A carefully constructed study—featuring a chilling denouement—of the disruptive effects of “civilizing” mission work among indigenous peoples.
Demos (Emeritus, History/Yale Univ.; The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World, 2008, etc.) manages a sly, significant feat in this historical study/personal exploration. As part of a grandiose scheme to redeem and improve the status of “savages” such as American Indians, the early Americans devised a “heathen school” in Cornwall, Conn., for some of the exemplary members of various ethnic groups, beginning with five Pacific Islanders brought to the shores by trade ships. The Hawaiian native Henry Obookiah proved the most famous immigrant, having arrived around 1809, eager to be educated, Christianized and sheltered with Yale faculty. Eventually, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sponsored him, along with the other Hawaiians, for the Foreign Mission School, inaugurated in 1817. The school was run by philanthropic donations, and it taught a mix of English, arithmetic and geography, for the eventual purpose of conversion and evangelization. Gaining new students from some of the Indian nations, East Asia and elsewhere, the school helped undermine some of the stereotypes about the intelligence of “pagans” and served as a model experiment as well as a tourist attraction. However, the seeds of its success, namely assimilation and acculturation, also led to its downfall, as the “scholars” attracted white women partners and, thereby, scandal amid a deeply racist America. The two success stories, involving Cherokee scholars John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, both married white women and moved to the Cherokee Nation, gaining important leadership roles that, ultimately, steered the nation’s fate toward removal and thereby invited the men’s own violent demises. In “interludes” alternating with his historical narrative, Demos chronicles his visits to the places involved—e.g., Hawaii, Cornwall—in order to impart a personal commitment to this collective American tragedy.
A slow-building saga that delivers a powerful final wallop.