No One Rides For Free: Abishabis, Agency and the Limits of Transnationalism

The texts I am responding to here were assigned readings: Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 ; Daniel T. Rodgers, “An Age of Social Politics,” Rethinking American History in a Global Age, Thomas Bender, ed., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 250-274; Andrew Zimmerman, “A German Alabama in Africa: The Tuskegee Expedition to German Togo and the Transnational Origins of West African Cotton Growers,” The American Historical Review, 110, No. 5 (Dec., 2005): 1362-1399.

In 1837 agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in Prince Rupert’s Land, what is now the Canadian subarctic, arranged for the murder of a local Cree man named Abishabis. [1] Two Métis employees of the Company took Abishabis to a small island, killed him with an axe and burned his body. This mode of execution was, according to Chief Factor James Hargrave, the manner in which the Cree executed windigo – people possessed by a cannibalistic spirit. Windigo possession was however not the reason the HBC Governor George Simpson gave to his superiors for the murder. Simpson wrote to the HBC board of directors in London saying that Abishabis had been liquidated because he was a disruptive influence on the fur trade. Simpson claimed that Abishabis had taken advantage of Cree credulousness to foment religious disturbances, had murdered some in-laws, stolen wives, and tried to position himself as the gatekeeper of Cree-HBC relations. This event occurred at the intersection of an international fur trade, a world wide missions program, British imperialism, and a regional famine. Any narrative in which it is embedded would involve a cast of characters whom employ a bewildering array of identities: European, British, English, Scottish, French, Canadian, Indian, Cree, Métis, Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Methodist, company employee, free trader, governor, director, factor, trapper, hunter, missionary, bishop, prophet, charlatan, husband, wife, murderer and victim.

An imaginary “traditional” interpretation of these events would not be too dissimilar from Simpson’s own analysis. The HBC board of directors in London made decisions about how to organize the fur trade to maximize profit. Agents were sent out into the field to implement those decisions and to manage local reaction. British parliament – driven by domestic politics and concern for the British interests at large – passed legislation to place moral limits on the HBC’s commercial conduct. In the mid-nineteenth century that parliament began to insist that the HBC take more seriously those requirements of their charter concerned with the education and Christianization of the natives the company governed. In response to that pressure Governor Simpson invited Methodist missionaries into the region. The arrival of these missionaries led to a reconfiguration of Native-European relationships which Abishabis saw as an opportunity to gain personal power. The local disruptions he caused were ultimately dealt with according to Cree custom, to the satisfaction of the Company, and relations returned to the status quo. In the following paper I will sketch out (briefly) the ways in which I think a transnational approach can contribute to our understanding of these events, and also suggest what the murder of Abishabis can tell us about the limits of transnationalism as an analytic category.

If we take our own readings as exemplary transnational texts we realize pretty quickly that the “transnational” is not necessarily concerned with national borders per se but with the permeability of boundaries between spaces often treated as essentially or naturally different. For instance, while the chapter from Daniel T. Rodgers book is about the sharing of ideas between nations in general, the most significant flow across the Atlantic is between a loosely affiliated region – Europe – and a single nation – the U.S. Dubois’ book A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 is also more generally “transatlantic” than literally “transnational.” He explores the political influence of colonies in the Caribbean on a metropolitan France. Finally in Zimmerman’s article “A German Alabama in Africa: The Tuskegee Expedition to German Togo and the Transnational Origins of West African Cotton Growers” we have references to a nation, a continent, a town, a colony and region in the title alone. In each case the assumption that the nation is the obvious subject of historical narrative is deconstructed and replaced with a story about how ideas from one place seem to end up in another place without regard for conceptual boundaries.

But if transnationalism is not really about nations then what is its subject? If we reconsider what I characterized as a “traditional” analysis of the Abishabis incident we can get some idea. Historians of the British Empire have in general studied how decisions made by people living and working in London are communicated to people living and working in the colonies, or on the periphery of the Empire, and how the people “out there” react to those decisions. Do they obey them? Ignore them? Distort them? So in the instance of Abishabis what historians imagine happening is that London determines policy, British subjects in the field implement that policy, and the locals react. Voila! You have imperial history: power, ideas and culture flow from the metropole out into the hinterland of the Empire, and resources, in this case beaver pelts, flow back. The transnational approach is a critique of the hold this cliché has over the historical imagination. By focusing so much on the nation-state historians have failed to account for how ideas, resources and people to not always behave according to the dictates of imperial logic.

