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Mike reviews: Fintan O'Toole's White Savage

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  • Mike reviews: Fintan O'Toole's White Savage

    And here's another --


    In the valley of the Mohawk

    Michael Moorcock admires Fintan O'Toole's White Savage, a biography of the Irish Tory William Johnson who became an Iroquois leader

    Saturday August 27, 2005
    The Guardian

    Buy White Savage at the Guardian bookshop

    White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America
    by Fintan O'Toole
    402pp, Faber, £20

    A few years ago, while researching the Haudenosuanee, I found their official website, sponsored by Iroquois Computer Solutions. The population of the Six Nations, I learned, suffered some setbacks during the French and Indian wars, but continued growing at a healthy rate, and today is the highest in Iroquois history. Civil rights legislation had allowed native Americans to exploit their economic independence. As in Ireland, commodified romance is now part of their booming heritage industry.

    The Haudenosuanee, or People of the Longhouse (Iroquois to the French), imagined their confederation as a house with the senior Mohawk guarding the eastern door, Seneca the western, Oneida watching over the central fire and Onandaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora in the middle. The Six Nations claim to be the world's first democracy, with Hiawatha, the great sachem (they have no "chiefs"), among its 16th-century creators. America's founding fathers looked to this confederacy when drawing up the US constitution. The Nations' women held considerable power, owned the houses and decided when to go to war.

    This sophisticated culture was attacked, claims Fintan O'Toole, by a natural economic process which made them the world's first true consumer society. No longer self-sufficient, they quickly learned that the beaver skins they considered valueless could be turned into iron pots, knives and tea by Europeans supplying furs to the hat trade. Unable to reproduce these goods for themselves, as they'd hoped, they became dependent on Europe for their cloth, which was far handier than fur for daily wear, and for their guns, powder and shot used for hunting. This led to the breakdown of traditional social structures, including women's power. By the mid-18th century the Six Nations were threatened with political collapse.

    They were saved, argues O'Toole, by the arrival in Iroquoia of a dispossessed Irish Catholic-turned-Protestant. William Johnson became a powerful and respected sachem. His instinctive identification with the Indians grew from a shared need to accommodate conquest; he sensed that romantic, mythic Erin shared resonances with the structure and mystical beliefs of Iroquoia, whose own elaborate ceremonies echoed those of his people's pagan past and Catholic near-present. After their crucial defeats in Ireland and Scotland, the surviving Jacobites were faced with some hard choices. They could give up their faith and find power and careers in English service, or cling to their lost cause and fall into further decline. Some of the Co Meath Johnsons opted for the latter, but William's Uncle Peter chose Protestantism. Ultimately an admiral in the British navy, Peter Warren was soon able to buy land in America, offering the stewardship of the wilder regions of the Mohawk Valley to his converted nephew on an unwritten understanding that, if he made a good job of it, he would inherit.

    In 1738 Johnson found himself with a remit to provide his uncle's company with a good profit in lumber and furs, gaining the reputation of an honest trader with the locals. Under their sachem "Hendrick", Iroquois had become adept at playing politics, sustaining a balance of power between French, Dutch, English and other settlers. As it dawned on Johnson that his uncle would not keep his promises, he made alliances of his own. Instinctively respecting Mohawk culture, he carved out territory and a homestead for himself. His alliances with the Iroquois suited them politically, leading them to make him their own, and enabling him to become one of pre-revolutionary America's greatest power-brokers.

    All players in Iroquoia were coping with cultural imperialism at the hands of a colonial giant, responding with realistic intelligence to rapidly changing economic, political and religious realities while still mourning the loss of important mythic resonances and the failure of cultural memory. O'Toole's narrative, with its clear echoes of Scott, Fenimore Cooper and RL Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae, is as convincing as it is attractive, offering good, romantic reasons why Johnson went native while remaining the very model of an ambitious Hanoverian Tory landowner and colonial administrator, never faltering in his service to king and country even as he put on war-paint and Mohawk buckskins to lead his Indians on scalping raids against the French.

    Johnson did everything he could to protect his fellow Iroquois. Keeping both European and Indian wives and mistresses, acknowledging all his offspring and providing for them in his will, he fought prejudiced Whitehall politicians and military men, including his own uncle. His chivalric treatment of the captured French general Dieskau soon made him a popular folk hero in Europe. This did not impress the English governor Amherst, whose confessed public policy was to "extirminate" every native, preferably by offering them blankets exposed to smallpox. Johnson got England to remove Amherst, but not before he'd done serious damage.

    By a mixture of political savvy and personal courage, Johnson countered every London-conceived folly, becoming a baronet in the process. The struggle was endless. Whenever he achieved equilibrium some bureaucrat set the parties to savage fighting again, notably in the conduct of the French and Indian wars where Johnson's advice was ignored, his strategies undermined, his word broken by his masters, setting the Indians back on the warpath or into alliances with the French.

    At last, at the Battle of Niagara, Johnson's disciplined mixed force of white rangers and red warriors took the strategically crucial fort and turned the tide permanently against the French. In Benjamin West's famous painting of the dying Wolfe, victorious at Quebec, Sir William appears dressed like Natty Bumppo, his trusty Mohawk brother beside him. Neither was in reality present but the picture was central to a propaganda campaign already in process, making Johnson the heroic original for every savage noble or noble savage ever to capture the European or North American imagination, from Hawkeye to Tarzan. His myth is still reflected in stories such as Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse or Dances With Wolves. He was the precursor to many others who were inducted as friends into native tribes. Later, Sam Houston was adopted by the Cherokee, and also managed treaties, only to be betrayed by his friend Andrew Jackson's policies of ethnic cleansing which taught America the lesson that not only could you get away with genocide, you could actually profit from it.

    Running his Mount Johnson estate as chief of an ancient Celtic clan, importing a harper to sing at his table, Johnson died believing he had brokered a lasting treaty between Iroquois and settlers, halting European expansion. But even as the documents were signed, whites were flooding into Indian territories. As Gaza shows, land-hungry people ruthlessly break every treaty, risk bloody death, and adopt the most ruthless racialist logic to justify their actions.

    Johnson died shortly before the revolution. His family, both Indian and European, remained stalwart Tories, suffering accordingly, striking back at the patriots with equal ferocity. The family was eventually driven into Canada, and Johnson was remembered not as the great peace-making sachem he had been, but as an ousted tool of the British. Fintan O'Toole's wonderful book reinstates Sir William's central position in Anglo-American history.

    Michael Moorcock's The Vengeance of Rome will be published by Cape next year.

    To order White Savage for £18 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.
    Last edited by David Mosley; 08-12-2006, 10:34 AM.

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