An anti-Muslim organisation called the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) has been posting advertisements in support of Israel on buses and trains around the US.
One reads in part: “In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man”.
Needless to say, Israel is equated with civilisation. Savages, according to the AFDI’s website, include the Palestinian Authority, the torturers of Gilad Shalit, and all those who wage war on “innocent civilians”.
Calling your enemy bad names is as old as warfare. But the label “savage” is often found in imperial contexts, in wars between Western powers and indigenous peoples.
King Philip’s War (1675 to 76) was one such war, between the Puritan settlers of New England and Algonquian Indians (King Philip was one name used for the Indian leader who began the war).
Decoding the “savagery” of the Indians is an instructive exercise.
Fighting for existence
To begin with, the Indians made a point of going after the religion of the Puritans. In her marvellous The Name of War, Jill Lepore tells of one Nipmuck Indian who chased down an elderly Englishman. Before killing him, the Nipmuck mocked “Come Lord Jesus, save this poor Englishman if thou canst”.
Other Indians despatched a Puritan who had believed himself safe as long as he held his Bible in his hand. Afterwards, the Indians sliced open his belly and put his Bible in it.
When not burning down the Puritans’ houses and towns, the Indians went after their crops and cattle. While burying some English captives alive, an Indian taunted his victims: “You English since you came into this country have grown exceedingly well above the ground, let us now see how you will grow when planted into the ground.”
The cows suffered particularly badly. Sometimes the Indians would slit open their bellies, and leave them to wander with their guts hanging out until they died. The horns and tongues of cattle were cut off, while yet others were lit on fire in front of their former owners. One Puritan said this proved how “delighted” the Indians were in “exercising cruelty”. It showed what “barbarous creatures” the Indians really were.
It goes without saying that the Puritans also accused the Indians of fighting like beasts, fiends, cowards and women. The Indians were sneaky and “skulked” behind bushes and rocks. One Englishman even compared the murderous red Indians to “wild Arabians”.
It would seem that the Puritans had even more reasons to call their enemies “savages” than do today’s Zionists.
But consider how rational the Indians were in their choices of targets.
The Puritans had worked hard to convert Indians to Christianity, settling many of them in “praying towns”. Like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Puritans were assimilating the Indians. They turned them into aliens who spoke a different language and prayed to a foreign god. So naturally the warring Indians targeted Christian symbols and meeting houses.
Puritan crops, and especially the extensive pastures required for cattle, were gobbling up Indian land. King Philip himself had complained how difficult it was to protect Indian corn from the English cattle. No matter what the Indians did, he said, “the English cattle and horses still increased”. So the Indians went after the Puritan agriculture and livestock that was threatening their livelihood.
Neither did the Indians spare “innocent civilians”. Indeed, the Puritan settlers were their primary targets. The Indians burnt Puritan homesteads and killed entire families, striping and scalping their victims, even pregnant women. The Indians also took Puritans captive. Some they would assimilate, turning them into Indians to replace their depleted population. Others they would release in exchange for Indian prisoners, money or other goods.
Summing it all up, one Puritan reported that “Many of our miserable inhabitants lie naked, wallowing in their blood, and crying, and while the barbarous enraged [Indians], from one part of the country to another are on fire, flaming forth their fury, spoiling cattle and corn and burning houses, and torturing men, women and children; and burning them alive.”
It was understandable that the Puritans were shocked. But the Indians had realised that they were fighting for their very existence, as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America would later make clear. The forms of violence the Indians engaged in encoded their grievances in a language of blood, fear and horror.
“… the Indians had realised that they were fighting for their very existence, as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America would later make clear.”
But it was a language nonetheless, one that responded point by point to the forces destroying them.
When Narragansett Indians attacked and burnt the city of Providence, Roger Williams – the founder of Rhode Island and a friend of the Indians – went to the edge of town to talk to the Indians. Why were they burning and killing their good neighbours, Williams wanted to know?
The Narragansetts confessed they were “in a strange way” but said the Puritans had forced them into war. The Indians also thought god was on their side, and had forsaken the Puritans, as the Indians had been so successful in their attacks.
As the tide of war turned against the Indians, it would be the Puritans who slaughtered Indian men, women and children; who killed their captives out of hand; and who sold Indians into slavery. For their part, the Puritans believed they were defending themselves; recovering the land and property the Indians had taken or destroyed; and were rightly punishing those who had injured them.
Like the Indians, the Puritans believed too that they were in a holy war. One of their preachers exhorted his fellow Protestants to “take, kill, burn, sink, destroy all… professed enemies to Christ Jesus, and not to pity or spare any of them”.
Many reading this column will find it easier to identify with the Puritans as the civilised side, despite their excesses. The Puritans speak the language of civilisation more convincingly than do the Indians.
But the Puritans were in fact agents of genocide, who stole Indian land and destroyed Indian populations. The Indians fought back in a way that reflected what was being done to them. All involved in such a war are in a “strange way”.
To support the “civilised” side as the AFDI asks us to do would in this case be to support genocide.
The language of war requires careful reading. We must resist easy accusations of savagery as well as proclamations of civilisation if we are to understand it.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.