- American Indians & the British
In 1809 Thomas Campbell published Gertrude of Wyoming, a narrative poem that culminates with the destruction of an American [End Page 500] pioneer community by Indians acting under British orders. Campbell may have anticipated the mixed response of his fellow Britons to the poem, but he was caught by surprise when the son of the British Mohawk leader he had vilified in Gertrude arrived in London in 1822, protesting against Campbell’s representation of his father. “I really knew not,” Campbell wrote in a defensive letter to the New Monthly Magazine, “when I wrote my poem, that the son and daughter of an Indian chief were ever likely to peruse it, or be affected by its contents.” That Native Americans might be directly or indirectly affected by nineteenth-century representations of the American Indian should come as no surprise to the modern reader, but the degree to which Native Americans perused and often self-consciously manipulated Britain’s image of the Indian is one of the highlights of Kate Flint’s impressive new study.
The Transatlantic Indian, 1776–1930 divides its time between tracing the historical shifts in British representations of American Indians and exploring the response of Native American travelers to British society. In the years following the Revolutionary War, Flint argues, British representations of American Indians tended to cast Americans as callous, shortsighted stewards of the peoples and lands under their control. Britain’s treatment of the First Nations peoples in its Canadian territories, on the other hand, was held up as an example of responsible government and humanitarian imperialism. Flint makes her case convincingly, assembling a wealth of artwork, literature, letters and newspaper articles to illustrate the gradual shifts in Britain’s views of Native Americans. By the early twentieth century, she argues, historical distance from the Revolutionary War and the pressures of international politics combined to make Britain more receptive to a less critical view of American-Indian relations, as demonstrated by the British press’s enthusiastic embrace of Buffalo Bill’s touring Wild West Show.
Flint tries to balance an analysis of the iterations of British representation of Indians with Native Americans’ reactions to Britain and its inhabitants, revealing, through her careful reading of newspaper articles, letters and memoirs, both the social critiques ventured by Native American tourists and the degree to which some visitors consciously performed their identity as “Indians” for their own ends. Her sections on Native American missionaries, on the Ojibwa who toured Britain with George Catlin in the 1840s, and on the various First Nations people who traveled to England to petition the monarchy on land rights issues are among the book’s strongest. In assembling a survey [End Page 501] of as much breadth as this work provides, some topics are certain to be touched on in less depth than others. I found myself wanting, at certain points, a more detailed analysis of British masculinity’s relationship with the figure of the Indian, and more consideration of the influence of modes of representing the Celts of Scotland and Ireland on, for example, Pauline Johnson, the nineteenth-century First Nations poet whose dramatic recitals are reminiscent of Sydney Owenson’s performance of Irishness earlier in the century. These are, however, hardly fair complaints given the amount of ground Flint does cover, and The Transatlantic Indian succeeds admirably in surveying the transatlantic exchanges between Native Americans and British readers and writers during the long nineteenth century.
The Transatlantic Indian follows a roughly chronological order, beginning shortly after the War for American Independence and tracing the charged connotations of the icon of the American Indian into the early twentieth century. The real historical concentration of this study is on the Victorian period; chapters dealing with the Native American in the Romantic and Edwardian imagination read more like necessary expository bookends to Flint’s project than focal points of her argument.
“What distinguishes the period covered by The Transatlantic Indian,” Flint observes in her introductory chapter, “is the fact that within the United States, the interactions that count are no longer...