The Manners of Barbarians
Most Americans believe that a civilized state does not resort to torture, and yet, as W. Fitzhugh Brundage reveals in this essential and disturbing study, there is a long American tradition of excusing as well as decrying its use. By tracing the historical debates about the efficacy of torture and the attempt to adapt it to democratic values, Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition reveals the recurring struggle to decide what limits Americans are willing to impose on the power of the state. At a time of escalating rhetoric aimed at cleansing the nation of the undeserving, as well as ongoing military involvement in conflicts around the world, the debate over torture remains a critical and unresolved part of America’s tradition. Civilizing Torture was named a finalist for the 2018–2019 Pulitzer Prize. Here is a brief excerpt looking at the differences in torture traditions between the Europeans who had come to the New World and the Native Americans.
Juan Ortiz had the great misfortune to learn firsthand about Indian traditions of torture. He and the European colonists who followed were familiar with the time-honored practice of torture in Europe, which enjoyed broad legitimacy until the eighteenth century. But many Europeans condemned Indian torture as alien and repellant. In doing so, Europeans differentiated between the two traditions so as to insist on the incompatibility of the torture practiced by Indians and the “civilization” that Europeans brought to the New World. What Indians thought of European traditions of torture is difficult to reconstruct.
In September 1637 a revealing colloquy took place in New France between a Jesuit missionary intent on demonstrating the superiority of European civilization and Huron warriors mystified by European behavior. The Huron had captured an Iroquois and brought him to the village of Onnentisati to torture him. Grasping an opportunity to baptize the prisoner and to proselytize to his captors, Jesuit missionaries attended the execution. During the subsequent day and a half of the prisoner’s torture, the missionaries debated with the gathered Huron about Christian concepts of sin, heaven, French treatment of prisoners of war, and French methods of torture and execution. At one point, a Huron asked, “Why are thou sorry that we tormented him?” To which the priest replied that he did not disapprove of the execution of the captive but the manner of execution. The warrior queried: “How do you French do [it]?” The priest explained that his people executed criminals, “but not with this cruelty.” “What! Do you never burn any?” the Huron asked. “Not often,” responded the priest, “and even then fire is only for enormous crimes, and there is only one person to whom this kind of execution belongs by right; and besides, they are not made to linger so long, — often they are first strangled, and generally they are thrown at once into the fire, where they are immediately smothered and consumed.” In this exchange, we can observe the Jesuit father as he made the case that Christian and European traditions were not only distinct from but also superior to the Indian practice of torture. But even in this account, which was reported by a Jesuit observer, we are left with the impression that the priest was grasping for distinctions with which to distance French torture from its Indian counterpart.
Early in the conquest of the New World, some Europeans voiced skepticism about the alleged barbarity of Indians and the contrasting civility of Europeans. Had Jean de Léry, a sixteenth-century Frenchman who joined a colony of Protestant settlers in Brazil, participated in the dialogue in New France, he almost certainly would have chided both the Jesuits and the Huron for their tolerance of cruelty and torture. Drawing on his experience in South America, Léry ruminated on the similarities and differences between the violence of New World Indians and that of their Old World adversaries and concluded that they were not so much different in kind as in order of magnitude. He devoted a chapter in his book Histoire d’un Voyage Fait en la Terre du Brésil (1578) to cataloging the cruelties that the Brazilian natives inflicted on their captives and their penchant for cannibalism. Although his disgust at such behavior was evident, he did not fix his gaze exclusively on it. He gave even more prominence to Old World perpetrators of violence, entitling a portion of his book “On the cruelties exercised by the Turks and other people: and namely by the Spaniards, much more barbarous than even the savages [of the New World].” Léry singled out the Spanish for reproach not only because of the scale of their violence but also because of their apparent intent to dehumanize the natives. After taking stock of the cruelty in the New and Old Worlds, his conclusion was decidedly in the favor of the Indians he had observed in Brazil.
Léry’s scorn for European cruelty was in many regards idiosyncratic, but his comparison of the motivations behind and the scale of violence in the New and Old Worlds was prescient. It was hardly coincidence that both the European conquest of the New World and the European wars of religion coincided with a heightened preoccupation with torture and cruelty in western Europe. A keen interest in cruelty and violence was altogether understandable in an age when wars of faith racked the whole of western Europe and the violence that accompanied the conquest of the New World pressed on the consciousness of Europeans. One consequence of this concern was a new attention to variations in the severity and extent of violence. To make sense of contemporary violence, it was no longer sufficient to divide peoples into opposing categories of cruel or not cruel, violent or peaceful. Instead, Europeans calibrated which groups were crueler or more violent than others. On this basis, Europeans could then compare the violence perpetrated and endured by Protestants and Catholics, by New World Indians and their European conquerors, by Spaniards and English.
Léry engaged in precisely such a comparison when he drew attention to the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadors. His tallying of Spanish crimes was consistent with the broader politicization of cruelty during the political and religious strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Europeans splintered and aligned themselves along religious, regional, and national lines, they marshaled the charge of cruelty to undermine the legitimacy of opposing rulers, minorities, or religions. Protestants and Catholics alike threw themselves into a massive propaganda effort, hurling the charge of cruelty against their adversaries with the intent of discrediting them, rallying their own supporters to avenge past affronts, and justifying their own violence. In Léry’s case, he added his denunciations of Spanish barbarism to remarkably effective campaigns by fellow French, English, and Dutch Protestants who blackened the reputation of Catholic Spain to such a degree that for centuries it was a byword for tyranny, cruelty, and intolerance.
