Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Pequot Massacre, child slaves and Harvard: the surprising theme of Craig Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy



Craig Stephen Wilder’s fine Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities has followed, with deeper historical research, a path blazed by Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of Brown, in investigating the origins in slavery and the slave trade of the Ivy League Schools. Wilder discusses 8 Northern schools, and only William and Mary from Virginia as institutions built from and devoted to slaveholding/slave-trading, for instance, merchants composed the Board of Trustees, the colleges avidly recruited wealthy students from the Caribbean, and the like. When Wilder began his research 10 years ago, he found University archivists who had been waiting for someone to ask them. They pushed materials they had long brooded over into his hands...

In this, Wilder replicated the experience of Michael Hickcox in acting in 1974 at the Iliff School of Theology against the book wrapped in the skin of a murdered Native American displayed ostentatiously in front of its Library (h/t Tink Tinker who is writing an article on this). See here. Though unwilling to act themselves, every one, not in denial, knew it was wrong...

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On Democracy Now, however, and in reviews in the Washington Post here, the History News Network here, and on NPR, Wilder was asked questions about and has been written about as focusing mainly on blacks (Glenn Altschuler's review in the Boston Globe does include Native Americans here). But Wilder's book is even deeper, more surprising and unsettling than that. The first chapter starts and ends with a Harvard man, Jonathan Belcher, who presented an enslaved indigenous child as a trophy to Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, in 1704 (pp. 15-16). The Joint Congressional Committee report on Sand Creek wonders “how beings in human form” can have carried out the massacre. See here. I feel the same way about Belcher and the Empress. Here is the paragraph that ends the first chapter.

“Gifts

Shortly after his graduation from Harvard, Jonathan Belcher, the son of a colonial slave trader, presented an Indian child as a gift in Europe, an act that symbolized the demographic devastation and violent conquest of the New England Indians and the ordinariness of unfreedom in the Christian empires of New Spain, New France and British America. Academies and colleges, teachers and ministers, religion and science were as responsible for that ruin as forts, soldiers, armor, guns, and swords. Free and unfree, Indians were now relics of the English empire whom Belcher could treat as trophies, displaying them as the marvels of his country.” (p. 45)

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I had thought that the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyennes and Arapahoes who had made peace with the United States, November 29, 1864, was unusual in its depravity against “friendly “ Indians - the Massacre was condemned even by the ethnic cleansers in Washington for this reason - but also that it was a general phenomenon in the West and South more than in the East. Indigenous people in New England had been infected with smallpox by Lord Jeffrey Amherst. The founding of the town of Amherst, named to replace an indigenous name Norwottuck (America usually keeps the names having murdered and driven out the people...) and the naming of Amherst College were parallel I knew, see here and here. But I had not yet gotten my mind around the question: what role did the Protestants who founded Harvard and King’s College (Columbia) and Queen’s College (Rutgers) and Princeton (the College of New Jersey) play in genocide toward Wampanoags, Narragansetts and many other tribes?

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Contrary to most reviews, Wilder’s first chapter focuses on this theme:

“In May 1637 at the culmination of Connecticut’s Pequot War, the English surrounded a village on the Mystic River, opened fire, set the buildings ablaze, and then butchered five hundred people as they tried to escape the flames. Captain John Underhill celebrated: ‘Downe fell men, women and children.” (p. 34)

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Initiating what would be made the standard practice of the US army in the West by General Patrick Connor in the subsequent Bear River Massacre in January, 1863,

“The English burned the Pequot food supplies and took their blades to hundreds of young Indian men who put down their arms, attempted to surrender, or sought refuge with other tribes.”

That these are crimes against human beings has long been understood (see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars). These crimes are also crystallized today in the United Nations Convention against Genocide (1948, ratified by the United States in 1978).

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Wilder continues:

“The attack publicized the power of the Christian God to the benefit of New England and its college [Harvard was founded in 1636]. Friends and leaders of the college participated in the war, and Harvard acquired about two thousand acres of land after the English divided up the Pequot holdings in southeastern Connecticut. Israel Stoughton led Massachusetts’s forces against the Pequot and delivered about 250 captives for enslavement.” (p. 35)

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Note how the European practice of slavery toward blacks moved right into preying on Native Americans, particularly children. A reasonable view of the “West,”“Europe” or “England” must acknowledge the genocidal, slave-making, colonialist character of these Empires. For the human species to survive the 21st century (global warming, Fukushima, and militarism are three reasons to think we may not, at least as 7 billion people on a planet not riven, among the remainder, by unending wars), what is evil about “Western” civilization needs to be repudiated, consigned to the past...

