“Solemnly and slowly move onward, to the river’s shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera. How awful the procession! innumerable millions of winged beings, voluntarily verging on to destruction, to the brink of the grave, where they behold bands of their enemies with wide open jaws, ready to receive them. But as if insensible of their danger, gay and tranquil each meets his beloved mate in the still air, inimitably bedecked in their new nuptial robes. What eye can trace them, in their varied wanton amorous chances, bounding and fluttering on the odoriferous air! With what peace, love, and joy, do they end their last moments of their existence?” (87)
In my last post, I suggested that one way that William Bartram speaks to us is that he provides a model for solidarity with nature. For him, nature was a window into creation (he was a clear theist) and a reflection of our own habits, customs, morals, and sympathies. One troubling aspect of Bartram is that he spills much ink in describing the lives of Southeastern Indians, sometimes in the same chapter as his discussions of plant and animal life. I am reminded of Jefferson placing his discussion of blacks in between passages on Virginia’s flora and fauna. Does Bartram suggest Indians are part of nature? Something that one experiences while adventuring in the back country? I do not think so. Perhaps we can blame a naturalist for putting on the ethnographers hat a bit too much, but he is very clear throughout the work that Indians are part of civilization. For Bartram this civilization is not a euphemism for European culture, but a diverse set of potentialities. Traveling in the mid-1770s and writing in the 1780s (published in 1791), Bartram even suggests that white America can learn much from the Cherokee, Muscogulgues, and Creek (just to mention a few he discusses) as they begin affecting their revolution. I resubmit my claim from the last post. Bartram was a thinker of the American Revolution and his intense interest in Indians was not because he confused them for nature – his main subject – but that he was searching for alternatives to monarchy and a model for the proper defense of human freedom. This was all being done at a time when the new republic was playfully experimenting with the same questions. It is with this in mind that I read the rest of Bartram’s Travels.
In all fairness, he often does discuss Indians in the same language with which he describes others. Most notably when he described Creek violence. But, at the same time, if they are animals so are we all. “The Indians make war against, kill, and destroy their own species, and their motives spring from the same erroneous source as they do in all other nations of mankind. . . . But I cannot find, upon the strictest inquiry, that their bloody contests at this day are marked with deeper stains of inhumanity or savage cruely, than what may be observed amongst the most civilized nations. . . . all their slaves have freedom when they marry, which is permitted and encouraged, when they and their offspring are every way upon an equality with their conquerors. They are given to adultery and fornication, but, I supposed, in no greater excess than other nations of men.” (186) Even their violence against nature is familiar. “They wage eternal war against deer and bear, to procure food and clothing, and other necessities and conveniences, which is indeed carried to an unreasonable and perhaps criminal excess.” (186)
The final part of Bartram’s Travels brackets out Indian cultures in four short chapters. It is here that Bartram is at his most revolutionary, seeing the potential for universal human solidarity and rights. He sees the potential for peace, social stability, and “civil government” without authority or violence. “How are we to account for their excellent policy in civil government; it cannot derive its influence from coercive laws, for they have no such artificial system. Divine wisdom dictates and they obey. We see and know full well the direful effects of this torrent of evil, which has its source in hell; and we know surely, as well as these savages, how to divert its course and suppress its inundations. Do we want wisdom and virtue? let our youth then repair to the venerable councils of the Muscogulges.” (393) He praises their simple constitution, their democratic institutions, and their efforts to secure “mutual happiness.”
Bartram was also not unaware that he was traveling through a slave society and the brutality of slavery may have shaped his quite favorable and sympathetic view of Indians, even to the degree of suggesting them as a potential model of governance. He saw signs of an institution in decay and crisis. In Georgia almost half of the slaves ran away at some time during the Revolutionary War. We are reminded how of slaves were willing and able to take advantage of these crises to secure or attempt to secure their freedom. “Observed a number of persons coming up a head, whom I soon perceived to be a party of Negroes. I had every reason to dread the consequence; for this being a desolate place, I was by this time several miles from any house of plantation, and had reason to apprehend this to be a predatory band of Negroes; people being frequently attacked, robbed, and sometimes murdered by them at this place.” (379) We do not know for sure if these were runaway slaves, but it seems likely given that his context of his travels – a revolutionary society.
In conclude: William Bartram is a beautiful naturalist writer, who effectively shares his awe of the natural world with his reader. The Library of America volume contains many of his beautiful drawings and paintings, which add to this otherwise slim volume (by LOA standards – 700 w/ notes). It also provides a basis for discussion of looking to our own traditions (this time indigenous) for libertarian models of social organization, without the idealization that we sometimes get with the “ecological Indian” narratives.
The volume also contains his report to John Fothergill, which is more of his journals. It is very technical and contains mostly scientific descriptions with little of his beautiful and fascinating commentary. I skimmed this (a forgivable sin I hope considering the scope of this project). It also contains seven shorts scientific essays, which have little to add to what I have already said. His “Observations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians” does give us a little more meat and will be the subject of a short post, next time.