Recommended Summer Read: Masters of Empire, by Michael McDonnell

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Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, but Michael A. McDonnell

(Buy here)

It must be strange, one would think, to be a background player in your own destruction. But that’s how we understand the great historical clash between Europeans and natives in the Americas- with the exception of some battles, like Pontiac’s Rebellion (and what a loaded word “rebellion” is, implying that he was rising up against some sort of rightful order), or the Nez Perce War, the history is one of dominance versus submission. And to be sure, the Europeans dominated, and eventually destroyed the natives, whether they were in the form of the Spanish, the French, the English, or the Americans.

But that’s far from the whole story. In Masters of Empire, Michael McDonnell, an Australian scholar who has written several books on American history, takes the story from another point of view, one that is far more accurate. This isn’t a “from the Indians’ point of view” story, which is important, but rather he demonstrates how local concerns,  rivalries, and politics weren’t so much shaped by the arrival of Europeans, but how they shaped the formation of empires.

This is a very useful corrective. Using primary, at-the-time sources, McDonnell tells the story of how most of European policy was built around placating the original inhabitants in order to further trade (here it’s important to note that while there was cruelty, enslavement, misplaced moral righteousness, and callous indifference, a policy of extermination didn’t come around in America until it became, well, America). This is a different story than we’re familiar with.

McDonnell skillfully demonstrates how much Great Lakes tribes, especially the Anishinaabeg, who centered around Michilimackinac, played the English and French against each other, making demands, declaring war, rallying troops to fight for or against one side or the other, and generally making themselves indispensable. They were a partner that had to be placated, not a rival to be fought, or worse, a submissive people to be destroyed.

In one of the book’s key elucidations, he demonstrates how the French taking sides in the Anishinaabeg rivalry with the Iroquois, and the English taking the other, was the beginning of the Seven Years War, the first battle of which he positions as the Raid on Pickawillany in Ohio, which was part of an inter-tribal war. The Seven Years War reshaped empire, and the world, and helped create the conditions that led to America. We called the front of that war here the “French and Indian War”, but McDonnell has none of that, rightfully relabeling the conflicts as The First and Second Anglo-Indian Wars.

(Throughout the book, McDonnell uses “Indian” instead of “Native American”, which might make some readers uncomfortable, but I think is more correct. I loathe “Native American”, because it implies a paternalistic adoption after forced extirpation. It basically says “Don’t think of it as America destroying your ancient way of life. You were really Americans all along, and just didn’t know it! You’re welcome!” Indian, obviously, has its problems, but at least it gives some agency.)

This isn’t revisionist history, either. This is how the wars and the policies were seen at the time, by the people living them. The whole history of Europeans on the continent was about managing their relations with the natives, who were skilled politicians, and knew how to get what they wanted in the face of overwhelming military superiority and disease-borne apocalypses.

It’s a great read, and shows how the tribal structure worked, and how lines of kinship influence politics and culture. It’s a powerful look at the Great Lakes during the dawn of the Europeans, and one can imagine the locals, with their intimate knowledge of these great and fearful bodies of water, and the rivers that feed them, shepherding frightened and lost Europeans around. You can get a sense of what the region was like before lines were drawn to signify borders, where activity was centered around the water and hunting grounds.

Indeed, the map shows a pre-state (in the national, not just the “great state of Mississippi!” sense) Great Lakes region, stretching on one end to the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic and the other up through Lake Winnipeg and on to the Hudson Bay. This is how the world was, then, before lines of demarcations chopped it up. It was a world before our obsession with borders shifted the axis, and before we decided that some people were Natives, instead of just, well, natives. It’s a world that had a narrative forced upon it, changing its history ex post facto. McDonnell’s book is a great corrective for that. It shows that these were people, who frequently bent London and Paris to their wills. Their actions shaped the world we live in now, as much as we destroyed theirs.

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5 thoughts on “Recommended Summer Read: Masters of Empire, by Michael McDonnell

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