Britons, Muslims, and American Indians: Gender and Power

Nabil Matar. The Muslim World. Volume 91, Issue 3/4. Fall 2001. 

In recent studies on gender relations and post-colonialism, critics have maintained that Renaissance Britons and other Europeans perceived “the possession” of America, to use the words of Gesa Mackenthun, “in terms of the possession of a woman.” As a result, accounts of interracial romances, whether real or fictitious, came to be associated with the beginnings of European domination and empire.

A similar association has been assumed in the context of English-Muslim relations. Critics who have examined Renaissance plays with Turkish or Moorish settings and protagonists have superimposed the colonial template of America on Islam: they have assumed that since there was a Renaissance English enterprise on America, there was also an enterprise on Islam and that the enterprise was mirrored in the male-female relationships which were depicted on the London stage. Jean Howard argued that in a play such as Thomas Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, Part I (1600-1604), the unsuccessful attempt on the part of the Muslim ruler to seduce English Bess transforms the Moroccan into “an effeminate otherness that finally renders [him and other Muslims] safely inferior to their European visitors”: the failure of the interracial seduction proved the strength of English national and cultural identity. Virginia Mason Vaughan argued that the tension in Othello between North African male and European female could only be understood in the context of England’s and Europe’s emergent colonial discourse. Barbara Fuchs stated that Shakespeare’s Othello highlighted “the dangers that Europe imagined for a woman married into the empire of Islam,” but in The Tempest, she continued, the marriage of Claribel to the King of Tunis neutralized “the threat of Islam.”

For all these critics, the intercultural and interracial romances between Muslims and Christians dealt directly with the “beginning … of a colonial narrative.” But the power associated in English imagination with the Muslim empire produced a totally opposite gender relationship to that of the American Indians. To speak of the “effeminization” of the Moroccan King, or the “neutralization” of Islam in Elizabethan and Jacobean thought is to miss an important point: while English Bess managed to escape with her chastity, English Clem lost his manhood through castration; that Christian Claribel was to marry the Muslim King shows the price which Christendom was paying to a threatening and UN-neutralized Islam, that same Islam which had changed Carthage into Tunis, and could well change Milan into a Muslim metropolis. Numerous plays and historical events from the early modern period confirm not an English “colonial narrative” about Islam, but Muslim dominance through the possession of Christian and English women-with all the imperial anxiety that such possession generated in readers and audience alike.

From the Elizabethan period on, when Englishmen sailed to America to pillage and kidnap, they also sailed to the Ottoman Mediterranean to trade or to turn Turks and the Mugal Empire into commercial outposts. Whether in gold-rich Morocco, or in Istanbul, the biggest city in seventeenth century Europe, or in the fabulous palaces of Aghra, Britons developed close commercial and social relations with Muslims that led to marriages, or plans for marriages. In 1614, for instance, negotiations were conducted for the marriage of the Sultan of Sumatra and the daughter of an English “gentleman of honorable parentage” because it was felt that such a marriage would be “beneficial to the [East India] Company.” Although some London divines objected to the marriage on the ground that the husband-to-be was a Muslim, the Company marshaled its own theologians to prove “the lawfulness of the enterprise … by scripture.” The marriage never took place, but it is important that an English woman was to be married off to the Muslim in order to secure his commercial good will-and merchants, theologians, and presumably the girl’s parents found the prospect lawful.

A little over twenty years later, in 1636, as the number of British captives rose in Algiers, and as funds dried up to ransom them, an anonymous suggestion was made to King Charles I that he send English prostitutes to ransom the captured seamen: six women for every one seaman. Although the King did not act upon this joke/advice, the idea that English (and other British) women would practice the oldest profession with “Turks” suggests that interracial sexuality was not viewed as totally objectionable. Actually, interracial sexuality was already taking place between Muslim men and women from the British Isles: there were numerous women captives who were seized in the first half of the seventeenth century by North African privateers and hauled to the slave markets of Salee, Algiers, or Tunis. A brief description of one such abduction was written by Nehemiah Wallington:

August 14, 1645.—Letters from Plymouth certify that the Turkish pirates, men of war, landed in Cornwall, about Foy, and that they have taken away two hundred and forty (of English Christians) of the Cornish men, women, and children, amongst which Mr. John Carew his daughter, that was cousin to Sir Alexander Carew that was beheaded, and some gentlewomen and others of note, and have carried them away; a very sad thing.

While rich women were sometimes protected by the privateers who recognized their high ransom value, the poorer women were sold into slavery where they ended up as maids, concubines, members of the harem, and sometimes wives. These women were forced to integrate quickly and to adjust to a society where their sexual and domestic roles were quite different from that in London, Plymouth or Edinburgh. If they returned to their homes, they carried with them stories, memories and experiences which they shared (or may not have wanted to share) with their families and parishes about the strange new world of the Muslims. If they never returned, their relatives remembered them, reflecting about their kin who had turned Muslim and settled among the “infidels.”

The captivity of British (and other European) women precipitated anxiety among their countrymen and focused public attention on the issue of miscegenation and inter-religious sexuality. Writers expressed concern for their women compatriots and for the possibility of dishonor and “defilement.” Playwrights from England (and the continent) such as Cervantes, de Vega, Massinger, Heywood, and Elkanah Settle, felt the need to present not necessarily an accurate picture of the women’s plight, but a message to audiences about the tenacity of religious belief and the importance of national commitment. Many of Cervantes’ and De Vegas plays which are set in North Africa included captured Spanish women who were made to assume heroic roles: Silvia in EI Trato de Argel; Marcella in Los Cautivos de Argel; Lucinda in Los Esclavos Libres, Camila in EI Esclave de Venecia and others. The dramatic formula which underpinned these Spanish works included a captured Christian woman, a Muslim (either Turkish or Moorish) ruler who falls in love with her, the woman’s rejection of his advances because of her love to a Christian-who is also a captive, the ruler’s wife (or close relative) who falls in love with the male Christian captive, and then, in the nick of time, the escape of the captives to Christendom and matrimony. Thomas Heywood’s English Bess, the only English woman to be depicted in Renaissance drama among the Muslims, was modeled on these Spanish women.

European dramatists did not seem to have much of a clue as to what was really happening to women in captivity: their fiction was quite different from Mediterranean reality. For while they were fantasizing, captured women from Britain and the rest of Christendom were confined in the boudoirs of Muslim rulers, husbands and masters. Such a stark reality may explain why, in the whole corpus of English dramatic literature of the early modern period, there is not a single play about an English woman captive in North Africa, suggesting perhaps that no English writer could address a situation where the compatriots he described would not be “possessors” but “possessed.” To add insult to injury, some of these “possessed” English women converted to Islam and rose to power and international prominence. In the second half of the seventeenth century, one of the wives of the Dey of Algiers was English and so too was one of the favorite wives of the Moroccan sultan, Mulay Ismail; she was known as “Lala Balqees,” the Arabic name for the Queen of Sheba. In 1682, a Christian convert to Islam by the name of Lucas Harriet accompanied the Moroccan Ambassador Mohammad bin Hadou to London. During his stay, he married an English servant girl, an episode which Thomas Rymer, a decade later, recalled, “With us [in England] a Moor might marry some little drab, or Small-coal Wench.” Rymer concluded from this match that the English people were unlike the Venetians in that they did not feel “hatred and aversion to the Moors”—and therefore were willing to marry them.

In the actual interaction, therefore, between Muslims and Christians in seventeenth century England, there was no structural separation between the Muslim man and the Christian woman nor was there a law that expressly prohibited sexuality and intermarriage-as Edward Coke found out, for instance, between the English and the Jews:

I find that by the ancient Law of England, that if any Christian man did marry with a woman that was a Jew, or a Christian woman that married with a Jew, it was felony, and the party so offending should be burnt alive.

Such absence of restriction may explain the surprisingly high number of plays from the Elizabethan period that depicted the possible or actual marriage between Muslim (both Turkish and Moorish) men and Christian (continental, specifically Catholic Italian and Spanish but also English) women. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), Ithamore the Turk talked of marrying Christian Bellamira, while in Thomas Dekker’s (?) Lusts Dominion, or The Lascivious Queen (c. 1590s), Eleazar the Moor was married to the Christian Maria. In The Merchant of Venice (1597), Portia might have married “Morocco,” and in Othello (c. 1604), the Moor was a “Turk” (Muslim), according to Thomas Rymer in 1693. In John Mason’s The Turke (1607), the Governor of Florence eagerly offered his daughter Amada in marriage to Mulleasses the Turk, and in The Tempest (1611), Alonso’s daughter, Claribel, was married to the King of Tunis (2.1.67-125). In A Tragedy called Alls Lost by Lvst (1619), William Rowley depicted the abortive possibility of Christian Jacinta marrying Mully Mumen, a prospect which her father encouraged. In the 1664 play, Knavery in all Trades. Or, the Coffee-House. A Comedy, and for the very first time in English drama, a Muslim merchant was portrayed as being married to an English woman and living in London. Mahoone is, as he proudly declares, of “de Country of de Turk”: he owns a coffee shop and is prospering as a result of the popularity of coffee in Restoration England. He is the first London Muslim ever to be depicted in English drama. What is important about these references is that there is never any problematization of the Muslim male taking possession of the Christian female: Britons, after all, could not but concede the power of Islam, which had pushed the Ottomans into Central Europe and had brought Barbary privateers and pirates to the coast line extending from the Isle of Wight all the way to St. Ives and the southeastern coast of Ireland.

