In his paper, “Released From Thraldom By The Stroke Of War: Coercion and Warfare In Native Politics of Seventeenth-Century Southern New England” (Northeast Anthropology, No. 55 Spring 1998), Eric S. Johnson examines the nature of coercion and the use of force among native American tribes, and how the character of their use began to change in a post-contact world. In essence, both were political strategies whereby force, or the threat of force, was used to establish dominance or to free a group from the dominance of another.

Johnson states that, while warfare was certainly serious and people were surely killed, it was more restrained in scope and lethality compared to what war had come to mean in Europe, and would later come to mean in the New World as well. The successful prosecution of war was dependent on group consensus and cohesion – whether that group is a small community, or a confederacy of allied communities. Conflict was common in retaliation for insult or murder, to achieve political autonomy, or to establish domination. Most often, the tactical goal of warfare was not the taking of lives, but the destruction and/or looting of property. Certainly technology played some part in determining the character of conflict, but strong inter-community kinship also acted to dampen hostilities when they arose.

The picture of the use of force which Johnson puts forth is very much in line with Frederick Bastiat’s “The Law.” Law is the collection by a group of the individual rights of its members to use force to protect their lives, their liberty, and their property. The character of how that force manifests itself, at least in pre-colonial North America, seems to be driven by the structure of a society – how diverse one group is compared to another, and how strong ties of blood and culture are between them. As an extension of that, reading this paper made me think of Shaka Zulu. Warfare in southern Africa was much the same as that in Southern New England – at least until Shaka came along. Why did pre-contact warfare in Africa become so bloody while that of New England did not? I’d have to say that (and this is just a guess), tribes in southern Africa did not inter-marry as much as those in New England. Less blood ties meant less to loose from conflict, and more likelihood that the conflict would grow out of control before a peace could be reached.

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