General Sir Guy Carleton, sitting in his comfortable office at the Quebec Citadel in May, 1775, had a problem. He had just heard the shot heard round the world. Although Sir Guy was known for never betraying fear or concern, he knew well that Quebec, a vast territory stretching from Labrador to the present St. Louis, was in mortal peril. Thirteen of England's colonies were in open rebellion on his doorstep. Quebec, as a Catholic and Indian entity blocking their expansion westward, was one of their principal grievances. Perhaps the principal grievance, although modern historians prefer to focus on the nobler-sounding notion of “no taxation without representation.” Carleton had every reason to expect either invasion or insurrection, or both, and imminently. In fact, reinforcing the suspicion that Quebec was the main issue, the Yankees had already taken Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, defending the main land route north to Montreal.
Carleton had only 800 regular soldiers under his command—to hold half a continent.
The French-speaking population of Quebec no doubt held no special feelings for the Crown of old England: of a different language and religion, they had been conquered on the Plains of Abraham only twelve years earlier. There was also, it is true, a small English-speaking resident population, mostly in Montreal. But they came almost entirely from the Thirteen Colonies. They were already frustrated at being allowed mere equality with the despised French Catholics, and were more than likely to retain allegiances to their southern cousins.
Luckily for Carleton, at that moment two delegations of Indians arrived to offer their support: Algonquin-speakers from the West, and a faction of Iroquois from upstate New York, under the command of Guy Johnson, intrepid British Indian agent.
Carleton turned them both down.
He asked the Algonquins to go home and stay neutral. He asked the Iroquois to remain in Quebec, where they were less likely to be caught up in the battle.
Carleton was an able administrator as well as a military man. These were early days, and positions had not hardened. The US had not yet declared independence. Sir Guy had reason to hope that reconciliation of Britain and its errant colonists was still possible.
But unleash the Indians and, given their methods of warfare, the breach was likely to become irreparable.
Carleton was right. When, in 1776, the Continental Congress did decide for independence, their Declaration included, as one of their justifications for the parting of the ways, “He [George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
This was just what Carleton had taken great risks to avoid. Unfortunately, later in 1775, two different American armies did indeed invade Canada—again suggesting the importance of this issue to the Continentals. It was a close run thing; Carleton held fast behind the walls of Quebec City until the Royal Navy could deliver reinforcements in the Spring. The Americans were then systematically pushed back, and, in a clash just outside Montreal remembered as “The Affair of the Cedars,” they ran into the Iroquois warriors.
According to the American accounts, after their surrender, the Iroquois tortured and executed American prisoners.
“The evening after major Sherburne was taken the Indians killed and scalped 2 of his men. Afterwards at different times they killed 4, or 5 others, one of whom was of those who had surrendered on capitulation at the cedars and was killed the 8th. day after that surrender. One other (as was affirmed by his companion now in possession of the savages and who saw the act) was first shot so however as not to kill him and then roasted. Others were left exposed on an island, naked and perishing with cold and famine, in which state they were found by Genl. Arnold’s detachment.” (sic; “Major Sherburne’s Testimony on the Affair at the Cedars” [17 June 1776]).
The British denied this; they claimed that the sheer terror of Indian torture led the Americans to surrender prematurely, and they then alleged actual torture to excuse their cowardice.
|The Deah of Jane McCrea, as imagined by American propaganda, painted 1804|
Either way, the incident may have been the fuse and powder that, in patriot propagandists' hands, finally alienated the Colonials. That, or the claimed execution by Indians travelling with British General Burgoyne of lovely young colonist Jane McCrea—although the Indians insisted she was killed by a stray Patriot bullet.
The Indians may or may not have committed actual acts of savagery in these particular instances. But at a minimum, we clearly see that they by this time had a solidly established reputation for such tactics. So solid that it was asssumed by the Americans as the rule.
And so we come to another rather discreditable element of traditional Indian culture, one that we may not want to endorse preserving. Yes, Indian war was constant. Yes, Indian ways of war produced massive casualties. Yes, they recognized no rights of non-combatants. But, as K-Tel used to say, wait, there's more. There was also the definite likelihood of torture if captured. They apparently knew nothing of the Geneva Convention. According to the early Jesuits, Indians in general believed that “those who go to war are the more fortunate in proportion as they are cruel toward their enemies” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 29).
