Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a highly decorated military man and an advocate of biological warfare against Indigenous people
Extracted from Jordan Gill · CBC News · Posted: Apr 29, 2017
As an initiative to change the name of Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site on Prince Edwards Island in Canada. is being debated, a researcher weighs in on the history of Jeffery Amherst.
Mi’kmaq elders and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. have raised questions about the honouring of Amherst, by naming sites after him — arguing he was not only an enemy of Indigenous people, but worse.
To say Amherst was a decorated military man would be an understatement. He was a Field Marshal in the British Army. He served during the Seven Years’ War in New France or modern day Nova Scotia. He also held the offices of Governor of Quebec as well as Crown Governor of Virginia and was named a Lord.
But scholars have long debated Amherst’s actions during his service, including allegations he advocated the use of biological warfare, through smallpox blankets, to kill Indigenous peoples.
‘Go find the letters’
Peter d’Errico, a professor emeritus of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, said there was no consensus on the allegations.
“For as many rumours saying that, there were counters saying that ‘No, no, that’s just myth,'” said d’Errico.
But d’Errico’s interest was piqued and, with encouragement from Sioux actor and musician Floyd Westerman, he set out to find the answer.
“He said, ‘Go find the letters, if there were any letters between Amherst or anybody about smallpox,'” said d’Errico.
‘Inoculate the Indians’
d’Errico did find evidence of a plot to infect Indigenous people.
The first letter was from a Swiss mercenary named Henry Bouquet who suggested giving out smallpox infected blankets to, “inoculate the Indians.”
And d’Errico found a letter indicating Amherst was keen on the idea.
There was… “one letter from Amherst himself to Bouquet saying…
‘This is a good idea to spread smallpox – just be careful you don’t get it yourself,’”
The text of Amherst’s letter reads…
“You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
…wrote Amherst in a 1763 letter.
d’Errico wrote in his study of Amherst that “None of these other letters show a deranged mind or an obsession with cruelty.” Amherst’s “venom” was only directed at Indigenous peoples, he added.
Blogger’s Summary: it seems unlikely that inoculating blankets ever happened or that it would have spread the disease if it had. Some of us believe that Lord Jeff should not be considered culpable because; 1) he didn’t actively engage in biological warfare himself and 2) he was not the only European who endorsed this idea. On the other hand it is on record (in his letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet) that Amherst thought it was a “good idea to spread smallpox” to what he called “this execrable race.”
So I ask again “is it time to disown Lord Jeffrey Amherst? ” And what would that mean? For example, does the name “Amherst Leisure Services” or “Amherst Chamber of Commerce” honor Lord Jeffrey Amherst, or just designate the town where these activities take place?
There have been attempts from time to time to change the name of the town. Here is a petition that may be of interest. Of course, the name “Amherst” means much more today than simply an honoring of Lord Jeff. Changing the name of the town might be a “heavy lift” but perhaps local organizations should have this conversation as a way of bringing attention to local history.
For organizations that have made a commitment to reparations, perhaps a name change would be one action among many that should be considered as a part of reparations? Native American reparations may range from the restoration of stolen land and full sovereignty to “having the true story of colonization by Europeans being told“. At the very least, reparations should include awareness of the history of the enslavement of both Native and African Americans in New England as well as actual or proposed genocide.
Here’s a thought…
…offered by The Reverend Rachael Hayes on October 10, 2021 to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst.
I wonder if it is time the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, a community committed to “…journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions” to disown Lord Amherst.” What do you think?
Note: although the blogger serves on the Board of Trustees of he UUSA, this post does not necessarily represent the views of the Board, the minister, or the members of congregation of the UUSA.