8. Historical parallels in America

First encounters between settlers and natives are strenuous affairs and, like a blind date, tend to be full of anxiety, uncertainty and disappointment. Past experiences linger in the mind and are, invariably, recalled with alarming differences: what may be viewed as a ‘conquest’ by one could be experienced as ‘date rape’ by another.

Turning points in history
Historically speaking, most first encounters occur on the beach or beside a river—rather than in a port or tavern—and our memories of such events differ, too, such as when both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama wooed the Indians on both sides of the world. It was a turning point in our history as it set in motion the colonisation of the New World and the demise of the Old. It’s no wonder that Thanksgiving is such a contested event today.

Jacob Haafner and his Khoe beloved under a Dutch flag. From ‘Lotgevallen en vroegere zeereizen’, 1820.

Origins of the harvest feast
The origins of a Thanksgiving Feast date back to when, supposedly, the Wampanoags and Pilgrims first celebrated a harvest together. Though more a rendezvous than a blind date, then, both sides continue quarrelling about the food, the bill, and that there’s no such thing as a free lunch today. Not in New York. In the 1600s, however, it was a veritable three-day feast. The reality behind the myth is that most agrarian societies celebrate an end of harvest with a big feast, often sharing food with their neighbours.

Samoset greets the Pilgrims. From Charles Brownell’s ‘The Indian Races of North and South America’, 1873.

In some instances an annual feast also offers the young an opportunity to meet, to marry, and to start a new life together. The Mayflower Pilgrims were no different. They’d left England when most were still in their early 20s and, during their 12-year stay in Leiden, Holland, observed a strict church calendar—including the call of the seasons and a harvest festival.

‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Jennie Brownscombe, 1914. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth.

Only a few decades before, during the Eighty Years’ War (Dutch War of Independence), Leiden’s independently-minded Protestants died of starvation when the Spanish besieged their city. The deprivations were still part of living memory when the Pilgrims witnessed the annual thanksgiving services in Leiden’s Pieterskerk. Today’s traditional hutspot (pot stew) remains a symbolic reminder of this event. In short, Thanksgiving Day has a long and varied prehistory—before it came to America.

I don’t intend to dwell on perennial quarrels, not here, but simply wish to draw a parallel between the Pilgrims from Leiden and a Portuguese Viceroy killed at the Cape of Good Hope a century earlier.

‘Massacre of Viceroy Francisco d’Almeida, 1510′ by Angus McBride, 1984. Courtesy Castle Military Museum.

Historical parallels
Those following this blog already know that Viceroy Francisco d’Almeida was led ashore, attacked, slain, and then hurriedly buried in a shallow grave. His murder was the result of conspirators, Catholic cabals, conflicts between military orders and, of course, jealousies at court. Some readers may well ask, where’s the parallel? True, at first glance a seaside feast and a beachfront battle seem to have little in common.

Yet, what if we look deeper? Like the Feast of the Wampanoag, the so-called Battle of the Gorinhaiqua has (unwittingly) been miscalculated and misrepresented for 500 years. On the one hand, white settlers see the feast as symbolising their union with the indigenous nations; whereas native Americans regard it as a bitter act of betrayal. Similarly, South African whites view the battle as “one of the greatest tragedies in Portuguese history” while, and herein lies a historical irony, the indigenes call it “our finest hour in history!”

So, what was it, triumph or tragedy, conquest or rape? In short, both events offer parallel interpretations. I suggest we look at other parallels in America’s history here.

The conquest of the New World and the Spanish Reconquista are not only inseparable events, but follow parallel trajectories. Had Granada not fallen, Columbus may never have sailed west, not in 1492, nor for Spain, and probably not for Portugal either. The fall of Granada earlier that same year—which Columbus himself witnessed—marked the final expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. That Columbus contributed to the economic decline of Italy, or at least to that of Genoa, is a topic best left for another day.

‘Columbus Taking Possession of the New Country’ by L. Prang & Co, Boston, 1893, lithograph. Courtesy Library of Congress.

For us, now, it’s enough to say that Spain’s newly acquired wealth financed the discovery of the New World. But without Isabella’s jewels and without outside interference, could Andalusian-Arabs have reached America first? They had the ships, the skills and the technology, if not the will. Imagine a parallel history—or a Muslim America?

Modern parallels
More parallels appear to span history. While we all welcome Martin Luther King Jr among America’s great leaders—Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt—I find statements about him as “the first African-American non-president on the Mall” to be somewhat misleading, even in Washington. Such prolonged racism displaces what is, speaking of parallels, of far greater importance to us today: MLK represents all men and women who have initiated reform against formidable odds: albeit White, Black, Jew or Muslim, even Protestant and Catholic.

Martin Luther King Jr

MLK strove for reform, much like his alter ego Martin Luther had done in the early 15thC. While the German theologian initiated a Protestant Reformation against the papacy of Roman Catholicism, this dapper clergyman led the civil rights movement against black oppression by white Americans. Then, four centuries after Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish statements, MLK seems to have expiated this in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall. It was as if he marched on Washington to set an old record straight.

Martin Luther

There are several other parallels between modern America and ancient Rome which, curiously, suggest that the same dramas need to be re-enacted time and time again. This seems as true for the current Clinton-Obama alliance as it was between the founding fathers; Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. See the backstory under Synopsis.

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   Claudius           Julia Agrippina              Britannicus           Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus           Scipio Nasica
Bill Clinton          Hillary Clinton            Barack Obama           John and Robert Kennedy           Richard Nixon

Among the most striking parallels to date is one between John and Robert Kennedy and the Gracchi brothers of 2ndC BCE Rome; Tiberius and Gaius. Tiberius Gracchus was a Roman tribune whose zealous concern for the welfare of the common people against the power of the Senate and aristocracy resulted in his assassination. Gaius Gracchus, also a tribune, was the younger brother of Tiberius whose crude murder he sought to avenge. He pursued his brother’s democratic policies of reform; favouring the common people while curbing the power of the elite. He too was murdered.

As an irony of history the Gracchi brothers were denounced by the Pontifex Maximus of Rome, a wealthy aristocrat called Scipio Nasica (“pointed nose”), whose dirty tricks led to the bloody killing of Tiberius. A public outcry forced the Senate to take reconciliatory action and Nasica was threatened with impeachment. Instead, Nasica discreetly left Italy and wandered from place to place as a despised outcast until he died. In like fashion, Richard Nixon was investigated for political corruption and financial irregularities. Faced with impeachment, he too resigned, making him the only US president ever to do so.

Finally, much like a blind date, first encounters in history can be full of surprises too. And complexity. As such, complex events require different explanations or, at least, that we look at things somewhat differently. I’ve used this blog to propose that first encounters need not be so new after all, but may belong to a recurring pattern of events spanning entire histories. Be that as it may, for us as participants today, our histories are inseparable and bound together like a Gordian knot. While American history may seem unfathomable, one swift blow will not unravel all its secrets today. Not here either. Fortunately so, or Thanksgiving and its parallels would be a boring subject indeed.

A shorter version of this post appeared on the History News Network (21 November).

Nicolaas Vergunst

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