Blurring Distinctions When Exclusives Come Together in The Last of The Mohicans
The coloniser, irrespective of his homeland, comes with the feeling that he or she is superior to the colonised. This feeling stems from a pride in one’s history, culture, education and martial prowess and training. Therefore, it is not surprising that the colonisers from Great Britain and France considered themselves above and superior to the Native Americans or as they refer to them, ‘savages’. While the colonists may have been trained in martial conflict they were not superior to the savages in the warfare of the wilderness. However, with time, these colonists too adapted and learnt the craft of the warfare of the wild practiced by the Native Americans. A combination of the martial prowess and the warfare tactics of the Native Americans should have rendered the colonists lethal but that was not to be so. Where the colonist was adapting so was the Native American. While each of them was taking steps that served to blur the distinctiveness of warfare practiced by each group, the character of the white man and the Native American still seemed starkly distinct and exclusive. Through the pages of history and popular narratives we have been made aware of this contrast. Be that as it may, if we take a deeper look into the practices of these two groups we find, rather, a great deal of similarity[. With an aim to study these similarities, this paper will turn to The Last of the Mohicans.
James Fennimore Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, a time in the history of America that was witnessing increasing clashes between the Anglo Americans, French and Native Americans. The Last of the Mohicans is set against this political backdrop and rather than building up to a moment of high drama it begins at a moment of tension when Fort Edward–near New York, held by Anglo Americans and commanded by General Webb–has been requested to send aid to the Fort William Henry–near Lake George, also held by Anglo Americans and commanded by Colonel Munro–as it is facing the threat of an attack by the French colonists, commanded by Montcalm, and their Native American allies. In order to support and be with their father in a moment of crisis, Cora and Alice, daughters of Colonel Munro, begin a journey from Fort Edward, accompanied by Major Heyward, Le Renard Subtil, a Native American, who serves as their guide through the forest and David Gamut, a psalmist. However, they soon discover that Subtil has plans to betray them and hand them over to the enemy. At this time they encounter Hawkeye, an Anglo American, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, Native Americans who identify themselves as Mohicans. Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas and Heyward take it upon themselves to deliver Cora and Alice to their father Munro. Thus begins a thrilling tale, where Cora and Alice are captured by Subtil, rescued, then recaptured and then again rescued through the endeavours of Heyward, Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas, winding through the wilderness of the American landscape where the pursuer and the pursued keep changing places and seldom allowing the reader a moment of respite. Through this tale Cooper has sought to show his readers that the Anglo American and the Native American character did not form two exclusive sets. He shows characters that are trying to explore and discover their individuality. Rather, under the common bonds of humanity each of these groups displayed the same qualities and flaws homogeneously found throughout humanity, albeit more or less exaggerated.
The White Man’s Superiority
As discussed in the introduction, the white man considered himself superior to the Native American on account of a white man’s history, culture, education and martial training. However, throughout the story we find countless instances where the white man fails to live up to the high standards associated with his image. Major Heyward, who is entrusted with the responsibility of Cora and Alice’s safety, in spite of years of military experience, makes the rash decision to place his complete faith in a Native American, Le Renard Subtil, to navigate the forests without any regard to how he would protect the sisters in the event of an attack. Not only does he make an initial error in his decision, as the narrator notes, “Major Heyward was [also] mistaken…in suffering his youthful and generous pride to suppress his active watchfulness” (Cooper) as the party penetrated the depths of the forest. This is not the sole instance of Heyward’s tendency to make rash decisions.
Escaping and fighting through innumerable perils–skilfully thwarted by Hawkeye, Chingahgook and Uncas–Cora and Alice reach Fort William Henry. However, under the pressure of the unrelenting seize of General Montcalm’s French Army and forced by the failure of General Webb to send reinforcements, Colonel Munro surrenders on the condition of safe passage for all the inhabitants of Fort William henry. As the Anglo American army leaves, they are attacked, looted and mercilessly butchered by the Native Americans supporting the French Army. Under the chaos that ensues, the native Le Renard Subtil once again abducts Cora and Alice. This forces the reader to question the reasonableness of Major Heyward’s decision to entrust Cora and Alice’s safety to David Gamut, a man of faith who refuses to take arms and believes that his hymns to God are a solution to every misery and threat that could befall man.
The reader could also question Colonel Munro’s stance in this situation. Colonel Munro decides to put his soldiers before his family but then, after the massacre, tormented by the danger in which his daughters might be, pleads before Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas and Heyward to deliver his daughters to his care. One is forced to question why the father-daughter bond that takes a backseat under the context of the protection of soldiers does not take a backseat when the lives of men of the wild are concerned. It is also worth considering if it was more important for Munro to put up a show of the propriety and dignity of a soldier when he was on display and it was something that he did not consider important when he was not under scrutiny.
