Review of Indigenous London

Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire. By Coll Thrush. The Henry Roe Cloud Series on American Indians and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016. 328 pages. Cloth.

Like its cover image of three Cherokees traversing a London pedestrian crossing, this book is arresting and intriguing, and it successfully challenges ongoing assumptions about where and how Indigenous people are meant to appear. In many ways an outstanding sequel to Philip J. Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places, Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London plays on a common unwillingness to see Indigenous people at key sites of modernity.1 Like Deloria, Thrush presents so many examples of just such occurrences that readers not only start to recognize the absurdity of modernity’s tension with indigeneity but also find that Indigenous people themselves have never accepted it.

Thrush’s eagerly anticipated book is similar in form to his earlier work, Native Seattle.2 After a cogent introduction, it offers chronologically ordered chapters on sets of Indigenous people inhabiting so-called non-Indigenous urban spaces. In Indigenous London, there are six main chapters, moving from the late sixteenth century to the present. Each chapter circles gently around a general theme: knowledge for the early modern period, disorder for the early eighteenth century, reason for the late eighteenth century, ritual for the early Victorian age, discipline for the late Victorian age, and memory for the contemporary era. A new addition in this book is a series of “interludes” (26) slotted between the chapters, each reflecting in verse form on one particular object from less-studied, and often painful, Indigenous moments in the history of London. The interludes are meant to emphasize the “affective” and “transhistorical” (26) aspects of Indigenous encounters with the city. Using the present tense, linguistic play, and an unconventional approach to archival testimony, they aim to remind the reader of “the human consequences of the larger story of Indigenous London” (26) and the ways in which its legacies continue in  Indigenous and Londoner lives today.

Without a doubt, the most brilliant aspect of this book is its ability to interweave in each chapter a handful of fascinating micro histories about Indigenous visitors around a pertinent theme. Thrush hooks his readers with one tale, then introduces us to a few others, touches again upon the initial story around midway, before trotting through a few more examples and returning, finally, to the original hook by the chapter’s close. The way he manages to delve deeply into issues via many instances rather than just one—always keeping readers wanting more rather than less—is masterful. An example is Thrush’s second chapter, which opens with the sixteenth-century English scholar Thomas Hariot studiously attempting to turn the sounds of Ossomocomuck language into a written alphabet with the aid of two Roanoke men, Manteo and Wanchese. This event occurs not on Virginian shores, as might be expected, but in a grand house on the River Thames. The opening thus establishes the theme of entangled knowledges. Martin Frobisher’s Inuit of 1576, George Weymouth’s five Abenaki in 1605, and the presumed inspiration for Shakespeare’s Indian characters then make appearances before Thrush lights again briefly on Manteo and Wanchese. We next push into the seventeenth century with two Algonquians and the famous Pocahontas before finishing with the return voyages of our original Roanoke men, who have brought home knowledge not only of colonial intent but also of a much wider world. Throughout, Thrush underscores the two-way process of knowledge encounters.

Another powerfully commendable aspect of this book is the space and significance it gives to Indigenous voices, not only those analyzed as subjects but also those of contemporary scholars, artists, community leaders, and descendants. Thrush’s account demonstrates Indigenous “survivance” (14) through time, but it also acknowledges how much the author has relied on Indigenous research and interest to do so. It tries to show how “Indigenous people around the world, far from being passive victims or metaphorical foils, have in fact actively engaged with and helped create the world we call modern” (14). Thrush does so by both underscoring their continued practice of such engagement and explaining why its recognition should matter so deeply today.

As to the largest claims of the book, Thrush is more than clear. Apart from the overall challenge of breaking down one of modernity’s core ideas about itself—its inherent opposition to indigeneity—he makes two bold statements about Indigenous London. One is that London has been “entangled with Indigenous territories . . . and lives from the very beginning of its experiments with colonization” (15). The city was shaped by the things, ideas, and people of the colonial experiment—which lies at the heart of modernity for Thrush—just as much as it affected the experiences of those far away. The second statement continues from the first, though it reveals that Thrush has all along been speaking about a specific type of colonization. “I argue that the urban spaces of London have been one of the grounds of settler colonialism” (15, italics added). Because London was a key site of decision making about both the “physical and narrative removal of Indigenous populations” (16), Thrush wants to include it with those cities more typically associated with settler colonial forces in the broader empire: Melbourne, Auckland, Vancouver, and so on.

The book convincingly demonstrates these leading claims, even if a couple of points might bear pursuing further. Thrush never delves very far into the nature of London’s reception of its Indigenous visitors in the metropolis. We know that some met only with officials or the crown, while others encountered hugely curious crowds. In what ways, exactly, or at what demographic levels was “London,” as Thrush claims, “not just actor but acted-upon” (15)? So, too, Thrush makes the excellent point that “the twentieth century’s trend toward decolonization [has] been of relatively small import to Indigenous peoples” (25). He could have added that his study therefore makes an interesting intervention into studies of “Postcolonial London.”3 Such works have usually focused on what happens to a city when its once-colonized subjects from nonsettler sites move in. Thrush’s account, by contrast, shows both that there is, of course, never any “post” for those from settler sites and that indigenes from settler sites have been moving in for centuries.

