Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, X: Squanto's Town

Let's begin with ....say... Stephen Greenblatt. You're probably too young to remember when the New Historicism was actually new, but trust me. There was a time. We history graduate students had perhaps a different take (enough with this guy Shakespeare already!) but Greenblatt's first blast of the trumpet was a revelation. The big Renaissance figures were into "self-fashioning." In Chancellor Moore's Utopia and in the allegory-laden portraits of Hans Holbein and the Northern Mannerists (I'm not the first guy to overinterpret paintings), Greenblatt detected a conscious effort to fashion an image that could only be understood in their historic context.

It went on from there. At the risk of trivialising a powerful insight, men are lying liars.

Oh, sure. Women, too. But if you're old enough, you remember Linda Ronstadt as the First Consort of California, and you remember her husband for his brave but indiscreet repudiation of the would-be iron law of historical causality. "That was then, this is now," he said. Don't ask your prince to be consistent and unswerving or even honest. Ask him to do the right thing at the time. Whether as a guide to moral behaviour or to the Benjamins, everyone gets to be the own subject of their own stories, and that's how history has to take them.

Unless the stakes are high. Then, any kind of high wire act is okay. Say that you have an Indian from Massachusetts. He crosses the Atlantic at least twice. He has the ear of the Governor of Plymouth, who happens to be an inveterate promoter of transatlantic colonisation. Say that this Indian dies a man of the highest distinction, in an English colony erected on the very soil of his hometown.

Wouldn't you at least wonder what kind of story might make him the subject? And the answer is that no, you would not. Because once you've made Indians subjects instead of objects in the story of the plantation of the Atlantic, you've broken the corn dam, and the flood is like to carry you over the mountains to disaster.

Squanto/Squantum/Tisquantum, was apparently born sometime in the 1580s, and his place of birth is usually given as Patuxet, the Indian town that lies, per my source, exactly under Plymouth, Massachusetts. That's a pretty extraordinary coincidence to start with, but it is quite possibly not actually true. Indian communities of this era routinely cycled between seasonal camps. Patuxet, being the place where the World Renewal Ceremony and Green Corn Festival were celebrated (if they were celebrated there) would have been the most important such camp in Squanto's youth, and it is fair to say that it was his "home," but he might not have been born there. And, yes, I'm belabouring the point for a reason.

Now we have to move across the Atlantic to another class Renaissance self-fashioner, one Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1565-1647). There's a family tree, but Tudor-era genealogists were motivated by something more than the pure spirit of scientific inquiry. What we do know is that he married the daughter of Sir Thomas Gorges, a courtier and second cousin to the queen via her Howard ancestors. As befit a member of the Lord High Admiral's clan, Sir Thomas was apparently also a wrecker. That, however, was long after his first brush with fame. In 1596, he was made Governor of Plymouth Castle, a position that rendered him prominent enough to be involved in the Essex Conspiracy. Or so, at least, one assumes given that he turned Crown's witness and testified against Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. But we assume that testimony in this sort of case is suborned, don't we? A quick review of the Wikipedia list of governors of Plymouth shows that the office otherwise went as a patronage plum to wealthy and influential senior politicians. So there's something hinky going on here, is what I'm saying, and I'll take it as read that there's an interest behind Gorges that dare not speak its name.

What we do know is that Ferdinando Gorges was one of the sponsors of George Weymouth's 1605 expedition to Norumbega. This was successful in the sense that Weymouth found the mouth of the Kennebec and returned, complete with five Indians aboard, one of whom was a young Squanto. As is normally the case, these are listed as captives, and given that they probably spoke no English, it is surely the case that they weren't asked if they wanted to go to England. That being said, as young men in a society that valued travel, reciprocal gift exchange, and guest friendships even more than we do today, it is hard to believe that this captivity was the kind of inhuman imposition that it is sometimes portrayed as. In typically hierarchical seventeenth century fashion, one source (cited here) takes care to list the social status of the young men. Squanto, it would appear, was a gentleman. My best reconstruction is that Gorges kept the three gentlemen while sending on the "Sagamore or Commander" perhaps known as Manida and his servant to Chief Justice Sir John Popham (1531--1607).

