When the British explored the Atlantic coast of America in the 1580s, their relations with indigenous peoples were structured by food. The newcomers, unable to sustain themselves through agriculture, relied on the local Algonquian people for resources. This led to tension, and then violence. When English raiding parties struck Algonquian villages, they destroyed crops and raided food stores. According to English sources, all of this was provoked by the ‘theft’ of a silver drinking cup, perhaps offered to an Algonquian visitor and understood as a gift of hospitality - a token of a new relationship of equals.
For the historian, episodes like this are challenging to explain. We need to treat dismissals of indigenous peoples as inferior with much greater scepticism. And we need to recover the intentions of peoples whose actions were interpreted and distorted by the observers who left the ‘historical’ records that we
privilege as sources.
is Lecturer in Modern American History at Cardiff University. In No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution
(Cornell University Press, 2019), she provides a powerfully original examination of how food and hunger structured relations of power in the revolutionary period. The book – which will be published by Cornell this autumn – ranges widely, from the villages of Iroquoia, to the lands of the Cherokee, and along routes taken by Africans to Canada and Sierra Leone. It is a feast, prepared with skill and served with considerable flair.
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull (UK), who has written on the politics of religion in early modern Britain, and whose work has recently expanded to the intersection of colonial, indigenous, and imperial politics in early America. He co-leads the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster.