Heritage in Light of Atrocity

John Underhill, "The figure of the Indian's fort or Palizado", from Nevves from America; or, A new and experimentall discoverie of New England, London: 1638.

My grandfather once told me that my personal heritage did not make me better than anyone else; but that it was mine to use and draw strength from. Part of this, I think, requires not glossing over the grotesque moments that are part of everyone's past, myself included. I thought of this as I came across a passage from William Bradford, part of the separatist Scrooby congregation led by my forebear, John Robinson, and governor of the Plymouth “Pilgrims” Colony in Massachusetts.

During the Pequot War, the first of several genocidal conflicts in seventeenth-century New England, the English colonies fought the Pequots, a tribe of indigenous people in a vicious series of battles during the 1630s. Bradford, a thoughtful and community-oriented man, rejoiced while watching the destruction of a Pequot village in 1637:

It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire [of their burned village] and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and [the English] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy. – Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Boston, 1898 edition, 425-426.

 It is easy to condemn Bradford
even with the smell of burning human flesh in his nostrils, Bradford believed the massacre was pleasing to God. But his were the motivations of another time, a period when divine providence gave justification to violence. If I had been forced to inhabit the anxieties of the moment, I probably would have felt similar to Bradford. Indeed, my family would settle in the eastern lands of Connecticut, territory cleared out by the immolation of the Pequot tribe. Part of my heritage is the holocaust of native peoples.

This history is unpleasant to think about, but it is important for manifold reasons. No one—not Bradford, nor me, nor you—wakes up in the morning wanting to be evil. But we cannot understand the horror of the world until we realize our deep implication in it. We cannot begin to rebuild society until we realize that visceral rage does little to address our complex complicity in the innumerable injustices of humanity. 

Just a thought, written as the forces of violence and moral absolutes continue their steady march to oblivion, feeding upon the fears of otherwise good people.


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