Popham, apart from doing good work in running show trials, was interested party in American colonisation. Like many another early Jacobite politician/entrepeneur, his game was the chartered company, and his chartered company was the Virginia Company of Plymouth, with an exclusive grant to settle the coast of eastern North America from the 38 to 45 degrees North. No colonies of the Plymouth Company should be within 100 miles of those of the Virginia Company of London (38 to 41 degrees north) in the area of overlap. Fortunately, Norumbega not only lay well north of the area of overlap, but at perhaps the single most accessible point for oceangoing ships on the Fall Line. For Popham and his colleagues aspired to build ships at their new colony. As to why, well, this posting will be long enough without getting into the economics of the early New England colonies; save that for another day.

The Popham colony proved, like de Mont/Champlain's St.Croix/Port Royal, to be an abortive colonisation. It lasted only a year, although, like all such efforts, it ended up leaving people behind.* Their sponsor, too, died. In 1609, the Virginia Company was given the land up to 41 North. They may  have been the only source of the early (that is, pre-1623) English fishers who established seasonal camps in the Isle of Shoals archipelago of New Hampshire, and particularly at Smuttynose Island. Or perhaps not. In any case, Popham died, his estate was held up in chancery so that his descendants did not inherit, and in spite of that, his grandson, Edward Popham (1610--51), became a General-at-Sea. What happened to Justice Popham's guests we do not know. What we do know is that in 1620, Gorges and twenty fellow speculators revived the claims of the Virginia Company of Plymouth.

For Squanto, however, the next act was his 1614 return to New England with another expedition, that of Captain John Smith of glorious, but  not always scrupulously accurate memory. It's at this point that things get weird, as Smith's co-commander lures Squanto and another 26 Indians aboard his ship, then shanghais them to Spain, where they are sold as slaves. Within two years, however, Squanto is back in England.

It's just that this... Well, it's not like things like this didn't happen, or that people in the early 1700s weren't utter assholes sometimes. Just ask some of the people that John Popham ushered onto the block. It's the convenience of it. It's not even like Squanto is the only Indian of his region to suffer exactly the same fate. Gorges' two other Indian guests when to New England with the 1606 Calloung (Chalowns/Chalons) expedition, ended up in the Caribbean, were captured and sent to Spain, and one of them was repatriated to England. Once is a crazy thing that happened. Twice and you've got to wonder whether Gorges was playing a deeper game.

In any case, Squanto ends up back in England, where he's soon in company with West Country men interested in creating a colony in Newfoundland. In 1618, Squanto landed in Cupid's, Newfoundland, a spectacular site that, because its charter survives and because it was build in stone, has a reputation (which historians of Newfoundland accept, so maybe I shouldn't be so skeptical) of being the first established English colony on the island. From there, Squanto hooked up with another of Gorges' captains, Thomas Dermer. Captain Dermer led an expedition to New England, launched from Plymouth, in 1618. Squanto was aboard, implying that he'd made yet another crossing of the Atlantic. This time, both Dermer and Squanto would remain in North America. Dermer continued as a servant of Gorges, conducting extensive exploration and prospecting efforts until he died in an affray in Virginia (the actual Virginia) in 1621.

Squanto, on the other hand, paid court to Massassoit, sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, to which the Patuxet Nation belonged. Conventionally, we are told that Squanto was a lonely man by this time. "European diseases to which the Indians had no immunity" were devastating New England Indians at the time, and Patuxet had been wiped out.

