American Torture

By William Fitzhugh Brundage


Torture was a traditional tool of statecraft when Europeans began the conquest of North America during the 17th century. Its legitimacy as an appropriate means to punish treason, heresy and other grave offences was secure across the European continent. When Europeans confronted the native peoples along the eastern seaboard of North America, they encountered unfamiliar traditions of torture. Native American Indians likewise struggled to understand the logic and conventions of the violence perpetrated by Europeans. American Indians and Europeans taught each other about themselves through, among other things, these acts of violence, which became a means of communication accompanying the European conquest of North America. Torture became a form of cultural exchange.

In September 1637, a debate took place in present-day Quebec between a Jesuit missionary and Huron warriors. Their respective traditions of violence was a recurring focus. The Huron, who were then engaged in a bitter struggle with the Iroquois Confederacy on their southern boundary, had captured an Iroquois man and prepared to torture and execute him. Grasping an opportunity to baptise the prisoner and to proselytise his captors, Jesuit missionaries attended the execution. During the day and a half of the prisoner’s torture, the missionaries debated with the gathered Huron about Christian concepts of sin, heaven, French treatment of prisoners of war, and especially European methods of torture and execution. At one point, a Huron warrior asked why the priests objected to the tormenting of the captive. The missionary clarified that he objected only to the manner of his execution. ‘How do you French do it?’ the warrior asked. The priest conceded that the Europeans executed criminals ‘but not with this cruelty’. ‘Do you never burn any?’ the Huron man probed. Not often, the priest replied, before adding that ‘even then, fire is only for enormous crimes, and besides, they are not made to linger so long – often they are first strangled, and generally they are thrown at once into the fire, where they are immediately smothered and consumed.’ The Jesuit was grasping for ways to distance French torture from its Indian counterpart and to establish the superiority of European traditions.

This exchange between the Jesuit missionary and the Huron in 1637 brings to mind Michel de Montaigne’s wisdom that ‘each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice’. For the European invaders of North America, the mantle of Christian civilisation bestowed legitimacy to actions and distinguished their violence from that of the ‘savages’. The values of civilisation restricted violence against other ‘civilised’ peoples, while authorising virtually unlimited violence against ‘primitive’ peoples.

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Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0,

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