Danse Macabre: Death, Cultural History, and Colonization

Nicole Gray and Matt Cohen
The University of Texas

In many ways, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800 (Pennsylvania, 2010) is itself the kind of danse macabre that its author Erik Seeman describes in the context of sixteenth-century Catholic Europe. Reading the tradition metaphorically, he explains, “the dead are everywhere, they are joined by the hand to the living, and it is this connection that animates the circle of life” (38). The dead certainly animate the study of history, and in this book Seeman turns to death as a way to organize and analyze the history of cross-cultural interactions in the New World. Seeman anchors his narrative of New World encounters with the anthropological concept “deathways,” a multi-faceted term whose evidentiary bases include “deathbed scenes, corpse preparation, burial practices, funerals, mourning, and commemoration” (1). Given the play of similarity and difference that has characterized colonial studies, Seeman is careful to analyze death not merely as common experience, but more broadly as a means by which cultures learned about each other. The practical implementation of such knowledge in New World contact included commemoration, conversion, control, warfare, profit, and beyond; in describing scenes across the Americas that were mediated by deathways, Seeman unearths often surprising continuities and offers new ways of reading a wide variety of artifacts.

Seeman situates his consideration of New World deathways at the intersection of several trends in historical criticism, including the analysis of cross-cultural encounters in the early modern period, communication and media history, religious studies, and Atlantic history. Seeman emphasizes the exploration of cultural parallels that studying deathways can enable, but he notes that deathways also promote a view of how these parallels might have functioned as tools of exploitation, even as they conditioned communication; for him, the stories “suggest that in colonial encounters knowledge could facilitate both intercultural cooperation and exploitation, sometimes simultaneously” (10). Against Richard White’s emphasis on the unevenness of colonial understanding, Seeman posits a comparatively clear, if not static-free, communicative channel when it came to deathways. [1] Europeans studied indigenous and African practices and ideas regarding death in order to gain leverage or win converts; as colonization took hold, this interest diminished. Over time, Christian practices infiltrated the traditional deathways of African slaves and indigenous Americans—but here too, the colonized and enslaved often used such practices in ways that reinterpreted Christianity in tune with community needs. Seeman observes large-scale shifts, but he carefully tracks exceptions to them as well—cultural reactions that Seeman terms “inclusive” (trying to establish similarities) were overtaken by “exclusive” ones as colonialism advanced, but in the Seven Years’ War, there were several powerful moments of inclusiveness between American Indian groups and European powers under the pressure of imperial competition.

Seeman admits early that in his accounts of the deathways of Native Americans and African Americans, in particular, the record is porous and problematic from a historian’s standpoint, as the written material and images he consults were largely composed by Europeans. But one of the strengths of his approach is his response to this problem: he uses a wide variety of material evidence, drawing on approaches from anthropology, ethnohistory, and religious studies to do so. Analyzing archaeological findings, grave markers, buildings, clothes, art, and historical and legal documents, Seeman creates a multi-dimensional image of the New World that will interest scholars from a variety of disciplines. More helpful still, he combines this array of evidence with readable prose and an engaging narrative interpretation; deftly curating a sense of what we don’t know, he piques curiosity, recreating a sense of what it might have been like to attend the deathways of unfamiliar others. He also brings admirable disciplinary reflexivity to his sources, keeping an eye on the potential biases of writers and noting both the ambiguities of the material evidence and the fragmentary nature of the historical record.

Death in the New World begins with a description of pre- and early contact deathways among the groups Seeman goes on to consider in colonial relations: Indians, Africans, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Recognizing that much “pre-contact” information is lost in the case of Native Americans, he reaches back to some of the earliest records in an attempt to reconstruct practices as uninfluenced as possible by cultural contact. Certain aspects of deathways, he concludes, are common to all of the cultures; some of these include the expression of grief, careful corpse preparation, the sense of a permeable boundary between life and afterlife, and rituals of remembrance. He traces the development of these death-related traditions in relation to “original” practices, emphasizing not just parallels, but transformations within each of these cultures over time.

In four chapters exploring scenes of contact between Native Americans and Europeans, Seeman demonstrates how an awareness of deathways affected European efforts at conversion, cross-cultural communication, and strategies of warfare on both sides. Beginning with some of the earliest Spanish and English explorers, Seeman chronicles interactions between Spanish Jesuits and Paspahegh Indians in Ajacán, English explorers and Carolina Algonquians on Roanoke Island, Powhatans and colonists in the Chesapeake, Micmacs and French Jesuits in Acadia, and Plymouth colonists and southeastern New England Algonquians. In the process, the reader is introduced to such figures as Paspahegh Don Luís, who led a revolt against colonial Jesuits after they had given him a religious education in Spain; Jamestown colonist John Smith, whose interactions with Algonquian chief Powhatan were facilitated by Smith’s attention to deathways; and French Jesuit Pierre Biard’s staging of a funeral of the Micmac leader Membertou in Acadia. Like the funeral of Membertou, which Seeman argues that Biard likely planned in part as a political move, other aspects of deathways become performative and communicative in New World scenes of contact. “Carolina and Virginia Algonquians used their death rituals not only to provide cover for the gathering of warriors,” Seeman points out, “but also to inspire their fighting men with a sense of spiritual mission” (91). Indeed, in each of the indigenous encounter contexts, pervaded by the massive mortality and social disruption of virgin soil epidemics induced by contact, Seeman argues, death underwrote rebellion and discontent and negotiations of power, as well as efforts at both communication and conversion.

In his chapters on Native American and European contact, Seeman reads European accounts of deathbed scenes with an eye to the “unorthodox,” arguing that while these accounts were undoubtedly shaped by the desires of European interlocutors to recount the experiences of Christian Indians (the “desire for Christian burial,” he notes, “was a sign of missionary triumph in the New World”), departures from the idea of the “good death,” in particular, represent evidence likely to be consistent with actual events (131). Throughout this section, Seeman wrestles with translations, bias, and the nature of evidence, in some cases (as in the question of European burial according to indigenous custom) admitting that although traces of syncretism on the part of Europeans might be glimpsed in accounts like Experience Mayhew’s of the Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard, there is not enough evidence to make conclusive statements.

The following chapters on African American and Jewish deathways present suggestive contrasts with indigenous contexts. In the case of Africans brought to the New World, Europeans seem to have been less curious about their slaves’ deathways; interest and involvement typically occurred as a means of controlling or pacifying slaves in both mainland North American and Caribbean colonies. Several themes resurface in this chapter, however: deathways as a cover for resistance (perceived or otherwise); deathways as a means of asserting or preserving power; the influences of Christianity on deathbed and burial practices; and syncretism manifest in the incorporation of material goods into gravesites. Seeman’s discussion of the 1991 discovery and subsequent excavation of the site called Manhattan’s African Burial Ground challenges critical tendencies to claim “too great a connection between the deathways of Africa and those of [African descendants in] eighteenth-century New York” (218). Although he does describe aspects of African tradition that were likely maintained at times of death, particularly among early arrivals, Seeman reads deathways rather as revealing an increasing Christianization of customs among African Americans over time.

Jewish communities, in Seeman’s penultimate chapter, provide a contrast to the development of both Native and African American deathways—and a narrative contrast as well. For Jews, Seeman argues, deathways represented both an attempt to police the boundaries of often small communities in the New World and a way to navigate conflicting drives toward distinctiveness and assimilation. Drawing on obituaries, gravestones, epigraphs, and even current practices in some synagogues, Seeman concludes that “Jewish cemeteries in the New World stand as silent reminders of the wide range of cultural influences Jews used to construct their identity,” while deathways more generally serve as dynamic markers of group unity and disunity in Jewish populations from New York to Suriname (261). While Seeman’s earlier chapters draw on studies of indigenous Americans and African slaves that de-center European perspectives, his chapter on Jewish deathways, more forcefully than any of the others, represents the complex internal dynamics and perspectives of his historical subjects.