For an author so thoughtful about the worst assumptions embedded in indigeneity, Thrush is oddly shy at explaining his working definition of the term. In an early endnote he declares that “capital-I Indigenous mostly refers to peoples who have been on the receiving end of capitalist imperial expansion, primarily European in origin, over the course of the past five hundred years” (259). In the body of the book itself, though, he admits a much narrower selection from that category, namely those “who traveled, . . . willingly or otherwise, from places that became Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia” (3). These were people all “marginalized” (15) by the establishment of white settlement and all bound together by a common “defense of . . . lands” (24). Such a working definition is currently popular, if mostly unstated, in settler colonial studies and with participants in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).4 Thrush’s selection does, however, beg the question of why visitations from, say, the Xhosa of South Africa are not covered here, or why whiteness and land always have to shape the definition of Indigeneity. In practice, all his examples come from places that Londoners at the time thought of as the “New World.” Does this commonality, therefore, deserve more historical analysis than it receives here? Then, too, despite the claim to cover visitors from different regions, North American examples collectively amount to three-quarters of those examined. Does this reflect historical significance or merely the author’s personal preference? Thrush does not divulge the answers.

Turning to the main chapters themselves, the first four will be of greatest interest to readers of the William and Mary Quarterly. After the exemplary chapter on early modern entanglements around knowledge production, Thrush focuses on the disorderliness of early Georgian imperialism. Opening with the London visit of the Cherokee Utsidihi (also known as Ostenaco) in 1762 and looping back to earlier Native American visits in 1710, 1730, and 1734, Thrush shows that these occasions were opportunities to air concerns over increasing public violence, increasing public drunkenness, and a new assertiveness in women. His examples reveal how these old topics for Georgian discourse were more linked to the indigenous New World than is often now remembered. Possibly Thrush could have pushed these examples further to show that they were not merely social or “urban problems” (81) but were in fact political problems related to the expansion of the very empire from which the travelers came.

Thrush then moves from the raucous underground of eighteenth-century life to its more staid overground (though the class implications of this transition are not explicitly acknowledged). Here the theme is reason, and we follow mainly the enlightened travels of the Mohegan evangelical minister Samson Occom and the Mohawk military officer Joseph Brant (with a few lesser-knowns, gratifyingly, threaded between). Like Thrush’s earlier references to “sexism” (78), this chapter’s generalizations about the dominance of “politeness” in late Georgian Britain can be jarring. Mostly, however, eighteenth-century London emerges refamiliarized, which is Thrush’s intent, after all—with Indigenous presences newly interwoven.

For the early nineteenth century, Thrush compares the rituals of Ma¯ori and Hawaiians in London with the “ever more formal culture” (140) of Victorianism. Again, the generalizations about Britain can be a little brow-raising: it is debatable, for example, if this age could be characterized uniformly as “reticent about sex” or “informed by evangelicalism” (140). But the insights into how “marae and metropolis” (145) linked in this age through a set of adapted traditions is more than adequate payoff. Indeed, Thrush’s discussion of how Jeremy Bentham ordered, upon his death, the adaptation of the Polynesian tradition of toi moko, or mummification, for his own remains would, to my mind, carry the chapter on its own.

The penultimate chapter moves perhaps beyond the scope of the Quarterly in its discussion of four key Indigenous sporting spectacles in late Victorian London. It contains fascinating content—especially on how the British passion for “pedestrianism” (180) intersected with the achievements of the fleet-footed Seneca runner Deerfoot. But overall this chapter seems to focus more on Indigenes as metaphors than on, as Thrush was so  adamant to claim in the beginning, their “personhood” (25). At one point Thrush even declares that the thoughts of a team of touring Aboriginal cricketers in 1868 are “completely opaque” (189) to him. He wraps up this chapter by concluding that British “anxieties about bodies, cities, and empire came together around sporting events in which Indigenous people served as ciphers for British ideas and desires” (202). It is a compelling argument, though it also underscores just how difficult it is to go beyond analysis of Indigeneity as metaphor—despite the best of intentions.

The book’s final chapter is one of its strongest. It tracks the ways in which Indigenous people have remembered the London journeys of their ancestors—in memory and occasionally even in reenactment. Here Thrush does more than merely “illustrate the ways in which memory has entangled London in Indigenous history, even as the city has tended to forget its own empire” (211). He also demonstrates and honors the Indigenous communities today who are Thrush’s primary audience and who have long situated London within their mental maps of the world. This chapter ends with a discussion of the magnificent 1991 print by Ma¯ori artist John Bevan Ford called Te Hono ki Ranana (The Connection with London) (231). Instead of Gustave Doré’s infamous 1872 The New Zealander, grimly overlooking a ruined London, Thrush argues that Ford’s image of a Ma¯ori cloak enveloping a solid, but miniaturized, cityscape “might serve as a [better] symbol of Ma¯ori London” (230).

I would have preferred the book to end here, followed only by its wonderful appendix containing a guide for a walking tour of Indigenous London. Thrush has, however, included an epilogue that plays with London’s recent rediscovery of its own prehistoric Indigenous past. The possibility of linking prehistory with Indigeneity here seems not worth the gain that Thrush hopes for, nor does it square with the general move of the book to undo old assumptions about contemporary Indigenous people. The same might be said of the six poetic interludes interspersed throughout the text. With the admirable objective of including more than one register within scholarship, these short pieces nevertheless face the problem of accessibility. Thrush notes briefly that the italicized words come from archives. The roman words are presumably Thrush’s own ruminations. But the reader still needs to study the endnotes very attentively to understand what or who is being remembered in each segment. The sought-after effect may have been better achieved by wending through testimonies of the numerous Indigenous envoys who have gone in recent years in search of their peripatetic ancestors and whom Thrush so originally evokes in chapter 7.

With this volume Thrush has certainly offered a powerful corrective to the usual geographies imagined for Indigenous people in the past, as well as a new layer to the palimpsest history of Britain’s imperial capital. Although  it may not have moved Indigenous travelers as far beyond the “symbolic”  (25) as Thrush wanted, the book nevertheless conveys a strong sense of the vibrancy, and indeed idiosyncrasy, of these individuals over the last five centuries.

Kate Fullagar. Published in William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 74, no. 2, April 2017


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