This past Thanksgiving week, American news broadcasts and journals reported the death of missionary John Chau on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. It appears that Chau had gone to the remote site in hopes of bringing the Bible to one of the last isolated groups left in the world. Previous efforts to make contact with the Sentinelese had resulted in violence, as they attempted to protect their island from intrusion.
This is not the first Thanksgiving disturbed by sensationalist reports from overseas. Nor is it the first Thanksgiving in which media reports fostered the conceit that the world is a dangerous place for “innocent” Yankees who only seek “peaceful” purposes among “backward” peoples. On 28 November1805, Thanksgiving Day in the home port of Salem, Massachusetts, Capt. John Carlton anchored the Putnamoff Rhio, a modest port on Bintan Island, off the pepper-rich island of Sumatra. Although the local Malay population had acted suspiciously, Carlton had decided to leave ship anyway to conduct business ashore. With their commander away, the crew unwisely disregarded his orders and allowed a proa(canoe) to close with the ship and permitted half a dozen Malay men aboard to trade pepper. By the time Carlton returned, he found half of his crew killed or wounded and his ship vanished. The Putnamwas never heard of again.
In the years when Americans were forming a national character and embarking onto a global stage, their newspapers erupted with bursts of sensationalist reports similar to these. The accounts of atrocities overseas came with frequency and were often painted in such gruesome detail—headless corpses, mutilated bodies, entire ships and crews vanished. The raw power and thrust of early America’s acquaintance with the world contributed to a sense that the world was filled with dangers that threatened American lives, property, and values. Consequently, a sense of dread covered every voyage that would carry merchants, mariners, adventurers, and missionaries “round the world.” When missionaries Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons sailed to the Ottoman Empire about Thanksgiving 1819 to preach to the Muslim population there, they expected to be martyred for their cause.
Much is missing in these stories of innocents abroad in a dangerous world that would dramatically alter the narrative. Readers would never learn what actions might have led to the assault on the Putnam. They would learn nothing of prior contacts between the crew and the indigenous Malays. They would learn nothing of trade practices, local customs, or taboos, and whether these had been honored or breeched. Nor would they learn the history of the pepper trade, in which both sides had practiced a cordial form of commerce underscored by mutual respect. Consequently, a steady stream of sensationalist, partial accounts contributed to a sense of the wider world as dangerous—and one that must be subdued.
More about the loss of the Putnam can be found in my forthcoming book, Eastward of Good Hope.
“North Sentinel Island tribespeople believed to have killed trespassing US 'missionary,'” CNN, 22 November 2018 https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/21/asia/andaman-nicobar-us-missionary-killed-intl/index.html;"‘God, I Don't Want to Die.' Journal Reveals the Final Days of an American Missionary Killed By An Isolated Tribe,” Time, 23 November 2018, http://time.com/5462286/american-missionary-killed-tribe-journal/.
Salem Gazette, 4 July 1806; Phillips, Pepper and Pirates, 31-38; Ardiff 127–130. In locales such as Salem, the lesson had particularly powerful resonance because these events involved family names long associated with the area: the Putnams (of the witch trials infamy), Carltons, Browns, and Petits had inhabited Essex County since the seventeenth century.
For more perspective on missionaries such as Fisk, Parsons, and Chau, see Christine Leigh Heyrman,American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam(New York: Hill and Wang, 2015).