We had our first discussion yesterday, and I thought it went quite nicely. We began with the simple question: what would you do in a contagion? I like the question because as I added on layers of context, different students had different answers. At first, the class univocally said “we would leave.” But then, what if it was your mother who was sick? Oh, now that changes things. Perhaps we would stay. But what if you had a child that you feared could get infected by your parent? Oh, now that changes things even more. And then, where do you go? Do you join another tribe? How would that work? What language would you speak? What rituals would you perform? How would decisions be made, and how in the world can you decide all of this while grieving so much death. As James Merrell so nicely discusses in his article on “TheIndians’ New World,” death is more than death. It transformed every issue, question, and problem for so many tribal peoples.
|John Vanderlyn, "Landing of Columbus"|
Then we moved into the issue of “contact” or “conquest”. As we read documents from Portuguese slave traders, Christopher Columbus, Aztec chroniclers of Cortes’s attack, Dutch and British first encounters with Native Americans on the eastern seaboard, we kept coming back to one fundamental problem: agenda. When Columbus discussed the people he encountered as having no military wares and no interest in fighting, when he described them as sharing all their goods, and seeming to think of him as from the sacred “sky,” did he have an agenda? Was he merely trying to tell the Spanish crown and investors that his adventures would not be like the old crusades or even the recent wars against Muslims in the south of Spain … that these people would be easy to dominate … that they would consider their domination a positive good? Students can debate whether this was an era of contact where people marveled at one another and enjoyed one another, or they can see it as the awakening of European conquest of the New World. It was a fun debate.
Next time, we’re going to rush madly into the English settlements, and hopefully we fare better than they did (my class has about 160 students; I’m hoping at least 100 will survive the first few months). In the “wink, wink … nod, nod” portion of this post, my students may want to pay attention in Hist to the reasons why section regarding European exploration outside Europe, the role of the Pope in South America, the Pequot war, and how the English first settled.
For blog readers, later this week we’ll have an interview from Rice University’s Rebecca Goetz on the major problems of teaching the early colonies. Until then … try to survive.