The themes that define his analysis of deathways culminate in Seeman’s final chapter on the Seven Years’ War, in the course of which he appends to this often-considered event an insightful analysis of the ways that “death diplomacy” impacted alliance-formation (264). Although he considers King Philip’s War earlier in the book, this chapter allows Seeman to explore more fully the intersection of war and death. As he describes how, in the context of war, both the burial and the mutilation of corpses comprised a communicative tactic, Seeman makes a convincing case that death structures the terms of wartime engagement on both representational and practical levels. Citing the tendency of all the conflicting groups involved—French, English, Iroquois, and other Indian communities—to employ a “semiotics of corpse mutilation,” Seeman draws on the history he has constructed of cultural curiosity about deathways to develop a sense of wartime strategy that treats bodies themselves as signs to be read, within a mixed and shifting discursive field (274).

On the whole, this is an ambitious synthetic history. Bringing a wide geographical area, a long time span, and a range of community traditions into one narrative convincingly positions deathways at the heart of change in the Americas. The flattening necessary to produce this vision induces another danse macabre, this time of an advantageous humanization across seemingly uncrossable barriers and a deflating return to those barriers in order to keep the story going. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden shares Seeman’s emphasis on the centrality of death to the structure of colonial societies and the tactic, long ago encouraged by Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, of uncovering the cultural creativity of the colonized and enslaved.[2] And like Seeman, Brown understands the dead “as active participants in the living world.”[3] But Brown focuses on just one American island, Jamaica, which allows him to explore the ways in which cultures are deeply intertwined. “It can be misleading,” Brown emphasizes, “to attribute cultural traits to distinct ‘ethnic’ groups, traced back to their places of origin, or to describe cultural change in terms of linear progress toward settled New World patterns.”[4] He focuses on what he calls “mortuary politics,” rather than on particular rituals themselves, to center the story on the dynamic uses of death. The advantage of this formulation is that it avoids the recursive quality of much cross-cultural analysis of colonization: colonizers imposed, subalterns adapted and resisted, and ultimately the culture of the colonizer pervaded all. Brown’s demonstration of how British notions of death changed in part as a result of Jamaican death politics at the end of the eighteenth century is an excellent example: not just the island’s death rates, but the whole range of cultural, legal, and financial practices around them, were fuel for the rise of the abolition movement and a larger shift in British ways of thinking about the meaning of death itself.[5]

Take Seeman’s excellent chapter on cis-Atlantic Jewish deathways, for example: Were Jews colonizers or colonized? Seeman suggests the difficulty of a binary or even dialectical model of colonial relations and cultures—yet he doesn’t entirely leave such models; Atlantic Jewish practices are described at the chapter’s start, but then the focus turns to particular communities’ struggles against innovation, rather than how the ongoing diasporic flow among Jewish communities (from the Caribbean to New York and back, for example) might have influenced deathways. The causal chains that dominate the narrative, too, might become more complex in light of such an approach to the idea of culture. Is “Christianization” a sufficiently complex way of describing the tendency of African American deathways, given the variation among Christian sects’ practices (which Seeman describes with illuminating care)? Did the mutilation of corpses—a practice all these groups engaged in at one time or another—always result from a specific awareness of the deathways and values of the other? Did acts of war incontrovertibly take into consideration the characteristics of other communities’ burial practices?

If the book has an occasional (dare we say gothic?) tendency to overdramatic claims, it’s easy to understand: colonization is one of humanity’s colossal engines of death. But this is a powerful, suggestive, and important book. Death in the New World is a thoroughly researched, ambitiously integrative, and methodologically provocative model of how a focus on communication and practice around a single topic can enrich our understanding of New World encounters and their aftermath. Inevitably, Seeman’s focus takes him onto strange and occasionally disturbing ground; many of the death practices he describes graphically reflect the violence common to New World interactions, with all of the representational difficulties about which José Rabasa has warned us.[6] But Death in the New World’s emphasis on parallels avoids the perils of a too-inclusive reaction, historicizing the dynamics of communication across cultural boundaries in the colonial Americas and showing how communicating with and about the dead was essential to dominating the living.


[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (New York and London, 1991).

[2] See Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2008); and Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston, 1992).

[3] Brown, 4.

[4] Brown, 7.

[5] Brown, 157–200. See also Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York, 1996), which emphasizes the diachronic relations among death, performance, and cultural narrative.

[6] See José Rabasa, Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest (Durham, 2000), esp. 1–30.