To be sure. That's what happened in the old days, and not just to people belonging to groups with no pre-existing level of herd immunity. (Leaving the troubling myth of inherited immunity aside for a moment.) Modern medicine is wonderful. There are overarching problems here in that we haven't actually established that there was no herd immunity amongst New England Indians at this point. (The problem is similar to that of using the Little Ice Age as an explanatory mechanism. We need to start with knowing when something happened in order to use it as an explanation for a contemporary event. We can't start with the event, argue that it fixes the exact date of the LIA/peri-contact Columbian epidemics, and then argue back to the claim that the event is then caused by the LIA/epidemics.) And that if lethality is too high and rapid, there won't be an epidemic. But fine: an epidemic, and lots of deaths. Thirty percent of the population? Why not? Ninety percent? Unlikely in the extreme, but until we have that history of the human immune system that people keep waving their hands at, you can't rule it out.

Still, here's the thing. To "wipe out Patuxet," the town on the shore, you don't need thirty percent lethality, or ninety percent lethality, or for that matter 100%. You need, to be precise, infinity percent fatalities, because until you have wiped out every Indian everywhere, you have not eliminated the fact that Patuxet is apparently a nice place for Indians to live.

So why is it that when a ship stuffed full of Pilgrims from the Old World arrives off Patuxet, the town is deserted, as described by some of the early colonists in their first publicity-seeking letter to London a few months later?  Well, obviously, because it is deserted. It's11 November, and the Patuxet Nation is far away in winter quarters in the woods, taking deer fattened up against the oncoming winter amongst forests that would provide them with winter fuel until the coming of the hungry months of early Spring, when they would return to Patuxet and break open their corn caches. That would not be until well after Mount's Relation is composed and despatched to London, however. Right now, in November of 1620, there are only a few Indian caretakers at Patuxet, and a much larger number of Pilgrims.

If the caretakers have hidden, it would not be surprising. (They certainly won't stay  hiding.) The Pilgrims are dangerous. Squanto says so. For a year, Squanto has been trying to persuade Massassoit that the English possess a dangerous medicine that the Wampanoag can use against the Narragansett to the south, in modern Rhode Island. (Did he complete his strategic tour d'horizon by invoking the Mohicans of eastern Connecticut? I don't know. But I'm going to.)

Squanto's council is successful. For all of the troubled relations between English and Indian along this coast, Massassoit will take the new English settlement at Patuxet under his wing. He and his line ("race," as James Fenimore Cooper would still have put it in his youth) will stand as patrons of the Plymouth company plantation at Patuxet and beyond until his family breaks with it in 1675.

Modern writers dwell on the extraordinary coincidence that Squanto spoke English. They wonder at the fact that the pilgrims chose not to head for New York. That they avoided the Isle of Shoals, where Captain Smith wanted to make his camp. That they ignored Kennebec, where Norumbega beckoned. That they overlooked Massachusetts Bay, the far preferable colony site. No. The Pilgrims ended up just exactly at 41 degrees north, at the southern edge of Gorges' concession, at the very site that was the hometown of Gorges' old Indian friend.

Look. I'm just going to put it out there: all the coincidences are perfectly explained if this were Squanto's plan. That Squanto wanted an English plantation established at Patuxet to increase the importance and value of his kin within the Wampanoag Confederacy, and that he had the English contacts to make it happen.

Plymouth, the Pilgrim Colony, the place of the First Thanksgiving, the original city on a hill? It was Squanto's town.


 *There seems to be a systemic carelessness problem with early expeditions. Or, more likely, it wasn't just Indians eastbound and the friends of David Ingram who could see their chance to realise the social capital of the long-distance traveller. This is both the advantage and the disadvantage of recruiting your crews from amongst the dispossessed barely-more-than-slaves that European town councils often forced explorers to embark. Anything to be rid of them. Put it another way; a boy raised in debt and poverty is taken far away. 

And in that faraway land, perhaps he realises that even the quotidian skills that gained him nothing at home have a sudden value. Or perhaps not; because for the first time in his life, girls are looking at him, and ducking their heads. And then coming back up for a second look. That boy is never going to go "home." He is home.

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