Monday, October 8, 2012

From my thesis - Because I can and you don't have to read it if you don't want to anyway

I got my Masters degree by major thesis in American History from Monash University in 2000, after just over 5 years of at times excruciating labour (it took so long because it was combined, from late 1996, with an almost-fulltime job).

When I started doing my MA, I expected:
- to do a "quickie" Masters in a tightly defined subject area and be done in 2 years
- to use the degree as a springboard for applying to doctoral graduate school in the States in American History; and
- to proceed to an academic research and teaching career, probably in the US.

However, as it has a pesky way of doing, life happened between planning and execution. I took on an initially part-time job in publishing that proved more engrossing than I'd expected; I met my now-husband, G, and got seriously involved with him; and I took a hard look at the trends of (non) employment in the academy in Australia in my field.

By the time I submitted my thesis, I was a newlywed in an interesting public service publications role, and lacked both the stomach and the practical capacity to up stumps and tool off to the US for 4-5 years of backbreaking intellectual labour. To be honest, I needed an immediate break from academic life, and I couldn't get away from it fast enough. Although I've studied since, acquiring a Certificate-level training qualification and a few odds and ends of law subjects, I haven't done any serious research-driven higher learning since that fateful day that I submitted my 80,000 words and went off to drink generous amounts of gin with my postgrad posse of mates.

And because of this more or less instant flight from academic life, my thesis, which I equal parts doted on and loathed, has never seen the light of day. I never published any articles from it (I did publish two from my Honours thesis) and it has remained unregarded on a library shelf somewhere at Monash ever since.

A friend asked recently if I ever think about it anymore. Sure, I do. Before my kids, it was the biggest thing I ever did, it cost me a lot, and I am proud that I finished it and got the degree. The same friend also idly wondered whether my academic writing style is really different from my creative style (and / or my blogging style).

Well, F, you be the judge :-) Here is part of the Introduction to my thesis, which was about captivity narratives in early New England (that is, the stories of white people who were taken captive by indigenous people). I just thought it might be nice to show it some daylight after all this time.


‘Like Another People’: Writing the Indian through symbol and captivity, 1675-1699

Introduction: “The dark places of the Earth are full of the habitation of cruelty…” (1)

If one looked before one, there was nothing but Indians and behind one nothing but Indians. (2)

the Indian…came to me and took me about the middle and said I was his brother. (3)

they struck home such Blowes, upon the heads of their Sleeping Oppressors, that … where they bowed, they fell down dead. (4)

Tales of whites in captivity, held by Indians, have formed a central part of the tangled discourse about Indians and Indian difference in North America from the time of Cotton Mather to the militant Indian protests of the latter part of this century. Seventeenth century settlers, struggling with a dangerous, wild new world and a fearful spiritual schema, were particularly attuned to the meanings of these stories, and the weight of ‘knowledge’ they imparted about Indians, America, and the possibility for redemption.

The stories of Jonathan Dickinson, a Jamaican Quaker who set up his home in Philadelphia, Mary White Rowlandson, famous Puritan wife in distress, Hannah Dustan, capable but rather frightening avenger, and Quentin Stockwell, who experienced the kindness of strangers in a frozen land, form the centre of this thesis. Mary Rowlandson’s travails ended in her purchased return to Lancaster, Massachusetts. Jonathan Dickinson purchased safe passage to Carolina from the Spanish commander at St Augustine and survived to write his tale in Philadelphia. Quentin Stockwell, who writes of the kindness of Indians, came quietly home after his Indian captors failed to pay off his pawn to the French in Canada. Hannah Dustan looms large as a frontierswoman, a taker of scalps and a killer of killers, who escaped captivity through the murder of her captors. As divergent as their means of staying alive were these captives' representations of the Indians who held them, of their own selves, their God, their children, their fears, hopes, pains, desires, and repulsions.

This thesis aims to achieve three things in its study of the four narratives and other writings about Indians in the seventeenth century.

Firstly, it discusses, analyses and culturally ‘explains’ the symbolic ways in which these captivity narratives characterised the Indian. I concentrated my analysis on a contextual discussion of the symbols and emblems used by my four adventurers. I have written of gender and gendering in the texts; of children, infants and blood identity; and of the contrasting positions of whiteness, Indianness and other ‘race’ differentiations each makes in their tale. Nine symbols in particular prove potent: the significance of food; the representations of Indian religion; the notion of Indians as cannibals and infant killers (5); the import of nakedness, in both captive and captor; the self-identification of the captives as ‘white’ and ‘of their Nation’, and how this whiteness is an ambiguous and opaque position; the language used to describe Indians, and their ‘nature’; the representations of Indians as dirty, as animals and as devils; the images of land as ‘wilderness’ and ‘desolate’, unwelcoming and barren; and the intersection of inner and outer substances, the dread of the transgression of boundaries, that dominates Jonathan Dickinson’s account in particular.

