Thursday, May 16, 2024

A la Grann!

Seems that, following Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorcese is set to make a movie of another David Grann book, The Wager.

It's a great tale from the half century before the USA existed, but it features some of the usual distortions of contemporary American history-telling.

One of the sailors on board the shipwrecked vessel was called John Duck. Grann initially reports him as a free black man. In the latter stages of the book, the author then reports how Duck and two other English sailors are left behind in Patagonia where they are 'rescued' by indigenous locals before making their way up to Buenos Aires, where Duck alone, apparently suffers the terrible, inevitable fate which then stalked his race: kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Except this is NOT what happened. The factual version of Duck's story has been carefully adjusted in line with contemporary expectations in what is becoming a rather familiar way.

Firstly, Duck had an English father and was thus of mixed race, known then as a mulatto. His 'free' status would not have been so unusual.

When he and his comrades were found by the Tehuelches, all three were immediately enslaved by these local indigenes and held as involuntary household servants for a number of years.

At some point the Tehuelches 'redeemed' (i.e. ransomed off) the two white sailors, who eventually made it back to Britain without Duck.

It is uncertain why the Tehuelches held onto Duck, though one of the others later claimed that their 'hosts' felt that Duck, by way of his complexion, was one of them, and this feeling may ultimately have been reciprocated.

This same 'rescued' friend and colleague additionally related that the Tehuelches, who also liked to enslave white women, had provided each of them with a Spanish wife, so it is conceivable that Duck did in some way put down roots with his South American captors.

The two ransomed Englishmen were imprisoned in Buenos Aires for over a year in very tough conditions before being allowed to return home as released POWs, and it is also possible that Duck had consciously decided not to risk Spanish colonial hospitality while the war dragged on inconclusively.

Anyway, nearly all the interesting parts of this story have been carefully suppressed in Grann's book. Duck is depicted as a black man and he is kidnapped and enslaved by white men. That is the kind of historical narrative Americans expect to read nowadays, so that is the history they have been given, because it feels like it ought to be true, even if it isn't.

Such are many American 'facts' today: fabrications which identify as virtuous; improvements on truth. This comes as second nature to Hollywood of course, but 'journalists'?

I think what bothers me most here is the notion that Grann had read the first hand accounts, but in spite of / because of his status as a staff writer for the New Yorker, felt comfortable with reporting another version of the story that was only indirectly rooted in reality.

We tend to blame social media for placing us in silos, for a breakdown in manners and so on, and there is truth in that, but there is also a worrying trend within traditional media, which has spread out of the USA, the end result of which is that much of what passes for contemporary political debate is little more than a set of interlocking arguments over narrative treatments.

Growing up I came across many historians whose interpretative output was coloured by their backgrounds and political biases, but this overt promotion (and acceptance) of known falsehoods within academia — as well as the various kinds of public media we are still liable to trust — has clearly metastasized within our intellectual culture.

Leo doesn't seem like a natural fit for any of the key protagonists. The gunner John Bulkeley perhaps.

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