When the Jesuit interlocutor in New France and other colonists staked out the differences between European and Indian violence, they inevitably tapped into deep-seated notions of barbarism. From ancient Rome onward, violence and cruelty were prominent markers of barbarism in the European imagination. According to Seneca, barbarians committed senseless violence that served no rational end other than to gratify their savage impulses. By the early modern period, Europeans had compiled a long list of people who qualified as barbarians, including the Scythians, Vandals, Saracens, Vikings, and Mongols. Given this cultural patrimony, Europeans needed no intellectual creativity to classify North American Indians as savages. They, after all, were nomadic, lacked formal systems of law and property (that Europeans respected), and engaged in violence that, in the eyes of Europeans, lacked any higher purpose.
The conflation of North American Indians with lawless savages circulated among Europeans from virtually the outset of their conquest of the continent. William Bradford of the Plymouth colony described “savage barbarians” who lived in a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” The New England Charter referred to “Savages and brutish people,” while the Virginia Charter mentioned “Infidels and savages” who lived an existence of “Darkness and miserable Ignorance” bereft of “human civility.” Over the next century, accumulating accounts of Indian culture and traditions, especially torture, enabled European observers to refine their portrait of Indian primitivism.
By the mid-eighteenth century, many Europeans concluded that Indians lacked any capacity for elevated human sociability and instead lived “outside normal morality.” So thought Scottish economist Adam Smith, who, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, postulated that Indians’ preoccupation with daily survival precluded their development of sophisticated sentiments, including sympathy. Confirming this deficit was the widely reported capacity of stoic Indians to inflict and endure frightful torture. Adam Ferguson, Smith’s contemporary and fellow philosopher, concurred, holding that Indians lacked the moral development sufficient to feel either pity or remorse. Indians who witnessed bouts of torture, Ferguson claimed, evinced no pangs of compassion but instead displayed limitless enthusiasm for sadism.
The prominent participation of women and sometimes children in Indian violence elicited particular disgust among Europeans because it exemplified Indians’ coarsened sensibilities. From the Jesuit missionaries in New France, for instance, came an account of the torture of an Iroquois captive. After a gauntlet of Huron women and children had stabbed, cut, and burned the victim’s limbs, one woman attempted to bite off his finger, “as a dog would do.” As the captive endured further torments, she eventually hacked off his finger, roasted it, and gave it to some children “who continued to suck it for some time.” That communities tolerated, let alone sanctioned, such violence by Indian women ran contrary to European conceptions of appropriate feminine behavior. Worse yet, any nascent moral sensibilities that Indian children might have possessed were extinguished by their participation in ritualized torture and other violent depravity.
By sifting through early ethnographic reports on Indians, Europeans looked for verification of the cultural distance that separated them from North American savages. Significantly, Smith, Ferguson, and many other mid-eighteenth-century European commentators dwelled less on any innate differences between Indians and Europeans than on the divergence in their stages of development. By fitting Indian culture into a history of the progressive evolution of civilization through which all societies could pass, Smith and other commentators acknowledged commonalities in their historical experiences, but they did so to better highlight disparities between contemporary Europeans and Indians. It was ancient Europeans who shared close similarities with contemporary primitive peoples; present-day “savages” in North America were facsimiles of earlier savages in Europe. The primitive culture of North American Indians confirmed that humankind had passed through stages of development from savagery — or as Alejandro Malaspina, an explorer in the employ of Spain, put it, “the earliest stages of society” — before reaching the pinnacle of civilization that prevailed in Europe.
Contemporary Indian practices offered a glimpse of the long-abandoned modes of justice and warfare that had been employed by the ancient Gauls, Britons, and Germans. According to the Universal Magazine, a London journal, in 1757, North American Indians “form a very striking picture of the most distant antiquity.” Adam Ferguson agreed, explaining, “It is in their present condition that we are able to behold, as in a mirror, the features of our own progenitors.” To observe contemporary North American Indians, Ferguson and others concluded, was to witness the rudest stage of human development, when perpetual warfare, an absence of property, and a surfeit of bodily torture prevailed. Centuries of gradual development presumably would be required until Indian barbarism would give way to advanced civilization.
The details of Indian torture offered further evidence of the lawless savagery of Indians. Like the Jesuit missionary who conducted the colloquy with the Huron over torture in 1637, many Europeans contrasted the elaborate formal procedures surrounding torture in Europe with the perceived anarchy of Indian torture. In keeping with the oft-cited “rule of law” that Europeans proclaimed to be the prerequisite for civilization, European torture was, by law, the exclusive prerogative of trained state and clerical authorities who professed to act in the interest of society. Only after a prisoner was convicted of high crimes was his ignominy, manifest in his execution, made public. As the Jesuit priest protested, the gruesome spectacles of European public executions differed from the ritualized public torture favored by Indians, because, in theory, European crowds were witnesses, not participants. In fact, on occasion, spectators in Europe did seize the opportunity to torment notorious villains, as when crowds in London in 1305 whipped William Wallace and pelted him with rotten food and waste while he was in transit to his execution. Similarly, Thomas Prichard, a Catholic priest, was so severely abused by the crowd that gathered to witness his execution in Dorchester in 1587 that his executioner was almost deprived of his job.
European officials jealously guarded their monopoly on torture. If that authority was challenged, state and clerical elites were quick to restore it, as events in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France during the late sixteenth century demonstrated. When a witchcraft panic erupted there in 1587, both local judges and residents flaunted normal judicial procedures and restraints. Alleged witches had their fingers smashed with hammers, were hoisted over fires, were repeatedly dunked in cold water, or were summarily executed by villagers. In response, the Parlement of Paris, which had jurisdiction over the area, proclaimed that it alone possessed the authority to review witchcraft sentences. The Parlement’s motivation was not to create obstacles to witch trials but rather to restore control over torture and impose judicial uniformity. European observers discerned no comparable restraints on the reported circuses of cruelty that entire Indian communities engaged in.