While the white man did pride himself in following the rules of an organised war, there are exceptions among them, who fail to abide by and ensure that those rules are followed. General Montcalm, the commander of the French army, too is a white man who stands by as his allies butcher innocent men and women of the retreating Anglo American army. Moreover, by continuously calling the Native Americans savages there is a constant assertion of the idea that they were ruthless and unjust in their practices.
On the other hand, while the white man looked at the Indians with disdain, the Indians–irrespective of the outward respect they displayed towards their “white fathers”–refused to speak the language of the white Americans as much as possible, thereby revealing their disdain for the white American man.
Though Heyward shows a certain degree of bias against Native Americans, in quite an unbiased manner he acknowledges “As bright examples of great qualities are but too uncommon among Christians, so are they singular and solitary with the Indians; though, for the honor of our common nature, neither are incapable of producing them” (Cooper). In a way Cooper is showing that people know that humans irrespective of their race are alike. However, the prejudice each person has acquired runs so deep that they are unable to listen to the voice of reason and follow it.
Misunderstanding and distrust
From the beginning of the novel we see that there is a certain level of distrust that a white man or woman holds towards a Native American. Indeed, the Native Americans were formidable enemies and especially because of the war tactics they followed. However, their deeper nature was not to attack and kill every stranger they met. When in order to save Alice, Heyward enters into the heart of the Indian settlement “the observant warriors…seemed patiently to await the moment when it might comport with the dignity of the stranger [that is Heyward] to speak” (Cooper). Similarly, they show respect for humanity by leaving David unharmed due to the Indian principle of “never harm[ing] a non-composser” (Cooper). On the other hand, in the novel Chingachgook alludes to the manner in which the Dutch white men, under the garb of friendship, introduced the Native Americans to “firewater” or alcohol. Intoxicated by its consumption the Natives believed “they had found the Great Spirit” (Cooper). In this state of inebriation they were an easy enemy for the Dutch to push back and gain land. This shows that however true might be the incidents of the Indian’s savagery and to whatever degree, it cannot be denied that the white men too were unjust and ruthless when it suited them.
In another incident, trapped inside a cave that is under attack from the Hurons and with no possible means of an escape for Cora, Alice, David, Heyward, Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas, the natives and Hawkeye adopt an attitude of resignation towards the possibility of death. Heyward says, “I like not the principle of the natives, which teaches them to submit without a struggle, in emergencies that appear desperate…our own maxim, which says, ‘ while life remains there is hope’, is more consoling, and better suited to a soldier’s temperament” (Cooper). Heyward while acknowledging that the natives were also soldiers like him misunderstands their resignation. He adopts a condescending attitude towards the native’s principles as it is impossible for him to imagine that they could be capable of chivalry and could choose to stay back and fight for the women rather than save themselves.
Not only did the white man consider Indians as savages and untrustworthy, they believed that the Indians were also corrupt. On two occasions Heyward tries to bribe the Indians. Firstly, he tries to offer money as a gift to Uncas, Chingachgook and Hawkeye in return for their efforts to convey him, Alice and Cora to safety. Secondly, Heyward tries to bribe Le Renard Subtil to release him, Cora, Alice and David when they are taken prisoners. In both instances, the Indians refuse to take the money offered by Heyward. Uncas, Chingachgook and Hawkeye demonstrate that they wanted to help Heyward purely from the desire to keep the party safe. Hawkeye even describes the futility of Heyward’s offer by saying “spare your offers of money, which neither you may live to realize, nor I to profit by” (Cooper). On the other hand Subtil, though in an evil fashion, chooses Cora rather than the money in order to regain his honour among his tribe.
On the other hand, while Uncas and Chingachgook in the novel proved themselves as trustworthy, the likes of Le Renard Subtil create the general impression that the Native Americans were untrustworthy. The novel follows a narrative whereby the readers are made to believe that trust is a quality associated with certain Native American tribes that are dwindling. Whereas, even a cursory glance at the assembled white characters in the novel shows that they too are untrustworthy. As discussed before, Montcalm is unable to keep his promise of safe passage for the Anglo American soldiers. It can be argued that Montcalm was a lone white man and should therefore not be taken as an example that represents the white Americans at large. If this argument is accepted, then one needs to acknowledge that Le Renard Subtil is also a lone man amongst Native Americans, who indeed instigated his men but should not be considered as a man symbolic of the whole tribe. While the white man may have declared the Indians as corrupt based on the practices of certain select groups, there were some among them, who like white men, were driven by motives of cupidity, and then there were some among them who were driven by principles of honour, no matter how convoluted they were.
