Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson(1682) prescribes an overdose of sorrow, disillusionment and hypocrisy to the unsuspecting reader. Ripe with examples of unquestionable misery and heartache, Rowlandson’s recount successfully aids an American narrative that has been subtly (and not-so-subtly) propagandized for hundreds of years. By elevating tragic, white-authored colonial encounters, the image of indigenous savagery is maintained and with it spreads the toxicity of imperialism and systemic racism.
This is not to say that Rowlandson’s depiction of the colonial encounter isn’t valid or worth the empathy it so easily conjures up for readers. The problem is not that Mary Rowlandson wrote about her captivity. The problem, rather, is that she—and society as a whole—deemed the context of her captivity unimportant. It did not matter that her dreadful experience was a result of a last-ditch effort by the Native Americans to cease a genocide caused by people like her. Nor did it matter that her captors did what many U.S. citizens proudly claim they would do should an invasion happen today. All that mattered was that a white woman was hurt by a group of non-white people, and that there was seemingly no viable reason for it other than inherent brutality.
Such is the case with many colonial encounter narratives. Like Rowlandson, when Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition to America went wrong, he too painted himself to be an innocent victim. Despite being saved by the very people whose land he set out to invade, his narrative focuses on the savagery of his “melancholy and wretched captivity” (49). The intentional omission of colonist wrongdoing makes it easy for white America to disproportionately distribute empathy and judgement when reading such narratives. This imbalance allows for the subjectivity of innocence to continue polarizing until it becomes nearly impossible for some to see the truth. As a result, those in positions of power see bursts of violence from minorities as unjust or unnecessary while those carrying the weight of oppression see them as battle cries for equality and freedom; a phenomenon that still exists today.