Review: Coll Thrush, Indigenous London

Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Thrush CoverWander through the Museum of London’s rich galleries, glowing with relics and rites of Roman Londinium, and you’ll spot scraps of the city’s wall half-strewn along the route. Burned in bits or eaten by age, the red-and-white brick arches splay out like the broken teeth of empire, grinding a crooked grin in today’s cityscape. Amid the tidy exhibits and visitors’ whirl, it’s a graphic reminder of what London was and how it has weathered so many centuries’ toll. But, as Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London asks us, “The audience of a museum is always / another sort of collection…Indigenous objects, Indigenous eyes—/ Who sees and what is being seen?” (p. 135). For the scholar rescuing clues from the built environment, the wall raises a complex set of research queries: Who passed through the city limits, and why? How did diverse travelers experience urban life at a sensory level? What did it mean for indigenous visitors to sample London? And how can we expand the historical canon of voices who tell that story in the early modern era? 

Coll Thrush’s Indigenous London is a compact, colorful gem of a book that tells the tale, by beginning with 16th-century archival sources and featuring a unique choral narrative. Vividly tracing the global odysseys of men and women, captive and free, who came to London from lands later known as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, Thrush offers a lucid, new model of urban history for Atlantic scholars. To move beyond the methodology used to peel back “hidden histories,” Thrush wades through manuscripts, artifacts, and archives long-steeped in colonial ideology, surmising a way to shift what we (think we) know of the ancient city. “The problem of London’s Indigenous history is an enforced silence, not the hidden-ness of past events,” he writes. “The people in this book, it turns out, did not need discovering. Indigenous people never do” (p. 6).

In seven chapters laced with poetic interludes that linger over a thematic set of sources, Thrush lays out a vast array of historical actors old and new. Some familiar stories recur. Pocahontas joins in Twelfth Night revels at James I’s court. The “Four Kings,” members of the Iroquois Confederacy, address Queen Anne, tour the Guildhall, dine with military greats, and ascend St. Paul’s to admire the view. Charles Dickens scoffs at the “maudlin admiration” that Londoners show for Ojibwe performers in 1843. [The “noble savage,” Dickens wrote in a particularly vitriolic passage, was “something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth” (p. 9)]. Most of the stories here, however, feel refreshingly new—and sources are carefully parsed rather than exoticized. Pocahontas’ high-profile tour of London, Thrush observes, possibly led her to question the Christian-inflected themes of imperialism that were, literally, staged by royal power. He skillfully weaves in the ideas of her kinsman and shaman Uttamattomakin, whose disenchantment with London provides a subtle tonal shift on the book’s pedal. The Four Kings’ London episode is refracted through the “transatlantic urban echo chamber” of a rising print culture, which also colors the political consequences of their trip once home. The distinction between how British culture portrayed the Four Kings, and how powerfully they “asserted their Indigeneity in London,” receives sharp analysis (p. 79). Dickens’ words haunt and jab. But Londoners’ reaction to indigenous travelers ranges widely, in Thrush’s telling, evident in loud Victorian cheers for the “savagery” of Māori athletes.

The book’s chronology veers from reciting traditional turning points in imperial history, and it’s for the best. While “hidden histories” can favor a hazy point of inspiration and then engrave a plea to recover those often forgotten, Indigenous London amasses the roster of people and evidence needed to confront the knotty concept of cultural memory. Separate from the pressing issues of repatriation of sacred objects and ancestral remains, the final section of Thrush’s work spotlights “the remembering and reclaiming of the city and of Indigenous travelers by descendant communities. In this entanglement of memory between the city and its Indigenous history, activism, ceremony, and reenactment are central to the story.” In that vein, Thrush’s book is instructive for those tackling early Atlantic history and seeking to understand the historical work of native communities.

There’s more than one path to navigate Indigenous London. Try reading the interludes, for a visceral interaction with what it’s like to do archival research and feel the emotive power of objects. Or dip into the appendix, laden with walking tours. Finally, to public historians, curators, historical editors, museum professionals, librarians, and archivists: Here is a dense work to savor as you train docents, accession objects, annotate letters, draft exhibit signage, and catalogue manuscripts. Indigenous London curates a new framework that we can use to represent an old city that has, as Coll Thrush writes, “an indigenous ‘British’ past, and…a rich, global Indigenous past. Neither is finished” (p. 244).

2 comments on “Review: Coll Thrush, Indigenous London

  1. […] Coll! To read Sara Georgini’s review of this book, hop on over to tomorrow’s […]

  2. […] Pocahontas and Squanto in London is the work of Coll Thrush on Indigenous London, for which see the review and interview with the author on this blog, and his podcast on Benjamin Franklin’s World […]

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