The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility

The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility

The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility

The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility

Synopsis

Missionary work, arising from a sense of pity, helped convince the British that they were a benevolent people. Stevens relates this to the rise of the cult of sensibility, when philosophers argued that humans were inherently good because they felt sorrow at the sign of suffering. "Stevens has written a thoughtful study of British missionary culture. Most important, she reveals how philanthropy shaped the identity of a transatlantic British public and the ways that identity has resonated from the seventeenth century all the way up to our time."--"The New England Quarterly" Between the English Civil War of 1642 and the American Revolution, countless British missionaries announced their intention to "spread the gospel" among the native North American population. Despite the scope of their endeavors, they converted only a handful of American Indians to Christianity. Their attempts to secure moral and financial support at home proved much more successful. In "The Poor Indians," Laura Stevens delves deeply into the language and ideology British missionaries used to gain support, and she examines their wider cultural significance. Invoking pity and compassion for "the poor Indian"--a purely fictional construct--British missionaries used the Black Legend of cruelties perpetrated by Spanish conquistadors to contrast their own projects with those of Catholic missionaries, whose methods were often brutal and deceitful. They also tapped into a remarkably effective means of swaying British Christians by connecting the latter's feelings of religious superiority with moral obligation. Describing mission work through metaphors of commerce, missionaries asked their readers in England to invest, financially and emotionally, in the cultivation of Indian souls. As they saved Indians from afar, supporters renewed their own faith, strengthened the empire against the corrosive effects of paganism, and invested in British Christianity with philanthropic fervor. "The Poor Indians" thus uncovers the importance of religious feeling and commercial metaphor in strengthening imperial identity and colonial ties, and it shows how missionary writings helped fashion British subjects who were self-consciously transatlantic and imperial because they were religious, sentimental, and actively charitable. Laura M. Stevens teaches English at the University of Tulsa.

Excerpt

In Daniel Defoe’s Life and Strange and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe tells us that in his eighteenth year as a castaway he stumbled across the remnants of a cannibalistic feast. Repulsed by “this horrid Spectacle,” he “gave God Thanks that had cast my first Lot in a Part of the World, where I was distinguish’d from such dreadful Creatures as these.” He then spent several weeks plotting “how I might destroy some of these Monsters in their cruel bloody Entertainment.” After a while, though, he gave up these fantasies, as he considered the injustice of “so outragious an Execution as the killing twenty or thirty naked Savages.” Several factors prompted this change of heart. Crusoe admitted that the Caribes had not hurt him by slaughtering each other. He considered that any attack might result in his own death. He began to pity the Caribes, “who it seems had been suffer’d by Providence in his wise Disposition of the World, to have no other Guide than that of their own abominable and vitiated Passions.” He wondered, how could God want him to kill Indians for their sinful acts when he had never told them those acts were sins?

The real change, though, occurred when he realized that killing cannibals “would justify the Conduct of the Spaniards in all their Barbarities practis’d in America.” After all, the Indians of Mexico “had several bloody and barbarous Rites in their Customs,” but they were “yet, as to the Spaniards, very innocent People.” To kill these Caribes would make Crusoe just like the Spanish, who, he categorically proclaimed, were “without Principles of Tenderness, or the common Bowels of Pity to the Miserable.” Crusoe gave up on murdering the Caribes because he pitied them, but more because he could not bear to think of himself as a man without pity. His response was ponderous and self-conscious, precisely because it emerged from his need to think of himself as one who, unlike the Spanish, spontaneously felt pity. A few years later he did find an opportunity to be both compassionate and violent. After dreaming of and planning for such an . . .

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