The arrival of European settlers in North and South American over five centuries ago sparked a period defined, in part, by momentous cultural collisions. The effects of these collisions are still felt in the present day because the misunderstandings and adjustments which occurred in their aftermath have deeply affected aspects of modern politics, social institutions, and values. In light of their far-reaching effects, it is important to understand the ways in which a variety of people groups perceived and interpreted their interactions with European settlers. Various extant documents and accounts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reveal the ways in which American Indians, Africans, and Europeans of diverse backgrounds viewed one another. This essay will explore some of these accounts in order to illuminate the cultural alterations which took place in the New World as people from three different continents converged.

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The meeting of American Indians and European explorers in all parts of North and South America during the Age of Exploration is one in which two radically different cultures crashed into one another repeatedly and, usually, disastrously. Two accounts, “A Mi’kmaq Questions French “Civilization”” from 1677 and Ateawaneto’s “Speech Defying the English” from 1752, help one realize the extent of these cultural differences. Both speeches are helpful here because they directly relay the perspective of the Eastern American Indian with regard to French and English cultures. Further, the anonymous Mi’kmaq and Ateawaneto give these speeches after the settlers and explorers had been residing in their native regions for several decades. Their history with European newcomers reveals a highly informed and deeply nuanced opinion of European culture. Those opinions, in turn, paint a picture of American Indians who were critically observant of the ways in which they differed from their new neighbors.

The Mi’kmaq’s soliloquy speaks to the satisfaction those within the Mi’kmaq tribe feel with regard to their own lifestyle despite French insistence that it is lacking in comparison to the French lifestyle. He astutely asks that, “…if France…is a little terrestrial paradise, art thou sensible to leave it?” (LeClerq 2016, 119). He points out that the French think the Gaspé Peninsula near Quebec is a miserable place filled with miserable, uncivilized people and questions why the French have decided to stay despite their clear displeasure at the prospect. The speech is rhetorical—the Mi’kmaq isn’t looking for concrete answers. He is merely pointing out the discrepancies in the French venture and the opinion of those carrying out that venture. Further, he is proclaiming his own pity for the French although he knows the French feel the American Indians should be pitied. His hearty, vocal embrace of his own culture contradicts everything the French perceive about American Indian culture and asks them to re-examine their own world view.

In contrast, Ateawaneto’s speech demands the English settlers respect the American Indian cultural prerogative and traditional residential lands. Without mincing words, Ateawaneto proclaims the Abenaki “will not cede one single inch of the lands we inhabit beyond what has been decided formerly by our father” and forbids the English from “kill[ing] a single beaver or tak[ing] a single stick of timber on the lands we inhabit” (Ateawaneto 2016, 180). Further, he mentions the Abenaki will be happy to sell goods to the English and that the tribe has a copy of this proclamation in case they might need it in the future. While Ateawaneto is forcefully emphasizing that he and the Abenaki will be proactive and diligent about protecting what is theirs, they have adopted distinctively European measures in order to ensure their survival. He acknowledges land borders agreed upon decades prior, references the Abenaki alliance with the French, discusses his familiarity with the chain of command from the Massachusetts governor to land surveyors, confers the Abenaki desire to maintain trade relationships, and makes known that all communications will be archived (Ateawaneto 2016, 179-180).

Both speeches show that, despite a seemingly static (and negative) perception of American Indians on the part of European settlers, American Indians held a multi-faceted view of their European counterparts. Further, they did not shy away from confronting Europeans about their blatant hypocrisy and blindingly naïve cultural arrogance. That same cultural arrogance is a hallmark of European interactions with the Africans they enslaved and minority groups from Europe.

The European relationship with Africa during this period is as egregious as European interactions with indigenous groups. Composed in the early decades of the eighteenth century, William Snelgrave’s account of the emergence of African slaves and South Carolina’s colonial-era legal code reveal a distinct and somewhat paternal view of African subservience. Both documents are written from an Anglo-European perspective and impress a conspicuous racial hierarchy upon the reader in which the white European is responsible putting the African within their most useful role, that of a permanently enslaved physical laborer.

Snelgrave specifically mentions that enslaved Africans in the New World are much better off than their enslaved counterparts in Africa because “they generally live much better there, than they ever did in their own Country” and, if taken as a captive in war in Africa, they “would be inhumanely destroyed” (Snelgrave 2012, 8). He seems to imply here that Europeans have a duty to prevent undue deaths and place people who would have otherwise been enslaved and/or killed in Africa on plantations in the New World, where they might fulfill their natural role as laborers. The South Carolina Slave Codes of 1740 reinforces such notions. Phrases like “so the slaves may be kept in due subjection and obedience” and “any such white person may pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct [an insubordinate] slave” (“South Carolina Slave Code, 1740” 2012, 8-9) are peppered throughout the text.

Whereas Snelgrave speculates on the natural role of enslaved Africans, the slave codes legally bind both that role and European racial supremacy. The mere presence of a slave code which dictates long working hours and proper punishment for insubordinate slaves speaks to the existence of African resistance to enslavement. While some of measures enumerated in the slave code are certainly preventative, the crafters of the document were, no doubt, concerned by other slave uprisings. Hence, they placed strictures on meetings, possessions which might be used as weapons, and the education of enslaved individuals. Within this cultural interaction, Africans were deemed inferior to Europeans and that resulted in their centuries-long enslavement which was enshrined in far-reaching systemic racism that manifested itself legally and socially.

Of course, this racial hierarchy existed within European people groups and extended to which types of immigrants were accepted in the New World. After a group of Dutch Jews were expelled from Brazil in the mid-seventeenth century, they were rejected from New Netherlands after seeking residence there (“Jewish Petition to the Dutch West India Company (1655)” 2016, 18-19). Despite the colony’s reputation for tolerance, the governor’s rejection of the Jewish immigrants reveals deep-seated prejudices held by Christian Europeans with regard to Jewish Europeans. These cultural differences traveled with Europeans to the New World and affected the implementation of policy and acceptance of minority European settlers in colonial holdings.

Perhaps the biggest outcome of these many cultural clashes in the New World was the socio-cultural and legal establishment of a racial hierarchy. Within this hierarchy, whiteness was defined as Anglo-Saxon & Protestant and white institutions were elevated at the expense of various indigenous people, people of color, and Europeans not yet considered “white.” Despite cultural adjustments and submissions made by American Indians, Africans, and minority Europeans, dominant Anglo-Europeans did not reciprocate in response to cultural clashes.