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But Harvard's ties to eradicating indigenous people run deep. Stoughton Hall, built in 1806 and now a freshman dorm, was donated by Israel Stoughton, the patriarch, and specifically honors his son William, a minister, judge and Lieutenant Governor. This Hall, analogous to the Evans professorships at DU and Northwestern, "honors" the Pequot Massacre. Recapitulating what I call a Founding Amnesia, the Harvard Crimson somewhat breathlessly relates:

“In 1700 the college yard was the piece of ground lying between Harvard and Massachusetts Hall and the original Stoughton Halls, which stood facing the main gate and made the eastern side of a quadrangle. The old Stoughton Hall was more picturesque than the other dormitories: it was three stories high, had dormer windows, and made some pretensions toward architectural beauty. In this building and in Massachusetts - at that time a dormitory - forty to fifty students had their rooms." See here.

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When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied: “It would be nice…”

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Wilder adds more generally:

“Colleges were imperial instruments akin to armories and forts, a part of the colonial garrison with the specific responsibilities to train ministers and missionaries, convert indigenous peoples and soften cultural resistance, and extend European rule over foreign nations. Christians launched their religious and educational missions to Native peoples from highly militarized spaces.” (p. 33)

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He also traces Harvard’s role in the obliterating aggression against Metacomet (“King Phillip”) and the Wampanoags. The indigenous people had welcomed the colonists. Metacomet was advised by two Harvard-trained Native American ministers. But he discovered that John Sassamon, sponsored at Harvard by John Eliot (Eliot House is named for John's 19th century descendant Charles William Eliot…), “had fraudulently transcribed a will to rob him of land.” (pp. 37, 35-36). He had Sassamon killed.

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On the pattern of incidents leading up to the War, Wilder writes:

“[Metacomet] recount[ed] a history of English abuses that rewarded the friendly posture of the Native people upon the arrival of the first Christians with increasing aggression…Christians trespassed upon Indian lands to graze animals and hunt, cheated in trade, and stole land without repurcussions. The courts and officials held Indians to account for minor violations of colonial law but the most respectable [sic] Indians could not gain justice against Englishmen and no Englishman was subject to Wampanoag law [or law, for that matter]. The Plymouth court empowered local selectmen to indenture any idle Indians, gave magistrates the authority to sell Native children out of the colony for property crimes, and assumed the right to regulate the movement and daily lives of all Indians in the neighborhood.”” (p. 36)

What "property crimes" were committed by children, and what piety or law are symbolized by this delicate practice?

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“For Harvard," Wilder continues, "it was an existential war. The college had been struggling under the leadership of President Lonard Hoard, and his successor, Urian Oakes, inherited an 'afflicted and almost destroyed university'...'I humbly beseech Almighty God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that He may be pleased to shatter that very barbarity, whence ariseth our greatest peril of destruction,' President Oakes prayed during his 1675 commencement address,' that from the barbarians who impend and expend our lives, His boundless loving kindness will deliver us sound and whole." (pp. 38-39)

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"In August 1676 troops under Captain Benjamin Church cornered Metacomet near Mount Hope, Rhode Island, where he was shot dead by an English-allied Indian soldier [divide and rule, taking out one whom one had been "friendly" towards after the other was the English and then the American secret of Continent-wide ethnic cleansing]. ‘His head was brought into Plymouth in great triumph,’ reads the church report. The English dismembered Metacomet’s body, mounted his head on a pole and paraded it around Plymouth, and sold his wife and son into slavery in Bermuda.”

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The grisly practice of parading the heads of indigenous people on poles would soon be replaced by the systematic racist pseudoscience of craniometry/anthropometry and 20,000 skulls being stolen and kept in the Smithsonian (no burials or ceremony of mourning for indigenous people; no sanctity…See here, Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: the Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, ch. 8 and Steven Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man.

