples, objects of derision and of civilizing efforts, the Spanish project included a place for the Indian, although that  place was undesirable, demeaning, and much of the time brutal, as Fr. Bartolome de las Casas description of Spanish behavior in Cuba attests.

English settlers, however, imagined America as England cleansed of its vices, an empty land of opportunity to which they transplanted the best of the Mother Country in order to cultivate it in purity.  For them, native peoples were an inconvenience to be removed so that their efforts to dominate and subdue nature, forming a garden world where once nature, corrupt since the fall, ruled, might bear fruit and prove profitable.  They had no place for Indians in their communities, and, once the North American tribes proved troublesome laborers and insistent neighbors, they had no use for them either.  The English settlers were in contact with Indians, but did not rule them; therefore, they did not have even the Spaniard's limited sense of responsibility to Indian peoples.  From the beginning, the English settlers envisioned an America without Indians.

What about the French?  In French Canada, settlement was a business adventure focused on the fur trade.  The fur trade was best conducted in partnership with natives, and trappers often found their survival and profits closely entwined with their relations with Indian communities.  The French active in the southern United States were deeply embroiled in Caribbean concerns which included piracy, slavery and the control of the sea.  The French position allowed for a greater degree of cooperation and compromise with the native peoples than did the English, especially after the exportation of European wars to the new continent made Indian allies important military contributors to colonial security.

Pocahantas entered American history as a Disneyfied figure, an Englishman's version of a virtuous Indian, whose virtue is proven by her willingness to be Anglicized.  She saves John Smith, converts to Christianity, marries an Englishman, journeys to England, and dies.  In Mexico, a similar female figure, a native woman attached sexually and politically to the Spanish invaders, has successfully resisted such simplification.  La Malinche, Hernan Cortes's translator, has been imagined as a traitor, as creatrix of the mestiza/o people, as a rape victim whose shame haunts her descendants, and as an active agent in the destruction of the militaristic, human-sacrificing Aztecs1.  Like Pocahantas, she converted and lived in the world of the conquerors, however, it has not been possible thus far Mexican and Chicana/o writers to long confine her to a single meaning and representation as Pocahantas has been confined.  The recognized complexity of La Malinche's relationships and her specific situation have received a recognition that Pocahantas has not2.  Perhaps if the melting pot metaphor so popular in high school history texts had any application to early English settlements in the United States we would have a better portrait of this woman and a better understanding of Anglo-Indian relations in Virginia.

Howard Zinn addresses American history in his A People's History of the United States from the revisionist perspective of post-World War II scholarship and social upheaval.  He pays a considerable amount of attention, although in a survey text he is not able to provide full illustrations of specific cases, to alliances and contacts of true revolutionary potential among the lower orders of colonial society: Native Americans, black slaves, and indentured servants.  According to Zinn, the potential for a revolutionary transformation of colonial society, and later early American society, was present in these alliances, and they formed a danger recognized by colonial elites.  The elites acted, consciously or unconsciously, to prevent the rise of the American underclass by dividing it into groups competing for crumbs of the American pie.  Small differences in privileges were sufficient in most cases to break cross-cultural alliances, to the benefit of resident elites3.  Zinn's contribution to re-thinking colonial America is an important one, even if necessarily limited by his biases, to which he freely confesses and which he describes in his introduction, and the form of the text, which covers American history from 1492 through President Clinton.  Zinn undermines received wisdom, myths and representations of American history with evidence of alternative relationships, submerged possibilities, and a consistent tension between elites holding power and all others who do not.  Interrogations such as Zinn's, and the work of other revisionist scholars is healthy and long overdue.

Although my interest in Native American relations with settler-invaders remains, my discussion of it as part of colonial America is done.  I will return to the question in different contexts as my efforts continue.  The next essay in this series will turn away from the Native Americans to the Africans imported to the colonies and the beginnings of America's racialized slavery.


  1. The figure of La Malinche in Mexican and Chicano/a literature is long-standing.  Octavio Paz's, "Hijos de La Chingada" in The Labyrinth of Solitude presents her as the shamed, raped mother.  Carmen Tafolla rewrote her as a conscious creatrix of the mestiza/o. Muralists such as Diego Rivera made her a central figure in Mexican art. With La Llorona and the Virgen de Guadalupe she is a frequently referenced and frequently transformed icon in popular culture, art and literature.
  2. Anna Lanyon's Malinche's Conquest (Allen & Unwin, 1999) is a very good text introducing the difficulties of recapturing the historical figure at this late date, Malinche's cultural role in modern Mexico, and the author's own journey of discovery in searching for the 'true' La Malinche.  I highly recommend it.
  3. Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present was first published in 1980, when he was in full maturity as a teacher, historian, and activist.  The points mentioned are in Chapter 2: Drawing the Color Line and Chapter 4: Tyranny is Tyranny of that book.


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