Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hannah Duston: Heroine?

The other day I was reading thru the latest Quarterly Journal of Military History. I'm not sure I saw enough to justify the $13 purchase price but I did read about the story of Hannah Duston. I hadn't known about this story before. I thought it interesting and relevant to today's world. As you know the French and English colonized much of North America. They brought over their national, political and religious rivalries. These conflicts routinely erupted into war. In 1687 during the war that was alternately known as King William's War or the Second Indian War, the Abenaki Native Americans, allied with the French, attacked the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. They killed 27 English colonists and took captives, including one Hannah Duston, her six day old daughter, and her nurse Mary. Hannah's husband Thomas escaped with the couple's other older children, though some people in Haverhill wondered if he was a coward. Some people thought then and now there's no way Thomas Duston should have been alive if his wife and baby were captured. Thomas' defenders argue that he had responsibilities to his other children to consider. As I've written elsewhere you have to make hard choices in tough situations. Hannah may or may not have been raped. That can't be determined. What is certain however is that the Abenaki military party decided that Hannah's new baby daughter Martha wasn't likely to survive the trip north. And they didn't want to be bothered with the trouble of taking care of a baby. So they killed the infant by dashing her brains out against a tree. 
As you might imagine that didn't go over too well with Mrs. Duston. But she bided her time. She was assigned/sold/gifted to a different Abenaki group. Six weeks later, in New Hampshire Hannah saw her opportunity. Along with Mary and another English captive, a fourteen year old boy named Samuel, she went Lizzie Borden on her captors while they slept. Hannah, Mary and Samuel killed two men, two women and six children.

Likely motivated by revenge, a bounty on Native American scalps, and most of all the need to prove that women and a youth had done what they claimed, Hannah Duston also scalped the Native Americans. She escaped back to her home. Hannah Duston became the first woman in colonial America to be honored by a statue. There are memorials and statues across Massachusetts and New Hampshire commemorating Hannah Duston. In fact the axe she used to handle her business is honored in a museum. Some descendants of the Abenaki felt that any glorification or commemoration of Hannah Duston was not only wrongheaded  but racist. 
Margaret Bruchak, an Abenaki historian, said in order to properly understand the Duston story, it’s important to understand the Abenaki culture’s view of combat and captivity.
“The whole point of taking a captive was to then transport that person safely. For the whole of that journey they were treated like family,” Bruchak said. “When captives were taken, they were almost immediately handed off from the warriors to individuals who would then look after them. Hannah, we know for a fact, was handed over to an extended family group of two adult men, three women, seven children and one white child.”
That’s why the Abenaki viewed Duston’s actions after she escaped with such horror, she said.
“It’s almost like the Geneva Conventions, when you think about it. Han
nah betrayed the Abenaki Geneva Conventions. It wasn’t while she was in the midst of warfare that she did these supposedly brave acts. It was while she was in the care of a family,” Bruchak said. “If she had merely escaped, there probably would be very little story to tell, but the fact that she escaped, then stopped and went back to collect scalps – the bloody-mindedness of it is really quite remarkable. …
The Abenaki historian here glosses over the kidnapping of Hannah Duston. It takes some serious chutzpah to criticize Duston for bloody-mindedness after her baby was murdered. The reason that this story and the Abenaki reaction to it struck a chord with me is because it was not long ago that some conservative (and not so conservative) whites got very upset about the unveiling of a Charleston, South Carolina statue commemorating African-American freedom fighter Denmark Vesey, who attempted to lead a slave revolt and escape to Haiti. Vesey was betrayed, tortured and executed.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.Y. — ON Feb. 15, a group of activists in Charleston, S.C., unveiled a life-size statue of Denmark Vesey, a black abolitionist who was executed in 1822 for leading a failed slave rebellion in the city. For many people, Vesey was a freedom fighter and a proto-civil rights leader. But the statue, the work of nearly two decades, brought out furious counterattacks; one recent critic called him a “terrorist,” and a historian denounced him as “a man determined to create mayhem.”
Radio hosts, academics and newspaper bloggers condemned the project as “Charleston’s parallel to the 1990s O. J. Simpson verdict,” and suggested other African-Americans they believed more appropriate subjects of memorialization, like the rock pioneer Chubby Checker or the astronaut Ronald E. McNair.
Yes, because when I think of someone who stood up against all the odds and was willing to die for what was right, Chubby Checker is the first person who comes to mind. Ridiculous. That is exactly like an Abenaki historian saying that the Hannah Duston statues in Haverhill should be replaced with Rob Zombie ones. And the people complaining about the Denmark Vesey statue seem to have missed all the statues and other commemorations given to slaveowners and rebels. Now although you could make (and some have made) the argument that the European settlers never should have been in Massachusetts in the first place I don't think anyone would argue that a mother who had just seen her captors kill her infant child by dashing its brains out wouldn't be justified in seeking some payback. Similarly you have to be tone deaf and ignorant not to understand that if you violently enslave someone (and their children and their children's children) then you shouldn't be too surprised or outraged if they decide to make you bleed rather than submit any longer. Now whatever you think of violence (and if you're like most people you probably seek to avoid it) you must understand that violence begets violence and hate. In short if you mess with me I am going to mess with you. That's human nature. As Muhammad Ali said: I'm a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I'm no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won't hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.” There's no way we can logically admire Hannah Duston and scorn Denmark Vesey or Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner. Or rather there is no way we can do that and still pretend to aspire to a universal sense of morality. If you have a severely attenuated moral sense that only responds to what is "good" for your kith and kin, then yes you can cheer for one and not the other, but don't be surprised if someone calls you on your hypocrisy. No human can be kidnapped, enslaved or see his or her relatives brutalized and not want to do something about it. It's a cliche but it certainly often remains the case that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. History is less about what actually happened and much more about what we're supposed to learn from what happened. So although history is past it's very much a political endeavor of the present. There is a reason why Duston is glorified while people like Vesey, Turner, Prosser and John Brown are ignored or denounced.
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