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The pious New England colonists also enslaved and sold Metacomet's son and wife…

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Imagine if such things had been done to George Washington's wife or the children of Jefferson Davis...

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To vary one of Montesquieu's insights into slavery in book 15 of De l'esprit des lois (Spirit of the Laws), "It is impossible for us to suppose [Indians] to be human, because if we suppose them to be human, the suspicion would arise that we are not Christians…"

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Wilder’s insights make the long suppression of the wanton aggressions, massacres and enslavement of indigenous people and the proffering of child “trophies” as exotica from the United States leap off the page. It is the reviewers and interviewers who are so under the influence of a Founding Amnesia toward indigenous people that the horror somehow passes them by...

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The University of Denver's 150th anniversary coincides with the that of the Sand Creek Massacre (November 29, 1864). It celebrates the three men most responsible for the slaughter, John Evans, John Chivington and Walter Newton Byers, who were on the Univrsity's initial Board of Trustees (technically, of the Denver Seminary which became the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver). Evans also founded and was long the President of Northwestern. But DU and Northwestern now have a chance to break new ground by acknowledging ethnic cleansing of indigenous people. Brown University excepted, the New England colleges have not even looked into the slave-owning of their origins, let alone genocide toward Native Americans...

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The DU sports teams also bear the racially charged nickname “The Pioneers.” The administration has admirably removed the emblem of Daniel (“Denver”) Boone, fashioned by Walt Disney, on the memory of an indian-killer…

But we now have a chance to pioneer acknowledging the crimes that lie at the root of the American founding and expansion across the country, and thus of many Universities. Our University (and every other one that makes such acknowledgements) goes a significant way toward becoming a place genuinely welcoming of all students, non-whites as well as white, from abroad as well as American. The same could be true of our democracy.

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In addition, the long told fable of America as a defender of peace, as a regime not engaged in European conflicts, intrigues and colonialisms, as a “naïve” and “idealistic power,” is a lie. Even Woodrow Wilson was an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan and frequent invader of Central America (in 1913, his military overthrew the democratic government in Haiti and replaced it with a tyranny; he installed a clerk in an American mining company as the ruler of Nicaragua...). America, as John Mearsheimer at last notes in chapter 7 the Tragedy of Great Power Politics, expanded across the continent murdering indigenous people, stealing their land and cordoning them off on barren reservations (as well as practicing slavery toward blacks until 1863 and later Jim Crow).

The Quakers and then other Protestants opposed slavery – see my Black Patriots and Loyalists – and William Penn extended this to opposing the genocide and thievery toward indigenous people (John Evans, formerly a Quaker, recognized Penn's "humanity and justice," but repudiated it. See here).

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The record otherwise of American Christianity is dismal, however, until the recent repudiations of the “doctrine of discovery” (the Pope could allocate the New World to Columbus because he "discovered" it; this hubris was echoed in a decision of the John Marshall court) by the Methodists and the other Protestant sects.

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Wilder does not know of the mass resistance to bondage on both sides in the American Revolution. Though more blacks escaped and fought for the Crown in exchange for freedom, a large number fought for the Americans (blacks were a majority of the dead on both sides at the decisive battle of Yorktown). And there were a substantial number of whites like Alexander Hamilton, whom Wilder depicts only in the aspect of a poor but able young man sent by slavetraders from Nevis in the Caribbean to King's College (now Columbia) in New York. He does not know that Hamilton was a friend of John Laurens and co-signer of his proposal to recruit and free 5000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia which passed the Continental Congress in 1779 - see Black Patriots and Loyalists. Wilder misses the mass impetus for democracy from below during the Revolution, also including Narrangasetts in Rhode Island and elsewhere. The potential for a different course and even the achievements - for instance, gradual emancipation in the North during and after the Revolution - were great.

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Wilder also misses the fierce anti-imperialist element in the Enlightenment, notably Montesquieu, Rousseau and Diderot (The Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage is a scathing indictment of French "civilization"). These ideas contributed to abolition in the American Revolution, particularly to that of John Laurens who studied law in Geneva 15 years after Rousseau published Du contrat social (The Social Contract).

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But Ebony & Ivy is a book of enormous moral and political importance. Taking in Wilder’s book may help all of us make a new start.

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