A Different Mirror

A Different Mirror

by

Ronald Takaki

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A Different Mirror: Part 1, Chapter 2: The “Tempest” in the Wilderness Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Takaki explains that the English Puritans were brought to the US by “an economic reality”—population increase, famine, and the evictions of farmers. The North American continent provided an abundance of resources, and the Puritans invented a religious justification of their decision to colonize the land. The indigenous people of Massachusetts Bay were at first very intrigued by the newcomers. The arrival of white people who would steal Native land and kill the population had been accurately foretold by Native chiefs, shamans, and prophets years before the event actually took place.
Here, Takaki contrasts the two starkly different belief systems held by indigenous and white people, respectively. To the white settlers, colonizing America was something they had a religious right to do. Meanwhile, Native people saw colonization as an act of destruction, which is a viewpoint that Takaki affirms throughout the book. Both of these interpretations were built into the respective spiritual systems of each group of people.
Themes
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Meanwhile, back in England William Shakespeare depicted the colonization of an unknown land in his 1611 play The Tempest. On the surface, the play tells the story of a Italian nobleman (Prospero) who is sent into exile with his daughter, gets stranded on an island, and colonizes it. The island is inhabited by an indigenous person called Caliban. Takaki explains that it’s easy to see how The Tempest could be a metaphor for the colonization of America, particularly considering that it was written at an early stage of colonization, after European settlers had encountered Native Americans but before the Indian Wars.
Here, Takaki draws on the technique of literary scholarship in order to understand a crucial part of history. Literary scholars read a play like The Tempest not necessarily at surface value, but instead for its veiled depiction of events that Shakespeare and his audience would have been thinking about at the time. In this light, it becomes clear that the story Shakespeare depicts is really a way of reflecting on the unfolding story of colonialism.
Themes
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During Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth I had encouraged Englishmen to pursue “private colonization projects” in Ireland. There was already an established tradition of depicting Irish Catholics as “pagan savages,” demonizing their tribal social system and characterizing them as lazy, morally corrupt, and unable to properly cultivate their land. English laws made the Irish into second-class citizens and prohibited intermarriage between the Irish and English. Meanwhile, English colonizers brutally murdered Irish families, including women and children. This brutality would then be repeated on Native people in America, in some cases by the very same men who had earlier colonized the Irish. Indeed, these colonizers claimed that Native people reminded them of the Irish.
One of the more painful aspects of this book is the way that systems of oppression repeat across time, and are transferred to apply to different groups of people. This is a particularly tragic way in which multiple ethnic groups are united across difference. In this case, although there is perhaps little that inherently links Native and Irish people, they are nonetheless brought together by the brutality to which they were both subjected by English colonizers.
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The Tempest was inspired by a ship named The Sea Adventure getting caught in a shipwreck in the islands of Bermuda in 1609. Takaki points out that Shakespeare’s description of the island on which Prospero gets stranded directly echoes the words colonizers used to describe the New World. Ever since Columbus first returned to England, he and other colonizers brought back captive indigenous people to be cruelly displayed as exhibits. The English characterized indigenous people as primitive “savages” who were “libidinous beyond measure.” However, colonizers also asserted that Native people could be “civilized” through education. Native children were taught English and converted to Christianity.
Here readers begin to see that the English colonizers’ characterization of Native people was not reflective of reality, but rather an invention to serve their own interests. By saying Native people were primitive, brutal, and immoral, colonizers gave themselves the right to treat them cruelly. At the same time, by positing that Native people could be “civilized” through forced education, colonizers made it their duty to conquer Native land and put the inhabitants under their control.
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The first English settlement, in what is currently Virginia, was the land of the Powhatan people. Contrary to English accounts, they had a rich, complex culture and thriving agricultural system. When the first 120 colonizers began starving to death, the Powhatans rescued them by bringing them food. The next year, more settlers arrived, and the starvation became so bad that the settlers resorted to cannibalism. Settlers attacked the Native communities, including children, and burned down their villages. At that point, Chief Powhatan determined that there was no hope of living harmoniously alongside the settlers.
The book suggest that the settlers’ actions can’t be justified, but they are made all the more horrifying by the fact that Native people originally extended kindness and generosity toward them. Indeed, the selfless decision of the Powhatans to rescue the settlers from dying showed that they were in fact the far more “civilized” people, compared with the selfish and brutal acts of the settlers.
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The colonizers, meanwhile, began growing tobacco to export, and this led their population to increase tenfold in five years. In 1622, Native people killed 300 colonizers, hoping to drive them away. The colonizers used this as a reason to declare war and announce themselves the rightful owners of Native land. They employed “sadistic” tactics, such as serving poisoned wine at what was supposed to be a peaceful meeting. They continued to sabotage Native ways of life in a manner that amounted to genocide.
