In reading Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her capture by the Algonquian tribe, I can’t help but be reminded of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in that it complicates a history of intolerance while also providing new insight on cultural differences. Of course, Melville’s novel places a focus on native members with cannibalistic tendencies while also exploiting their most uncouth, and likely fictitious, habits. In agreement with Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, Melville initially supports and encourages segregation from strange cultures through stressing concern for the safety of his narrator (Ishmael). Yet this narrative is ultimately complicated after Ishmael establishes a heartfelt friendship with one of the cannibalistic natives he feared previously: Queequeg.
As Moby Dick is a fictional novel, this transition from racism to kinship is not completely surprising. Anything can happen in fiction, after all. Even homicidal whales. This is to say that, by comparison, Mary Rowlandson’s recount of her capture and the eventual friendship she forms with her masters and company is more than a little perplexing. And though her narrative does not fail to include moments wherein she was beaten and abused, or when her own religion was mocked by members of the Algonquian culture, it also includes a number of Algonquian phrases and words which were included as a means of expressing the unique characteristics of this tribe more accurately. Though Mary Rowlandson is very much opposed to her capture, she eventually expresses a certain tone of respect for the Algonquian natives.
There are many who view this expression of respect solely as a survival tactic, which is not an unfair argument to make. This was also the foundation of Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg in Moby Dick. Much like Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, Ishmael’s deep respect and understanding of the cultural and religious beliefs of his friend Queequeg do not exempt him from believing that Queequeg’s cannibalistic tendencies are wrong. Mary Rowlandson’s personal relationship with her captors does not align with typical prejudice experienced by the majority of her own culture. This complicates the representation of these cultures in literature in that, even in fictional contexts, it is almost impossible to paint one event or culture as wholly good or bad if one wants to describe it accurately. It is important to remember that- though Moby Dick is a novel which contains its own dictionary of whaling terminology, as well as a thoroughly cited history of whaling tactics and a list of well-known species of whale and their given attributes -much of the novel is apocryphal. This pertains specifically to a great deal of the lore surrounding the natives referenced in the novel. And in cases such as John Dryden’s play, The Indian Emperour, and John Winthrop’s “Dreams of a City on a Hill”, a great deal of fictional narrative was adapted to make these realities or futures seem attainable. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t dismiss Cortez’s affection for Cydaria or Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, nor should we disregard Winthrop’s ideals of this “city” as something entirely motivated by destruction. The irksome reality of it all is that the motives for all of these relationships, speeches, and narratives are very complex. Mary Rowlandson’s recount of her capture, and her friendship with her captors, undoubtedly complicates many other historical narratives of native intolerance. How we should compare and contrast these narratives is a question for another prompt.