The Four Kings
In the early 18th century, four Native American men visited London on a diplomatic mission. They were members of the Haudenosaunee, known to us now as the Iroqouis Confederacy, which consisted of five related peoples – the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas and the Senecas. Upon their arrival in England, the men became known as the “Four Kings.”
The kings were a sensation in London. They toured the city, hob-nobbed with the elite, visited the poor and attended a performance of “Macbeth.” Although, to be fair, they ended up being the performance after a rowdy crowd demanded to see the kings while the crowd watched Macbeth – which resulted in the quartet being seated on stage with the actors.
During their audience with Queen Anne, the kings made it clear that they may stand idly by during the battle the British were having with the French (the War of the Spanish Succession). This was because Queen Anne had failed to send the fleet she promised when the Mohawks needed assistance in fighting the French. They then followed up the veiled threat with an invitation to Protestant missionaries. The kings were full of their own surprises.
BackStory caught up with Coll Thrush, a historian with the University of British Columbia, to learn more about the Four Kings. Thrush’s upcoming book, “Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire,” covers the visit the diplomats made to London and gives an interesting perspective on how early settlers decided that they were royalty. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What was life like in general for Native Americans at this time?
A: In 1710, the Haudenosaunee was probably the most important single geopolitical entity in Eastern North America. Their confederacy formed centuries before the arrival of settlers and was based on the Great Law of Peace. The law was a diplomatic, spiritual, system of managing relationships with each other and outside entities.
The Haudenosaunee’s strategy for dealing with others was “to play them off of each other.” This means they were in a powerful negotiating position because they had no qualms in making the deal most beneficial to them. In 1710, indigenous people were still in charge of the story and, according to Thrush, this made the Haudenosaunee the big force in their region of North America.The kings were Protestant converts. Did not being Catholic help or hurt them on their diplomatic mission to London?
The primary religious influence in the north was Catholicism, brought in by the French. Protestant conversion was a result of British/Dutch influence. This put them in a “middle space,” so they might not have had the most impact at home or overseas, but they certainly weren’t without power. In fact, Thrush believes their conversion to the Protestant religion allowed them some flexibility in their roles as go-betweens.
Q: The Londoners thought of them as monarchs because they couldn’t wrap their minds around the sociopolitical structure of the tribes they represented. Why was that?
A: King is not an indigenous term and they had their own terms to describe their roles. “The fact that they were seen as kings by the British is really telling. It says to me that the British saw that this is a real political entity to deal with.” There is a lot of power that came with that title.
The British didn’t really know how to make sense of who they were looking at. The men were, almost certainly, chosen by clan mothers. Most major political decisions in the Haudenosaunee were and still are today made by women. The women aren’t mentioned in the colonial records of the kings’ visit despite that the ability of the men to take on this trip was based on the decision making of the women. “Even though Queen Anne is on the throne in 1710, the idea of women really making decisions is pretty strange for the British.”
Q: The Londoners see the kings as exotic and savage. What did that really mean?
A: The visit of the Four Kings comes at a time when Europeans are figuring out what they think about the native people they are encountering. The kings embody the European idea of the noble savage – they are freer, cleaner and morally superior, yet they are also blood-thirsty, inferior heathens.
As for the exoticism, a good example of this perception lies in the portraits made of them in 1710. They were dressed in Turkish-like clothing which shows how the Europeans had folded them into this “other” category, meaning they could be anything generically foreign – Turkish, Mohawk, African or any other. However, their portraits also include their clan symbols. So, there are wolves and bears and turtles in the paintings – clues to the real identities of these people.
Q: How do you think the kings perceived London?
A: If you want to highlight your own culture to foreign visitors, “Macbeth” is probably not the way to go. There are awful, political happenings in that play that don’t place the British culture in the best light.
The kings came away with two critiques: they were confused by how the Londoners fed themselves since there were no animals and fish around and no one could hunt. The levels of income inequality also made them profoundly uneasy. They could not believe that people “were allowed to be this poor and this rich in the same society.” In short, they thought something was wrong with London.
For more on Americans and royalty, take a listen to “Watch The Throne.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist