Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review: Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Troy Bickham

Note: This is an edited version of a piece I wrote early in 2014, under a different name, as a course assignment where I was to read and review a book that focused on Western social and political thought on race and/or empire. I hope, since I am the author of this, that it does not go against any rules of academic ethical conduct for me to post this here, seeing as I did not intend to actually submit this for formal publication. Also, I am very well aware that "American Indian" is an offensive term in reference to the First Nations nowadays in Canada, but both Bickham and I are using it as a part of the historical context, and no offense is intended.

With the outbreak of violence in 1754 that led to the Seven Years' War, the British Empire’s attention has been on the state of affairs in North America where it remained until the culmination of the American Revolutionary War in 1783. While a significant amount of that focus was on the French and English colonists themselves, there was also a focus on the American Indians in the public discourse of the period. In his book, Bickham seeks to lay out an account of the American Indians within the British colonial context of the latter half of the 18th century. This is not a strict historical survey of events, but focuses more on how the Indians were represented to, and perceived by, the metropolitan British in Europe. The result, therefore, is a claim that the British primarily viewed the American Indians in terms of their effects on colonial policy of the period; and any significant encounters and dealings with the Indians also took place within a broader context of British colonial interests. The American Indians, Bickham argues, went from being seen as an exotic Other in the beginning of the 18th century to a symbol of barbarism and brutality by the end. In addition, he holds that any concessions made by the British government to the American Indians, such as the 1763 Proclamation or the 1774 Quebec Act, had as their primary objective the cementing of Crown control in the colonies and were not, in fact, born of humanitarian motives.
Bickham’s book is divided into four main parts, each of which is broken down further into chapters. While the parts are arranged in some semblance of chronological order, there is also a notable thematic distinction between them. Part One gives an overview of the ways in which Britons engaged with American Indian cultures during the 18th century, with an emphasis on the period prior to and during the Seven Years War. The first chapter here focuses on visible and physical encounters, including visiting delegations from the Thirteen Colonies as well as the collection and trade of cultural artifacts in museums and auction houses throughout the country. The second chapter shifts gears to look specifically at print descriptions of the American Indians, and it is here that Bickham’s preference for newspapers and periodicals over other written sources first becomes apparent. Having established this, in Part Two, Bickham continues his historical survey. The book’s third chapter examines how British policy towards the American Indians was affected by the events of the Seven Years War, while the fourth continues with an analysis of the specific implementation and implications of a new colonial policy that took Britain’s expanded territory into account. After this, in Part Three, Bickham shifts his focus to some of the significant intellectual movements of the 18th century. The fifth chapter, then, addresses the Scottish Enlightenment, examining how the thinkers therein perceived the American Indians in light of their own theories and conjectural histories. Following this, the sixth chapter looks at Anglican missionary efforts among the American Indians, noting especially a relative pessimism that led to many missionaries shifting their focus to the English colonists. Finally, Part Four consists of a single, final chapter that emphasizes the British perception of American Indians during the American Revolutionary War, and it is at this point that the full evolution is now clear.
To conduct his historical survey and analysis in this book, Bickham draws upon a wide variety of sources, with a preference for primary documents. Over the course of his research, Bickham has used newspaper and periodical articles, official and private correspondence, and travelogues and memoirs in order to access the ways in which 18th century Britons came across descriptions of the American Indians. His primary objective here has been to utilize as wide a variety of sources as possible: “After all, few, if any, Britons relied on just one account to form their views of Indians; in fact, to do so would have been rather difficult” (64). This is a commendable choice and rationale; as a reader, I am given the impression that Bickham’s analysis will be thorough and will not deviate from what is readily apparent in the primary source evidence. From either the stance of historical analysis or socio-political thought, it is appropriate to draw on period documents to allow the evidence to speak for itself within its original context.
Not only does he favour primary sources in his research, but Bickham also endeavours to pinpoint which types of sources played a more significant role in the formation of a public image of the American Indians. As far as this study is concerned, Bickham sets himself apart as from his fellow historians, and is, in fact, very critical of their approach. For example, he notes that a number of earlier studies on the subject of the American Indians in the 18th century relied heavily on memoirs written by traders and white colonists who had survived Indian captivity. These accounts, he says, should not be used as the main source of information due to what he has found to be the memoirs’ relatively small influence on the lives of ordinary Britons (59). Instead, Bickham is a vocal advocate of the newspaper and periodical press, using as the basis for his claim the fact that, from a statistical perspective, more people in Britain had access to the newspapers than books, memoirs, museums, and public displays of visiting Indians (68). While I cannot fault him for the rationale behind this choice, I find some of his remarks relating to his fellow historians to be excessively antagonistic:
Despite historians’ tendencies to rely on these texts for insights into British perceptions of Indians, the case for treating such specialized works as representative of wider eighteenth-century British attitudes towards American Indians is not a good one. (57)
Bickham himself writes that a wide variety of sources and contexts would more accurately reflect the diverse range of sources actually available to 18th century urban Britons (64). Given this, while a preference for some media over others is understandable, particularly when it is supported with statistical evidence, it is contradictory on Bickham’s part to discount any particular type of primary evidence as insignificant in light of the nature of his study.
