Journey into Mohawk Country
This wonderful graphic novel is something that everyone should read, and I am just astonished that I never before had heard the name Harmen Meynderstz van den Bogaert, who was 23 years old in 1634 when, as part of a trade expedition for the Dutch West India Company, he set off with a few comrades into areas of upstate New York that white men had probably never seen. George O’Connor has taken the unexpurgated journals of Bogaert and illustrated them with endearing artwork, teasing the subtext out of them without ever altering their text. Some of what Bogaert records seems unbelievable. Some of it seems remarkable. Some of it is enigmatic and downright weird. It is invaluable, I suppose, for presenting a balanced portrait of the Mohawk and other Iroquois; O’Connor’s (mostly) unnamed Iroquois are drawn amused, exasperated, curious with, indulgent, demanding toward, aggressive, welcoming, and even affectionate toward the Dutch travelers.
What comes across is Bogaert’s confidence and mettle. Having arrived in Dutch North America at the age of 16, he is no rube just stepped off the boat. Nor is the island of Manhatas like the Puritan community at Plymouth Rock. Yet Bogaert is savvy enough to catch up with his guides after they have almost left him at the start of his journey; he keeps a strict policy about when he will and will not fire his gun (which is the constant request wherever they go); at a council of 24 elders, he convinces them that he “is not afraid”; and when someone angrily and abusively calls him a scoundrel, he throws the term right back at him (I think this incident must have lost something in the translation, as it seems more of play accusation, a posturing, than a real threat). They have also chosen possibly the coldest time of the year to make their journey, and to be quite frank, that they manage to make as much headway as they do in such freezing conditions make the travels endured by Lewis and Clark look quite luxurious. Interestingly, they want to continue their work on Christmas Day, but are impeded by the snow: no celebration for them.
Bogaert is endearing and relatable because his journey is packed with references to food and everyday annoyances such as lice. While I learned only later that Bogaert must have had casual sex along the way (as his Dutch/Iroquois dictionary contains sexual terms), his amusing encounter with Iroquois women as drawn by O’Connor brands him as innocently curious rather than salacious. We also get the scale of the “castles” (the fortified Iroquois villages consisting of longhouses and other buildings) where the majority of the Iroquois Bogaert encounters live. Bogaert and Connor both love the custom of keeping a fattened bear in the villages.
Bogaert as presented by O’Connor is a cute hero. Having just read what really happened to Bogaert, I can only say history is in the eye of the beholder. You can read more about Bogaert here: http://www.themorningnews.org/article/the-strange-case-of-harmen-meyndertsz-van-den-bogaert . Perhaps one of the reasons I had never heard of Bogaert before is because he came to such a sticky end. One of the others is, surely, because he never signed his name to his account and it was not rediscovered until 1890 and then not properly attributed to him until the early 20th century.