Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacan, Roanoke, and Jamestown • Seth Mallios • Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006 • xiv, 150 pp. • $44.75 cloth; $21.50 paper
Reviewed by James Taylor Carson, associate professor of history at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Searching for the Bright Past: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (1999).
In The Deadly Politics of Giving, anthropologist Seth Mallios compares and contrasts encounters between Algonquians and Europeans at three early outposts of European colonization: a 1570 Spanish Jesuit mission on Chesapeake Bay, the 1580s English settlements on Roanoke Island, and the 1607 Jamestown colony. Mallios is most interested in the exchange patterns that characterized the early days of each colonial enterprise and the relationship between such exchanges and colonial violence. In the end Mallios finds a common pattern in which colonists initially accept the gift-giving parameters of native diplomacy, but over time they fail to appreciate the moral power of such relationships. As the invaders attempted to shift the nature of exchange from gift-giving to trade, they antagonized their partners and gave rise to any number of retaliatory and punitive actions.
Mallios draws on the work of anthropologist Marcel Mauss to inform his study of gift and commodity exchange. Gift-giving entails reciprocal behavior on the part of the recipient and creates a way to mediate intercultural relations in ways that involve personal prestige, respect, and honor far more than any kind of profit calculation. Commodity exchange, however, is rooted in private ownership of property and premised on acquisition of goods rather than prestige. Although the two types of exchange are not mutually exclusive, Mallios uses them to distinguish between the colonies early uncertain days and later times when the colonists lacked the desire and willingness to perpetuate the gift-giving cycle.
Although it is clear that Algonquian peoples practiced gift-giving as described by Mallios, the depth of the Europeans' commitment to commodity exchange is less clear. Rather than argue that Europeans preferred commodity exchange, Mallios assumes that, as capitalists, it came much more naturally to them than did gift exchange. But though the settlers were clearly interested in locating mineral wealth, their exchange relationships with the Algonquians they encountered revolved around the acquisition of food and political or military support. Indeed, given the vast historiographical debate about the beginnings of capitalism in the Americas and the late medieval culture of the colonists, it is reasonable to question the degree to which a commodity exchange model is applicable to the three contact situations that the author explores. In any event, the clarity of the gift/commodity exchange model in theory is less clear in practice.
Although readers may quibble with the utility of Mallios's typologies and models, his interpretation of early contact encounters in light of gift exchange explicates how and when things went wrong in each of the colonial examples. The Jesuits at Acajan, for example, failed to reciprocate with those who fed them and instead rewarded their neighbors' enemies with gifts. Such behavior left their supporters with little choice but to cut them loose before eventually deciding to kill them. Likewise, the English in Jamestown failed to pay enough attention to the Powhatans while courting their rivals. Punitive attacks left the English chastised and shaken.
The comparative approach of The Deadly Politics of Giving is the book's greatest strength. Clearly the Algonquians involved in each encounter had learned from prior events and behaved accordingly. As well, over time the English learned how better to achieve their imperial goals through manipulation of gift exchanges. The time and attention the author devotes to modeling and classifying such exchange patterns intrudes on the narrative, but Mallios provides an insightful and detailed look at the how the Algonquians set the tone for colonial encounters and why the invaders sought first to accommodate and then to repudiate them as their own needs changed.