Books and Arts

Blood and Soil


Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676
By Joyce Chaplin
(Harvard University Press, 411 pp. $45) 

It was once popularly believed that the colonial conquest of North America was the result of superior technology: European colonizers won because they had the guns. In recent decades, however, we have grown more aware of the devastating impact of the European diseases that were unwittingly introduced to the Indians by their colonizers. Lacking the partial immunities of prior experience with those pathogens, the natives died by the thousands. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the native population probably collapsed to a tenth of its former numbers, weakening the Indians' capacity to resist invasion. In the current shorthand of colonial triumph, Europeans prevailed because they had long known smallpox and the Indians had not. In her learned, wide-ranging, and provocative book, Joyce E. Chaplin gives the great wave of epidemic death a further credit: it empowered white colonizers to create their sense of racial supremacy and entitlement to the continent.

Working the creative intersection of gender history, environmental history, and cultural history, Chaplin contributes to the great ongoing debate among colonial historians: how, why, and when did American racism originate? Most scholars focus on the emergence of slavery for Africans in the English-speaking colonies, especially Virginia. In the 1960s, Winthrop Jordan mustered evidence that the early modern (and highly xenophobic) English nurtured such negative stereotypes of foreigners, and especially of "black" Africans, that their early seventeenth-century colonists immediately invoked racial supremacy and rapidly adopted slavery. Other historians view the emergence of slavery in Virginia as more gradual and halting, becoming institutionalized only later in the seventeenth century. They also see slavery as preceding the development of strong racial categories. In this view, racism was a belated rationalization for a system of oppression that was originally animated only by greed and opportunism. Both views have an eye to the place of racism in our own society--the one fearful that racial thinking is tragically fundamental to American culture, the other hoping that racism is a mutable rationalization for institutions that can be genuinely reformed.

Chaplin switches our focus from Africans to Indians, and from slavery to disease. She pitches her inquiry in the dramatic key of the currently fashionable "history of the body." First developed by historians of science who study medieval and early modern Europe, the history of the body dissolves the distinction that preferred the mind to the body in the writing of intellectual and cultural history. In a constant loop, it is said, ideas about mind and body constitute and reconstitute one another; or, to be more precise, thoughts about body and mind cannot be disentangled from one another. If anything, thoughts about the body must take priority: Chaplin regards the body as nothing less than "the site for the construction of identity." In this view, people first and fundamentally define their corporeal being before proceeding to create the rest of their culture. Chaplin argues that in constructing race, "the English created difference by focusing on the body, then moved out from this site into the rest of culture." She defines race less by qualities of mind than as "an understanding of the human body that posited heritable and meaningful corporeal differences." 

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there did not yet exist modern "science" as we understand it: the militantly rational, experimental, empirical, and instrumental pursuit of knowledge dissociated from the supernatural. The age's protoscientists were "natural philosophers" such as John Dee, who combined without difficulty his positions as Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and mathematician, alchemist and metallurgist.Elizabethan natural philosophers conducted empirical experiments to confirm theories derived from Christian theology, occult texts, and ancient writers.In their view, the body was more than mere matter. "Nature was a concatenation of animating forces," Chaplin explains, "a web of analogies, sympathies, and antipathies. A microcosm (such as the human body) reflected the structure and meaning of the macrocosm or cosmos." Divinely designed combinations of earth, air, fire, and water made up the body, as they did the earth and the universe.

Advancing a variant of the racism-came-later interpretation, Chaplin maintains that in the late sixteenth and very early seventeenth centuries the English colonizers of America emphasized their common humanity with the Indians. Asserting such a commonality initially served colonial goals. It certainly helped to lull the pervasive anxiety that the North American environment might be fatal to English bodies. The prevailing beliefs insisted that bodies were so finely tuned to local climates that they needed a prolonged and often painful "seasoning" to adapt to new settings; and often bodies could not survive the regional diseases that represented the shock to their systems of a new continent or a new latitude. Therefore potential colonists (and investors in colonies) sought reassurance that the Indians were both healthy and fundamentally similar to the English in body and mind. To that end, John Brereton praised the New England Indian as "a perfect constitution of body, active, strong, healthful, and very wittie." Chaplin explains that the colonial promoters were primarily interested in Indians "as indicators of America's usefulness to them."

Indians who were not essentially different from the English could also be more quickly assimilated to English ways and rules. If akin in bodies, they would also accept new roles as guides for English explorers, and producers for the English market, and consumers of English goods, and worshippers of the English God, and subjects of the English monarch. Rather than define the Indians as alien and intractable "others," the colonizers cast them as earlier and more primitive (but highly teachable) versions of Europeans--the equivalents of the ancient Britons who, through Roman and Christian tutelage, ascended in civility to become the English. Chaplin notes that the colonizers initially "represented Indians nostalgically as versions of their ancient, savage, and valiant forbears."

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, however, the colonizers' superficially benign view of the Indians broke down as a consequence of experience. It became abundantly clear that the Indians would not abjectly surrender their autonomy and their cultures to become English pupils, wards, and menial servants. At the same time, in thriving colonial farms and growing colonial families, the colonizers found a different source of reassurance: they discovered that their own bodies could adapt and re-make the land into a New England. In 1624 Richard Eburne concluded that "it be the people that makes the land English, not the land the people." Roger Williams of Rhode Island asserted in 1643 that "nature knowes no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, [and] bodies."

Indeed, some colonists began to boast that they were improved by their new setting. During the 1640s, a New England colonist boasted that "God hath so prospered the climate to us, that our bodies are hailer and Children there born stronger, whereby our number is exceedingly increased." The colonists waxed more confident in their numbers, their prosperity, and their power at the same time that they lost faith in the Indians as proto-English in body and mind. As they took possession of the land, they began to dismiss the Indians as disposable obstacles, rather than celebrate them any longer as potential assets and kindred bodies.

Formerly impressed by Indian technology--by their pharmacopoeia, canoes, fish weirs, bows, and maize--the colonists became dismissive of those native instruments by century's end. Instead of reasoning from an early disdain for Indian culture to a later dismissal of their bodies, the colonists belatedly rejected Indian bodies and only then lost interest in their tools and methods (except as curios of the exotic). Chaplin explains that "the body was the springboard from which the English then launched arguments about Indians' technical inferiority." The colonists imagined and cast backward a technology gap that, Chaplin insists, has for a long time distorted our understanding of the initial generation of contact. "The English had not begun to settle in the new world with the conviction that they had superior scientific and technological abilities, but they would later think this way because they colonized America and invaded a people whom they would, in the end, decide that they could not think of as similar to themselves."

Indeed, Chaplin discounts the notion that at the moment of their first encounter the English asserted, and the Indians accepted, the technological advantages of the Europeans. In 1588, the Roanoke explorer Thomas Harriot reported that

most things they sawe with us, [such] as Mathematicall instruments, sea Compasses, the vertue of the load-stone in drawing iron, a perspective glasse whereby was shewed many strange sights, burning glasses, wilde firewoorkes, gunnes, hookes, writing and reading, springclockes that seeme to goe of themselves and many other things that wee had were so strange unto them, and so farre exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and meanes how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the workes of gods than of men, or at the leastwise [that] they had bene given and taught us of the gods. 

Chaplin dismisses such reports as the "ventriloquism" of Europeans, planting their own praises to mask an insecurity about their true backwardness. She minimizes the technological gap between the newcomers and the natives, dwelling particularly on the presence of a few bows in the arsenals of some of the earliest English voyages and colonies. Chaplin concludes: "Everywhere the English went, they saw weapons similar to their own."

But if the English possessed similar bows, they also had different and far superior arrowheads: steel and iron, which cut more deeply than the flint and the copper possessed by the Indians. With good reason, the natives craved the acquisition of European metals for kettles, hoes, knives, arrowheads, and hatchets. They scavenged shipwrecks and avidly traded their furs for cherished bits of metal. Nor were guns as inconsequential and fleeting an advantage as Chaplin suggests. During the early seventeenth century, the governors of Virginia jealously guarded their guns and the men who could fire them, taking special pains to recover those that had been taken, with such singular determination, by the local paramount chieftain Powhatan. Indian behavior in the contact generation made plain their recognition that technology mattered, and that it differed radically. So did colonial behavior, as they adapted the far more productive horticulture and admired the more advanced herbal medicines of the natives. 

At the crux of her argument, Chaplin asserts that in the mid-sixteenth century the colonizers contrasted their own natural increase (at least in New England) with the surging death rate among the natives, so as to justify their dispossession of the Indians. Rather than acknowledge their own role in bearing disease to the Indians, the colonists insisted that the diseases were native to North America. The widespread deaths revealed that the Indians had "a fateful propensity within their bodies" that kept them from ever becoming seasoned to North America. Strays from Asia, they had never put down proper roots, in contrast to the English bodies that so smoothly adapted to North America. Asserting "a cosmic synchrony between the invaders and their new place of abode," the colonists believed "that they were better suited to America than Indians and could supplant them as natives of the new world." Chaplin concludes, "[The] colonists seemed to believe themselves more natural than the aborigines, as if English bodies had always been meant to be planted in Virginia and Plymouth."

What then are we to make of the persisting colonial recognition that Indians were taller, straighter, faster, stronger, and tougher? Colonial accounts conceded that the Indians could traverse the woods, see long distances, endure tortures, conduct battles, and bear children more stoically and skillfully than any colonist. With considerable ingenuity, Chaplin detects a colonial subtext that undercut the praise of those native qualities. By disciplining their children's bodies with cradle boards, cold baths, initiation rites, and greasy ointments, Indian parents deadened the feeling of pain. Far from being more natural, Indians were (in colonial eyes) more artificial. As Chaplin puts it, "Indians were unnatural beings, bodies for which artifice had created a kind of unfeeling inhumanity." Superficially tough, Indian bodies remained internally weak, unable to survive the critical tests posed by alcohol and infectious disease.

In sum: by imagining biology, rather than culture, as the central and polarizing difference between peoples, and by insisting on their own innate superiority, the colonists used the Indians to construct the new concept of race. In Chaplin's words, the colonists "defined a new idiom, one which argued that the significant human variation in North America was not due to external environment but instead lay deeper within the bodies of its European and Indian peoples." Confident in their bodily superiority, colonists became white racial supremacists who proceeded to seize the continent as properly their own. They cast themselves as destiny's true Americans, properly supplanting the unfit and unworthy Indians. That "they were the natural residents of America" is "the powerful racist fiction that remains the basis of creole identity in North America."

Chaplin offers an innovative and powerful interpretation of the first century of Anglo-American colonization. Her argument is brilliant and original. I wish only that it was more consistently and explicitly supported by the evidence. Perhaps some seventeenth-century colonist did directly state that the selective epidemics proved the innate inferiority of Indian, and the superiority of English, bodies. If so, his words do not appear in Chaplin's book. Instead, her argument pivots on her own assertions. This is a work of intellectual and cultural history that offers starkly limited access to words from the past.

Most of the brief snippets quoted are framed by Chaplin's words, which give the sentences their import; and the historical quotations do not match the bold sweep of the argument. She almost never invites the reader to join her in examining a sustained piece of writing that reveals the connections drawn by the original writer. In three hundred pages of text, only three quotations are sufficiently long (more than about three lines) to justify blocking and indentation. Apparently Chaplin does not need any colonial writer to broadly and explicitly establish her claim; instead she recovers a covert unity found in many bits and pieces throughout the culture. But her tight control of the past's voices is jarring in a book that faults other scholars for taking quotations out of context.

