Jeffrey Glover. Paper Sovereigns: Anglo-Native Treaties and the Law of Nations, 1604-1664. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. viii + 312 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4596-7.
Reviewed by Lou Roper (Dept. of History, State University of New York--New Paltz)
Published on H-Empire (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)
Apprehending Sovereign Matters in Seventeenth-Century North America
For modern students of European descent and for generations of indigenous people, the insult of a historical record of interactions between indigenous people and Europeans, created and controlled by whites, has compounded the injuries from unfamiliar and lethal diseases, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement brought by the newcomers/invaders, which resulted in the cultural, demographic, and political collapse or near-collapse of Native societies that inhabited the North Atlantic coastline during the first six decades of the seventeenth century. This catastrophic pattern was generally replicated in subsequent encounters as white settlers moved westward over the ensuing two and a half centuries despite the various strategies that Indians, collectively and individually, employed both to forestall it and to pursue their own agendas. Jeffrey Glover, in Paper Sovereigns: Anglo-Native Treaties and the Law of Nations, 1604-1664, seeks, commendably, to comprehend the substance of those agendas in the pursuit of various treaties with the English, as well as the manner in which those agendas were transmitted on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues that, despite the devastating results of these encounters, Indians advanced their designs “to powerful effect” on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean (p. 6); their successes—“even if they did not endure for long—suggest that we should tell a different kind of story about colonialism, one not based upon the inevitable defeat of Natives by Europeans” (p. 226).
Glover claims that his fellow “literary scholars” have generally failed to grasp these points (p. 226); since their “accounts have examined how English colonists used written treaties to give an appearance of legality to the theft of Native land,” they “have argued that the English disregarded indigenous political systems and sought to impose written forms of political documentation on Native peoples” (p. 29). To revise these apprehensions, he has trained his lens on various reports on diplomatic relations between colonists and their indigenous neighbors: comments on the 1614 marriage between Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan sachem Wahunsonacock, and the Virginia planter John Rolfe; the continuing affirmance by another Virginian, William Claiborne, of his enduring commercial ties to the Susquehannocks as he pursued a land claim against Maryland; and the incorporation of agreements with the Narragansetts in the petitions of Rhode Islanders Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams for charters from Parliament in the 1640s. This diplomatic channel, with the opportunities for diplomatic advancement it afforded Indians, came to an end with the Restoration of Charles II when a new Council for Foreign Plantations was established that “opened up new channels of communication between the colonies and their metropolitan governors,” including a commission sent to investigate New England affairs that “drastically reconfigured the relations of authority between tribes, colonists, and the crown” (p. 223).
Unfortunately, this book does not have a great deal to recommend it to the membership of H-Empire. First, it has been apparent to any historian of Indian-white relations who has entered the profession since, say, 1980, that indigenous people had and have had their own political, cultural, and economic agendas; that they could and did achieve success in pursuing those agendas; and, thus, that the demise of Indian polities was not inevitable.
Moreover, Glover demonstrates an uneven grasp of the character of both early modern European and “traditional” American Indian societies, as well as of Anglo-American colonization, which leads to a number of problematic characterizations. He proffers, for instance, an analysis of the kidnapping of Pocahontas by Samuel Argall with the assistance of the Patawomecks in terms of a rhetorical exercise. This includes an examination of Argall’s justification for his behavior, the True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia by Ralph Hamor (1615), which the Virginia Company duly published, and the subsequent highly publicized trip that Pocahontas, newly converted to Christianity and married to Rolfe, made with her husband to England, which included her prominent position at a court masque and a reunion with Captain John Smith (as Smith related it in 1624). Glover contends that the “silence of Pocahontas in contemporary records was not the result of a lack of English interest in her views. On the contrary it showed the importance of Native voices to English legal strategies” for demonstrating control of the Chesapeake especially to foreign rivals (p. 107).