“Those who have been captured and led off to their villages,” Jesuit Father Jouvency continues in the Relations, “are first stripped of their clothing; then they savagely tear off their nails one by one with their teeth; then they bind them to stakes and beat them as long as they please. Next they release them from their bonds, and compel them to pass back and forth between a double row of men armed with thorns, clubs and instruments of iron. Finally, they kindle a fire about them, and roast the miserable creatures with slow heat. Sometimes they pierce the flesh of the muscles with red-hot plates and with spits, or cut it off and devour it, half-burned and dripping with gore and blood. Next they plant blazing torches all over the body, and especially in the gaping wounds; then, after scalping him they scatter ashes and live coals upon his naked head; then they tear the tendons of the arms and legs, lacerate them, or, after removing a little of the skin, leisurely cut them with a knife at the ankle and wrist. Often they compel the unhappy prisoner to walk through fire, or to eat, and thus entomb in a living sepulcher, pieces of his own flesh. Torture of this sort has been borne by not a few of the Fathers of the Society. Moreover, they prolong this torment throughout many days, and, in order that the poor victim may undergo fresh trials, intermit it for some time, until his vitality is entirely exhausted and he perishes. Then they tear the heart from the breast, roast it upon the coals, and, if the prisoner has bravely borne the bitterness of the torture, give it, seasoned with blood, to the boys, to be greedily eaten, in order, as they say, that the warlike youth may imbibe the heroic strength of the valiant man. … The rest of the crowd consume the corpse in a brutal feast. “ (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 269-73).
|Martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues|
Most famous among the victims of Iroquois torture were the “Jesuit martyrs,” of whom every Canadian Catholic schoolboy surely knows. We have Father (Saint) Isaac Jogues's own description of his torture. Captured in a party heading peacefully by canoe from Quebec to Trois-Rivieres, he recalls, “they [the Iroquois] fell upon me with a mad fury, they belabored me with thrusts, and with blows from sticks and war-clubs, flinging me to the ground, half dead. When I began to breathe again, those who had not struck me, approaching, violently tore out my finger-nails; and then biting, one after another, the ends of my two forefingers, destitute of their nails caused me the sharpest pain, grinding and crushing them as if between two stones, even to the extent of causing splinters or little bones to protrude” (Jesuit Relations, vol. 31, p. 25).
“They treated the good René Goupil,” he adds, “in the same way.” This, it seems, was just standard practice. Nothing personal.
The captives were then trekked back to Iroquois territory, thirteen days away. During this march, says Jogues, “the pain of our wounds,—which, for not being dressed, became putrid even to the extent of breeding Worms,—caused us, in truth, much distress” (ibid., p. 27).
On day eight, Jogues and his fellows were obliged for the first time to “run the gauntlet.” He describes the familiar procedure: “[T]hey set up a stage on a hill; then, entering the woods, they seek sticks or thorns, according to their fancy. Being thus armed, they form in line,—a hundred on one side, and a hundred on the other,—and make us pass, all naked, along that way of fury and anguish; there is rivalry among them to discharge upon us the most and the heaviest blows” (Jesuit Relations, vol. 31, p. 29). During the ordeal, Jogues passed out. To prolong the fun, the Indians cared for him tenderly until he revived, then resumed the torture. At this point, Jogues relates, “[t]hey burned one of my fingers, and crushed another with their teeth, and those which were already torn, they squeezed and twisted with a rage of Demons; they scratched my wounds with their nails; and, when strength failed me, they applied fire to my arm and thighs” (Jesuit Relations 32, p. 31-3).
“My companions,” he again adds, “were treated very nearly as I was.”
It was not, of course, only Europeans who suffered in this way. The bulk of the victims, we should recall, were now as always other Indians. “Among the Hurons,” Jogues reports, “the worst treated was that worthy and valiant Christian, Eustache. Having made him suffer like the others, they cut off both thumbs from his hands, and thrust through the incisions a pointed stick even to the elbow” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 33).
