Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Overlooked Lessons of the Tower of Babel as seen in Colonial Times

"Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.' Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth."
- (Genesis 11:1-9)

     Whether a believer of the Christian faith or not, one cannot help but notice that the story of the Tower of Babel illustrates one thing: difference drastically affects, if not utterly destroys, unity. In this story, God’s punishment for mankind’s impudence is the infliction of conflict. Disunity is indeed a terrible thing to be punished with. As the old adage goes, “United we stand, divided we fall,” and many a conqueror throughout history had exploited this adage (especially the Romans). This weakness caused by discord is perfectly exemplified by the different peoples who had inhabited the land we now call the United States of America during the period before the Declaration of Independence.

     The peoples that Columbus encountered upon “discovering” America, the peoples he wrongly presumed to be “Indians,” were not one people that can be labeled as a single group. They were all hunters and gatherers, and they were all descended from ancestors who walked from Asia to this continent through a now-submerged land bridge. However, they had different cultures and numerous languages (Foner 7-8). They belonged to different tribes: Arawak, Powhatan, Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Iroquois, Comanche, Algonquin, Creeks, Delaware, Stockbridge, etc. The list goes on and on for there were hundreds of tribes that were living in America when the Europeans arrived (Comanche Lodge). They fought with each other occasionally and were actually enthusiastic to make alliances with the Europeans in hopes that this friendship would give them leverage over their rival tribes (Foner 65).

     The same pride in their heritage can be observed in the Africans who were brought to America against their will to become slaves. These poor souls had diverse languages, ethnicities, and religions back in their homelands. They came from western and west central Africa, in the territories that are now Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, and Angola, and they identified themselves as Ibo, Ashanti, Yoruba, and so on, not as “Africans” (Foner 120). Initially, the enslaved Africans steadfastly clung to their identities as Mandinka, Mende, Igbo, Kongo, and tried to establish relationships with the other slaves of their cultural and linguist group (Encarta Online Encyclopedia).

     Europeans had even sharper divisions than the Native Americans and Africans. They were also of different nationalities with different languages: Spanish, French, British, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Italians, Scottish, etc. Moreover, they were also divided by the very “civilization” that they attributed to their supremacy over the Indians and the slaves. The by-products of civilization such as hierarchy and religion proved to exacerbate their division. The different countries claimed different parts of America as their territories, and fights between the British and Spanish or British and French were always on the horizon (no doubt an effect of religious intolerance inherited from their respective mother countries). There were the aristocrats or landed gentry, the “persons of mean and vile conditions” (Zinn 39), and the servants and slaves. There were Protestants, Catholics, Puritans, and Quakers. Arguments were not uncommon, and groups would establish new colonies in order to maintain peace or to have the ability to live as their conscience dictates.

     Clearly, the early colonial times was an era rife for discord, and, combined with diseases and hunger, made for a very unstable society. Only one thing was certain: the Europeans must rule, and to do this, they tyrannized over the Native Americans and the Africans. Over time, however, the Indians discovered the strength of being united as was seen in the Iroquois nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas who formed the Great League of the Peace and created a period of stability in the Southeast (Foner 20) and the Pueblo Indians who banded together and was able to oust the Spaniards, the only complete victory of the Native Americans over the Europeans (Foner 72). Neolin, a Delaware religious prophet, proposed pan-Indian identity. He preached that:

     “All Indians were a single people and only through
     cooperation could they regain their lost independence.”

He further stressed that Indians should stop being dependent on European technology, that they should stop all economic ties with the whites and their dependence on alcohol, that they should wear their traditional attire again, and that they should drive the British out of their lands. Consequently, the Indians started uprisings such as Pontiac’s Rebellion against their oppressors. (Foner 144)

     The Africans also started establishing an African-American identity. In South Carolina, slaves slowly attained a unified identity. They created a language called Gullah, a mixture of all the African languages that was quite unintelligible to their masters. They started creating a community, passing on their cultural beliefs and their religions. After a while, their newfound community, their experience of slavery, and their desire for freedom led to revolts such as the 1712 slave uprising in New York and the Stono Rebellion (Foner 122-123).

     Furthermore, the people of depressing conditions formed camaraderie amongst themselves. White indentured servants, subjected to degradation from their masters as well, bonded with the African slaves, and sometimes they ran away together (Foner 52). The Indians and the blacks became friendly with each other, too. Seminole Indians would provide sanctuary to slaves who tried to escape (Foner 279). (These alliances also created a new class of Americans: the mulattoes.)

     Needless to say, the Europeans were not too pleased with the unity of the savages and of the slaves. The revolts disrupted their everyday lives and threatened their prosperous existence. The escape of their servants and/or slaves, in their eyes, was in the same spirit of property theft. And so, along with increased cruelties, they strived to reinstate strife once again and regain control.

