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White Savage: William Johnson and the invention of America by Fintan O'Toole

Don Giovanni goes to the New World

In the New World from 1738, Johnson made his power base in the Mohawk Valley in New York State where in time he became a landowner on a scale to dwarf the acreage even of the richest England-based magnates. The key to his meteoric rise was the rapport he established with the Mohawks and, through them, the other Iroquois tribes. Made blood-brother through his influence with the Indians, Johnson became in effect the arbiter of imperial destiny in North America, for the Iroquois would not deal with any other white man, and even the western Indians of Ohio regarded him as the proper transmission belt for all their negotiations with British viceroys, governors and commanders-in-chief.

Among the many virtues of Fintan O'Toole's book is the surefooted way he guides the reader through the labyrinthine maze of power politics in New York state and Canada (New France) in the years 1740-65. Johnson's quasi-imperial status made him many enemies, among them the British commanders-in-chief Governor William Shirley and Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who tried to curb his power and influence. Johnson simply appealed above their heads to London and always won the power struggle, since the authorities in England regarded Johnson as indispensable. Johnson's only problem was that he was too successful. When the British decisively defeated the French in 1760 and won North America, the importance of the Iroquois, and with them of Johnson too, dramatically declined. The French generals like Montcalm who had warned the Iroquois that, if France was defeated, the British would turn on the Native Americans, proved to be true prophets.

Johnson's importance in the politics of 18th-century North America has long been recognised by historians, and O'Toole gives the political narrative due weight. Yet what really interests him is a threefold analysis of Johnson as "the man between", the "white Mohawk", and the harbinger of a sexual Eden. O'Toole sees Johnson, straddled between a Jacobite ancestry and a Hanoverian career structure, as the perfect man to negotiate the ambiguities of a Franco-British frontier in New York state, Canada and the Ohio country, and an emblematic figure in the "invention" of the identity of the Irish-American, that species of hyphenated American that was to loom so large after the immigration of the 19th century. Beyond that he views him as the pioneer in a long tradition of British imperial servants who "went native". The so-called "White Savage" had a profound impact on the culture and literature of the British Empire. In history we see Johnson's influence in the shape of Rajah Brooke in the Far East, of Sir Richard Burton in India and Arabia and, most obviously, in the form of Lawrence of Arabia. In literature the shadow of Johnson looms over Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo (who features in The Last of the Mohicans and other novels) and Strickland in Rudyard Kipling's Kim - to say nothing of the two desperado heroes in The Man Who Would be King. Robert Louis Stevenson, too, was fascinated by the interplay between Scots, Irish, Jacobites and Indians, and it is not surprising to find Johnson featuring in The Master of Ballantrae.

In short, it is the mythic Johnson rather than the historical character that most interests O'Toole, and his story works best when history and myth fuse, as they do in the case of Johnson's sexuality. A polygamist on an Oriental scale, Johnson openly boasted of his seraglio of Iroquois women - which the Native American culture permitted - and ran his principal Iroquois mistress Molly Brant in tandem with his German lover Catherine Weisenberg, even while he conducted several minor dalliances on the side. His informal harem did not prevent him from aspiring to marriage with a French beauty named Angelique Cuillerier, and it was perhaps fortunate for him and the harmony of his household that this ambition was unsuccessful; the feuds and intrigues among his women, already at snapping point, would have made the high politics of the struggle for North America seem a bagatelle by comparison. As a libertine, dedicated to "free love" without restraint, Johnson tapped into a long tradition of famous lubricious polygamy that runs from Solomon and Sheba through the Bounty mutineers to the many "wives" of Pancho Villa.

The real complexity of O'Toole's book is that he attempts a difficult dialectic between myth and history, with Johnson simultaneously functioning as historically based power broker and a creature of legend - with implications for imperial imagery and ideology on the one hand and generalised notions of sexual liberation on the other. It is a tribute to the author's abilities that for the most part he successfully pulls off this ambitious synthesis.