The resultant analysis claims no universality, but rather a dedicated specificity. The ‘Indian’ emerges, bloody and hellborn, from the “howling wilderness” of Mary’s desolation; the anxiety-ridden person of Jonathan’s infant son; the righteousness of Hannah’s warrior hatchet; and, far more ambiguously, from the compassion of Quentin’s semi-adoptive sojourn in Canada.

Secondly, I have argued throughout that the differentiated ‘Indian’ thus created was a precursor to later ideas about Indian difference in the era of biological race, and was as powerfully operative as those later ideas. The development of a fixed idea of biological race, from which one cannot hope to escape, putatively supported by science and genetics, is a production of the Enlightenment, and of later generations of thought (7). However, the fact that these seventeenth century English religious escapees did not have a ‘blood-and-DNA’ understanding of biology and biological inheritance did not make their ideas about human distinctions and differences any less rigid or punitive.

As early as 1622, Indians were held by many to be condemned from birth. As one popular poet wrote:
For, but consider what those Creatures are,
(I cannot call them men) no Character
Of God in them: Soules chain’d in flesh and blood;
Rooted in Evil, and oppos’d to Good;
Errors of nature, of inhumane Birth,
The very dregs, garbage and spanne of Earth. (8)

Even those who hoped for Indian salvation and thought them kind had, as I will discuss, ideas about the immutability of ‘Indianness’, and its taint. Through stories of captivity, I will suggest, we can read the beginning of certain motifs of ‘race’ in American thought: “the Indian captivity narrative form...[helped] to fix particular (and ethnocentric) views of the Indian in the American imagination, and thereby [made] those same images...readily available for political and ideological manipulation.” Whether gentle or brutal, ideas about difference operated with as much force in this “pre-racial” era as in later, racialised times.


(1) Psalm 74:20; appears on the preface page of Jonathan Dickinson, God’s protecting providence, Reinier Jansen, Philadelphia, 1699.
(2) Mary White Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and goodness of God, 1682, in Alden Vaughan & Edward Clark, Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724, Belknap Press, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass., 1981, pp. 31-75, p. 45
(3) Quentin Stockwell, included in Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, Boston, 1684, pp. 39-58, p. 57. This edition, Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, Delmar, New York, 1977.
(4) Hannah Dustan’s tale, narrated by Cotton Mather, in Humiliations Followed with Deliverances, B Green & J Allen, Boston, 1697, p. 46
(5) With a debt to Colin Ramsey’s excellent article, “Cannibalism and Infant Killing: A System of ‘Demonizing’ Motifs in Indian Captivity Narratives”, Clio, 24:55, 1994, pp 55-68
(6) Mary White Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and goodness of God, in Vaughan & Clark, Puritans Among the Indians, p. 40
(7) For good discussions of the origins of racial thought, particularly relevant to the American experience, see: Louise K Barrett, The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism 1790-1890, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1975; Emmanel Chukwadi Eze (ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass., 1997; Thomas F. Gossett, Race: the history of an idea in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997; Jack P. Greene, Imperatives, Behaviours and Identities: Essays in Early American Cultural History, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. & London, 1992; Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power, and Ideology, Routledge, London & New York, 1995; Ivan Hannafold, Race: the history of an idea in the West, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1996; Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.) Race, gender and rank: early modern ideas of humanity, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, New York, 1992; Winthrop D. Jordan, The white man's burden: historical origins of racism in the United States, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974; Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, Routledge, New York, 1995; Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient, Routledge & Kegan Paul; London, 1978; Ronald Sanders, Lost tribes and promised lands: the origins of American racism, 1st ed, Little, Brown, Boston, 1978; Pat Shipman, The evolution of racism: human differences and the use and abuse of science, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994; Alden T. Vaughan, Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995; Robert J.C.Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture & Race, Routledge, London & New York, 1995.
(8) Christopher Brooke, A Poem of the late Massacre in Virginia, with particular mention of those Men of Note that Suffered in That Disaster, G. Eld for Robert Mylbourne, London, 1622.


  1. Have we talked about captivity narratives before? I can't remember. My favourite is, of course, Olive Oatman who was captured in 1851 and received the traditional chin tattoo of the Mohave Indians (whether she was forcibly tattooed or was a willing participant to mark her entry into the group is debated). She returned (again, whether willingly or not is debated) to white society after living with the Mohave for 5 years. A book was published detailing her experiences which followed the captivity narrative structure - and conveniently, provided a nice template for stories told by subsequent tattooed sideshow acts in the 1880-90s. Many claimed to have been captured and forcibly tattooed by Indians (even though of course they were tattooed for the sole purpose of display and profit). So there are definite connections between the world of the 19th century sideshow and captivity narratives!

    1. I do not think we have had this conversation, and I think we need to :-) Will DM you about a lunch date soon.