Thursday, January 9, 2020

Q&A with Alan Gallay

Alan Gallay is the author of the new biography Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire. His other books include The Indian Slave Trade. He is the Lyndon B. Johnson Chair of United States History at Texas Christian University, and he lives in Fort Worth, Texas.  

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Walter Ralegh in your new book?

A: I wanted to write about Ralegh over 30 years ago, but knew I was not ready for him. The views of him held by his peers and historians were so diverse, and his interests and activities so diffuse, that I needed to become a better historian before I could holistically approach him. 

My goal always has been to study colonialism. Ralegh played such a critical role in English overseas expansion that I assumed that if I could tell his story—with all of its seeming contradictions and ambiguities—I could reveal a large part of the foundation of English colonialism and empire. 

I set Ralegh aside in graduate school, feeling more compelled to focus first on English colonialism in later eras. 

I worked on the 18th and 17th centuries in my published work, then re-tooled to undertake the challenge of Ralegh—studying his interests—alchemy and poetry, piracy and statecraft, his colonial endeavors, his relationship with Queen Elizabeth, the religious philosophy of Hermeticism, and his perceptions of non-English people and how they would fit into an English Empire. 

Ultimately, my task was to connect Ralegh’s intellectual, social, economic, and spiritual life to his attempts to colonize in North America and Ireland, and his quest to find El Dorado and extend English interests into South America. 

Once all these things connected, the ambiguities and contradictions of Ralegh disappeared and I could see more clearly his life and patterns of empire that first appeared at the empire’s birth and survived through the centuries, with particular impact on the development of the United States and Ireland. 

Q: You write that Ralegh “epitomized the Renaissance man of action.” What are some of the ways in which he did so?

A: More than in any other period of European history, intellectuals in the Renaissance sought to connect all areas of existence—art, history, poetry, science, religion, and politics were interwoven. 

Colonialism and empire, for instance, were characterized and promoted in poetry, depicted in painting, assessed in the laboratory, and contemplated in both spiritual and religious terms. Colonialism was also a physical act that involved intense preparation, movement across oceans, and the building of new societies. 

The Renaissance intellectual, if capable, attempted to physically act on ideas. When Shakespeare had Hamlet say, “To be or not to be,” he drew on observing a generation of Elizabethans who answered, “To be!” 

For Ralegh, that meant employing his physical skills as a soldier, courtier, naval captain, politician, bureaucrat, statesman, and scientist, while thinking about and reflecting on all these activities. 

He meshed his vision of human history with conceptions of God and the unseen universe, attempting to link how he thought with how he acted. He thought so much about colonialism and the act of colonizing that he came to see in his last book, the History of the World, that colonialism was the central fact of human history. 

It is these connections between thought and action, and the seen and unseen universe that helped make the History of the World the most popular history written by an Englishman in the 17th century.

Q: How would you describe Ralegh's view of colonialism?

A: Ralegh was one of the deepest thinkers about colonialism in Elizabethan England. 

His ideas evolved over time, as he assessed experiences in multiple locales and places, but his views generally were characterized by a belief that colonization of new lands would benefit all, and that colonization, at least in America, should be a partnership between the English and the Native peoples. 

He opposed removal of Native peoples from their lands, learned from their cultures, and worked to prevent persecution in America and Ireland. He, like other knights of the realm, hoped through creating an empire to transform Queen Elizabeth into an empress who would restore the Golden Age of peace and prosperity. 

Like many other English, Ralegh thought that colonization of America was necessary to save England from Spanish domination. Spain had wrested riches of gold and silver through New World conquest, and used that wealth to assert military dominance in Western Europe, which included several attempts to conquer England. 

The English thought they needed colonies as places to send their excess population to settle land from which they would obtain natural resources needed at home to withstand Spain. 

Some English, even before they had met America’s Native peoples, recommended exploiting the Natives as slaves, killing them, and otherwise removing them from their lands. 

Ralegh spent his career countering these views and methods. His first attempt to colonize in America, which he directed from England, ended disastrously as his men needlessly killed and otherwise alienated the Native peoples. 

Ralegh responded by placing his colony under the governorship of a painter (!), a man who appreciated the Natives as much as he did, to prevent future violence. Ralegh recognized that colonialism could lead to disasters for Native peoples, which led him to propose ways to protect them from the Spanish (and from the English) and they would maintain their societies. 

He recommended to Queen Elizabeth that she ally with Native peoples to build an “empire without conquest”—leaving Native societies in America unchanged and with only minimal English interference. 

He proposed a grand alliance of England with the Natives to remove the Spanish from America, instructing the Queen to send munitions and military advisors, and to teach the Natives how to manufacture European weaponry to protect themselves. To tie Natives and English together, he suggested she send English women to America to marry Native men. 

Most noteworthy, Ralegh thought America’s Native peoples were blessed by God, and thus possessed knowledge of the mysteries of the universe: the English could learn as much, if not more, from the Natives than the Natives could learn from the English.  

Q: How would you characterize the dynamic between Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I?

A: Ralegh was an extremely talented individual who owed his meteoric rise to Queen Elizabeth. The Queen was about 16 to 18 years older than Ralegh. She liked handsome, dashing young men who displayed a sharp intellect. 