In its entirety, Savages within the Empire is a very thorough account of the developing image of American Indians in the public consciousness of 18th century Britain. Bickham tries to cover a wide variety of historical contexts in his work, and also succinctly supports his arguments with examples from his primary sources. By presenting his ideas in a generally chronological order, he is able to show a steady evolution of the popular perceptions of American Indians. For example, he begins with the exoticized displays of visiting Indian delegations in the early 18th century, where a number of them were initially shown as being equivalent in culture and appearance as peoples from the Middle East (26-27), and then shows a shift in the mid-18th century to a more authentic and accurate representation of later delegations in terms of cultural symbols and modes of dress (31). By the time I have finished reading the book with its culmination in the fear the Britons had of the American Indians during the time of the American Revolutionary War, the impression has undergone a series of ups and downs: sometimes improving, sometimes souring. This would not have been as readily apparent in the use of any other order or organization, and thus substantially helps Bickham to convey his main argument to the reader.
However, thorough as this book is, it comes across to me as more a historical survey than a seminal text on socio-political thought of the period. While there is no doubt that Bickham’s goal has been to describe the evolution of perceptions of American Indians rather than to chart a series of historical events, there is little here that actually grounds his arguments in the existing socio-political thought on race and colonialism of the period. This can be attributed in part to an assumption on his part that the reader would already be well-read in 18th century colonial philosophy. For instance, he makes a passing reference to Locke: “Neither the British public, nor the government for that matter, took much interest in the Lockean position that Indians’ failure to adequately ‘improve’ their lands through European-style agriculture precluded them from claiming legitimate ownership” (88). Bickham simply refers to the idea as the “Lockean position”; although he does offer a brief reiteration of Locke’s idea, it appears that this note was meant more as a reminder than an explanation. The reader is meant to recognize, upon reading the words “Lockean position”, what is meant by Locke and his ideas. For scholars in socio-political thought, or even in the 18th century Enlightenment, this is an appropriate assumption to make. However, for those who are reading this text out of an interest specifically in British colonial history or the American Indians in particular, a more thorough reiteration of Locke’s core ideas would be helpful.
Later, he also utilizes Rousseau’s conception of the noble savage. The concept of the noble savage, in fact, predates Rousseau. Bickham traces it back to Tacitus’ description of the Germanic tribesmen in the Roman Empire, but does concede that it is Rousseau’s definition that had the greatest influence in the 18th century (93). However, he argues that this did not feature prominently, and was even publically dismissed, by the 1760s due to the events of the Seven Years War (93). There is substantial historical evidence to suggest this, which Bickham lays out in detail in his text, suggesting that the Britons’ conception of American Indians as romanticized Others with inherently noble characteristics changed dramatically once news of their violent tactics in warfare against British regular soldiers and American colonists reached Britain itself (93). This, he argues, is related to the fact that portraying the American Indians, many of whom were allied with the French against the British, as villainous savages was useful in generating patriotic fervour and enthusiasm in the Seven Years War, and it is an attitude that persists throughout the rest of the 18th century. Because of this historical pattern, Bickham downplays Rousseau’s theory of the noble savage, preferring instead to examine the role that British colonial policy had to play in representations of the American Indians. These two instances – the incorporation of Locke and Rousseau into his argument – serve as clear indications that Bickham is writing for an audience that would already be familiar with socio-political thought of the 18th century. Yet they are two of only a few instances where Bickham directly mentions the socio-political theorists that form the foundation for his study. As previously stated, the tone and approach in his study lean more towards a historical survey of the description of the developments in Britons’ perceptions of the American Indians. 
However, there is a key exception to this pattern: Part Three of the book, where Bickham directly addresses the Scottish Enlightenment and the implications that the American Indians’ situation had on the thinkers of the movement. Given this, he is very thorough in his explanation of the significant ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment, with a focus on conjectural history. For example, Bickham notes that unlike “Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, who all started their examinations of society with the ‘condition of nature’”, the Scots began with a primitive version of man that already had the beginnings of a social structure (178). By using this as the beginning of their progressive model, the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers situated the American Indians at a similar point in temporal space to the Ancient Celts that were their own ancestors (185). Bickham expresses concern at the implications of this outcome, reflecting that even if the Scots themselves did not espouse racist ideologies – “the association of these works with any sort of proto-racism in the modern sense is tenuous at best” – their ideas could easily be used for such ends by others (197-198). Granted, in his analysis of the Scottish Enlightenment, Bickham acknowledges that ideas that would now be called racist did exist at the time, and that the Scottish Enlightenment had its own responsibility for portraying the American Indians as living in an earlier stage of human development (199). More importantly, he points out that an unfortunate implication of this mode of thinking has been the assumption that the American Indians were already so far behind Europeans in their development that no feasible means of closing the gap through civilizing means could be found (200).