The detail about how tobacco farming was related to the expansion of the settler population is crucial. What allowed the settlers to colonize the land was, essentially, capitalism: they could sell goods at a profit to a market that existed back in Europe (and across the colonized world). This gave them the power to colonize.
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All this took place in Virginia; in New England, Native people were already farming the rich and abundant landscape. Corn was the most important crop for the various tribes there, and their agricultural systems were highly sophisticated. Almost all of the fertile land available was already in use by Native communities. However, this began to change as the Native population died in huge numbers from diseases the colonizers brought over from Europe. Indigenous people had no immunity to these diseases, and thus could not recover from them. The settlers chose to assert that this proved that God was “making room” for them.
In this passage, Takaki makes it inescapably clear that the genocide of Native people was essential to the construction of the US nation. Although Native people would later sign treaties handing over their land to colonizers—treaties that were themselves unjust—in this case, it was the literal mass death of Native people due to settler influence that “made room” for white takeover.
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The colonizers often built settlements on top of what had been Indian villages, surviving by using the stores of seeds that remained there. As such, “Indian death came to mean life for the Pilgrims.” The colonizers continued to justify their theft of Native land by arguing that Native people were lazy and were “squandering America’s resources.” In 1675-76, a group of Native tribes banded together to attack the colonizers in what would come to be known as King Philip’s War. Although the colonizers suffered huge losses, thanks to support from England the Indians were defeated, with many of them dying or becoming enslaved by the English.
Here, Takaki illustrates in unequivocal terms the extent to which the US was founded on indigenous genocide. In more ways than one, the settlers were doing everything they could do erase the existence of Native people and their ways of life. To add to the horror, they still relied on indigenous knowledge and resources (such as the seed reserves) in order to flourish themselves.
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Ministers like Rev. Cotton Mather enthusiastically spread the idea that wars against Native people were “conflict[s] between the Devil and God.” Demonizing Natives was not just an excuse to murder them and take their land; it was also a way for the Puritans to define themselves against the uncivilized Other that they feared they might become. They worried that living in the untamed environment of the New World so far away from what they considered civilization could make them become “Indianized.” Sensationalist stories about white settlers losing themselves to devil-worship spread around the colony.
This is a crucial passage in which Takaki demonstrates how racism is used to build a positive image of whiteness for white people. Indeed, scholars of race like Takaki show that a category like “white people” has no inherent meaning. Its meaning has to be invented, and in the case of white settlers this was achieved through the strategic demonization of Native people.
Themes
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Related Quotes
As the colony expanded and developed, settlers became more adamant that Native people should have no place in their “well-ordered Commonwealth.” Some settlers, such as Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by Natives during King Philip’s War, gave accounts of Native people that both confirmed settler fantasies about devil worship and suggested that Native people were generous and sympathetic. Yet this image was diminished by the vehement racism that dominated settler attitudes toward indigenous people.
Once the dehumanizing narrative about indigenous peoples had been established, it took on a life of its own. Settlers understood Indians through the negative, distorting lens that had been produced by racism. And because it was in their interests to propagate the demonization of Native people, few did anything to dispel this false image.
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The increasing prosperity of the settler colony meant an increase in starvation, sickness, and death for Native people. Following the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers faced a dilemma regarding Indians. Thomas Jefferson both praised the “friendship” that theoretically existed between settlers and Indians, while also arguing that “Indians had to be civilized or exterminated.” Becoming civilized would require completely abandoning Native ways of life. Jefferson asserted that Native people themselves were to blame for their own demise, while also claiming that the expanded population of settlers meant that settlers had the right to decide the fate of Native communities.
Jefferson’s words once again highlight the illogical nature of colonizers’ attitude toward Native people. On one hand, Jefferson removed settlers’ agency and their role in causing the genocide of the Indians by arguing that Indians had brought this upon themselves. At the same time, Jefferson asserted that settlers should have total control over the fate of the country and the Native people who still lived there.
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Jefferson called Indians both the “children” and “neighbors” of white settlers. He maintained that settlers had acquired Native land by completely legal, legitimate means, and said that it was up to Native communities if they wished to sell more land. But, Takaki points out, Jefferson then deliberately created economic and social conditions that essentially forced Natives to sell their land. Ultimately, Jefferson wanted Native people to disappear.
Here Takaki dispels more myths: mainly, the idea that white settlers acquired Native land by just and fair means. (Whether or not this was “legal” arguably doesn’t matter, although in some cases it was not. Considering it was English people themselves who had written these laws, they were not an indication of justice.)
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