Undoubtedly, various English writers did not hesitate to include “Native voices” in their accounts, but the degree to which they understood those “voices” and conveyed them in accordance with the intent and understanding of those who articulated them must, at best, remains open. For purposes of assessing these documents, however, a more thorough grounding of the context in which they were produced is required. Glover’s close readings devote substantial attention to the views of his authors, such as Smith, but, for instance, he neglects to note, other than in passing, that the kidnapping of Pocahontas signaled a U-turn in the fortunes of Jamestown and that Hamor’s “discourse” celebrated this: peace with the Powhatans had finally occurred, the Natives were tractable, and the successful cultivation of “sweet-smelling” tobacco by Rolfe provided an economic lifeline that enabled the colony to shift to a plantation operation. In conjunction with the takeover of the Virginia Company by a group led by Thomas Wriothelsey, Earl of Southampton, and Sir Edwin Sandys after a bitter struggle (wholly ignored by Glover), these developments meant that Virginia—at last—might serve as fruitful territory for plantation, migration, and new investment after years as a watchword for misery. The Pocahontas-Rolfe grand tour publicized these new prospects to (too-)great effect, but what the Indians thought was hardly relevant to this scheme in the minds of those who advanced it.
On the Native side of things, Glover believes that “manitou in all things was at the center of coastal practices for marking agreement and building political order” and “the creator was something of a distant figure. He [sic] existed as a force in the universe, seldom communicating with humans directly” (p. 15). Seventeenth-century Algonquian people certainly regarded manitou as a force of fundamental importance. Also, their communities usually included figures who acted as intermediaries between the spirit world (inhabited by manitou) and the physical world. But all Indians had (and have) a direct connection to the spirit world and Algonquians did not, pace Glover, regard “their leaders both as embodiments of gods and as figures who kept the world of humans in balance with the world of spirits” (pp. 15-16). Accordingly, and ironically given his intent to “recover Native voices,” by focusing on such figures as Miantonomi, Ninigret, and Wahunsonock, Glover all-too-readily follows where his preferred sources lead him: to an emphasis on, for example, “expansion-minded sachems” (p. 132) and away from clan structures, the roles of women, and other “traditional” aspects of indigenous communities whose influences on the decisions of those communities often escaped the attention of those who created the documents no matter how culturally attuned they were.
Glover rightly notes that treaties between Indians and English “had to represent consensus ad idem, a ‘meeting of the minds’ or voluntary agreement between parties [that] served as proof that a claim was pacified, or under control” (p. 3). But to what degree did the minds involved in these negotiations actually meet? And to what degree were they aware of—and did they care about—the substantial cultural gap that continued to exist between them? The enduring issue for those who created the historical record here was quieting title; Glover notes that treaties, in conjunction with war, provided the surest means “to defuse any Indian threat, and thereby secure [land] claims under the law of nations” (p. 12).
Any seventeenth-century Englishman who wanted to alienate lands acquired from Indians had to demonstrate that the he had acquired a proper title—in accordance with English law—from the original “sellers.” Thus, Anglo-American recognition of Native “power and legitimacy” should never be taken to mean that English colonists (or their descendants) recognized Indian nations as equivalents of France even as “tribes” became Nations (p. 226). While those Nations continue to claim sovereignty in accordance with “the law of nations,” a concept that Glover repeatedly invokes, the law of the United States, as set forth in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), classifies them as “domestic dependent nations” whose “tribal title” can only be extinguished by congressional treaty.
The same principle operated in 1664 when commissioners of Charles II temporarily placed former Narragansett lands subject to conflicting claims of Connecticut and Rhode Island under royal authority until the king’s pleasure was known. Glover mistakenly suggests that this move “was reflective of a broader shift in Native treaty relations that occurred in the wake of the direct assertion of royal government of the colonies” (p. 224) and ended two decades of successful Narragansett manipulations of their English neighbors grounded on the threat of metropolitan intervention in colonial affairs. In reality, this intervention enabled the arbitration of an intercolonial dispute by the Crown which quieted the “Indian title” as it divided the “Narragansett Country” between the two colonies (not coincidentally, now duly chartered). The Narragansetts themselves did not figure in this reckoning.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-empire.
Lou Roper. Review of Glover, Jeffrey, Paper Sovereigns: Anglo-Native Treaties and the Law of Nations, 1604-1664.
H-Empire, H-Net Reviews.
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