During the thirteen day march, the captives were not fed. If they could snatch any wild fruits or berries from the trees and bushes as they passed, that was their sustenance. Eventually, they came to another Iroquois village, at which they were obliged to again run the gauntlet. This village, being near a Dutch trading post, was equipped with iron bars for the beating. The Indians, Jogues says, aimed for the shins.
It is, I think important to note one aspect of this torture ritual. All members of the tribe took part. Indeed, all members of the tribe seem to have been forced to take part. We see a repeated insistance that women and children, not just the brawny men, serve as torturers.
Why might this be?
People who are caught in an evil culture, I submit, always know perfectly well that what they are doing is wrong wrong; we all have a conscience, and morality is not relative to where you live. Were this not so, the Nuremberg Trials would have been illegitimate.
Because this is so, there is a natural eagerness to implicate others in any social crime. It is never okay for any member of the group to stand aloof. This automatically appears as a condemnation of the act, and the consciences of the original perpetrators cannot tolerate it.
At the same time, if you can implicate everyone in the crime from an early age, they are less likely to turn against the practice, or you, later. Doing so would then require them to face the fact that they themselves have done something terribly wrong. Guilt loves company.
So we see with Father Jogues. He reports, “An old man takes my left hand and commands a captive Algonquin woman to cut one of my fingers; she turns away three or four times, unable to resolve upon this cruelty; finally, she has to obey, and cuts the thumb from my left hand; the same caresses are extended to the other prisoners” (p. 41).
After this general cutting off of thumbs, a lesson for the little ones: “[T]hey made us lie down on pieces of bark, binding us by the arms and the feet to four stakes fastened in the ground in the shape of Saint Andrew's Cross. The children, in order to learn the cruelty of their parents, threw coals and burning cinders on our stomachs,—taking pleasure in seeing us broil and roast” (p. 43).
This is probably the worst thing about immoral cultures. They deliberately make it very hard for individuals to remain moral. They forever present them with moral dilemmas; they tempt and groom for immorality. This is why they need to be abandoned, claims of “cultural genocide” be damned.
In all, says Jogues, to continue the narrative, “we spent three days and three nights in the sufferings” on this particular scaffold (ibid, p. 43). Then their captors paraded the prisoners around to neighbouring villages in turn, each of which got a crack at them. During this time, “[o]ne of those Barbarians having perceived that Guillaume Cousture, although he had his hands all torn, had not yet lost any of his fingers,” no doubt a regrettable oversight, “seized his hand, striving to cut off his forefinger with a poor knife. But, as he could not succeed therein, he twisted it, and in tearing it he pulled a sinew out of the arm, the length of a span” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 45).
“The young men thrust thorns or pointed sticks into our sores, scratching the ends of our fingers, deprived of their nails, and tearing them even to the quick flesh; and, in order to honor me above the others, they bound me to pieces of wood fastened crosswise. Consequently, my feet not being supported, the weight of my body inflicted upon me a gehenna, and a torture so keen that, after having suffered this torment about a quarter of an hour, I plainly felt that I was about to fall in a swoon from it” (Jesuit Relations 31, p. 47).
In normal circumstances, prisoners were tortured to death; this would properly have been the time to cut Jogues open and eat his heart. But a council of the Iroquois decided the Frenchmen were worth more alive than dead, that they might be bartered back to the Europeans for trade goods. Jogues was held as a slave. Eventually, he was bought by a Dutch trader, and able to set sail back to France.
In a few years he was back, volunteered for the Iroquois mission, and they finally finished the job.
There are many such stories in the Jesuit Relations. It seems pure prurience to tell them all; the outlines of the torture are usually similar. We cannot pass by, however, without retelling for the sake of fellow Catholics the case of the other most celebrated Jesuit martyr, Father (Saint) Jean de Brebeuf. It is told by a Huron witness, confirmed later by wounds found on his charred body.
|Martyrdom of St. Jean de Brebeuf|
The Iroquois, on seizing and immolating with much slaughter the Huron village in which their Jesuit mission was located, seized two priests, including Brebeuf, “stripped them entirely naked, and fastened each to a post. They tied both of their hands together. They tore the nails from their fingers. They beat them with a shower of blows from cudgels, on the shoulders, the loins, the belly, the legs, and the face...” An Indian whom Brebeuf had catechized, now a captive of the Iroquois and no doubt hoping to improve his situation, a typical kapo, “baptized” the Jesuit mockingly three times with boiling water. Then they made their hatchets red hot in the fire, and applied them to his crotch and under his armpits. Then they strung the tomahawks into a collar, and hung it around his neck.
Either the Jesuit redactor, Father Regnault, or the Huron reporter, explains of this particular torture, “ you see a man, bound naked to a post, who, having this collar on his neck, cannot tell what posture to take. For, if he lean forward, those above his shoulders weigh the more on him; if he lean back, those on his stomach make him suffer the same torment; if he keep erect, without leaning to one side or other, the burning ratchets, applied equally on both sides, give him a double torture” (Jesuit Relations vol. 34, pp. 25-7). Another dilemma: the torture is both physical and mental.
“After that,” our source resumes, “they put on him a belt of bark, full of pitch and resin, and set fire to it, which roasted his whole body. ... To prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue, and both his upper and lower lips. After that, they set themselves to strip the flesh from his legs, thighs, and arms, to the very bone; and then put it to roast before his eyes, in order to eat it” (ibid., pp. 27-9).
By now, Father Brebeuf was visibly weakened almost to the point of death. His tormentors, seeing this, proceeded to the denoument. They made him sit down on the ground; “and, one of them, taking a knife, cut off the skin covering his skull. Another one of those barbarians... made an opening in the upper part of his chest, and tore out his heart, which he roasted and ate. Others came to drink his blood, still warm, which they drank with both hands” (Jesuit Relations 34, pp. 29).
You get the general idea of how these things proceeded. We could give more examples. Both of our cases have involved Iroquois, but do not suppose the practice was limited to that tribe. This is more an artifact of our sources being French and Jesuit, and the Iroquois long being their sworn enemies. Father Regnault, in reporting the death of Brebeuf, adds, “I have seen the same treatment given to Iroquois prisoners whom the Huron savages had taken in war” (ibid, p. 31).The Jesuits also record it among Neutrals. Champlain, returning from his first joint raid upon the Iroquois, observed quite similar tortures by Algonquins, Montagnais (Innu) and Etechemins. From Champlain's journal:
“our men kindled a fire; and, when it was well burning, they each took a brand, and burned this poor creature [an Iroquois captive] gradually, so as to make him suffer greater torment. Sometimes they stopped, and threw water on his back. Then they tore out his nails, and applied fire to the extremities of his fingers and private member. Afterwards, they flayed the top of his head, and had a kind of gum poured all hot upon it; then they pierced his arms near the wrists, and, drawing up the sinews with sticks, they tore them out by force; but, seeing that they could not get them, they cut them. This poor wretch uttered terrible cries, and it excited my pity to see him treated in this manner… After his death, they were not yet satisfied, but opened him, and threw his entrails into the lake. Then they cut off his head, arms, and legs, which they scattered in different directions; keeping the scalp which they had flayed off, as they had done in the case of all the rest whom they had killed in the contest. They were guilty also of another monstrosity in taking his heart, cutting it into several pieces, and giving it to a brother of his to eat, as also to others of his companions” (Voyages, vol. 2, ch. 10).
Next expedition, and a new batch of prisoners was observed being treated in the same manner:
“They took the prisoners to the border of the water, and fastened them perfectly upright to a stake. Then each came with a torch of birch bark, and burned them, now in this place, now in that. The poor wretches, feeling the fire, raised so loud a cry that it was something frightful to hear; and frightful indeed are the cruelties which these barbarians practise towards each other. After making them suffer greatly in this manner and burning them with the above-mentioned bark, taking some water, they threw it on their bodies to increase their suffering. Then they applied the fire anew, so that the skin fell from their bodies, they continuing to utter loud cries and exclamations, and dancing until the poor wretches fell dead on the spot. As soon as a body fell to the ground dead, they struck it violent blows with sticks, when they cut off the arms, legs, and other parts; and he was not regarded by them as manly, who did not cut off a piece of the flesh, and give it to the dogs. Such are the courtesies prisoners receive. As to the other prisoners, which remained in possession of the Algonquins and Montagnais, it was left to their wives and daughters to put them to death with their own hands; and, in such a matter, they do not show themselves less inhuman than the men, but even surpass them by far in cruelty; for they devise by their cunning more cruel punishments, in which they take pleasure, putting an end to their lives by the most extreme pains” (Voyages, Vol. 2, Ch. 10).