Note, however, that in spite of this implication in the Scottish Enlightenment philosophies, Bickham argues against labelling the movement itself as “proto-racism”, as he terms it. Writing from a 21st century perspective in a post-colonial time, it is certainly tempting to portray European thinkers from the time of British imperialism as backward racists who called for the wholesale appropriation of indigenous land. In contrast, Bickham is able to see the risks in viewing 18th century philosophies through solely 21st century eyes that have been influenced by political correctness and post-colonialism. It is clear in his style and manner of prose that Bickham is attempting to maintain a neutral stance on this particular subject. In his descriptions of Enlightenment thinkers’ thoughts on American Indians’ place in human civilization and development, for example, he adopts a matter-of-fact tone that befits his handling of an unpleasant and potentially controversial subject. He does not shy away from the fact that these ideas placed the American Indians at a distinct disadvantage compared to their European counterparts, forever relegating them to the realm of primitive savagery. In fact, Bickham is cautious about stepping too far into presenting the American Indians in terms of the relatively positive and sympathetic stereotype of the noble savage, criticizing those other scholars who adopt this route:
Unfortunately scholars have exaggerated eighteenth-century attempts to portray Indians either as noble savages or at least sympathetically. This has resulted primarily from their tendency to concentrate on a narrow range of travel accounts and novels, in which Indians are often treated positively, as representative of British sentiments as a whole. (92)
The reason for this stance on more sympathetic interpretations of 18th century thinkers is that Bickham holds that they would not fit into the historical context with which he is working (197). 
There is, in Bickham’s argument, no denying that the British policy towards the American Indians rested entirely upon their role in the political and military stability of the Empire. The ideology behind colonial policy of the 18th century, therefore, lies not in grandiose ideas about race, but in the usefulness either sympathy with or hostility towards the colonized peoples had in serving the needs of the imperial powers that be at home. However, this is not to say that Bickham discounts racial difference entirely in his argument: it does appear in his approach, but in a subtle way that hints at a greater complexity. For instance, in his discussion of the British perceptions of American Indians during the American Revolutionary War, Bickham provides evidence that, compared to the Seven Years War twenty years prior, the British public was reluctant to see their government deploy Indian allies against the rebels (258). This he attributes to feelings of sameness and otherness in the Britons’ perspective, with the American rebels being more similar to themselves than any of Britain’s traditional rivals from the Seven Years War (271). Because of this feeling of similarity, the British public held the use of Indian modes of warfare, already linked with indiscriminate violence against soldier and civilian alike in their minds, upon those who would fight against the Empire from within. It is a break from Bickham’s previous argument focused on imperial efficiency and expediency, but serves to further highlight the negative turn opinions on the American Indians had taken since the days of their depiction as noble savages in the early 18th century.
Overall, Savages within the Empire by Bickham is a fitting example of an in-depth examination of the development of an imperial society’s views of the Other. His argument and explanation is conducted using clear language, with many examples to support his ideas. In addition, his strong emphasis on and firm foundation in primary sources can only help his argument. Each time he uses examples, he is sure to provide a thorough analysis, and his reasoning does not seem exaggerated or far-fetched. While his insistence on favouring newspaper and periodical evidence over memoirs, novels, travelogues, and museum and private collections can come across as unnecessarily pedantic – and even unscholarly – to some readers, it does offer him the opportunity to utilize less conventional avenues for his evidence. This, in terms of the broader field of the study of American Indians and British colonization of North America, is a fruitful endeavour that can potentially offer a broader perspective through its use of a more widely prevalent source of information.
However, as a text for those interested in socio-political thought and philosophy, Bickham falls short in his portrayal of the ideas prevalent in the 18th century. It is my impression, having read this text, that a theoretical analysis is not his primary objective. Instead, Bickham chooses to operate on the assumption that his readers would already be familiar with the ideas of philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. In addition, the majority of his book is not focused on socio-political thought in and of itself, but on the depictions and representations of American Indians in 18th century Britain from which such philosophies could be inferred by those knowledgeable in the intellectual movements of the era. The information and data are provided in very clear detail, but the reader is left to ask themselves how 18th century philosophies figured in popular perceptions, if at all.

Bickham, Troy. Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print

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