60 The Contorted Colonial Encounter

Tianna Currier

Mary Rowlandson’s depiction of the colonial encounter dramatically contrasts those we have read in previous texts. The typical depiction of early encounters between the “Indians” and early European settlers is one in which is the Colonizers are dominant, powerful and merciless. In the readings from last class, we encountered Bartolome De Las Casas, who was “an apologist for Native American rights,” and who exposed the horrific and gruesome deeds done to the Natives by the Spaniards. These depictions were filled with detail, explaining the horrific numbers in which Natives were slaughtered. It was a portrait of genuine bloodshed. What makes Rowlandson’s depiction of the colonial encounter so troublesome is how dramatized it felt paired with the onslaught of religious reference.

In  A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary  Rowlandson, the Natives are portrayed as the antagonist. This is not anything new or surprising, as the Natives were painted in a negative light throughout many different texts. What makes this portrayal more troublesome than others is how “on the fence” it feels. The text describes how the main character was being held captive, a slave perhaps but not exactly, by the Natives. This woman loses her daughter, is separated from her family, has a “master” who seems to mistreat her but was also, “the best friend that [she] had of an Indian.” She goes through utter turmoil at the hands of the Natives, and yet, it never seemed all that awful in comparison to other accounts. There are mentions of scalping and murder, but these few accounts hardly compare to the gruesome deeds of the Europeans in other texts. While captive, Mary is given what she needs to survive, and is allowed to carry her bible, knit, and wander the wigwams at her apparent leisure. At no point is she shackled, starved or beaten near death. The most gruesome portions of the text are those which involved her carrying her dying daughter for miles, then wishing to care for her after she had died. At this point in the text, there are real feelings of hate towards the Natives for putting this child and mother through such turmoil. And yet, as things progress, the text begs the question of why  all of is was happening. What provoked the natives in the first place? What was the actual encounter like? 

As readers, we are never given any prologue or rising action. We just know that a woman is being held captive and her daughter is dying. It is also troublesome, almost annoying, how often scripture is referenced in this text. It feels as though Mary is doing everything she can to hold onto her faith and feel a connection to God. This is understandable given her circumstances, and yet there is something very deeply unsettling about her obsessive use of scripture and religious reference. She also refers to the Natives as pagans, making slurs and jabs at their religious structures. At times, her use of religious reference feels like something to fill the script–something of no actual importance,  hiding  something much deeper.

This depiction of the colonial encounter is bewildering insofar as it contrasts with most texts that we have covered, and yet remains so troublesome in very subtle and pervasive ways. The pinholes in the plot, the lack of rising action that leads Mary into her current circumstances and the obsessive overuse of religious references and scripture quotations all create an uncanny sense that there is an entire side of this story which is missing. And so, that is often the issue with these depictions of early encounters; we hardly ever see both sides.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Tianna Currier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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