Similar stories are recorded of almost every North American tribe. John Gyles, taken from his farm on the Saint John River in 1692, reports his own torture and that of his companions by the Malecites (Algonquin speakers) in his Memoirs of odd adventures, strange deliverances, etc. published in 1736. According to a memorial plaque on the site, his brother and fellows were “tortured by fire, compelled to eat their noses and ears, and then burned to death at the stake.” Susannah Johnson, captured in a raid on Charlestown, New Hampshire by the Abenaki in 1754, was forced with her companions to run the gauntlet, although in this case it seemed mostly pro forma (Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, 1834, p. 47). Mary Rowlandson, captured in a raid on Lancaster, Massachusetts by the Narragansetts in 1675, told of a companion slowly burned to death with her infant child (Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Fourth Remove). Mary Jemison, taken by Senecas in the 1750s, wrote “we passed a Shawnee town, where I saw a number of heads, arms, legs, and other fragments of the bodies of some white people who had just been burned. The parts that remained were hanging on a pole, which was supported at each end by a crotch stick in the ground, and were roasted or burnt black as a coal” (James E. Seaver, The Life and Times of Mary Jemison, 1824, ch. 3). So too with the tribes of the plains. Gregory and Susan Michno, restricting themselves only to accounts from Texas in their book A Fate Worse than Death, decribe torture by the Sioux, Blackfoot, Comanche, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Lakotas, Shoshones, Bannocks, Mojaves, Yavapais, Crow, Kiowas, Kickapoos, Utes, and Chiricahuas.
|Native Americans scalping and roasting prisoners.|
The “captivity narrative,” almost always including accounts of torture, even became a recognized genre of American literature, and reports stretch all the way from first contact up to the final closing of the American frontier in the 1890s—when Mounties and Texas Rangers finally galloped onto the scene to end it.
Revisionist historians in recent years, it is true, have cast their doubts on just how widespread Indian torture really was. Believing devoutly, no doubt, in the innate sweetness of the noble savage, they argue that, “captivity narratives” having become a popular genre, there was an obvious incentive for authors to fake details, to make them as lurid as possible. Sells more tabloids, after all. What we see here, they also sometimes argue, is a clash of cultural values; no doubt the Indians similarly found some of our European ancestors' behaviour barbaric. Their final point is that, as propaganda, such stories might have been useful to justify settlers encroaching on Indian land.
These objections, I submit, really do not hold up well on close inspection. To deal with the last first, if the local Indians were not brutal, the settler reaction shown here would seem pretty far over the top. Why would they be so set against Indians as to invent such slanders? If farming the land might have put a crimp in Indian hunting practices, Indians simply following their traditional hunting practices did not really much interfere with farming the land; especially for these early settlers. Having Indians nearby could, on the other hand, be useful, so long as they did not enslave or torture: for showing what local plants were edible, explaining how to survive the local winter, to trade for mutual profit, and so forth. Land envy just does not seen sufficient to account for the evidence.
Most offensive is the idea that this is simply a clash of cultural values, and the Indians are entitled to their own whether we like them or not. Morality is absolute, or it does not really exist at all. Just because you live in Nazi Germany does not make it okay to kill Jews. Accordingly, cultures really can be more or less moral, just as can individuals. Torture is immoral. To suggest it isn't is apalling. There might be circumstances in which dire necessity might be used to justify it, but even so, where is the dire necessity here?
As for the yellow journalism charge, it is on its face more plausible. But note that the accounts we selected so far are mostly from early Jesuits, who already find the practice of torture widespread and in a variety of tribes. It is a bit hard to believe that either they or Samuel de Champlain, writing well before there was any established genre of captivity narrative, are already playing to the cheap seats. Moreover, it defies belief that men who have sacrificed everything to their faith, homeland, family, and life itself, would at the same time casually disregard one of its clearer tenets, that one ought not bear false witness against one's neighbour.
