- Sixty Indians and Twenty CanoesBriton Hammon’s Unreliable Witness to History
Just after Christmas Day in 1747, Briton Hammon, the servant of a man named General John Winslow from Massachusetts, left Boston on The Howlet, a sloop bound for Jamaica to gather “logwood.” On the return trip in June of 1748, fully laden with cargo, the sloop ran aground near Cape Florida, an area of dangerous reefs just south of present-day Miami. Stuck on the reef for two days, the captain ordered Hammon and eight members of the twelve-man crew to row for shore while he waited aboard the sloop with two others. While still paddling for the beach, loaded down with provisions, they spotted what appeared to be rocks on the horizon. Hammon and his crewmates soon realized they were mistaken. What they had seen was a complement of sixty Indians in twenty canoes advancing toward them. The Indians killed everyone except Hammon and held him captive for six weeks. Hammon eventually made his way aboard a Spanish schooner that had anchored off the cape and began a twelve-year odyssey of successive captivities and escapes that took him from a prison cell in Havana to a stint serving aboard a British warship, and then finally and miraculously to a reunion with his old master in London.
Hammon’s story was first told in A Narrative of the Uncommon and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, an autobiographical narrative published in 1760 by Green and Russell, the foremost printer in Boston during the period.1 In the 1760s New Englanders were hungry for stories of Indian captivity, so it is no accident that the first five weeks of Hammon’s twelve-year odyssey occupies five of the ten total pages in the Narrative. Indian captivity narratives were a popular “dime novel” publication phenomenon in mid-1700s America, read [End Page 133] more for vicarious thrills and entertainment than serious literary merit. The “adventure story” aspect was the most important feature of these publications, and authors of seventeenth-century captivity narratives were not above adding lurid, obviously exaggerated details, fictionalizing portions or even the entirety of their stories, and Hammon’s Narrative relies heavily on such conventions.
The Narrative’s modern audience, however, sees something more weighty and noble, and less “Indian,” in this text. Revived in the last two decades of the twentieth century along with many other lost or long overlooked African American texts, the Narrative’s modern academic audience has framed it as an early example of African American literature. The original audience for the Narrative was apparently nonplussed by the racial identity of its author,2 but modern readers are fixated on it. Indeed, Hammon is now widely acknowledged among literary scholars as the first black person to author a literary text in North America, and this fact more than any other controls the modern revival of this text. Consequently, most of the scholarship on Hammon focuses on the enigmatic and historically fuzzy personage of Hammon, with writers probing very basic and as yet unanswered biographical questions: Who was Britton Hammon? How much of the narrative did he write, and how much should be attributed to his editors and publishers? Was Hammon a free servant or a slave, or did he occupy some status in between? Why did he happily return to Boston with his master after their miraculous reunion in London? Hammon’s status as a person of color is now the centerpiece of our understanding of the Narrative.
Ironically, scholars’ focus on the African American identity of Hammon has produced an unfortunate side effect: as I survey the scholarship on the Narrative, I find not a word on the identity of the Indians who Hammon says attacked him and his shipmates. They have been relegated to shadows.
In this essay I hope to correct this imbalance by pursuing the “Indian question.” My work began with an interest to fill out some of the historical background of the narrative. My inquiry took me deep into the dense mangroves and swamps of South Florida, where I stumbled across evidence of a massive regional depopulation, propelled by a cruel...