Love and respect
In another incident involving an unreasonable show of courage, Heyward offers to enter into the encampment of the Hurons, under disguise, in order to rescue Alice. This was an exceedingly rash decision on his part considering the danger involved, however, motivated by his love for Alice, Heyward decides to brave this danger. Likewise, Hawkeye too decides to remain in the Huron encampment and fight the Hurons while Uncas flees motivated by the fatherly love he had towards Uncas “who might, in some degree, be called the child of his adoption” (Cooper). These are selfless acts of love. However, one might argue that both Hawkeye and Heyward are white men who belong to a civilised race that gives importance to feelings and emotions. Indeed, that being true, we also see that Uncas refuses to leave Hawkeye and save himself, once again motivated by love–though not stated or expressed explicitly–for Hawkeye, just like a son for his father. This shows that even Indians, like white men, were capable of selfless acts motivated by love.
Apart from love for a fellow human being, the white men also show love for etiquettes and hospitality. Heyward was mighty impressed when he met Montcalm because of the manner in which he spoke and behaved. Even Colonel Munro does not fail to acknowledge Montcalm’s etiquettes when he meets Munro to negotiate the terms of Munro’s surrender. This shows that for a white man, a person’s etiquettes, his demeanour and his hospitality were important qualities to be appreciated. Similarly, Native Indians too were proud of their hospitality. The narrator of the novel informs his readers that “the rights of hospitality…were…considered sacred among” the Indians (Cooper). However, we are also informed through Heyward’s wonderment “Indian customs…forbid their warriors to descend to any menial employment, especially in favor of their women” (Cooper). That in spite of such customs Uncas attended to Cora and Alice’s needs shows that not only were the Indians hospitable but that they were capable of crossing the boundaries of their customs in order to fulfil the expectations of their guests. This is evident once again when the Indian women do everything in their power to ensure that Cora’s funeral is able to fulfil the ceremonial and spiritual needs of a white woman’s funeral.
In a subtle way the attitude of the Indian men towards women is indicated to be above that of American white men. When Le Renard Subtil abducts Cora and Alice during the massacre of Fort William Henry, Heyward is fearful that Subtil would take advantage of the women. However, Hawkeye dismisses this fear saying “he who thinks that even a Mingo [referring to Le Renard Subtil] would ill-treat a woman, unless it be to tomahawk her, knows nothing of Indian natur’, or the laws of the woods” (Cooper). Hawkeye distrusted the Mingos and considered them dishonest people. However, by using the phrase “even a Mingo” he is indicating that even the worst of the Indians would never take advantage of the women as Heyward feared. At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that fear stems from experience or acquired experience. Hawkeye’s firm conviction that Indians were incapable of such behaviour shows that Heyward’s fear was not based on such an incident involving a woman and an Indian man. This in turn suggests that Heyward’s expectation of the behaviour of a man towards a woman he has abducted stems from his knowledge of the behaviour of white men towards women. It might seem strange and paradoxical that an Indian could “tomahawk”, that is kill a woman than “ill-treat” her to take advantage of her.
However, they demonstrate clear maxims in matters involving respect for elders and young people. The white man, as described by Hawkeye, “gathers his learning from books and can measure what he knows by the page, may conceit that his knowledge, like his legs, outruns that of his fathers’”(Cooper). Hawkeye’s observation shows that among white men, knowledge is more valued than experience and the use of the noun “conceit” indicates that there is a certain degree of pride associated with the acquisition of knowledge. While pride may not be considered a virtue, respecting knowledge might be. On the other hand, among Indians “experience is the master, the scholar is made to know the value of years and respects them accordingly” (Cooper). However, in the novel when Uncas gives an indication that he could uncover Le Renard Subtil’s trail as he travelled with the abducted females, Cora and Alice, Chingachgook his father, “received [Uncas’ words] with…deep attention…and…[without]…manifesting any impatience” (Cooper). This shows that rather than always holding experience above knowledge, the Indians too demonstrated respect for valuable knowledge. Thus both the white man and the Native American show a similarity in their behaviour the only difference being a respectful deference for men of experience among the latter.
The Last of the Mohicans is a book in which the characters are in a perpetual state of war. Nevertheless, the motive for the soldiers fighting in the name of their king and country is ambiguous. Heyward claims “[m]ine [life] is of little moment; it is already sold to my king, and is a prize to be seized by any enemy who may possess the power” (Cooper). His claim is an attempt by Heyward to portray himself as a man who is courageous, brave and patriotic to such an extent that he does not care for his life. However, ironically, he adds “I have no father to expect me, and but few friends to lament” (Cooper), which makes the reader realise that Heyward held his life up for sacrifice because he had no family ties. Had he had a family, there is a possibility that a sense of responsibility for them may have encouraged him to value his life more. This in turn forces one to question if Heyward, and soldiers like him, truly believed in the cause they were fighting for or if the reason they fought stemmed from the lack of loving and meaningful relationships in their life. Similarly, the Indians were fighting in a war, taking place between the Anglo Americans and the French, aligning themselves in groups that forced them to fight against their own people without truly assessing the merits of such a war.