Finally, there is the matter of clear physical evidence. It is fairly easy to see if a thumb really has been cut off, or if a heart is missing. In many of these cases, it is not just one man's testimony: we have multiple witnesses, of unimpeachable moral character.
It might also be observed that those who knew the Indians best, the earliest settlers and those on the frontier, were those most inclined to believe these stories. Detroit's inhabitants, at the time on the far frontier of settlement, wrote in 1811 this poetic resolution pleading for government protection: “The tenderest infant, yet imbibing nutrition from the mamilia of maternal love, and the agonized mother herself, alike wait the stroke of the relentless tomahawk…. Nothing which breathes the breath of life is spared … It is in the dead of night, in the darkness of the moon, in the howling of the [wolf] that the demoniac deed is done” (Detroit public meeting resolution, December 8, 1811, quoted in Taylor, loc. 3985). Modern historians now and those back home in Britain then are and were most likely to doubt the tales; not those in the best position to know.
Even were all this not so, the tales of torture are so universal, it lends credence on the simple principle that where there is a choking smoke, there's apt to also be a fire.
Just as Indian torture played a role in the American War of Independence, it seems to have been crucial, fortunately and unfortunatley, in the sequel, the War of 1812.
It is an abiding mystery, on the statistics, how timid little Canada emerged from that conflict intact. The numerical advantage held by the Americans, after all, was overwhelming. The situation was little better than that outlined for Carleton's time. The US had 7,500,000 citizens; Canada had 500,000. Jefferson said it would be “a mere matter of marching.” Canadians still congratulate themselves on the remarkable “victory.” That's victory, of course, in traditional Canadian terms: for “victory,” read “survival.”
This time, unlike during the Revolutionary War, the British had no particular need to restrain their Indian allies. The rift with the Americans was already irreversible.
And so, Tecumseh and his united warriors were a major factor. Several of the most important British-Canadian victories were wrought from sheer American fear of being tortured by natives.
Begin with Brock's miracle of taking Detroit, almost the first action of the war. Hopelessly outnumbered by the Americans under General Hull, General Brock had the Indians parade in a circle outside the fort, passing repeatedly through a clearing into view, making their numbers appear much larger. He sent a note in to his American adversary: “It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences” (Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812, loc. 3250). That did it. Almost without firing a shot, after taking some time to ponder, General Hull struck his colours. A mixed group of 1,300 under Brock took prisoner two thousand five hundred Americans, and their well-positioned fort, gateway to all the upper lakes.
Similar scenarios played out many more times. On May 29, 1813, a boatload of frightened American troops rowed out to Captain John Richardson, commanding a British warship on Lake Ontario, under a white flag. They petitioned to be allowed to surrender and “claim our protection as prisoners of war against the savages on the shore” (Taylor, loc. 3968). The Americans, he noted, were all well-armed. They were followed by a second boatload making the same request. In the summer of 1813, there were stories among the Americans of a raiding party that had been found “most shockingly butchered, their heads skinned, their hearts taken out and put in their mouths, their privates cut off and put in the places of their hearts” (Taylor, loc. 4011). It was discouraging.
And then there was the celebrated Battle of Beaver Dams.
|Laura Secord reports to Lieutenant FitzGibbon|
You have probably heard of Laura Secord, who walked her weary cow through 20 miles—sorry, 32 kilometres--of rough and wild terrain to warn the British of an American attack?
Have you heard the rest of the story? Whom she reported to, and what he did with this information?
The officer's name was James FitzGibbon, as much as Secord a hero of Canadian history. FitzGibbon, forewarned, asked a few hundred Mohawks (250) in the area to wait in ambush. They waylaid the American column where the main road was flanked on both sides with forest. The Indians were heavily outnumbered, but, hidden in the trees, the Americans could not fire on them effectively, and could not see how many there were. The sound of the war-whoops was terrifying.
