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Empire Apart by Brian Landers

Winner of THE PEOPLES BOOK PRIZE July 2009
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Mystic Massacre

In the annals of terrorist atrocities 5/27 should resonate with Americans as much as 9/11.  The events of the 27th of May 1637 changed the American psyche forever. History has yet to show that 9/11 will have anything like as seismic a long-term impact. In both cases an act of unprecedented carnage was coldly planned and callously inflicted. In both cases the victims were “civilians” perversely regarded as “combatants” only in the eyes of men blinded by religious bigotry.  In both cases the objective was to terrorize populations who had no comprehension at all of what was happening to them or of what could possibly be motivating their attackers. In both cases surprise was total.

The villagers of Missituck (present day Mystic), Connecticut, had gone to bed as usual on the 26th of May. Many of the menfolk were away but four hundred, (in some versions seven hundred), women, children, elderly and infirm remained. They could have had no idea that all but five of them would never see another sunset.

Just before dawn an English militia leader, Captain John Underhill, looked down on the sleeping village with grim satisfaction. As the first rays of the new day’s sun tinged the eastern sky he gave the order to attack. The killing began. Seven years after the founding of Boston ethnic cleansing had arrived in New England.

‘Down fell men, women and children” Underhill wrote triumphantly in his journal, “Newes from America”.  “Great and doleful was the bloody sight to the view of young soldiers that had never been in a war, to see so many souls lay gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along”.

Underhill returned to Boston a hero. William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers, gave praise for the “sweet sacrifice” of natives “frying in the fire”. Seven years later when the Dutch, who had founded a colony on the Hudson, needed to cleanse their own land they called on Underhill’s services again. This time he was even more “successful”, killing more than five hundred Algonquian in a single raid on a native village. But it was the Mystic Massacre that had the most profound impact on the development of America. From that moment European settlers realised that the continent was theirs for the taking.

The first Puritan settlers in New England were alarmed by the presence of native tribes around them. They knew nothing of the fate of the early Viking immigrants but they were certainly well aware of the savage native wars that had erupted in Virginia. They set up local militias to defend themselves against marauding natives. These militias were known as “Trayned bands” because the volunteers were usually placed under the command of someone who had received military training before emigrating. The band at Boston was commanded by Underhill who had come out from England specifically to take charge of the defence of the new settlement. He quickly established that the best form of defence would be offence. The area surrounding the colony had to be cleansed of any threats and the first of these threats were the Pequot.

In 1634 an English pirate named John Stone had kidnapped several natives and demanded ransom.  The native response was to fall on Stone and his crew and kill them all. The English authorities decided that the Pequot were responsible and demanded that they hand over the heads of Stone’s killers. Stone may have been a pirate but he was a white man doing what white men had the right to do. Even as early as 1634 the settlers had realised that making natives pay “tributes” was an effective way of funding their colonies.  Alan Taylor (American Colonies, Penguin, 2001) has succinctly characterised the practice as a protection racket. Some settlers took to holding native children hostage to ensure that their parents paid their tributes. When the Pequot refused to co-operate hostilities broke out.

The native tribes throughout North America were frequently at war with each other, but war to them was quite different to war as understood by Europeans. The objective of native wars was not primarily to kill their enemies but to capture them. The captives swelled the size of the tribe and made it more powerful. A few warriors would be killed, often with sickening savagery, but women and children were scrupulously protected: they were the prize. The number of people in the tribe determined its power and wealth. Having no concept of property the natives had no concept of war fought for territory.

Underhill was used to the norms of Europe, to total war. He insisted in his journal that the Scriptures decreed that women and children must perish with their menfolk. Employing the classic British imperial strategy of divide and rule he recruited Mohegan and Narrangaset natives as allies. They led him to Mystic and participated in the subsequent massacre although Underhill in his journal notes that they cried out that the onslaught was “too furious and slays too many men”.

When the English arrived in New England there had probably been around eight thousand Pequot but in 1633 smallpox had halved their numbers. In a matter of months in the “Pequot War” (as the cynical exercise in ethnic cleansing was called) the three thousand remaining Pequot were virtually wiped out - killed, shipped off to slave plantations in the Caribbean or sold as slaves to other more friendly tribes.  Proportionate to their population the Mystic Massacre was equivalent to more than a million New Yorkers being killed in the barbarism of the Twin Towers attack. Like 9/11 the trauma extended far beyond the massacre site itself.

The Pequot War had two important consequences. First it terrorised and transformed the native population already reeling from the impact of European disease. They had no idea what the Mystic Massacre was about.  The concepts of owning land and seizing “territory” were totally alien, as was the shock and awe of European ‘total war” waged against civilian populations. The Mystic Massacre sent a message to all the native peoples, friend and foe, that life would never be the same again. The 27th of May 1637 marked the end of freedom and independence for the Native American.

The second similarly profound impact was on the whites.  Until the Pequot War the Puritans had seen themselves as a tiny group of God fearing souls in permanent danger of being overwhelmed by the mass of heathen savages by whom they were surrounded. As dawn broke over Missituck on that late-spring day the balance of power changed forever. It really is a date as important in US history as September 11th 2001. The Puritans’ glorification of their “victory” had all the resonance of Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric three centuries later. As Alfred Cave (The Pequot War, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996) puts it “Celebration of victory over Indians as the triumph of light over darkness, civilization over savagery, for many generations our central historical myth, finds its earliest full expression in the contemporary chronicles of this little war”.

Central as the Pequot War may be to understanding the American psyche it has largely been written out of conventional history; not by state dictat of the kind that tried to write the Vikings out of Russian history but simply because the facts of the Mystic Massacre do not fit the picture that most Americans have of their past. The myth of noble Puritans overcoming vicious savages is so ingrained that any contrary examples are assumed to be so atypical as not to be worth recording.

What differentiated the Mystic Massacre from ethnic cleansing in the southern colonies was the religious fervour of the New Englanders, a fervour that created a whole new moral underpinning for conquest. The religious dimension of colonisation in New England is what made it unique and what makes later American imperial expansion so difficult for many Europeans to understand.

The first New Englanders were convinced that their interests were God’s interests. The terror inflicted on Mystic was God’s holy terror; the muskets that poured death onto native women and children were God’s guns. Ethnic cleansing may no longer be part of American imperialism but American presidents still see themselves as firing the guns of God. Speaking of the invasion of Iraq nearly four centuries later the second President Bush expressed the spirit of Mystic when he proclaimed: “It is not America which wants to free the peoples of the world. It is Jesus Christ who wants to free them”.