- Black Hawk in TranslationIndigenous Critique and Liberal Guilt in the 1847 Dutch Edition of Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak
In 1846 Rinse Posthumus, a Protestant country pastor in the north of the Netherlands, received from a friend a copy of Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-shekia-kiak, the as-told-to autobiography of the Sauk military leader Black Hawk. First published in Cincinnati in 1833, the Life was a best seller in the United States, but it was unfamiliar to Posthumus, who lived in a small village near the North Sea in the province of Friesland (Frisia). Over the course of the year, he studied Back Hawk’s life story and began a translation of the text for Dutch readers, which he published in the city of Leeuwarden in 1847 as Levensgeschiedenis van Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kiakiak, of Zwarte Havik. If Black Hawk can be regarded as the author of his autobiography, this makes Posthumus’s text the first foreign translation of a book-length work of Native American literature.1
Posthumus’s edition did not cause much of a stir. Years later, the Dutch anticolonial writer Eduard Douwes Dekker mentioned the book as an “important” work (Multatuli 50), but no subsequent editions of the translation were published, nor has there been any commentary on the text by literary historians. Nevertheless, Levensgeschiedenis van Zwarte Havik sheds new light on the role of Indigenous writing in a transatlantic print culture in which the representation of American Indians generated popular entertainment, theories of government, and philosophies of universal history. In Britain, the circulation of American Indian literature came on the heels of a wealth of writings about Indigenous people in periodicals and newspapers, as well as “anthropological studies, works of racial science, and missionary narratives” (Flint 3). There was a continental European dimension to this story as well, and since the early nineteenth century the representation of Indianer held a prominent place especially in the German cultural imagination [End Page 58] (Bolz; Zantop; Penny; King). But as a growing number of studies has shown, the role of Indigenous people in what Jace Weaver terms “the Red Atlantic” was not merely to provide symbolic representations of Native presence: their writings, performances, diplomacy, and protests inflected the very currents of modern political and intellectual thought (Weaver; Flint; Lyons). Extending these transatlantic dialogues to a Frisian-Dutch print culture, Rinse Posthumus’s translation of the Life not only catered to a widespread ethnological interest in Native American culture in Europe but also brought Black Hawk’s critique of settler expansion into political debates about state power that had local and transnational implications.
This essay is about what happened to Black Hawk’s story in translation. Annotated by a rural pastor in the province of Friesland, Levensgeschiedenis connects Black Hawk’s account of Indian removal in the American Midwest to a region that has been marginal to the history of cultural exchange in the Atlantic world. In what follows, I consider Rinse Posthumus’s role as translator and editor, tracing how his theological commentary builds on Enlightenment assumptions about race and linguistic difference even as it carries out a universalism that validates Indigenous cultural traditions. But I also argue that his editorial work amplifies a critical current in Black Hawk’s text about the relation between settler colonialism and the role of government, which intersected with nineteenth-century debates about political liberalism and immigration to North America. Posthumus witnessed the economic decline in the northern Netherlands in the 1840s, and his edition of the Life resonates with concerns about agricultural crises in Europe and the population movements of the mid-nineteenth century. By annotating Black Hawk’s account of Sauk traditions and Indigenous dispossession, Posthumus gives voice to his political commitment to liberalism during a time of economic depression and revolutionary energy in the Netherlands. Since these pressures gave rise to a peak in Dutch immigration to the American Midwest—including the very lands that were opened up for settlement after the Black Hawk War (1832)—his commentary in Levensgeschiedenis negotiates a politics of liberal guilt over the intertwined histories of European migration and Sauk...