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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 287-313
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"Then Began He to Rant and Threaten":
Indian Malice and Individual Liberty in Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative
The most notorious battle of King Philip's War is the Great Swamp Fight (or Massacre) of December 1675, in which the New England colonial army ambushed and set ablaze a fortress of the Narragansett Indians. At the time of the attack, the Narragansetts were neutral observers of the war between a coalition of other Algonquian tribes and the English colonists, but the destruction of their fortress precipitated their involvement. In January 1676, hoping to wipe out the new enemy before the survivors could regroup and join the war, the English sent a detachment to pursue and kill those Narragansetts who had fled the Great Swamp. The detachment failed to complete its mission, and the surviving Narragansetts did indeed join with other Algonquians to attack Lancaster in February 1676, the battle in which Mary Rowlandson was taken captive. 1
The Great Swamp Fight is alluded to but not discussed by the pseudonymous writer (probably Increase Mather) of the preface to Mary Rowlandson's 1682 narrative of her captivity during this war. 2 To explain the February attack upon Lancaster, the writer looks to "the causeless enmity of these barbarians, against the English, and the malicious and revengeful spirit of these heathen" (318). The mention of Indian malice as the reason for the attack upon Lancaster, combined with a vague account of the preceding English violence, may seem a simple, familiar tactic to justify English actions by obscuring the Algonquians' reasons for fighting. 3 However, there is more to this rhetorical maneuver.
The idea of Indian malice not only rationalizes English violence; as a trope for individual liberty, it is ingeniously faithful to a Calvinist [End Page 287] theory of God's providence. Whereas Calvinism renders the very possibility of individual liberty utterly problematic by insisting that God determines all human action, the trope of Indian malice affirms God's providence by figuring an individual liberty strictly limited to the realm of one's intentions. 4 The commonplace meaning of malice as intention, rather than action, enables Rowlandson and the author of the preface to represent a world in which God determines all actions, while leaving the individual free only to intend action. In Rowlandson's text, this human liberty—which she supposes Indians to exemplify by their malicious intentions—is, by virtue of its subordination to God's intentions, altogether petty. But the representation of its pettiness serves the exigent cultural function of reaffirming Puritan belief in the wake of a devastating and faith-shaking war. In other words, where individual liberty is mundane, God's providence is, at least rhetorically, well preserved.
In claiming that this American Puritan text conceives of individuals as free to intend but not as free to act upon their intentions, I do not deny the continuing force of Max Weber's different thesis—that Puritans (including those in seventeenth-century New England) pursued "intense worldly activity" in the belief that their visible accomplishments would constitute proof that God had predestined them for salvation in the hereafter; rather, I am suggesting that in addition to this Protestant ethic of action, there exists a Protestant rhetoric of inaction. 5 Whereas analysis of the ethic of action helps Weber to explain the origins of capitalism, analysis of the rhetoric of inaction uncovers a genealogy of Anglo-American individualism.
Given my focus on Rowlandson's figuration of Indian malice, it should come as no surprise that the form of individualism I analyze in this essay is deeply implicated in racializing discourse. 6 When insisting upon the intentions and character of her individual captors, Rowlandson appropriates that form of colonialist authority that Homi K. Bhabha describes as operating by means of "the production of differentiations, individuations, [and] identity effects through which discriminatory practices can map out subject populations that are tarred with the visible and transparent mark of power." 7 Thus, Rowlandson's racialism...