No Restraint

John Demos

  • White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America by Fintan O’Toole
    Faber, 402 pp, £20.00, August 2005, ISBN 0 571 21840 7

Throughout the summer of 1763, a succession of Indian chiefs journeyed through the forest west of the British colonial town of Albany, New York, all heading for a single destination. Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and others: all of the Six Nations of the famed Iroquois Confederacy were represented. The focus of their attentions was a white man living in their midst, whose father had died the previous winter far away in Ireland.

They would arrive in groups at this man’s large and stately home, and would enact for him their ancient tribal ceremonies of ‘condolence’. They would adorn his face and body with long belts of wampum beads, and give him ritually purified water to drink, and chant doleful songs of mourning. ‘As you now sit in darkness,’ they would finally intone, ‘we remove all the heavy clouds that surround you, that you may again behold light and sunshine.’ Some months later, to fill the void left by parental death, they would offer him a young woman recently captured from an enemy tribe. The recipient of these demonstrations, for his own part, would know exactly how to respond – in their languages, and according to the traditional forms. Not a step would be missed on either side.

This elaborate scene, a virtual apotheosis of cultural boundary-crossing, opens Fintan O’Toole’s White Savage, on the fascinating career of William Johnson in 18th-century British America. Though well-known to scholars, Johnson’s story has not hitherto received the notice it deserves from the general readers who are clearly targeted here. O’Toole plans two follow-up volumes; his overall project is to unravel ‘America’s myth of itself, and the part played by one particular culture – that of Ireland – in its creation’.

William Johnson’s life began on a farm not far from Dublin in 1715. His father, Christopher, the man whose death a half-century later would be so fulsomely acknowledged in the American wilderness, was ‘head tenant’ for part of a large estate owned by a branch of his relatives, the Warrens. Through them, the Johnsons were linked to a cadre of prominent Catholic families, some of which had figured strongly in the doomed Irish rebellions of the preceding century. They lived now in a kind of Jacobite backwash, still prominent and still true to their past, but aspiring as well to accommodate themselves to the political and social realities of English rule. The sine qua non of such accommodation was conversion to Protestantism, a step taken by (among others) an uncle of William’s, Peter Warren. Warren would ultimately become admiral of the fleet and famous as a British naval hero; he would also serve as a model, and patron, for his nephew.

By marrying into a leading family of Dutch New Yorkers, the Delanceys, Warren acquired a direct stake in the American colonies, and began amassing vast amounts of property there, both on Manhattan Island and in the hinterland to the north. In the mid-1730s he proposed that his nephew ‘settle’ and develop a large portion of these holdings; the young man (now just past 20) fairly leapt at the chance. Soon William had converted to Protestantism, and left Ireland – for good, as it turned out – in order to begin a new career overseas.

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