In a canoe and on their way to rescue Cora and Alice, Uncas, Chingachgook, Hawkeye, Heyward and Munro come under heavy fire from the Indians fighting for the French army. However, Munro refuses to bow down and protect himself in the face of heavy fire. Hawkeye rightly points out “[t]hat is now a white man’s courage…not to be maintained by reason” (Cooper). Munro had set out with the motive to rescue Cora and Alice, and his death, merely because of a failure to protect himself at the right time, would have in no way helped him achieve his objective. Thus, Cooper shows that the white men were capable of losing track of their objective in a blind attempt to abide by their principles. Similarly, Uncas also, powerfully possessed by his love for Cora, abandons all caution, thereby losing the fighting instinct that had so far kept him safe, in order to save the woman he loved.
The white man and the Natives alike are men of faith who seem to be under a veil of illusion. The white man believed that his education made him practical and set him apart from Native Americans who based their actions on faith rather than reason. Under the threat of attack from the Hurons, Uncas, Chingachgook and Heyward interpret the sound of the whining of the horse as a supernatural “sign given for…[their]…good” (Cooper). In another incident, coming upon a place of a previous battle, Hawkeye is riddled with “superstitious terror” (Cooper) of the dead. One might attribute the change in Hawkeye, a white man, to the influence of the Indian ways on him. Whereas David Gamut, with an “implicit…faith…in the performance of ancient miracles…[though he] eschewed the belief of any direct supernatural agency in the management of modern morality” (Cooper) declares “He that is to be saved will be saved, and he that is predestined to be damned will be damned” showing he is happy to resign his destiny to the will of God. Through these distinct examples–a white man, a white man adapted to Indian beliefs and Indians–Cooper shows that faith, rather than manifesting itself uniformly throughout a race or a group, evolves and presents itself uniquely through every individual based on his beliefs.
It is perhaps this faith and belief that drives both the white men and the Native Americans to selfless acts for someone they truly loved. However, David Gamut–a man the white Americans and Native Americans alike considered useless because of his inability and refusal to fight and take arms even in the face of mortal danger–selflessly accepts to take Uncas’s place as a prisoner, thereby putting his life in mortal danger, for men with whom he had no strong ties or attachments. This forces the reader to question if in a way the narrative directs the reader to the idea that it was perhaps easier to be selfless when someone you loved was involved. However, rather than looking up to such acts, humanity should look up to those acts of selflessness that were committed even in the absence of strong ties of love. Cooper continues to give lessons in acceptance of differences through subtle examples. He shows that the white man may pride himself for making momentous inroads to development. The novel reveals that the Indians too had their own system of development that was more suited to the life style they led. “Their rounded roofs, admirably molded for defense against the weather, denoted more of industry and foresight…possessed more of method and neatness of execution, than the white men had been accustomed to believe belonged, ordinarily, to the Indian habits” (Cooper). Apart from the Indian’s knack for development and industry, the above observation shows a tendency among white men to come to conclusions regarding Native Americans based on surface level interactions rather than making a deliberate effort in knowing more about them.
Cooper has not left us in doubt with regard to his intention in writing the novel. He showcases a country and its people who are evolving materially, physically and spiritually. He wants us to know that “the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around” the “Being we all worship, under different names” without any regard for “distinction of sex, or rank, or color.” (Cooper). He shows man how necessary it was to be “keenly sensible…of the deep responsibility they assume who disregard the means to attain the end, and of all the danger of setting in motion an engine which it exceeds human power to control” (Cooper). Cooper is almost prophetic when Hawkeye says, “God knows what the country would be, if the settlements should ever spread far from the two rivers. Both hunting and war would lose their beauty” (Cooper). Hawkeye’s observation rather than simply being a reference to development is an allusion to the desire to change others according to our perception and its power of destruction. The idea that “a friend whose face is turned from you often bears a bloodier mind than the enemy who seeks your scalp” (Cooper) too, rather than just being an indication of the tactics of war, is an attack on the hypocrisy of the society that opts to wheedle out diversity of opinions and beliefs in the attempt to create a mundane homogeneity. Finally, in the gut wrenching observation made by the character Tamenund, the Indian chief of the Delaware tribe, “In the morning I saw the sons…happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last…of the Mohicans” (Cooper), a reader is forced to accept the absurdity of the lives we lead today, that chooses to take pride in exclusivity than inclusivity.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Penguin, 1980. Apple Books.