In general, the colonists emphasized divine providence as the explanation for the new epidemics that killed more natives than newcomers. No respecter of bodies, their God chose who should live and die throughout the world, including who should prevail in North America, on the basis of his plan for humanity. The seventeenth-century epidemics proved to the colonists' satisfaction that God favored them so long as they honored his dictates and so long as the Indians clung to their own errant faiths. Rather than seeing the diseases as endemic to North America, the colonial observers consistently noted that they were epidemics that dramatically ruptured Indian demography, greatly and dramatically reducing populations that had once been numerous. And the colonists recognized that the epidemics began immediately before, or coincided with, the advent of their colonization, which again suggested to them a supernatural rather than a proto-biological explanation for the Indians' demise. 

The consistency of Chaplin's argument overrides considerable variations in colonial experience. Her interpretation works best for New England, where the seventeenth-century colonists did enjoy healthy conditions and a prolific natural increase. But the great majority of English emigrants went to Virginia and the West Indies, where harsh work regimens, a hot climate, and chronic diseases (especially malaria and dysentery) killed the colonists faster than they could reproduce. Between 1607 and 1622, about 10,000 English people emigrated to Virginia, but only 20 percent of that population was still alive there in 1622. An English critic belatedly remarked that "instead of a plantation, Virginia will shortly get the name of a slaughterhouse." During the seventeenth century, 190,000 British people emigrated to the West Indies (compared with the 21,000 who went to New England), but only 33,000 resided there at century's end. Outside New England, the growth of the colonial population was sustained only by immigration. In 1638, Parliament proposed legislation to limit emigration to Virginia, alarming the planters, who complained that their colony would "in [a] short time melt to nothing for want of supplyes of people."

What cause, then, did a Virginian or West Indian colonist have to celebrate his or her bodily triumph over the new environment? Indeed, the southern colonists generally concluded that their bodies were inferior to those of Africans in coping with hard work and hot climes. In a perverse manner, this sense of bodily inferiority informed the southern colonists' insistence on their own mental superiority, and their conviction that they should own the labor of forcibly imported Africans.

In invoking the esoteric writings of natural philosophers as fundamental to colonial thinking, Chaplin suggests little difference between the ideas of elites and the notions of common people. Two decades ago, the triumphant "new social historians" asserted a stark divide in the early modern era between the formal discourse of the learned few and the mentalite of the unlettered many. The newer history of the body tends to blur that line, accepting a more holistic view of culture, blending low and high, and enabling a few texts to speak for entire populations. In this way, reading John Dee becomes a key to understanding how everyone in England thought about their bodies. In this view, we need take no special pains to demonstrate that laborers shared the bodily concepts of natural philosophers.

Chaplin's argument also homogenizes the considerable variation in colonial thinking about native bodies that persisted long after the momentous transition that she finds in the mid-seventeenth century. In rhetoric and in law (if not in bedchambers), the racial distinction between Indian bodies and white bodies remained far less certain than that between blacks and whites. During the eighteenth century, leading Americans, including the southern planters William Byrd II and Thomas Jefferson, often urged a general miscegenation with Indians that they found appalling (in theory if not in personal practice) with blacks. Where separation and subordination seemed the solution to controlling blacks, the eighteenth-century racial theorists favored intermarriage and cultural assimilation as the most benign mode of dissolving Indian difference and resistance. And some colonists continued to celebrate the beauty and the strength of Indian bodies and the naturalness of their cultures, if only as tropes to criticize the artificiality of colonial bodies and society.

Among scholars, bold new approaches such as the "the history of the body" inspire an assertive zeal that scants the credit due to predecessors. Newly possessed of a master key to the past, the adepts keenly detect flaws in older approaches as they advance bold revisions of sources and explanations. Much of what we thought we knew, it seems, turns out to have been wrong. Such sweeping and partisan claims have accompanied every boomlet in historical scholarship: the new social history, then the new cultural history, and now the history of the body.

Chaplin's primary culprits are the "ethno-historians": those scholars who combine anthropology and history to study native peoples on the eve of colonization and during its initial stages. Ethno-historians, she asserts, fail to detect the "ventriloquism" practiced by their colonial sources, which planted self-serving ideas in alleged Indian remarks. "We will never begin to comprehend what Indians may have been trying to say in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," Chaplin notes, "until we turn down the background noise, the static of cultural expectations and assumptions that the English put into their accounts about their early colonization." Colonial accounts "were dependent on contemporary debates over natural philosophy and too eager to ventriloquize native opinions within the forms of that debate." Alas, the credulous ethno-historians "have done little to examine English patterns of thought about nature (especially about the body) which would allow better decoding of these texts."

Consider, for example, the intriguing and influential account written by Thomas Harriot, the natural philosopher who visited the Indian villages near Roanoke on the North Carolina coast in 1585. To interrogate his informants, Harriot learned some of their language, although too little to satisfy Chaplin. Noting the Indian dread of the new epidemics, Harriot reported that they credited the colonists with the power to shoot "invisible bullets" that "killed the people in any towne that had offended us, as wee listed, how farr distant from us soever they were." Chaplin distrusts Harriot's metaphor as covertly conveying his own views on atomism, then a controversial new doctrine smacking of atheism: "It is possible that he ventriloquized dangerous hypotheses about matter through informants who would appear exotic to his readers, and therefore appropriate bearers of heterodoxy."

But perhaps we should not dismiss Harriot's observation as no more than the covert expression of his own scientific beliefs. After all, other colonists with no investment in radical science reported much the same thing: Indian fears that the English could employ disease over long distances as a weapon. In 1621, according to Edward Winslow, the New England Indians suspected that the colonists kept "the plague buried in our storehouse, which, at our pleasure, we could send forth to whate place or people we would, and destroy them therewith, though we stirred not from home." A devout Puritan, Winslow held no brief for atomism. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes an invisible bullet is an invisible bullet.

To score points against the ethnohistorians, Chaplin paints her book into a corner, adopting an extreme skepticism about the value of colonial sources for revealing anything about the Indians: "We can never know the actual content of whatever Roanok[e] statement Harriot was quoting." In principle, Chaplin rejects Stephen Greenblatt's agnosticism about recovering Indian culture through the texts made by colonizers, but in practice she almost always finds illusions rather than insights in her Indian sources. This Euro-skepticism limits the range of Chaplin's vision. A detailed examination of what the colonizers thought about themselves and the neighboring natives, Chaplin's book does not devote comparable space and energy to an examination of how the Indians conceived of their bodies and of those of the newcomers. Consistently treated as the objects of the colonial gaze, her Indians do not receive equal time as historical actors in the making of their own corporeal and racial ideas.

How did Indian beliefs about the body shift as they experienced massive epidemics that spared most of their invaders? Chaplin declines to answer, out of her conviction that European ventriloquism has rendered Indians virtually unknowable. Of New England's missionized Indians, she asserts that it is "difficult to determine what Eliot's converts (or any other Indians) truly did believe." In Rhode Island, for example, archaeologists recently excavated the intriguing grave of a seventeenth-century Indian child, bearing a traditional "medicine bundle" of sacred objects rendered syncretic by the folded page from an English Bible. After advancing multiple interpretations for the mix of objects, Chaplin ultimately rejects all potential meaning: we are left only with "our inability to know what these things meant."

In this certainty of doubt, Chaplin has plenty of company. Scholars have recently become so sophisticated at detecting hidden biases and esoteric messages that we risk writing only about the construction of illusions. By discounting all colonial documents as fatally flawed by "Eurocentrism," we retreat to a history that writes only about the subjectivity of Europeans. By seeing little but "ventriloquism" in European accounts, we deny our own capacity to read against their grain to recover the thoughts of native peoples. We also deny the capacity of native peoples to rattle the complacency and the categories of the colonizers (and of the historians of the colonizers). If the Indians did not make our sources, they often catalyzed the creation of those sources, and by the shock of their difference they forced compromises on colonial writers initially bent on confirming their preconceptions. Their evidence, too, in all the richness of its contradictions, has much to teach modern scholars.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.

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