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Tomahawks and Scalping Knives: Manufacturing Savagery with British Steel

Richardson, Robbie (2020) Tomahawks and Scalping Knives: Manufacturing Savagery with British Steel. In: Dyer, Serena and Smith, Chloe Wigston, eds. Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers. Material Culture of Art and Design . Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-5013-4961-4. (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:71291)

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A key component of British diplomacy with North American Indigenous nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the exchange of gifts in the form of various commodities, and these European-made commodities were also fundamental to the lucrative “Indian trade” in furs. Perhaps the most important, or at least the most plentiful, of these objects were British-made steel hatchets and knives, produced predominantly in Sheffield and Birmingham and shipped in vast quantities to North America. British steel was one of most successful and innovative industries of eighteenth-century Britain, which produced everything from utilitarian to luxury goods. But in the hands of “Indians,” these economically and politically important items became “tomahawks” and “scalping knives,” objects that represented the terrifying opposite of Europe standards of civility and conduct in warfare. They were shorthand for indiscriminate savagery in the British imagination, as seen particularly in press accounts of colonial warfare beginning in the 1750s, despite their origin in the forges of Europe. Both Burke and Pitt denounced them in Parliament as representing the cruelty of Indians allied with British forces during the American Revolution, and condemned “mixing the scalping-knife and tomahawk with the sword and firelock.” This paper will look at the history and craft of the British manufacture of steel products, which in the case of Sheffield goes back roughly 1000 years, and the ways in which these objects became reinscribed as savage icons in British eyes over the course of the eighteenth century. Museum visitors saw tomahawks and scalping knives brought back to Britain and placed beside other examples of primitive or savage material culture, and thus their origin as trade objects became decontextualised and effaced. The “Indians” who visited London and other parts of Britain were seen as more dangerous and exotic by their accoutrements and weaponry, as in Francis Parson’s 1762 portrait of Cherokee leader Cunne Shote, firmly and menacingly grasping his steel scalping knife (and wearing other transcultural trade objects that paradoxically mark his otherness). Yet by the final quarter of the century, tomahawks and scalping knives found their way into the private collections of both antiquarians and soldiers returning from the colonies, as privileged souvenirs documenting the fierce masculinity of Indian warriors. Collectors appropriated this savage nobility by owning these weapons and even having themselves depicted in Indian garb, re-writing the products of British modernity and commerce into primitive artifacts meant to counteract the corruptive effects of fashion. Chris Evans and Alun Whitney describe British steel products of the eighteenth century as “enlightened goods,” but by studying their fraught circulation this paper will reveal their role in the production of the savage other.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: D History General and Old World
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
P Language and Literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Robbie Richardson
Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2018 14:03 UTC
Last Modified: 11 Oct 2022 09:56 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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