There were, of course, writers who depicted the opposition of Christian heroines to such intermarriage. In Soliman and Perseda, Thomas Kyd showed the unsuccessful attempt on the part of the Turkish Sultan to seduce chaste Perseda; Thomas Heywood’s English Bess rejected the advances of the King of Morocco, and Paulina rejected Asambeg in Philip Massinger’s The Renegado (1624). Other writers conceded such marriages only after the Muslim converted to Christianity, such as Othello (although Thomas Rymer did not think that he had) and Donusa (in TheRenegado). Such opposition echoed that in Spanish plays and novels, which showed resistance and the conversion of the Muslim woman to Christianity in order to marry the Christian lover (“The Captive’s Tale” in Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a case in point). That there were continental and English writers who opposed inter-religious sexuality and marriage, however, shows that inter-religious sexuality was on the table as a new matter to be negotiated in that Age of Discovery.

Nearly all the Muslim-Christian marriages, potential marriages, and sexual affairs in English historical and dramatic sources described Muslim men and Christian women, where the Muslim/male asserts his dominance over the Christian/female. These descriptions are in contrast to marriages and sexual affairs between Britons and American Indians-the other “Other” in the English experience during the Age of Discovery. There is not a single play in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods which depicts the marriage of an unanglicized or unchristianized Indian man to an English/Christian woman. In Eastward Ho (1605), the English remnants of Roanoke were supposed to have “married with the Indians, and make ’em bring forth as beautiful faces as any we have in England” (3.3.19-21); but then nothing was really known about that remnant. Caliban (if he is an American “salvage”) lusted for Miranda, but was promptly punished by her father. In the Indian-English experience, there was strong resistance not only to the prospect of miscegenation, but of intermarriage, too.

A case in point is the marriage of Thomas Rolfe to the Indian daughter of Powhatan, Pocahontas, which took place, coincidentally, in the year in which the marriage between the English woman and the Sultan of Sumatra was to take place. The prospect of the English-Indian marriage was described in a letter which Rolfe sent to Sir Thomas Dale, the Governor of Virginia. In his letter, Rolfe had to justify his desire to marry Pocahontas: he was deeply aware, he wrote, of “the heauie displeasure which almighty God conceived against the sonnes of Leuie and Israel for marrying strange wives;” he was also aware that his bride’s “education hath been rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed,” and he wondered in his private devotions about the true motives for marrying her: “surely these are wicked instigations hatched by him who seeketh and delighteth in mans destruction; and so with fervent praiers to be ever preserved from such diabolical assaults.” But Rolfe finally felt assured that in his marriage to Pocahontas, whom he openly confessed to love, he would serve the “good of this plantation for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God for my owne salvation and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Iesus Christ an unbeleeuing creature, namely Pokahuntas.” Rolfe was doing Pocahontas a favor by converting her, in the way that she was doing him a favor by protecting his colonists: interracial marriage was an exchange of favors. Still, it left Rolfe with serious theological anxieties.

In June 1621, the Virginia Company members deliberated over the fate of two “Indian maydes” who had accompanied Pocahontas to London and had remained there: the Company decided to help them get married by providing them with “one servante apeec [apiece] towards their preferm[en]t in marriage wti]th such as shall accept them w[ilth that means.” Concerned as the members were about the two maids, it is important to note that the husbands whom these Indian women were to marry were not to be found in London but in the Summer Islands. As far as the Virginia Company merchants were concerned, interracial marriage belonged to the world beyond the English borders. Meanwhile, in New England, colonists condemned Anglo-Indian marriages by invoking the Biblical injunctions to the Israelites not to marry nor to have sexual relations with the heathens (Exodus 23:23; Leviticus 20:23; Joshua 23:12-13); the “Westonians” were denounced because some of them kept “Indean women”; George Morton was vilified by William Bradford for “inviting the Indean women, for their consorts”; and William Baker was denounced by Roger Williams for committing “uncleanenes with an Indian Squaw” although he had actually married her under tribal law.

