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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nation and narration

It's been 400 years since the founding of the Jamestown colony. The queen has come and gone. Over at Cliopatria, they organized a symposium on the very good question that this occasion occasioned:

Why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England/Puritans rather than Jamestown/Virginia/Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?


As I looked forward to reading the answers, I wondered if anyone would get into the good question behind that one: What about Roanoke?

Turns out, the first one out of the box does just that. In a provocative essay, Rob MacDougall writes,

Like many I expect, I first learned of Roanoke as a kind of ghost story. I don't know which lurid kiddie book I read it in, but I do remember having the distinct impression that "Croatoan" was the name of some slavering forest monstrosity, and not, as it turned out, a nearby Cherokee tribe. The fate of the lost colony remains unknown, but the best guesses say they either got killed by the Powhatans, set out on foot for the Chesapeake and died en route, or went native, interbreeding with the Indians. Whatever became of them, there's a nice lesson there for American history about hubris, failure, and the great unlikeliness of the American experiment.


And he continues,

In Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, Roanoke is not a creepy campfire tale but a tragic road not taken. While Raleigh's ships were settling Roanoke, his friend Drake was buckling swash up and down the Spanish Mainósimple piracy, Morgan admits, "but on the scale that transforms crime into politics." Morgan makes much of Drake's alliance with the Cimarrons, black and Indian slaves escaped from the Spanish. Drake was not above slaving himself, but he made common cause with the "Maroons" and threatened New Spain with a general uprising of its Indian and African labor. As Drake sacked Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and San Augustin, he liberated, or collected, some three hundred Indians and two hundred "Negroes, Turks, and Moors," whom he planned to deposit at Roanoke to enjoy English-style liberty and serve as a rallying point for New Spain's oppressed natives and slaves. "Perhaps it could never have come to pass," Morgan writes, "and perhaps no one really intended that it should." Nevertheless, for him, Roanoke represented "a dream in which slavery and freedom were not yet married, a dream in which Protestant Britons liberated the oppressed people of the New World."


What if this story had become our founding myth, rather than the Pilgrim story? There was no contest, really, but it's useful to remember the contingencies of fate, all those roads not taken. For, as Homi Bhabha has observed, the idea of the nation is always, at bottom, haunted with ambivalence.