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White Men or Native Americans - Who are the Real Savages?

A Research Based on the Texts of Benjamin Franklin and John Smith

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2006 17 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography

Excerpt

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1. Introduction

Texts written during the time of the settlement in America often include descriptions of Indian tribes and Native Americans. In these descriptions the Indians are often called “Savages” because of their outer appearance and their behaviour. But were those Indians really savages, barbarians or devils? Were they as uncivilized as often described or are those images the result of misunderstandings? Is it possible that they were more civilized than the White Men? To answer these questions it is necessary to have a closer look on those texts, for example, the texts of John Smith and Benjamin Franklin who build up different pictures of the Native Americans and the White Men. Smith’s and Franklin’s texts have varying approaches and backgrounds but both men had close contact to the Indians. Therefore their texts are good basics to answer the questions in an objective way because their varying descriptions make it possible to carefully consider the facts and opinions. Because both texts are subjective it is also necessary to give some facts about Indian tribes and their ways of life. John Smith’s text is about the Powhatan whereas Benjamin Franklin mostly writes about the Iroquois. Therefore it is obvious to also consider facts about those tribes and not only refer to Smith and Franklin. All these background information will help to clarify who “the real savages” are.

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The text The General History of Virginia, New England , and the Summer Isles is a report on Virginia which was written by William Simons on the behalf of John Smith in 1624 1 . It is a description of the relationship between settlers and Native Americans which builds up an ambivalent image of the so called savages.

1 Hartmut Lutz (1985), „Indianer“ und „Native Americans“. Zur sozial- und literarhistorischen Vermittlung eines Stereotyps, p.67

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2.1.1 Image of the Native Americans

Smith’s description of the Native Americans is ambivalent because it includes positive as well as negative characteristics. The text begins with a description of the settlers’ situation upon their arrival in Virginia where they start building up Jamestown. The journey to America is exhausting and many men die because of hunger and cold 2 . They arrive in winter and “all [their] provision [is] spend” 3 but they are lucky because the savages “[bring] such plenty of their fruits and provision as no men wanted” 4 although it is said that God “changed the hearts of the savages” 5 . This shows that the Natives are very hospitable because they welcome the strangers with food and do not let them starve but also that the settlers make God responsible for that luck, not the Natives. Smith also describes them as strange and different.

“Sixty or seventy of them, some black, some red, some white, some patricolored, came in a square order, singing and dancing out of the woods with their Okee (which was an idol made of skins, stuffed with moss, all painted and hung with chains and copper) borne before them, all in this manner, being well armed with clubs, targets, bows, arrows [...]” 6

Because of their lack of knowledge about the Powhatan they appear to Smith as “barbarians” 7 . Nevertheless, the settlers do trade with the savages and the Natives who, on the other hand, “[sing] and [dance] in sign of friendship till they [depart]” 8 which implies that the Natives are positive about the settlers. They do not attack the settlers but try to arrange themselves with the newly arrived strangers. But while being peaceful and hospitable on the one side, the Natives capture Smith while he is about to explore the country on his search for food 9 . “Six or seven weeks those barbarians [keep] him prisoner [and] many strange triumphs and conjurations they [make] of him” 10 . His imprisonment is described as being a torture because it seems as if they wanted to kill Smith for several times. One time they “[tie] him to a tree

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2 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.40 f

3 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.41

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.42

7 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.43

8 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.42

9 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.43

10 ibid

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[...] [and] [prepare] to shoot him” 11 , another time they “[lay] his head and [are] ready with their clubs to beat out his brains” 12 . Because of the Natives giving him much food and all he wishes for Smith is of the opinion that they might want to eat him 13 but in the end his life is saved and they release him. This indicates that the Natives do not really want to kill him because if they would have wanted to do so they had not released him. Smith also points out that the Natives are not very cultivated because they do not know what a compass is and they imagine “the world to be flat and round, like a trencher, and they in the midst” 14 . He thinks of himself as being superior and impresses them with his knowledge. In his text The General History of Virginia, New England , and the Summer Isles he also describes one of the Natives ceremonies where he calls them “such like devils” 15 and shows how different their manners are from those of the settlers. He builds up a picture of frightening barbarians who dance around the fire, painted all over. A contrast to this picture is the Natives helping the settlers explore the country and showing them how to plant as well as giving them food. It becomes obvious that Smith is fascinated by the Natives but that his feelings towards them are very ambivalent.

2.1.2 Image of the White Man

Smith also gives the reader a description of the settlers. When they come to Virginia it is already winter and they have nothing left to eat. Smith offers an explanation by saying that they “were all ignorant and supposing to make [the] passage in two month” 16 which shows that the settlers are not completely superior since it is the Natives who bring them food and save them from starving. The settlers, on the other hand, are very strict and cruel towards the Natives whom they shoot down before asking what they want 17 and whom they punish in a very hard way and betray them by shooting them instead trading with them 18 . The settlers

11 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.44

12 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.47

13 ibid

14 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.46

15 ibid

16 John Smith (1624), From The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. From The Third Book. From Chapter 2. What Happened till the First Supply, p.41

Details

Pages
17
Year
2006
ISBN (eBook)
9783869437965
ISBN (Book)
9783656994329
File size
641 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v186299
Institution / College
University of Duisburg-Essen
Grade
1.3
Tags
white native americans real savages research based texts benjamin franklin john smith

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Title: White Men or Native Americans - Who are the Real Savages?