In these references to miscegenation and intermarriage between the English and the Indians, the relationships were between English men and Indian women. The reason was not only that there were more English men than there were English women in America, but the fact that the marriage of an English man to an Indian woman entailed the domination of the Christian husband over the converted Indian wife. Such intermarriage preserved English identity and served English goals. As Nathaniel Powell observed in 1616, Pocahontas had become “very formall and ciuill after our English manner”: she personified, as David D. Smits observed, “English civilization’s capacity to transform and elevate the American ‘savages’.” The English male overpowered his Indian wife in the sense that English religion and civilization overpowered and replaced Indian religion and civilization. That is why no reference has survived to an English woman submitting in marriage to a nonChristian “Salvage” from among the Americans—except in the case of little girls who were kidnapped, acculturated and then married to Indians. Indeed, even the vagrant and unwanted women who were transported from England to the plantations married only from among their compatriots. For most heinous to the overseers of British morality and purity was the miscegenation between a male Indian and a female Briton: “a woman suffering an Indian to have carnal knowledge of her,” wrote John Josselyn, “had an Indian cut out exactly in red cloth sewed upon her right Arm, and injoyned to wear it twelve moneths.” There was to be no mixing of blood between pure English women and male Indian heathens. Later in the century, legislation was passed prohibiting interracial marriages and sexual relations with the Indians: in 1691, Virginia passed a law prohibiting intermarriage with Indians – less than a decade after Lucas Hamed had married the English “maid.”

The English-Indian marriages or sexual liaisons were between English men and Indian women where the Indian adopted her husband’s language, religion and nomenclature. Meanwhile, the Muslim who married, or took possession of, the Christian woman did not convert and did not become “European”; rather, he remained a Muslim. In the 1614 negotiations, it was clear that the English lady was not going to Sumatra to anglicize or convert the Sultan: notwithstanding the fact that she was excellent at music and needlework, she was going to have to join the ruler’s harem, “the rest of the women appertaining to the king.” When opponents of the marriage warned that the other wives might poison her, her greedy father retorted that if the king of Sumatra “consent it was thought it would prove a very honourable action.” The English woman was going to submit to the Muslim man and his world.

No English man could take possession of a (free) Muslim woman unless he became a Muslim first and thereby lost his Christianity and ‘Englishness.’ Actually, it was not easy for an Englishman to get his hands on a Muslim woman anyway: there were no Muslim women captives who were brought to England, and who could have been sexually abused as English women were in North Africa. Englishmen had no opportunity to possess a Muslim woman-unless it was clandestinely and dangerously, as was the case of T.S. (Thomas Smith?). In his memoir of captivity in Algiers between 1639 and 1644, T. S. described an amazing range of sexual affairs which he had had with Muslim women: because he was handsome, women, both married and widowed, were attracted to him. One in particular was so courageous in pursuing him that he finally fell in love with her and offered to marry her if she would be willing to escape with him back to England. Unfortunately, “She had two Children, a Boy and a Girl, that kept her in that place otherwise I think I had then got my Freedom and carryed her away.” Later, she gave birth to “a pretty little Girl, somewhat whiter than ordinary; the old Fool [her husband] thought himself to be the Father of it.” When other women made themselves available to T. S., he did not decline, despite being exhausted.

If T. S. was telling the truth, his case is unique. All other Britons found that they could not break through the barrier of Islamic sexual/marriage codes and possess Muslim women. The prohibition in the Qur’an of marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men (but not between Muslim men and Christian or Jewish women) was firmly implemented in the Islamic dominions (and continues today). When the Great Mogul told Captain William Hawkins in 1608 to marry one of his palace maids, his harem, Hawkins obeyed but could marry only a Christian, the daughter of an Armenian merchant. Although the Muhgal ruler Jahangin was religiously tolerant, Hawkins still had to submit to Muslim codes. Similarly, Sir Robert Shirley, Ambassador to Shah Abbas of Persia, married a Circassian Christian (who, rather curiously, was described on her tombstone in Rome, as an Amazon, “Theressia Samposonia Amazonites”); he also had to dress in Muslim clothes, much to the displeasure of King James I. Englishmen in the Islamic world lived by Muslim rules, especially with regard to rules about women.

Thus, if the Christian-Islamic confrontation of the Mediterranean Renaissance is to be “gendered,” it will show that male domination was associated with the Muslims and female subordination with the Christians. There was no “effeminization” or “neutralization” of Islam in the way there was of America, since nearly all the actual or fictional cases in English literary sources and documents showed Christian women submitting to Muslim men. Englishmen felt they could marry (or have sexual intercourse with) American women because they had already possessed and dominated America (or at least a very small part of it): as the land had been possessed, so too could the women of the land be possessed. Not so with the Muslims where Englishmen had not dominated the land, and, therefore, by the same token, not only could not presume to dominate and possess the women of the land, but had to submit to their own women being possessed by the “Turks” and “Moors.” That is why there is no equivalent to Claribel, to the daughter of the English East India merchant, to the wife of Mahoone, or to the wife of Lucas Hamet in the actual or literary experience of the English colonizers of North America. While in America, Englishmen seized the sexual initiative, in the encounter with Islam, it was the Muslim who seized that initiative.