- War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations and the British Empire
In War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations and the British Empire, Gregory Evans Down continues the work he began in his earlier book, A Spirited Resistance (Johns Hopkins University Press. 1993). In that work, Dowd described the development of a pan-Indian resistance movement in the mid-eighteenth century that reached its peak with Tecumseh in the 1810s. In his new work, Dowd looks at a part of that larger struggle, the conflict known as “Pontiac’s War” (1763–65), in hopes of stripping away much of the mythology that surrounds both the conflict and the Ottawa leader for whom it was named.
Dowd’s subtitle clearly reflects this book’s content as he applies an ethnohistorical approach to help readers understand not only the cultural values that underpinned the Indians’ resistance to the expansion of the British Empire in North America but also to gain insights into the motivations of the British officers who served that Empire. Like other modern scholars before him, Dowd sees the conflict neither as an afterthought of the Seven Years War nor as a prelude to the American Revolution, but as a significant military engagement in its own right that—at least briefly—stymied the exercise of British authority in the Great Lakes region and the Illinois country. Dowd departs from most earlier work, however, in that he locates the roots of the conflict not in disputes over land or trade but in the lack of British respect for Indian sovereignty and personhood. “Land and trade issues,” he explains, “were the kinds of measurable and quantifiable issues that might have been negotiated had it not become so clear that other issues, pressing matters of the heart, were beyond discussion.” While the British “clearly conveyed their intention to dominate and master a conquered continent, Indians demanded recognition, honor, and respect.”
Unlike the French, with whom many Native groups in the Great Lakes country had struck mutually beneficial alliances and stable working relationships, the British had entered the region as conquerors—in the wake of their final victory over France in North America. British officers, including such notables as Jeffery Amherst and Henry Gladwin, felt compelled to make clear to Indians and Euro-american settlers alike that the frontier was no less a part of His Majesty’s domain than was Scotland, Wales or Ireland. In the process of asserting British dominance—and in refusing to continue to comply with Native American cultural practices such as exchanging gifts with one’s allies—these officials, as Dowd describes, did far worse than offend their neighbors. They called into question, at a very fundamental level, the relationship between the Empire and the Indian nations around (and, at least nominally, within) it. Were the Indian nations to be dealt with as sovereign entities (as they saw themselves), as subject peoples, or simply as obstacles to be overcome?
For Indian leaders like Pontiac, this affront to their nations’ sovereignty posed an even more dangerous threat than did the ever-growing number of settlers in the East. In response, many turned to new religious movements for a solution. Many of these visionary movements, including that followed by Pontiac and his peers, called for a conscious (if incomplete) renunciation of White ways and a return to traditional values. In such ideas, native groups left in disarray after over a century of displacement, warfare and disease found both solace and a basis for unity—a sense of pan-Indian consciousness that had never before existed to such a degree. With the help of Pontiac and other Native leaders, this pan-Indian resistance movement took on martial dimensions in addition to its spiritual and cultural elements.
The story Dowd tells is a complicated one, and that he is able to present it in only 275 pages of text is an amazing feat. He not only presents sophisticated analyses of the Indian cultures of the Great Lakes region, of British Imperial culture as manifested on the North...