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Coll Thrush on 'Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire'

Published: November 13, 2017

America Meredith, 2012

The road to Indigenous London, strangely enough, began in Seattle. For my doctoral research, I completed a dissertation that would eventually become Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (2007), a book that examined three kinds of Native history in the city: the experiences of the local Duwamish people, in whose traditional territory the city was built beginning in the 1850s; the histories of Native migration to the city from other places, starting in the later nineteenth century; and the uses of “Indian” imagery such as totem poles and the iconic Chief Seattle in the urban imaginary, something that has always been a part of the city’s history. Instead of treating Indigenous and urban histories as mutually exclusive – a typical way to narrate North American history – I argued that they have in fact been mutually constitutive.

During the same years that I was finishing Native Seattle, I was married to a Londoner. We travelled to the city on the Thames regularly, and each time, I found myself wishing I was not a historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century American West, but instead one with expertise in the kinds of history that would allow me to write about London. I was especially captivated by the idea of hidden histories within the urban landscape, from the works of Thomas de Quincey and Henry Mayhew through to P. L. Travers, Arthur Machen, Iain Sinclair, and China Miéville. I also became obsessed with lost rivers like the Effra and the Fleet, many of which still flow under the city. It was this sense of fugitive and occulted landscapes within a palimpsestic and deeply storied civic fabric that I found so compelling. And so, when my husband jokingly suggested I should write a book like Native Seattle about London, I at first scoffed, but quickly realized that this would be something potentially innovative. What would it look like to take the basic premise of Native Seattle – refracting a city’s history through Indigenous experience – and apply it to the centre of empire?

The result is Indigenous London. It is a five-hundred-years-and-then-some history of London framed through the experiences of Indigenous women, children, and men to traveled to the city, willingly or otherwise, from territories that became Canada, the US, New Zealand, and Australia, beginning in 1502 and continuing into the early twenty-first century. Built around what I call “domains of entanglement” – knowledge, disorder, reason, ritual, discipline, and memory – and including six poetic interludes built out of archival fragments, the book, parallel in many ways to Native Seattle, makes the claim that London’s urban history is bound up with the histories of Indigenous peoples throughout these four settler societies.

To get at this history, I not only had to become conversant in the histories of, for example, the Māori peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand, but to work my way into the massive literature on the social and cultural history of London itself. The research not only took me to archives with strong Indigenous holdings – most notably the Newberry and Huntington libraries – but deep into the stacks of the British Library and the Institute for Historical Research.

For example, one of the stories in Indigenous London that readers tend to have strong responses to is that of Nutaaq, an Inuit baby who was put on display in a City tavern in 1577 but who died soon after. He was buried at St. Olave’s Church, Hart Street. To understand Nutaaq’s context, I not only had to survey the history of Inuit-English encounters in the early modern period; I also needed to create a “deep map” of St. Olave’s, a church whose most famous congregant was Samuel Pepys. (Indeed, the fragmentary archive related to Nutaaq, contrasted with Pepys’s encyclopedic, self-referential corpus, symbolizes for me the very nature of colonialism.) I also needed to include the story of Peter Morin, a Tahltan scholar and performance artist from Canada, whose “cultural graffiti” in London included a 2013 ceremony to honour the spirit of the lost boy. This interleaving of the urban and the Indigenous, of the past and the present, is emblematic of the work I was trying to do with Indigenous London.

Another interleaving of this sort can be found on the cover of the book. In 1762, three Cherokee diplomats traveled to London to cement peace after the close of the Anglo-Cherokee War. Like Indigenous travelers before and since, Utsidihi, Kunagadoga, and Atawayi were massive celebrities during their time in the city, with references to their stay appearing in London newspapers and even in the work of William Hogarth, and their political work resonated in Cherokee territory as well. Two hundred and fifty years later, in fact, the Cherokee Nations sent a delegation to Britain to walk in the footsteps of the three diplomats. Among this group was an artist named America Meredith, who commemorated the 2012 trip by creating a work that imagined the three original travelers walking across the iconic Abbey Road zebra crossing. Simultaneously iconically London and immediately recognizable as Indigenous, the image does work that parallels the story I was trying to tell, of the intersections between urban and Indigenous histories on a global and imperial scale, and of the power of Indigenous memory despite the traumas of settler colonialism.

There are so many other stories to share: not just of captives and diplomats, but of athletes and poets, medicine people and missionaries, and many others. And these are just the stories of London; there are other projects currently in the works on Indigenous histories in other imperial cities: Rome, Madrid, and beyond. To tell these kinds of urban Indigenous histories is to reframe not only the cities in question, but the place of Indigenous history in world history. Instead of relegating Indigenous peoples to the past as foils to global modernity, this work illustrates the ways in which Indigenous people and peoples were co-creators of that modernity. To do so, I hope, speaks back to empire in solidarity with today’s Indigenous communities and nations.

 Coll Thrush is professor and graduate chair at the history department of the University of British Columbia.

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