     Indian tribes were pitted against each other. For example, the British supported the Iroquois over their rivals. The French befriended some tribes to help them with their fight against the British (Foner 141), just as the British enlisted Indian help against the French and Spanish (Foner 100). As the governor of South Carolina, Robert Smith, wrote to the Board of Trade of Great Britain:

     “…it is always the maxim of our Government upon the
     Continent to promote War between Indians of different
     Nations with whom we trade and are at peace with our-
     selves for in that consists our safety being at War with
     one another prevents their uniting against us….”

The idea of pan-Indian alliance was threatened once again.

     On the other hand, the Europeans sought to divide the Africans by imposing restrictions (such as separate slave quarters to prevent any chance of organizing riots or revolts) and establishing a sort of caste system. Explains Kenneth Morgan:

     “…The lack of homogeneity among the saltwater slaves
     and the residence of slaveowners on their plantations –
     permanent absentee ownership was rare – caused divi-
     sions among the black workforce and subjected slaves
     to the constant gaze of white personnel with power.”

They also trained Africans in valuable skilled work, which in turn classified slaves by their skills. Also, through this, some slaves (the most skilled ones) were set apart from the others and were able to improve their lifestyle a bit. It was quite ingenious since by relaxing their tyranny a bit, the Europeans were able to give a little taste of freedom with which skilled slaves can content themselves with, so the need to demand for complete liberty was alleviated. (Morgan 137)

     The division of people according to their race was then put into place. The concept of white supremacy was increasingly stressed (Foner 50) to the lower classes of European descent to stop them from befriending the slaves and the Indians. Indian tribes who provided refuge to escaped slaves were attacked to instill fear among the protectors. Because of these actions, the promise of interracial cooperation among people of “mean” situation was stunted.

     The cleverness of the Europeans proved to be successful. Although the Native Americans and the African slaves never went back to a completely divided kind of existence, the fracture was there nonetheless and stayed. And so, the Europeans continued to enjoy their superiority in colonial America. The landed gentry enjoyed the profits of their land, which was cultivated by the servants and, eventually, the slaves. They enjoyed the privileges of money and endeavored to retain their British-ness. They employed themselves the way people of the fashionable society of England did: by cultivating refined English tastes in clothing, literature, etiquette, residential architecture, and education (Foner 105). In short, they were the living definition of English liberty until it was threatened by the economic demands of the king. England, tottering on the edge of economic crisis, imposed numerous taxes on the colonies, undermined the prestige and self-importance of the colonies’ elite, and threatened freedom, which was defined by personal independence that is based on ownership property.

     During this time, the elite were just a very small percentage of the population. Their money alone cannot protect them from the king of England nor defeat the world’s most powerful military. And so, unity was sought. With eloquent words, the privileged leaders such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry evoked powerful patriotic sentimentalities and convinced the merchants and the lower members of society that it would be beneficial to all colonists if America were to declare independence. For the first time, as Patrick Henry declared (Foner 162):

     “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians,
     New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am
     not a Virginian, but an American.”

They even went further than simply just uniting as Americans; they also allied themselves with the old nemeses: France and Spain.

     At this point, it would be very agreeable to end this narration of events by proclaiming, “Indeed, man has learned the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel and the peoples of America rose victorious. Resplendent in their newfound harmony, they established a nation reminiscent of Shangri-la.” But to do so would be a bold-faced fabrication; in fact, the history books positively forbid such a statement. Again, in the path to attain freedom, disagreements abounded. The Indians, sometimes of the same tribe, had divided allegiance between the Americans and the British (Foner 195). Established families of the colonies either embraced the idea of American independence or split into Loyalists (pro-British) or patriots (pro-independence) factions (Foner 182). Nevertheless, whatever the differences rampant during colonial times and during the time of the Revolution, America did win her Independence.

     In our current time, we proudly declare and embrace and even draw strength from the diversity of America. How much we have actually learned from history remains to be seen. Too many wounds are still fresh in our memories that it is still not entirely true to say that we have gotten past our prejudices and are no longer in danger of allowing differences in cultures and beliefs affect our interaction with each other. I feel however, that, the lessons of dissension and harmony are not lost on us. We remember and recognize the effects of underappreciated diversity among our ancestors, and recognition is always the first step in solving problems.


"The Holy Bible: New International Version" The International Bible Society. 1984.
Zondervan Publishing House.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Seagull Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 2005

“Native American Nations.” American Indian Tribes. Comanche Lodge.
14 Mar. 2009.

“African American History: Slave Trade," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008. © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 14 Mar. 2009.

“Life in Colonial America: Enslaved Africans," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 14 Mar. 2009.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (1492 – Present). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

“Letter from Robert Johnson to the Board of Trade of Great Britain (Extract).” Documenting The American South. 17 Dec 2008. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
14 Mar. 2009.

Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. United States: Oxford University Press, 2007