20 April 2009

The island of general intoxication

The social history research of Reverend John Heckewelder, who sought tales of early encounters between Native Americans and Europeans, reveals interesting accounts of social interaction. Here Giles Milton recounts an extract from a letter written by Heckewelder in 1801, describing an early run-in with the demon drink during Henry Hudson’s visit in 1609, to what would later become New York:

They watched in astonishment as [Hudson] opened a bottle of pure alcohol, poured it into a glass beaker, and gulped down the lot. He then handed the bottle and glass to the nearest Indian chieftain and instructed him to drink.

[Heckewelder wrote:] “The chief receives the glass but only smells it, and passes it to the next chief who does the same. The glass thus passes through the circle without the contents being tasted by anyone; and is upon the point of being returned again to the red-clothed man when one of their number, a spirited man and a great warrior, jumps up, harangues the assembly on the impropriety of returning the glass with the contents in it.” He argued that [Hudson] had offered them the glass in the spirit of friendship and for the peace of their people, “and that as no-one was willing to drink it he would, let the consequence be what it would. He then took the glass and bidding the assembly a farewell, drank it off. Every eye was fixed upon their resolute companion to see what effect this would have upon him, and he soon began to stagger about, and at last dropping to the ground, they bemoan him. He falls into a sleep, and they view him as expiring.”

But after a few minutes the man suddenly leaped to his feet and, to gasps of amazement from the crowd, declared that he had never felt so happy in all his life and demanded that he be given another glassful. “His wish is granted, and the whole assembly soon joins him, and become intoxicated.” [...]

Hackewelder claims that the name Manhattan is derived from the drunkenness that took place there, since the Indian word manahactanienk means ‘the island of general intoxication’.

- Quoted from Giles Milton, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, London, 1999

No comments: