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Reviewed by:
  • Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800
  • Pablo F. Gomez
Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800. By Erik R. Seeman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 384 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Erik Seeman's Death in the New World is a sweeping survey of rituals around death in early modern North America and the British Caribbean. Departing from the seemingly simple question "how [did] they bury their dead?" Seeman explores how what he calls "deathways" became indispensable points for cultural negotiation between five groups in the New World: Native Americans, Africans, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. The crucial point Seeman advances is that irrespective of their origins, New World individuals shared a common ground for framing the other's ideas about death and funerary rites. All of these groups, according to the author, used such knowledge to advance their political, military, and social projects.

Using contemporary European sources, Seeman first provides a snapshot of the type of burial practices and what he identifies as common beliefs and practices around bereavement of communities in Africa, America, and Europe before and shortly after their encounter in the New World. The author then analyzes how Europeans and American indigenous people used knowledge about each others' deathways for "their own best advantage" during the first years of contact. Using sixteenth-and seventeenth-century European narratives, including those of Thomas Harriot, Seeman describes the first encounters around death practices happening between Europeans and Tainos, Aztecs, and several other Native American groups in what today are Florida and the Carolinas, including the Algonquian. Harriot's descriptions, and the use John Smith made of them, are the point of departure for the next section. In it, Seeman explains how information about the manipulation of corpses and the desecration of burials provided Jamestown's colonists with an invaluable tool for reaching his ultimate objective of establishing political and religious dominance over local natives in the Chesapeake region. As British colonists, Powhatan Indians in Chesapeake used knowledge about deathways as an effective means of war during the violent conflict that ensued, one famously marked by famine, cannibalism, epidemics, and a profligate Grim Reaper's bonanza that made death and the dead all the more important for both factions. While both groups "grasped the underlying rationales of the other group's deathways," and in some cases imbibed them into their own, they most frequently, according to Seeman, used it to "attack or gain advantage over the other group" (p. 79).

North of Chesapeake territory in Acadia, French colonists and in [End Page 850] particular Jesuit missionaries used similar tactics to gain in-ways in Micmac and Huron territory. Jesuit priests like Pierre Biard and Jean de Brébeuf quickly perceived and made use of parallels between Catholic and natives' beliefs around death, specifically the role of "holy bones," in their attempts at spreading Catholicism in the region. While, according to the Jesuits, certain native groups partially adopted European Catholic mores, others would use what they had learned about European deathways to contest French cultural and military encroachment. In an ironic twist, Brébeuf's bones, after he was killed by natives, became themselves relics. Roger Williams did not do better in New England. Seeman, drawing from European narratives and archaeological data from secondary sources, reconstructs Williams's and other puritan colonists' attempts at Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Narragansett groups' Christianization, and territorial domination. As it had been the case in New France, early success met catastrophe, usually in the form of epidemics and war. Mirroring the strategies of Micmacs and Hurons, southern New England Native Americans made use of their "hard-won knowledge of English deathways" for negotiation, and more frequently, to wage war and mock colonists during King Philip's war.

Seeman then directs his attention to the Caribbean and New York, where he describes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African and African American burial practices. Using a broad conceptualization of Africa and Africans, the author transcribes British colonists' sardonic and terse descriptions of Black slaves' death rites in Barbados and Jamaica. Seeman also uses data from archaeological studies on Newton plantation and the African burial ground in Manhattan to illustrate the material...