In Chapter 8: “Puritans and Indians, 1600-1700” of American Colonies, Alan Taylor addresses a series of violent conflicts that occurred between the New England Indians and the Puritans shortly after Puritans founded the Plymouth settlement. While Taylor focuses on an overview of the wars until the Indians’ defeat following King Phillip’s War in 1676, he also outlines Puritans’ justification for aggressive action against the Indians, which often included massacres of Indian women and children. Puritans, who perceived themselves as “God’s Chosen People,” considered Indians to be “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and treacherous.” Throughout Taylor’s text, as well as in many other academic histories I have read, white western Europeans frequently describe Indians and other non-Aryan races as “barbarous” in comparison to their own “civilized” society.
Coincidentally, just before reading Chapter 8 of Taylor, I read Walter D. Mignolo’s The Idea of Latin America for my Spanish seminar, “Latin American Culture and Literature Before 1900.” The central argument of Chapter 1: “The Americas, Christian Expansion, and Racism,” affirms that European colonizers justified their dominance over South and North American Indians by categorizing them into varying degrees of “barbarous”, thus affirming Europeans’ superiority over them. Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish friar who participated in the colonization of the Americas, outlined the racial inferiority spectrum, dividing “barbarians” into four distinct categories. The first form of barbarians exhibited irrationality and “a degenerate sense of justice reason, manners, and/or human generosity.” The second categorization deemed barbarians to be a group of people who lacked a written alphabet and language system mirroring Spanish’s appropriation of the Latin language. Third, barbarians did not have a formal system of law and justice as defined by the nation-state. Finally, groups of people who rejected the Christian faith were Pagans, and consequently, barbarians.
While the Puritans did not specifically utilize Las Casa’s system for barbarianism as justification for their violent oppression of the Indians, it is a useful template to understand the complex system of racialization that cemented Puritans’ sense of superiority. In her blog post, “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies,” Rebecca articulates Puritans’ religious rationalization for the massacre of Indians, who “claim they are permitted to exploit others because they are in God’s favor.” Rebecca does an excellent job of explaining this vicious cycle; Puritans’ successful massacre of Indians served as Divine validation for their superiority, thus perpetuating Puritans’ belief that they were “God’s Chosen People” and Indians were Pagan barbarians. Following Las Casas classification of barbarians, Puritans primarily grouped the New England Indians under the fourth category—Pagan barbarians who rejected Christianity. Puritans, whose entire society centered around conservative Protestantism, judged Indians with respect to their religious beliefs. It is significant to recognize that other colonizers, like Spanish conquistadores, may have placed a larger emphasis on different types of barbarism in affirming their superiority over Indians. For instance, South and Central American Indians’ lack of a conventional language and alphabet system highlighted their alleged barbarity in terms civility and intellectual capabilities.
Most importantly, I believe one must recognize that Europeans did not cognitively articulate the grounds for Natives’ inferiority that justified the oppression and annihilation of Indian population. Rather, during the period of colonization, the complex system of racialization that still polarizes modern society was already cemented in the collective mindset of Europeans. Indians’ barbarity need not be articulated, it just was. In the study of American history, we must consciously acknowledge the racialization that shaped society and not ignore it as relic of antiquity, or risk being complicit in the institutionalization of racism.
Knowlton, Rebecca. “Violent Puritans and the Not-So English Middle Colonies.”
Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.