As a captain in Ireland, Ralegh earned fame for his bravery. He stood out from his peers because he possessed so many fine parts that continually stimulated her. They were intellectually and emotionally compatible. She was precocious and learned, sensual and artistic, and she appreciated the same qualities in him. 

They could talk about most anything under the sun, and he entertained her with his with music and poetry. 

The envious thought his voice bewitched her, and cursed his inimitable and expensive taste in fashion, which forced others to follow in his wake. He wore jewels on his shoes and introduced men copying women by wearing lace ruffs around their necks. He became envied, feared, hated, and admired for his success with the Queen.

Ralegh worshipped Elizabeth and modeled for other courtiers how to worship her. He defined the Queen as multiple goddesses, extolling her many virtues, enveloping the court in fantasies. 

This play-acting filled a need for the Queen, who never married and was denied sexual intimacy, but enjoyed male company in myriad ways. She bestowed on Ralegh riches and political offices, and appointed him Captain of the Guard, making him responsible for her personal safety. She and he relied on, and cherished, each other.

When Ralegh secretly married one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, she tossed the pair into prison. Stunned at their presumption and betrayal, the Queen deeply rued that her love was not enough for Ralegh. 

After his release, which cost him a Queen’s ransom, Ralegh remained exiled from Court though she did not deprive him of his perks and political offices. He earned his way back into her presence by performing various deeds, and again became a close advisor.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For my new book project, I move forward in time to examine the lives and art of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. These cultures extended from Southeast Alaska south through British Columbia to Washington State. 

I have particular interest in how these First Nations Peoples used their art and their stories to contend with colonialism from the arrival of British Captain James Cook in 1778 through the first half of the 20th century. 

Although they faced pressures from governments, missionaries, settlers, corporations, and other institutions and peoples to give up their ways of life and cultures, many people from around the world valued Northwest Coast art, which became a means for Natives to earn a living, and a leverage for maintaining their past, negotiating their present, and envisioning their future. 

Carved masks, woven hats, carved and painted paddles and canoes, and dozens of other kinds of sculptured items, but especially totem poles that ranged up to 100 feet in height to as small as six inches, brought international notoriety to Northwest Coast peoples. 

A significant portion of this production was stolen by the agents of institutions and finagled away by individuals who sought to possess the art for themselves. Laws also played a huge role in limiting artistic production, particularly the outlawing of the potlatch in Canada. 

Despite theft, government interference, and the demands of the market place, Native art transmitted ideas, often purposefully, to non-Natives about the nature of the universe. 

Ultimately what this project shares with my book on Ralegh is continuation of the story of how many Europeans and their descendants expected Native peoples to give up their cultures and ways of life, while others offered a counter-narrative of the value of these cultures, but in this work there will be much more emphasis on the voices of the Natives themselves, which can be heard through the art and stories that they produced and disseminated. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Ultimately, there are three things I hope readers will carry away from Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire. 

First, that what took place 450 years ago, the initial colonization at the roots of English empire-building, reveals much about the unfolding history ever since. Questions about how dominant societies integrate, exclude, borrow from and coerce minority cultures remains as relevant today as in Ralegh’s time. 

English demands that Irish alter their names, hairstyles, clothing, and culture were later placed by English upon American Natives. Even today, members of the dominant culture fear, despise, and otherwise disrespect cultures that refuse to adapt to their expectations about how to dress, speak, and act. 

Secondly, I believe it is important to listen to what people had to say about the integration of societies 450 years ago as a means to humble our alleged superiority over past peoples. We tend to condemn everything that came before as inferior, and in the case of the Europeans, as all designed to achieve self-aggrandizing ends. 

This bias distorts the past (and the present). When we ignore the activities and ideals of past peoples, we condemn ourselves to our own cynicism, distorting the issues and solutions to the very real problems that exist in our own time. 

The transcendent views of Ralegh and some of his peers regarding other cultures, their search for scientific knowledge, and contemplation of the cosmos, and their openness to new ways of thinking, should lead us to search more broadly and deeply, and especially to the past and other societies to gain fuller cognition of our universe.

This brings me to the most important issue of all, which I explore somewhat in the last 130 pages or so of the text. We totally misconstrue the European Renaissance by almost entirely refusing to engage their thought processes, methodologies, hopes, and goals. 

As we become increasingly overwhelmed by too much information in an ever-more complicated universe, where time seems to speed up uncontrollably, we would do well to contemplate how Renaissance people, mired in their own melancholy and sense of lack-of-control in their lives, sought to uncover the mysteries of the universe and to slow things down. 

They used their imagination, empiricism, and the testing of theories to understand the material universe and to come to terms with what they could see and what they could not. 

We have moved away from the use of imagination to envision the world—a characteristic that guided Ralegh, Galileo, Bruno, Newton, and others—and miss out on the universalism that shaped their weltanschauung. 

Ralegh’s envisioning bolstered his notion of fighting the “good fight” to improve society and end tyranny at home and abroad. He maintained cynicism of those ensconced in institutions, and condemned cultural, ethnic, and religious hubris, while working to end persecution. 

Ralegh never restored the Golden Age but he knew how important it was to strive to achieve one, and how we must use our imagination and resources to secure these goals.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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