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Chapter 3: American Empires: “Mother Countries and Daughter Colonies: Let the Conflict Begin”

As Voltaire pointed out, the ideals expressed in salon society were at odds with the reality of the time period. While preaching of liberty and human rights at home, across the world Europeans were enforcing slavery and a brutal policy of maintaining empire. At the same time that they were focusing on their own rights, Europeans were taking human rights away from millions of non-Europeans.

How could Europeans justify this hypocrisy?

In essence, the Europeans viewed non-Europeans as less than human. Just as Europeans “naturally” were guaranteed rights, non-Europeans “naturally” did not deserve the same, because of their “inferior” race and culture from the European viewpoint. The only way that non-Europeans could “improve” was simply to become like Europeans. Then, perhaps, they might be closer to being considered “fully human.”

The Europeans were not fully successful in this goal, however. In the United States in particular, they produced a country based in European, Western traditions—with European language, dress, and religion—but still reflecting much of the “wildness” and independence that the Europeans saw as the enemies to the social “order” of the Enlightenment.

In order to understand the partially-accomplished nature of this European goal, it is first necessary to understand that the United States today was actually composed of several different European empire territories: namely, the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch colonies of the 16th-18th centuries. [You can add Sweden, Denmark, and Russia if you really want to get technical.]

Secondly, to understand the frustrations that the Europeans felt, the central metaphor of this American empire is helpful: the “mother country” was back in Europe and the “daughter colonies” were in the “New World” of the American continents. This mother-daughter relationship is a good metaphor, particularly during the “adolescence” of the New World during the Enlightenment, when the “mom” and her “daughters” did not always agree.

[Empire—a method of influencing/dominating other societies/nations outside of a “mother country’s” boundaries; though they have similarities, modern empires should not be confused with ancient empires like the Hellenistic, Roman, or Han Empires]

Fundacion_de_SantiagoNatives_guiding_french_explorers_through_indianaSalem_shipping_colonial_colorHenry Hudson meeting with Native Americans along the Hudson River, 1609. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustrationMestiso_1770


“Melungeons”: The Colonial American Melting Pot

In the Appalachian mountain regions of present-day Virginia/North Carolina/Tennessee, a certain ethnic group commonly known as “Melungeons” exhibits ethnic traits that no neighboring people possess: the skin color, hair type, and nose size of these peoples is so dissimilar that a variety of theories emerged to explain how such a people could have developed in the isolated mountains of the American continent. One fanciful theory had it that the “Melungeons” were actually descended from the Middle East: in the 16th century, the Muslim empire of Ottoman Turks was at war with Spain, and many Turks were captured as slaves and sent back to Spain and—eventually—to the Spanish colonies in the New World. A group of these Turkish prisoners supposedly helped Sir Francis Drake, English “privateer” (pirate), carry out his daring raid of Spanish gold supplies in Panama. Drake supposedly freed and brought aboard some 300 Turkish ex-slaves and promised to take them back to England and, from there, to their homeland. However, no record or trace of them was discovered in Europe. The theory has it that, on his way back to England from Panama, Drake checked in on the new English colony of Roanoke (present-day North Carolina) and forced the Turks ashore to make room for English colonists and supplies, abandoning the Turks in unfamiliar territory, several thousand miles away both from Europe and from their former masters in South America. In order to survive, these Muslim Turkish ex-slaves fled inland, to the mountains, where they lived with the Native Americans of the Appalachians and became part of the tribes—hence the “Melungeons” and their unique physical appearance.

As it turns out, DNA testing in the past decade has revealed a much less adventurous story: there is no trace of Middle Eastern genes in the “Melungeons.” Instead, they appear to have been the result of intermarriages between Native Americans, African-Americans, and Caucasians… What does this say about “American identity”?