FitzGibbon then boldly marched his own scant band of regulars, in plain view, to block the American retreat. This was a brash and purely psychological move: although he did his best to mask their small numbers, had the Americans charged his line, they would easily have overwhelmed it. But the bluff worked. The Americans now thought themselves surrounded by Indians, and cut off.
FitzGibbon then cooly approached the Americans under flag of truce, and demanded surrender “in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed,” saying he could not possibly control the Indians for more than another five minutes (FitzGibbon, A Veteran of the War of 1812, p 87). At this time, unknown to the Americans, the Indians were already retreating, feeling they could accomplish nothing more.
Nerves shattered, the American commander agreed to surrender if FitzGibbon's would guarantee, on his honour as a British officer, they would not be harmed by the Indians. FitzGibbon promised, if necessary, to give his life in their defense. With a force of 46 muskets, plus 250 Indian irregulars only loosely under his command, FizGibbon achieved the surrender of 554 American officers and men, two cannon, two cars of ammunition, and the regimental colours.
Were American fears unfounded? Surely not. The Indians in these cases outnumbered the British themselves. Accordingly, the British did not dare press to impose any restraint on their Indian allies. There are many credible reports of real Indian atrocities during this time, some of them witnessed by British officers.
And that, perhaps, was really how and why little Canada survived the War of 1812. It was American fear of Indian torture.
Let us make one final thing clear. It is wrong to blame these atrocities on “the Indians,” as individual human beings, or suggest we would not behave about the same in similar circumstances. For one thing, Indians were most often the victims as well as the torturers. A poisonous culture puts every individual in an impossible moral quandary. We have the example of Nazi Germany, where “civilized” Europeans behaved almost as badly. We have the famous Milgram experiment, in which American grad students mostly acted as ready torturers so long as they thought they were being asked by someone in authority.
It is certain some Indians disliked what they were asked to do. They knew it was wrong. Almost every account of torture also includes an account of one Indian or another secretly bringing aid or succor to the victim. Mrs. Johnson reports her Indian captor eventually said, through her interpreter, “'I could not sleep last night… She may have her child! I cannot withhold it from her any longer!'” And, with the returned child, she also gave clothing and several presents (Johnson, p. 56).
Of course, it is also possible that only those captives lucky enough to find unusually compassionate Indians survived to tell the tale.
In any group of people, there are some good and some bad, probably in about the same proportions. But just as people are not all good, neither are societies. As with Nazi Germany, or Sodom and Gomorrah, some societies can be thoroughly bad.
One remarkable thing about Indian torture is how little practical justification for it there seems to have been. This, of course, makes it harder to justify. It was not done, like waterboarding or the Spanish Inquisition, to extract information. One can imagine that it might work as a force miltiplier—if only one tribe did it. It seems to have been just that in the War of 1812. But that was only possible when there was another non-torturing party alongside, here the British regulars, to play “good cop.” In inter-Indian conflict, there would be none. The chance of torture after capture was surely just as likely then to convince opponents to fight to the last man and the last breath rather than surrender.
So Indian torture seems to have been done just for fun.
How did it happen that almost every Indian group seems to have done it?
Some people are bullies. You grew up with some of them, back in the state of nature that is childhood. Some kids love to tie tin cans to doggies' tails, swing cats, or blow up frogs with firecrackers. A certain percentage of people everywhere are psychopathic. They derive pleasure, perversely, by inflicting pain.
Now, in any small group lacking a solid government structure designed to prevent it, the bullies are naturally going to take control. This is because they want it more than anyone else, and because they lack any morals in achieving their goal.
Indian bands, as the early Jesuits observed, or as Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) would attest, lacked much government. They were “sans roi, sans loi, sans foi.” For the most part, aside from the influence one individual could have with another, everyone did just about as they pleased.
In this “state of nature,” without effective government, there is nothing to stop the bullies from taking charge: no primogeniture, no democracy, no first estate. It will happen, as in Golding's Lord of the Flies, sooner or later, probably sooner. Once they have it, the bullies will take pains to implicate everyone else in their crimes, ensuring their habits and their power are maintained.
Hence, hell on earth. And for many in the afterlife as well.
Preserve or revive native Indian culture? We owe it to ourselves, especially if we are Indian, to do whatever is possible to ensure that we are never again placed in such a situation.