Arts & Books Books

When Native Americans backed the Jacobite cause

Jesuit missionaries converted many Native Americans to Catholicism

James Baresel on an unlikely last stand for the exiled Stuart dynasty

Storm of the Sea
by Matthew R Bahar
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £22.99/$35

It was 1715 and a tribal people were preparing to assist in restoring Britain’s exiled Royal House of Stuart, sharpening tomahawks, covering themselves in war paint and raising sails on ships built to the highest technical standards of the day.

No, I haven’t been drinking too much Bourbon. Nor am I confusing Scottish highlanders, American Indians and Caribbean pirates. I am writing about a combination of two facts – the amassing of a fleet of sailing ships by the Indian tribes of the Wabanaki confederation, and the role which those tribes played in the Jacobite movement – facts which are virtually unknown but which can be studied in Matthew Bahar’s book, Storm of the Sea: Indians and Empires in the Atlantic’s Age of Sail.

The Wabanaki tribes were native to what is now the north-east United States and south-eastern Canada. For centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, the Wabanaki way of life had been largely based on the sea.

When Europeans did arrive, Wabanaki perplexity at the newcomers’ mode of transportation did not last long. Native men immediately commenced a study of the foreign sailing technology and quickly became proficient in its use, so much so that it became common for Wabanaki crews to perform better than European ones. Sometimes through trade and sometimes through theft, the nautical Indians began to amass a substantial fleet of ocean-going vessels.

At first, Europeans were visitors who sailed the north-west Atlantic on voyages of exploration, to purchase furs and to fish off the coasts, but by the middle of the 1600s both English and French colonies had been established in the region. The Wabanaki had no general preference for Frenchmen over Englishmen, but several factors led them to favour the former over the Puritans of New England.

In part, this was because the French tended to be the better neighbours of the two. Jesuit missionaries converted many Wabanaki to Catholicism. But political philosophy also played a role. Leadership among the Wabanaki was largely hereditary. Chiefs typically descended from illustrious lines of forebears – with the result that they soon came to value alliances with the monarchs whom they saw as their European counterparts. The Wabanaki were well informed about the conflicts between the Stuart kings and the English Parliament, and about the sympathies of Puritan New Englanders. As far as the Wabanaki were concerned, the parliamentarians were simple troublemakers who violated all social norms by attacking an eminent chief.

Such support for royalism was not merely a matter of sympathy. Internal English politics and Anglo-French relations both had implications for the relationships between colonists in North America and the native population. The increasingly Catholic Wabanaki knowingly and deliberately chose to join the alliance between the Stuarts and the French, and used their royalism to advantage in disputes with colonial Puritans as long as the Stuarts remained in power.

From the time they learned of the “Glorious Revolution” until the 1760s, the Wabanaki supported the claims of the Stuart dynasty, making them some of the last adherents of the Jacobite cause. It was a position which contributed to their cooperation with the Jacobites’ French allies in colonial campaigns during the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession – cooperation of greater strategic significance than might be readily apparent.

The more that Indian aid could minimise France’s need to send men and supplies to North America, the more resources France could spare for a Stuart restoration. Conversely, British victories in the colonies would divert French resources from Jacobite efforts. In 1745, for example, the French colonial fortress of Louisburg fell to a New England army. Had the fortress held out, the army and fleet which Louis XV sent to recapture it the following year would have been ordered to support Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Jacobite rising, even if it meant setting out on such a mission after the Battle of Culloden.

The Wabanaki also contributed to bleeding dry the House of Hanover’s ability to make war. One of the major props of the power of Hanover was naval supremacy. The British navy’s most important source of timber for shipbuilding was the Wabanakis’ homeland.

Despite their support for a defeated cause, the Wabanakis’ fight against New England Puritans did bring them a most important victory. As violence between Indian and colonist proved unsustainable for both sides, the colonial governments had no choice but to accept a negotiated peace – one which at Wabanaki insistence included recognition of the Indians’ right to practise the Catholic religion.