Jamestown as Genocide?

A short post, to highlight a very interesting and thoughtful critique by Aoife O’Donoghue and Henry Jones of a lead article in the Journal of the History of International Law on the Jamestown massacre. To cut a long story short (which Aoife and Henry do a good job of explaining), this is an article that seeks to demonstrate that the Jamestown massacre (of 1622) fulfils the criteria of genocide under the UN Genocide Convention (1948) framework. The first aim of the article is to demonstrate bias in scholarship that identifies things to be acts of genocide in American history, the second aim is to provide a reasoned argument that the Powahatan attack on the Jamestown colony constituted an act of genocide.

In my opinion, it’s a pretty dodgy piece of work. O’Donoghue and Jones level three main criticisms at it: that the choice of question is questionable, that the use of the Genocide convention is “methodologically unsound”, and that the article misuses history. In their view:

The publication of this article is hard to understand. It fails to satisfy basic standards of academic rigour, either in history or law. It is driven by a clear political agenda that we must be wary of giving space to. But fundamentally, if academic journals are going to publish articles from the “alt-right”, they should at least be held to the same standards as any other submission. A sub-culture that hates any attempt to assist the powerless and disenfranchised would surely hate to be given an easy ride.

I disagree with the idea that the article should not be published. The main reason I disagree is that this is probably the best that an “alt-right” take on colonial American history can come up with, and it comes up short in a great many respects. It’s the fact that this article has to labour so hard to disconnect the Jamestown massacre from other massacres, and general patterns of inter-societal violence, that makes it so interesting to me. If this is the soundest “tu quoque” argument that can be made, then the article does a pretty good job of burying that argument.

I write this from a position that O’Donoghue and Jones might label as “half conservative”, at least from this:

Conservative voices are present in the turn to history in international law, generally insisting on a strict contextualist approach abhorring any use of the past to tell us something about the present as anachronistic.

and this:

The conservative response to critical history of international law has generally been to insist on not being anachronistic, to understand the past in context and not to use it to talk about the present or vice versa.

By “half conservative”, I mean that I think context is important and anachronisms should be avoided, but at the same time, our understanding of the present has to be informed by the development and operation of these concepts in the past. I suppose the difference lies in the idea of genocide as a tradition, rather than a universal, trans-temporal theoretical frame.

From this perspective, John T Bennett’s article is useful in the same way that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations is useful: a demonstration of bad ideas that can only serve as a starting point for discussion of why they are so bad, and why they are so prevalent. Lemkin may have had the 19th Century American Indian wars in mind when working on the concept of genocide, my question is when (if it is possible to determine a precise point) does it becomes possible to apply the modern concept of genocide to the political and social groups in north America? Key to this, I think, is the development of the sense of right and wrong that underpins the modern concept of genocide. In this sense, defending accusations of genocide in the 19th century by pointing to like activity in the 17th century, using conceptual categories that crystallised in the 19th century, and a crime that was recognised/invented in the 20th century is an activity for fools or firebrands.

Mirrored at Medium.com