- "Money Answers All Things":Rethinking Economic and Cultural Exchange in the Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson
From the voluminous critical literature on the early modern captivity narrative in recent years comes an insight that has transformed this crucial American genre: captivity fosters exchange.1 Viewed in its own day and for centuries afterward as a static expression of loss, a jeremiad about the dangers of failing to hold "civilized" cultures in higher regard than "savage" ones, the captivity narrative has, in this new critical light, become a dynamic text about transculturation.2 Though they may have bemoaned their forcible removal from their own environments and in some cases been returned to "civilization" warning others of their plight, many seventeenth-century captives, this new insight suggests, also engaged in a lively cultural exchange with what has come to be known as the ethnographic "other."
But if the notion of captivity as a paradigm of exchange marks an advance in our understanding of what this genre has to offer, the concept of exchange within the paradigm nevertheless remains tethered to an older, monolithic model of economic relations that continues to hamper our understanding of how some captives thought about cultural difference. Specifically, the model of exchange informing the work of most scholars has been that of commodity exchange or barter. To be sure, many if not most of the narratives that have been analyzed for connections between [End Page 1] economic and cultural exchange revolve around commodity transfers. A case in point, often hailed as the consummate example of transculturation, is Cabeza de Vaca's Relación (1542), which represents exchange almost exclusively in commodity terms.3 A close second, however, in terms of the importance of cultural exchange in captivity, is the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682), which offers a model that includes barter but is also significantly tied to monetary exchange, that is, to exchanges of commodities or services for money, and vice versa.
The issue of exchange was central to the cluster of ideas that began to emerge about the economy in the sixteenth century and that came to be known as mercantilism. On the whole, however, sixteenth-century mercantilism took as its goal the redirection of the commercial world away from the accumulation of treasure through the acquisition of precious metals and toward the accumulation of treasure through market exchange. Thus it is this still largely commodity-oriented process that finds expression in Cabeza de Vaca's account. But by the early part of the seventeenth century, the general mercantilist emphasis on market exchange had narrowed to focus on accumulating treasure through the circulation of money and had become a principle of national rule in England.4 Writing more than a century after Cabeza de Vaca, then, Rowlandson unsurprisingly incorporates a more money-oriented version of mercantilism into her narrative than her Spanish predecessor did, and yet analyses of her text's vision of cultural difference have consistently failed to take account of this. Nor can we extrapolate from later accounts of money's effect on culture and identity much that is relevant about Rowlandson's experience, since these studies typically begin in the early eighteenth century and take as their starting point institutions, like paper money and national banks, which did not exist in Rowlandson's day.5 In Rowlandson's narrative, however, which reveals an early and still mixed form of mercantilist economy—barter and money-based—we can perhaps see better than in any later texts the impact that monetary exchanges—in this case involving coin—had on people's perceptions of each other.
In the exchange of commodities—metal goods for fur, for example—European and indigenous populations famously gained a material sense of cultural difference, learning in specific instances of exchange about how to build houses or how to keep warm. Thus many early modern captivity narratives, including Cabeza de Vaca's and Rowlandson's, were highly prized for their proto-ethnographic information by contemporary and subsequent reading audiences. In money transfers, by contrast, which in [End Page 2] Rowlandson's narrative include coins for commodities as well as a crucial coin-based ransom...