Monday, 20 July 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 27 - "Manituana," by Wu Ming

In the previous blog-post in this series, I introduced the theme of the European settlement of the Americas, and the relationships between the colonists and the native peoples they encountered. The north-eastern part of what is now the United States was home to one of the most sophisticated Native American civilisations, that of the Iroquois, a confederacy of five (later six) tribes that seems to have been established around 1450.

Iroquois culture centred on the long-house, which served both as a physical focus for domestic and ceremonial activities, and as a metaphor for the lands of the Iroquois themselves. One tribe, for example, the Mohawk, described themselves as "Keepers of the Eastern Door." The Iroquois were farmers, for whom the "Three Sisters" (maize, squash and beans) were sacred gifts from the guardian spirits of the tribe. Power was shared between hereditary male and female elders, who held parallel councils; and elected male war-leaders.

A reconstructed Iroquois long-house, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Laslovarga (licensed under CCA).

In the 17th Century, the Mohicans, Delaware and Huron, traditional enemies of the Iroquois, formed an alliance with the French. The Iroquois responded by forming an alliance with the Dutch, with whom they engaged in a lucrative trade in beaver fur. When the French defeated the Dutch, driving them from North America, England was the obvious new ally for the Iroquois. A delegation of elders of the tribe even travelled to London for a meeting with Queen Anne.

The "Four Mohawk Kings," who met with Queen Anne in 1710. Johannes Verelst, National Archive of Canada (image is in the Public Domain).

Manituana, by the Italian writers' collective, Wu Ming, is set in the aftermath of all of this, during the American Revolutionary Wars.

A ghost hangs over the novel, a figure that the reader never actually meets. Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) was a Catholic Irishman who prudently converted to Anglicanism when, as a young man, he was invited to move to the Colony of New York to manage his uncle's estate.

Sir William Johnson is here depicted saving the life of the French commander, Baron Dieskau, at the Battle of Fort George (image is in the Public Domain). Johnson and his Iroquois volunteers fought with distinction on the British side in the French-Indian Wars and American Revolutionary Wars.

Already dead when the novel opens, Johnson is remembered with affection by most of the Iroquois and British characters. The reader may well take a more nuanced view of this man, whose first act in America was to purchase 60 African slaves, and who went on to learn the Iroquois language and customs, take an Iroquois woman as consort, father illegitimate children on several other Iroquois and European women, and accumulate substantial land and wealth.

Sir William entertaining the Iroquois at Johnson Hall, 1772, by E.L. Henry (1903), Canadian Museum of Civilisation (image is in the Public Domain).

Key figures in this novel of several viewpoints include Johnson's Mohawk widow, Molly Brant; her younger brother, Joseph Brant Thayendanegea, Johnson's protégé, who twice visits London to meet George III; and Guy Johnson, Sir William's nephew, who fights alongside Joseph.

Joseph Brant Thayendanegea, by Gilbert Stuart, painted in London, 1786, Sothebys (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Indian came forward, the Apollo of the New World, a flesh-and-blood emblem of manliness and serene strength. He inclined his chest toward the king, kissed the queen's hand, and stepped back ... Warwick couldn't help covering his mouth with his hands. The prince, the American champion, had forgotten the king's ring! ... the earl studied the expression of George III ... There were no signs of anger ... Warwick missed the queen's question. The prince replied that his Indian name meant ... 'Place Two Bets.' 'What would be your double bet, Chief Brant?' ... 'I'm betting on the Six Nations, Your Majesty, and on the Crown of England.'"

"He asked the guards of the Sacred Fire of the Confederation to attend the Oswego Council in the Spring ... 'Brothers, this rebellion is the greatest threat that the Six Nations have ever had to confront. The American Englishmen have declared their independence from England: they no longer recognise the authority of the king. This means they believe that the bar placed upon their expansion onto our lands has fallen ... Only by fighting can we hope to save ourselves from catastrophe. Fighting for England and fighting for ourselves.'"

"'I am a chief ... I have to fight for my people, I have to give them some land. If the hardness of oak is not enough, we will become rock. But we have to try, we have to make the effort. Or else there will be no dawn for the Mohawks."

Indian Castle Church as it is today, built by Sir William Johnson in 1769, on land gifted by Molly and Joseph Brant, all that remains of Canajoharie, the Mohawk settlement he established. Photo: Donsram (licensed under GNU).

Manituana could hardly have been anything other than the tragedy that it is, and the tragedy of Thayendanegea is truly one worthy of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare. To quote a commentator in Le Monde, however, this is a book in which "nobody is either completely guilty or completely innocent, and one's legitimate battle for liberty and independence may bring about the loss of someone else's independence and liberty."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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