Campus & Community

Body language

6 min read

Views of the body colored perceptions of early colonists

Photo of Joyce
Joyce Chaplin: “The English were ventriloquizing the Indians, giving them points of view that they were unlikely to have had. What I was trying to do was erase certain things off the blackboard and leave space for historians to come back in and look at some of these issues from a fresh perspective.” <i>Staff photo by Justin Ide</i>

Joyce Chaplin’s latest book attempts to shed new light on an event that has left scant evidence in the historical record – the initial encounter between English colonists and Native Americans.

The book, “Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science in the Anglo-Indian Encounter, 1500-1676” (Harvard University Press, forthcoming), uses ideas of 16th and 17th century science to illuminate English attitudes toward Indians and to help explain interactions between the two groups.

Chaplin, who came to Harvard this year as professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has impressed her colleagues with her fresh, incisive approach to issues in early American history.

“She’s very much a historian’s historian,” said History Department chair David Blackbourn, the Coolidge Professor of History. “She manages to be very original in dealing with a subject in which one thought there was very little room for originality. I’m delighted we’ve made another really strong appointment in American history who complements what we already have. We also had rave reviews from students when she was here as a visiting professor, so we know we’re getting a terrific teacher.”

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, called Chaplin “a marvelous scholar and an engaging teacher who has already begun to make a difference for our students. She is transforming scholarly perceptions of ideas about the natural world, race, and colonization in the early Colonial period.”

For her latest book, Chaplin worked with original sources, both published and unpublished, in an attempt to understand the perspective of the colonists. She also tried to reconstruct the attitudes of the Indians, a more difficult task because the only knowledge we have of their words and actions comes through the biased viewpoint of the colonists themselves.

“The English were ventriloquizing the Indians, giving them points of view that they were unlikely to have had,” Chaplin said. “What I was trying to do was erase certain things off the blackboard and leave space for historians to come back in and look at some of these issues from a fresh perspective.”

The facts: Joyce Chaplin

  • Ph.D., History Dept., Johns Hopkins, 1986
  • M.A., History Dept., Johns Hopkins, 1984
  • B.A., American Culture/ Psychology, Northwestern, 1982
  • Associate Professor, History Dept., Vanderbilt University, 1993-2000
  • Visiting Professor, History Dept., Harvard University, 1998-99
  • Visiting Professor, School of History, University of Leeds, 1991-92
  • Assistant Professor, History Dept., Vanderbilt University, 1986-1993

Many of the questions that Chaplin investigated have to do with differences that the English perceived between the Indians’ bodies and their own, particularly regarding susceptibility to disease.

Native Americans proved to be exceptionally vulnerable to European diseases like measles and smallpox that they had never encountered before and to which they had little natural resistance. Today, with our knowledge of germ theory, we recognize that this vulnerability stemmed from the fact that the Indians’ immune systems were unprepared for these unfamiliar microbes. European settlers, however, who were unaware that they had brought the diseases with them, believed that the Indians’ vulnerability was evidence of basic physical weakness.

“They believed that the Indians were inherently weaker, more delicate,” Chaplin said. “This led to the idea that the Indians were naturally destined to die out and leave their land to the whites.”

This convenient belief became part of a general notion that the English colonists were meant to spread over the as yet unmapped continent, preceded by the fortuitous eradication of the native peoples through disease. It was a belief that bore a clear relationship to the much later notion of Manifest Destiny.

“I think it shows that the idea that people of European descent were destined to populate the North American continent has very deep roots,” Chaplin said.

There is evidence that when it came to disease the Indians had a more accurate grasp of cause and effect than did the English. In some of the colonists’ reports there are examples of what Chaplin calls “absurd transcription” – “absurd” used in its Latin sense of “discordant” or “inaudible” – in which English writers have written down Indian statements without fully grasping their meaning.

In these reports, the Indians accuse the whites of bringing the new diseases with them, although there is no recognition on the part of the English writers that these statements are indeed true. But the fact that the Indians understood this connection should prompt historians to ask new questions when they examine relations between Indians and European settlers.

“For example, if the Indians believed the English brought the diseases, they might have thought that they should also have the medicines to cure them. Or they might have believed that intermarriage with whites was a good idea because it would confer immunity,” Chaplin said.

Chaplin’s focus on science and its impact on history stems from an earlier interest in the technology of agriculture. As an undergraduate she was fascinated by the Green Revolution with its promise of ending world hunger and hoped to make a contribution to that effort.

Later, however, her interest shifted to the history of agriculture, and in graduate school she began studying the Colonial plantation economy in the New World.

Her earlier book, “An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815” (Chapel Hill, 1993), reflects that interest in plantation agriculture. The book looks at ways in which Enlightenment ideas of progress affected the lives of American planters in the Colonial South and traces the extent to which planters in South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida perceived themselves as modern people, dedicated to improving society.

In her next project, Chaplin plans to bring her investigation of English Colonial attitudes toward the body into the 18th century, when more elaborate theories about the differences among races began to affect the thinking of the American colonists.

Chaplin said that there were many things that convinced her to join the Harvard faculty: the community of scholars studying the early modern period and the history of science, the responsiveness of both graduate and undergraduate students, the wealth of original historical sources in the Houghton Library and University Archives, and the proximity of Boston.

But mostly she credits her year as a visiting professor for bringing all these advantages into sharp focus.

“During my visiting year I got a sense of the resources that were available, what the students were like, and how I could fit in here. It was a great seduction technique!”