Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Amherst's Sin


John Sark has a perfect right to refuse the Order of PEI, but his reason is not a sensible one. He objects to the name of “Fort Amherst,” a national historic site across from Charlottetown. He believes it should be renamed. Even though this is a federal, not a provincial, responsibility. And so bears no relation to his being honoured by PEI.

The problem is that Amherst endorsed the idea of spreading smallpox to the Indians besieging Fort Pitt, what is now Pittsburgh, during the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763. So his name ought, apparently, to be stricken from the history books.

This is similar to the tumult now happening in New Orleans, about pulling down old monuments of Civil War figures. Most likely, it is inspired by it. Hence the stretch—protesting a federal matter to a province. Whenever something dramatic happens in the US, Canadians have to find some Canadian equivalent to get excited about. It would not do for kid brother to feel left out.

I think the American movement against historical monuments is wrong, and I think the Canadian movement is wrong. It is wrong to anyone who values history. Trying to erase or launder history is always wrong; it evokes George Orwell’s “memory hole” in the Ministry of Truth. It is important to remember history as it was, not to change it to what we want it to be. It is especially important to remember the history we disagree with. To ignore or deny it is the best way to have it happen again.

It does not really matter, therefore, but it is also true that Amherst, like Lee or Beauregard down in Dixie, was not really a bad sort. He is being used, shamefully, as a scapegoat. This is always easy to do with the dead, because they cannot defend themselves. This makes it cowardly and dishonest to do so.

It is not a question of moral standards being different; of it being unfair to judge Amherst by the morals of today. Morals do not change, and it is pernicious to suppose they do. Passing out infected blankets to the enemy would be considered an atrocity in the eighteenth century just as it would be today.

But circumstances do matter, and the seriousness of a sin depends on the circumstances.

There is for example, the right of self-defense.

Here are the circumstances: the Indians under Pontiac were illegally at war. They had just signed a general peace with the English, promising loyalty. Pontiac’s men attacked without warning, rather like Pearl Harbor. At Michilimackinac, they pretended to be playing lacrosse in front of the fort. Let in to continue their game on a better field, and so the English too could watch, they suddenly turned and slaughtered the garrison.

At Detroit, they had an agent planted to open the gates and let them in for a similar slaughter, the garrison trusting the Indians there too as friends and allies, but an Indian woman betrayed the plan. Pontiac’s men then ambushed a relief column heading to the Fort, and tortured, killed, and ate the soldiers in view of the garrison.

Amherst therefore had some legitimate doubts as to whether the rules of war really applied here; and had every reason to believe, if the Delaware and their allies took Fort Pitt, that they would torture and kill every man, woman, and child there. As they had done elsewhere.

Given that context, Amherst’s authorization for a “weapon of mass destruction,” despite possible civilian casualties, looks more reasonable. Debatable, certainly, but debatable on the level of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And yet, again, it was not so serious. It seems as though no Indians actually died from the infected blankets. Nor, based on the best science of that day or this, was such a tactic ever likely to work. As Amherst himself presumably knew. That, too, rather lessens Amherst’s guilt. It was a desperate measure with unlikely effects, and no effects in practice.


There are lots of places still named after Pontiac, including Pontiac, Quebec, Pontiac, Illinois, and Pontiac, Michigan. It seems only balanced that Amherst get some namesakes too.

Selective outrage, only against Amherst and the English side, is racism.

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