In Dubois’ book, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, he attempts to reverse the direction of the stereotypical flow. His most convincing line of argument is that during the course of the Revolution events in Caribbean were unfolding, or depending on your politics, unraveling, as rapidly and spectacularly as in the capital itself. In the same way that expediency forced interest groups and classes in Paris to form and dissolve their alliances with startling promiscuity, so to in the colonies relationships unimaginable a few short years before were suddenly made possible. Slaves and ex-slaves found themselves with access to political power in a theatre of war that was critical to the European economy, and they exploited that power as best they could. One of the often unconsidered consequences of their mobilization of political and military power was that the National Convention in Paris was forced to confront the notion of citizenship in ways that took into consideration the interests of the ex-slaves. One of the issues at stake for Dubois here is that of historical agency. By showing how power flowed from the colony and towards the metropole he is arguing against the automatic assumption that the colonial subject is a passive body that only entered history in so far as it reacted to events in Europe. In his reading of the Revolution the idea of citizenship was not invented by Europe, exported to the Caribbean, and then appropriated by the locals. Dubois argues that the modern idea of citizenship was formed in a crucible of Revolutionary and Imperial conflict in which the slaves and ex-slaves of Haiti and Guadeloupe played an active and self-conscious part. That Dubois frames his narrative in anecdotes about the ongoing struggle of France’s ethnic other for the rights of citizenship suggests a further argument that the participation of slaves in the Revolutionary struggle has opened up a flow which the powers of reaction have not yet been able to close.

Rodger’s does not reverse a flow so much as show the existence of a flow where historians had not perceived one before. In his analysis of American “progressivism” he argues that the movement was not simply the product of national history – American social structure, politics and culture – but also of an international context in which ideas originally formulated in Europe shaped how American intellectuals imagined social problems. If Dubois argues against a perspective that sees only the influence of Europe on the Americas and not the reverse, Rodgers argues that American historians have failed to see the ways in which Europehas shaped the way things are over here. Rodgers also pays much closer attention to the historicity of the flow than Dubois. He is describing a period during which specific conditions made transnational flows not only possible but powerful and creative. That the conversation between American and European activists was eventually silenced by geopolitical changes should not be taken as evidence in support of claims of American ‘exceptionalism,’ but as one of the causes of that isolationist worldview that produced such claims. That the flow Rodgers is studying was eventually disrupted is a crucial element of his argument about intellectual history, in the same way that the continuity of flows is critical to Dubois’ arguments about subaltern agency.

Zimmerman, finally, does not reverse a flow, or suggest the existence of a previously unperceived flow, but posits the existences of networks or fields across which, or through which, flows pass. Zimmerman shows how the German colonial project in West Africa used a variety of technologies – discursive, social and scientific – to try and transform the local Ewe people into “Negroes.” The German Foreign Office fused together elements of German social science and the racial politics of the New South into a managerial plan which they imposed on the town of Tove in West Africa. By using what he describes as a psychoanalytic Marxism Zimmerman shows how colonial ideology was utterly inadequate to the task of understanding local conditions but instead obscured the reality of forced cotton production behind ‘signs of free labor and racial uplift.’ Zimmerman seems to be arguing first that the intersection of transnational ideological networks in Togo produced a situation which none of the participants could possibly hope to understand or manipulate, and second that the incompetence of the colonials is somehow suggestive of revolutionary hope. His first argument is convincing, his second is not. When read in conjunction with Dubois and Rodgers what Zimmerman’s article suggests to me is that in so far as there are transnational flows they are flows of capital and power, not ideas. The agency of the slaves and ex-slaves, for instance, is the result of the economic threat their military and political power posed – the course of Haitian history after that power was corralled by the West is instructive as to the fate of that agency. Similarly, the agency of the cosmopolitan intellectuals in Rodgers chapter was made possible only by the location of the European and American middle class in a global economy – as the total absence of African, Asian and Latin voices in his discussion would seem to suggest. And the misguided and misinformed alliance of Prussian and New South ambitions was formed in a global market which the people of Tove did not have access to except through the very academics from Tuskegee, and clerks from the Baltic, who were trying to reinvent them. The Ewe, unlike Caribbean revolutionaries and American progressives, had neither the military capacity nor the economic leverage to open negotiations with the nation-state.

The failure of Zimmerman to address the relative isolation of the Ewe is indicative of both the weaknesses and strengths of transnationalism. If historians have too often been guilty of patriotic narcissism, and for too long produced teleological accounts national histories, than the concept of transnational flows offers a fresh approach. By looking for the ways individuals and groups have resisted incorporation into nation-state, or fought against exclusion from it, or simply ignored its claims, the historian can not only enrich an account of a national history, but can open new veins of research. That being said there is the danger that the language of fields and flows naturalizes global capitalism in the same way national histories naturalize the nation. By taking it for granted that ideas and resources do “flow” across oceans, over mountains, and around the globe, we lose sight of the fact that such flows are frequently subjected to the control of the modern nation-states we are trying to wish away. It is not abstractions that have criss-crossed the oceans after all, but bodies, and no one rides for free. Transnational approaches are a superb tool for illuminating previously unimagined horizontal relations across space – such as between ex-slaves in Caribbean and the bourgeois radicals of the French Revolution, or between American and European intellectuals, or even between Booker T. Washington and Max Weber. But to analyze the vertical relations of the stratified societies in which individuals remain embedded long after their ideas have taken flight, the historian will likely have to turn to other tools, such as Zimmerman’s psycho-analytic Marxism.

A case in point is Abishabis; a transnational approach in this instance illuminates not his agency, or his participation in a world wide network of idea and communication, but rather the way in which actors with a surfeit of power can, and do, shut down local access to the riches of global capitalism. There is no doubt that in Prince Rupert’s Land, as in Togoland, there was an intersection of what can be described as transnational flows. By an act of British legislature the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to allow another transnational corporation, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, into the geographical space they governed at the pleasure of the Queen’s government. The missionary whom arrived at York Factory was the energetic Englishman James Evans. Evans at once learned Cree, developed a syllabic alphabet for the language, built a printing press out of an old fur press, and began to translate and distribute Wesleyan hymns among the Cree. He had such influence that birch bark copies of his hymns and his script were showing up at distant outposts to the bafflement of traders who had never even heard of him. British politics, global commerce, and international Christianity all conspired to bring Evans and his ideas to the subarctic, and once there local systems and technologies of trade and communication gave him access to even the most isolated of communities.

Shortly after his arrival however a rift developed between Evans and the Scottish Chief Factor he worked most closely with, James Hargrave at York Factory. Among the reasons for the rift was the fact that Hargrave felt the enthusiasm of the Cree for the Methodism was disrupting the profitability of local trade. There were also tensions between the ambitious Mrs. Hargrave and the more plebian Mrs. Evans. As Evans developed an ever-widening network of converts, established relations with American free traders, and began agitating among the oarsmen for a sabbatarian six day work week, Hargrave grew increasingly antagonistic. We can see the flows here; the tensions in the subarctic that reflect tensions back home; the way in which the relations of commercial and Christian interests in the colonies were shaped by and shape domestic British politics; how ideas from the metropole are spread to the colonies; and how a Native-European dynamic was transformed by missionaries into Labor-Management.

But when Abishabis appeared, declared himself the Indian Bishop, and announced an imminent millennial change, those transnational flows stopped like someone had flicked a switch. Evans and Hargrave declared a truce and joined forces to drive Abishabis into the bush. When he re-emerged from the bush at a post hundreds of miles from York Factory he was briefly incarcerated by Hargrave’s agent, and then murdered. That act of violence was justified variously by the claim Abishabis was a windigo, a murderer, a charlatan, and finally, bad for business. A few years after the murder Evans and his fellow Methodists were chased out of Prince Rupert’s Land by Governor Simpson and replaced with a consortium of the less enthusiastic Anglicans and the always pragmatic Catholics. The lesson here is not that transnational flows exist but that they can be controlled.

The flows were there, Abishabis was certainly aware of them, but their direction and content were determined the men who controlled the rivers, lakes and oceans. The transnational illuminates the events surrounding Abishabis in a way traditional imperial history could not. It does so by showing how the relationship of Hargrave and Evans was part of the relation between global capitalism and transnational Christianity, how British class tensions played out in microcosm of the trading post, and how these small events fit into the big picture of other histories. It tells us a great deal about the forces that created and produced the event of Abishabis, but it tells us precious little about the man himself.

If we want to understand Abishabis, why he did things, how he mobilized ideas and created his own power, we have to look more closely at the social world in which he operated, the horizons of which were limited by his own experience. In this world resource control was a matter of life and death, and those resources were controlled by men such as Hargrave and Simpson. Their control had been unquestioned by the Cree until the arrival of Evans and his universalizing Christianity disrupted HBC hegemony. Unfortunately for Abishabis he misunderstood the power of Evans ideology as badly as the Germans misunderstood the power of the New South race politics. Ideas by themselves could no more give him access to the flows that produced the wealth of York Factory than they could transform the Ewe into Negroes. Evans and his Christianity had an effect on vertical power relations in a demographically small community that the birds-eye view of transnationalism does not so much illuminate as it flattens out. In a way one could even say that this particular aspect of ‘transnationalism’ killed Abishabis. He bought into it; he saw himself in the big picture; manipulating flows; an agent in the transnational world of a universal religion; mobilizing the powers of abstraction to transform political relations. But as Hargrave and Simpson could have told him better than Evans, an abstraction is no match for two Company thugs armed with cold Sheffield steel.


[1] I am relying on a handful of secondary sources and my own notes from the archives in this paper. The best published paper on Abishabis is probably Jennifer Brown’s short essay in Papers of the Eleventh Algonquian Conference (Ottawa: Carleton university 1980).