In my research for The Jigonsaseh, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way the Iroquois (the French word for the Haudenosaunee) have been portrayed in the Jesuit Relations. The accounts of Iroquois torture are pretty harrowing. Here’s an example of what happened to Father Isaac Jogues after he was taken captive, according to the Relations (I’ve cut out parts):
“They led us in triumph into that first village; all the youth were outside the gates, arranged in line, armed with sticks, and some with iron rods…. I was naked to my shirt, like a poor criminal; the others were wholly naked… The more slowly the procession marched in a very long road, the more blows we received…. Hardly could we arrive as far as the scaffold which was prepared for us in the midst of that village, so exhausted were we; our bodies were all livid, and our faces all stained with blood. … An old man takes my left hand and commands a captive Algonquin woman to cut one of my fingers; she turns away three or four times, unable to resolve upon this cruelty; finally, she has to obey, and cuts the thumb from my left hand; the same caresses are extended to the other prisoners! …
“Evening having come… then they made us lie down on pieces of bark, binding us by the arms and the feet to four stakes fastened in the ground in the shape of saint Andrew’s Cross. …Oh, my God, what nights ! To remain always in an extremely constrained position; to be unable to stir or to turn, under the attack of countless vermin which assailed us on all sides; to be burdened with wounds, some recent and others all putrid; not to have sustenance for the half of one’s life: in truth, these torments are great, but God is infinite. At Sunrise, they led us back upon our scaffold, where we spent three days and three nights in the sufferings that I have Just described.”
Then we have a third party account of what happened to Father Bressany in the Relations, which is almost identical:
“The Savages had ranged themselves in two lines, facing each other, and armed with cudgels, he was ordered to march the first of all through the ranks of the band…. There, they made him ascend a scaffold (raised about six feet from the ground), — quite naked, bathed in his own blood, that flowed from nearly every part of his body…Five or six days were spent in this pastime. Some one out of compassion threw him some shreds of a gown, wherewith to cover himself. He made use of it during the day; but at night they took it from him, and, gathering round him, one goaded him with a very sharp stick; another burned him with a firebrand; others seared him with calumets heated red-hot. …
“From this place, he was taken to the first Village of the Iroquois… he was received with severe blows, administered with cudgels on the most sensitive parts of his body; but the blows were so heavy that he fell to the ground, half dead. They still continued to strike him on the chest and on the head, and would have killed him, had not a Captain dragged him on the scaffold that had been erected, as on the first occasion. Here they cut off his left thumb, and two fingers of his right hand, after first, slitting his hand between the second and middle fingers….After he had been so tortured in that Village, he was taken to another, at a distance of two or three leagues, where again he had to suffer the same torments. He was, moreover, hung up in chains, by the feet; and, when he was taken down, his feet, his hands, and his neck were bound with the same chains. Seven days passed in this manner, and new tortures were added; for he was made to suffer in places and in ways concerning which propriety will not allow us to write.”
Along with the martyrdom accounts of the Jesuits in the Relations (thirteen of whom were sainted, by the way), there were graphic accounts of torture and the deathbed conversions of the “savages,” starting with an Onondaga captive who the priests named Joseph. Just as Christ was forced to wear a crown of thorns, Joseph’s tormenters made him wear a crown of porcelain (wampum). In another account, a child of four or five was stretched on a piece of bark, its tiny hands and feet pierced with pointed sticks.
Wow. But As Michah R. True points out in his brilliant thesis from Duke University, entitled Writing Amerindian Culture: Ethnography in the Seventeenth Century Jesuit Relations from New France, the Jesuit reports of bloodcurdling acts of torture were religious narratives, not factual accounts. These were crucifixion narratives or as True describes them, a re-staging of the Passion of Christ.
The Jesuits were sending their Relations back to a somewhat skeptical European audience, where they were widely published. Europeans weren’t sure that the “savages” were capable of rational thought, much less conversion. The capacity of “savages” to understand and adopt Christianity was the subject of much debate in the seventeenth century.
At a time when heretics could be gnawed by rats or torn apart by swine, tortured on the rack, or have their entrails burned before their very eyes, however, Europeans reading these accounts could understand the message, which was two-fold. Not only were Jesuits martyring themselves in order to save souls, but the good news was, the savages could be saved. The Indian captive who gazed heavenward and converted in the midst of such gruesome torture, however fictionalized, sent an important message to the French public (and those who backed the Jesuits financially as well), that all this effort and money wasn’t wasted. Conversion was possible.
In fact, True could find no example in the entire Relations where a First Nation captive who endured such torture failed to enthusiastically convert to Christianity. Hmm.
But stripped of their religious context and purpose, these horrific descriptions of burning and broken fingers and amputated limbs, typically followed by cannibalism, became the standard account of Iroquois torture practices. Interestingly enough, when one reviews the contemporary documents of the Dutch and the English, who were allies of the Iroquois, there are no descriptions of that kind of torture. Instead, descriptions of cruelty involve the Hurons and other French allied Indians.
The stories the Jesuits spread of Iroquois eating their prisoners and burning babies, have pretty much been debunked by modern scholars. Sadly, the torture stories too often appear in academia and other accounts as true. They remind me of the media stories of babies being pulled from incubators during the Iraq war, something we know now was only propaganda. Propaganda, in fact, was a word invented in the 1600s to describe the Jesuit attempts to “propagate” Christianity. It was as accurate a term then as it is now.