8 October 2013
God´s instruments? Native Indians in Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative
When Mary Rowlandson is held captive by the Indians in the late 17th century, she has to deal with the situation in order to survive. But when we look at "A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson," it is important to understand the point of view of a Puritan woman. As such, Mary Rowlandson connects all events, good and bad ones, to God. For this reason, even the Indians´ actions are initiated by Him. But why did Rowlandson decide to make them God´s instrument in her story? Aren´t the Native Americans supposed to be the wild, the savage, the opposite of the Puritans? Was it her strong beliefs, was it some sort of self-protection-mechanism, or was it her way to deal with a strange, foreign situation?
As described in the narrative, the Indians burn down houses and kill and torture people. From a Puritan point of view, there is no other explanation but this has to be a punishment from God in order to show His power to the Puritan community. Rowlandson describes that the Indians are an instrument, through which God punishes and afflicts the Puritans for their sins, when she explains how, “[t]hough many times they would eat that, that a hog or a dog would hardly touch; yet by that God strengthened them to be a scourge to His people” (283). Despite their savage behaviour, God controls their actions and even supports them, in order to afflict the Puritans. Rowlandson even interprets the Puritans´ sins as the reason for the Indians´ existance: “I can but stand in admiration to see the wonderful power of God in providing for such a vast number of our enemies in the wilderness, where there was nothing to be seen, but from hand to mouth ... But now our perverse and evil carriages in the sight of the Lord feeds and nourishes them up to be a scourge to the whole land” (284). When there is hopeless situations for Rowlandson, she still believes, throughout her captivity, that it is God´s providence that steers all actions with him having “an over-ruling hand in all those things” (283).
For the Puritan people, the Indians were savage, almost inhuman creatures. The fact that they murdered and had a rather wild lifestyle matches that impression perfectly. But there is one problem with that interpretation: even if Rowlandson was captured by them and treated badly, they did some good things. They carried her, they fed her, they let her visit her children, and after all, helped her to survive. Those many acts of kindness described in her narrative, do not fit with the impression of the Indians, being instrumented by God only to afflict the Puritans. But Rowlandson finds a way to interpret all the good things that the Indians do to her: They are not only God´s instrument for punishement, but they also serve to show his kindness and to help Rowlandson on her way towards conversion. Whenever she is most desperate and starving, it is God that sends the Indians to help her, “[a]nd then the Lord remembered me, whose mercies are great. Then came an Indian to me with a pair of stockings that were too big for him, and he would have me ravel them out, and knit them fit for him ... Then I went along with him, and he gave me some roasted ground nuts, which did again revive my feeble stomach” (274). Technically, it is always the Indians that help her, but without admitting it, she always attributes their help to God´s kindness rather than to the Indians. For example with saying “but God was with me in a wonderful manner, carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit, that it did not quite fail. One of the Indians carried my poor wounded babe upon a horse ... Then they set me upon a horse with my wounded child in my lap” (260), she uses the term of “carrying” to explain what God does, even if it is definitely the Indians and their horses that physically carry her. She directly transforms everything good that happens to her through the Indians into God´s action to explain this Christian behaviour done by savages. She even finds ways to compare their actions with situations in the bible, when explaining that “[a native] gave me a mess of beans and meat, and a little ground nut cake. I was wonderfully revived with this favor showed me: `He made them also to be pitied of all those that carried them captives´(Psalm 106.46)” (278). One could say that they gave Rowlandson food, because they felt sorry for her. But that would mean to make them human beings with nice feeling. So Rowlandson´s way to interpret this situation is to show how great God is, because he is even able to make those wild savages feel sorry for her.
Like every act of kindness is initated by God, so is all the violence that Rowlandson experiences, done for a reason. Rowlandson describes their violence as actions by God or at least tries to explain that everything that happens to the Puritans, happens for a reason. For her, “[i]t is a solemn sights to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by his almighty power preserved a number of us from death, for there were twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive.” (259). If Rowlandson would not have been captured by the Indians, she would not have experienced the affliction she thinks she deserves. There are many passages, where she shows, that the Indians are instruments of violence for the Puritan good, who almost puppets them around like dolls. But nevertheless, they get punished for their actions too. She “entreated, begged, and persuaded them, but to let [her] see [her] daugther; and yet so hard-heated were they, that they would not suffer it. They made use of their tyrannical power whilst they had it; but through the Lord´s wonderful mercy, their time was now but short” (281). This can be seen as typical for the perception of God in the Puritan era: a punishing, cruel God, who, on the one side uses the Indians to afflict his chosen people, but on the other side punishes the Indians for their cruelty. She gives another example for this, when she tells about an Indian treating her sister badly and explaining that “the Lord requited many of their ill doings, for this Indian master, was hanged afterward at Boston” (281). With those images of a God, punishing who ever he wants to, Rowlandson again shows that it is only God´s perception that makes the Indians do what he wants to and that he “had not so many ways before to preserve them, but now He hath as many to destroy them” (284).
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- ISBN (Book)
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- Northern Arizona University – Literature studies
- Captivity Mary Rowlandson American Studies early American Literature American Literature Native American Captivated Puritans