From 1736 to 2006: Cycles of Native Presence in London

Professor David Stirrup (University of Kent)
Principal Investigator, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’

On 22 November 2006, Mohegan sachem Mahomet Weyonomon finally received the Mohegan ceremony denied to him in 1736. The photograph above of Mark Brown, Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum, and Queen Elizabeth II seems a fitting first banner image for this project, in that it both encapsulates the spectacle that has so often framed the visits of Native peoples to these shores—particularly when those visitors have travelled in an official or representative capacity—and invites us to look beyond it. In this first blogpost for the new Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Beyond the Spectacle: Native North American Presence in Britain’ I want to give you just a brief flavour of the significance of those two events, 270 years apart.

In 1735, Mahomet Weyonomon, accompanied by Aughquant or Acquont and several settlers of the Colony of Connecticut, were lodging in accommodation rented from a Mr. Midhurst at Aldermanbury in the City of London. They—the Mohegans, John and Samuel Mason, and another of John’s sons whose name is unrecorded[1]—had travelled from the traditional Mohegan lands in the Connecticut Colony to present a petition to King George II, a trip arranged by John Mason, whose settler ancestor had been charged, along with Mahomet’s own great-grandfather, Uncas, to protect and preserve Mohegan custodianship.

Late 18th century map of Southwark, London. The Church of St Mary Overy (later Southwark Cathedral) is highlighted in red.

Mahomet was not the first of his tribe to visit a British monarch. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) his grandfather, Oweneco, visited England with a similar plea—the protection of Mohegan lands and lifeways from the ever-increasing incursion of English settlers. On that occasion, the monarch created a commission that found in favour of the Mohegans, ordering the colonial governor and his company to return their lands. With limited domestic oversight, Queen Anne’s command was basically ignored, and in 1735 Mahomet repeated his grandfather’s visit to address its consequences. Not only had those encroachments persisted, but the subsistence lifestyle of the Mohegan had become essentially untenable on the small amount of land they were left with.

Unlike his forebear, Mahomet would not meet the King. He and John Mason succumbed to smallpox before making their Royal audience. Mahomet was buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of the church of St. Mary Overy—the building that would become Southwark Cathedral—in 1736.[2] The Cathedral’s own account of the affair includes a brief entry from the Daily Journal for 11 August 1736:

On Sunday last about one o’clock in the Morning died of the Small Pox, in the 36th Yeare of his Age, Mahomet Weyonomon, Sachem of the Tribe of the Mohegans in the Province of Connecticut in New England. He was Great Grandson to the famous Sachem Uncafs or Onkafs, who took part with the English upon their firft fettling of that Country. He was very decently interred laft Night (from his Lodgings at Mr Midhurst’s in Aldermanbury) in St Mary Over’s Burial-place.

Unlike his Anglo-American companion, it was not permitted for Mahomet, a “foreigner,” to be buried within the walls of the City itself, hence his being carried over the river to St Mary’s for interment.

He was not the first: as the Southwark cathedral website notes, just two years earlier a Native man had been similarly buried—at night by torchlight—in the churchyard of St. John the Evangelist in Horseferry Road, Westminster. The Southwark website misidentifies this man as a Cree. He was in fact Creek, a traveling companion of Tomochichi, leader of several pro-British bands of Yamasee and Lower Creek who adopted the collective name of Yamacraw and resettled near the mouth of the Savannah river. Tomochichi and his delegation travelled to Britain under the encouragement of the founder of the Georgia Colony, General James Oglethorpe, who “hop[ed] what they might witness and experience there, would result in lasting benefits to both their nations and the English” (Drake 30). He was accompanied by Senauki, described by Drake as his consort, Toonahowi, his nephew, Hillispilli, a war chief, John Musgrove, interpreter, and five others: Apokutchi, Stimaletchi, Santachi, Hinguithi, and Umphichi. They landed at St. Hellens on the Isle of Wight on 16 June 1734.

Painting by William Verelst of Yamacraw Chief Tomochichi, and other Yamacraw visitors, being presented to the Georgia Trustees in London by James Edward Oglethorpe, 1734.

Tomochichi’s departed compatriot—his cousin Hinguithi—was delivered to the earth, “according to the custom of the ‘Cherokee Creeks’” (Drake 31)[3]; although the Southwark website uses the above anecdote as grounds to surmise similar ceremony for Mahomet, it is unclear whether he received that honour or not. Certainly, his party was significantly fewer in number than Tomochichi’s, and indeed some early accounts imply that the whole party had died, begging the question as to who those commentators believed carried out such rituals. In fact, we know that only John Mason died since the others remained to pursue—unsuccessfully—the petition. The likelihood, nevertheless, is that Mahomet would wait 270 years for his final tribute.

In Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, Coll Thrush[4] reports that “although he no doubt was at first mourned deeply among his people, over time the Mohegan lost track of [Mahomet’s] story, just as London seemed to forget that he had ever existed” (220). That is, until “a group of researchers, including a Mohegan tribal member, uncovered a brief mention of Mahomet in The Gentleman’s Magazine” (Thrush 220). From that small discovery, a significant commemoration developed. The Mohegan tribal council commissioned a monument to Mahomet for the grounds of the cathedral, to be carved from a boulder from the Mohegan reservation by British sculptor Peter Randall-Page, while Mohegan leaders arranged to come to London to hold ceremonies in recognition of Mahomet’s passing. Shortly before that journey in 2006, “they received surprising news […] word of the impending ceremony had traveled to Buckingham Palace, and Queen Elizabeth now wanted to be involved” (Thrush 220).

Memorial to Mahomet Weyonomon in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, by British sculptor Peter Randall-Page, unveiled in 2006.

The top photograph, showing tribal council president Mark Brown (left) and council member Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum (right) apparently sharing a joke with Her Majesty is not the most iconic of the images to emerge from that day. Indeed, that image is probably one that shows Bozsum on one knee presenting a pipe to the Queen, with choristers in the background. Intense with the gravity of ceremony, that image communicates the weight of history, since along with the gift of the pipe, Bozsum presented the Queen with a copy of Mahomet’s original petition (see below). However, it also places emphasis on both Bozsum’s regalia (his eagle and turkey feather headdress in particular) and a visual hierarchy that, without necessarily being intentional, recalls and reinforces a number of stereotypes of Native Americans and their relationship to the Crown. The image above, however, renders that relationship in more human terms. The regalia of both men are, of course, highly visible, but their smiles bespeak the somberness of the more formal picture, and resist the implicit communication gap that such images, with their highly visual cultural differences, often tend to imply. The two men were accompanied by tribal member Shane White Raven Long, and they became, to quote Thrush, “in the long-standing tradition of Indigenous travelers, celebrities” (220).

Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum presents Queen Elizabeth II with a ceremonial scroll at Southwark Cathedral, 22 November 2006.

The vast majority of British media coverage draws attention to the very stereotypes that make this encounter a spectacle. Beyond the raft of terrible (and terribly racist) puns—“Queen buries hatchet with the Mohegans” (Telegraph), for instance—most newspaper articles draw attention to the deerskin leggings and feather headdresses, commenting on the incongruity, and by implication the anachronism, of these visitors to the heart of Empire. The men’s smiles in the image above, however, cut through those elements, reminding us of their contemporaneity, their humanity, their common ground with the Queen at that most fundamental of levels, and communicates a mutual respect that gestures to the nation-to-nation agreements that bound the Crown to Native American peoples in mutual obligation prior to the American Revolutionary War. It evokes, too, the respectful relationship of Mahomet’s own predecessors with Queen Anne, whose attempt to address their grievances, however well intentioned, was nevertheless thwarted. It reminds us too, of course, about Empire, while resisting too-easy visual reinforcement of the asymmetries of power that would see Native nations ultimately subjugated to the will of European and later American and Canadian elites.

Southwark Cathedral and The Shard, by night. © Dmitry Tonkonog

Looking beyond the spectacle, we catch glimpses of Native life and experience, agency and contemporaneity that refuse the myriad assumptions and preconceptions under which Indigenous people have long laboured. This is a story of a grand spectacle, but it is also a story about politics and diplomacy, transatlantic artistic exchange, sovereignty, history, even family—and, of course, the centuries of Indigenous mobility from their homelands to the colonial centre. This project aims to examine the minutiae of such visits, from the earliest arrivals of captured Inuit, to the ongoing exchanges of the present day. We are interested in the relationships forged by such journeys—between individuals and between communities—and the kinds of cultural, political, and economic legacies and traces they leave. Such traces may be quotidian, such as photographs in family albums; or they may point to legacies of wider significance, with lasting impact on trade, or cultural understanding and practice, or political recognition. The story above carries elements of all of these possibilities, and we will be unpacking this and other readily visible journeys, while seeking out and illuminating a host of less well-known figures and their travels. If you have any information or anecdotes, family objects or stories about Native North American visitors to the UK that you are willing to share, please do get in touch.

 

SELECTED FURTHER READING

Drake, Samuel G. The Book of the Indians of North America. Boston, 1836.

Southwark Cathedral website – http://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/visit/area-6

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

Vaughan, Alden T. Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

[1] This is according to Alden Vaughan, who also gives Acquont the surname Johnson. Other reports include the name of Zachary Johnson in the account, which is possibly the Christian appellation given to Acquont.

[2] The church’s full title, in fact, is the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie.

[3] Vaughan notes that little ceremony attended the burial—only Tomochichi was in attendance—although later accounts have exaggerated the circumstances.

[4] Coll Thrush is Professor of History at the University of British Columbia and International Co-Investigator on the ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ project.