“What we can know with any confidence derives from the experience of the senses.”
– John Locke (1632-1704) from “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”
Imagine my delight this morning, reading online (yay, googlebooks!) about what the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) wrote in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). He argues that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. I can only imagine that this caused a stir in England at the time of its writing, but looking at this thought simply, as an artist, I think he may have been considering the perspective of the Native Americans, who were being described to him in letters from the new English colony of Carolina, by Dr. Henry Woodward. The Native Americans, who did not have the written histories that we have, had, instead, a deep understanding of the natural world in which they lived, one that depended on the rivers and forests and oceans, a dependence we are only beginning to take very seriously as Americans, now that the world\’s ice caps are melting.
A year or so ago, I received an enthusiastic email from Jim Farr, Chair of the department of Political Science of Northwestern University. He is a John Locke scholar who was writing a new paper, and he had stumbled upon my little family history web page about Henry Woodward and the native from Edisto Island, named Shadoo. He was the Native who served as the exchange when Woodward stayed onshore after the Robert Sandford Expedition from Barbados, in 1666. Apparently there is some written correspondence about two more Natives, simply called “Honest” and “Just” who visited England. Professor Farr graciously sent me a copy of a letter that my ancestor Henry Woodward wrote to John Locke, in 1675. From what I understand of John Locke, he was insatiably curious, about not only philosophy, but science, education, religion, medicine, and much else.
Excerpts from this letter are below. The Natives he found in Carolina are so attuned to the sensual world that they can tell the tides from the songs of birds. He reveals, too, that the Natives tell the story of “the deluge,” replacing the dove with a red bird, in the story we know as The Great Flood of Noah. It is an archetypal story that appears in many cultures from Gilgamesh to the Bible.
305. Dr. Henry Woodward to Locke, 12 November 1675
The letter is mentioned by Locke in his Journal, 7 June 1679 (p. 99). The writer was active as a surgeon and explorer between 1666 and 1686.
Sir, I have made the best inquiry that I can concerneing the religion and worship. Originall, and customes of our natives. especeally among the Port Royall Indians amongst whom I am best accquainted. they worship the Sun and say they have knowledge of Spirits who appeare often to them… they acknowledge the sun to bee the immedeate cause of the groth and increse of all things …every year they have severall feast and dances particularly appointed. they have some notions of the deluge, and say that two onely were saved in a cave, who after the flood found a red bird dead: the which as the pulled of his feathers between their fingers they blew them from them of which came Indians. each time a severall tribe and of a severall speech. which they severally named as they still were formed. and they say these two knew the waters to bee dried up by the singing of the said red bird. and to my knowledg let them bee in the woods at any distance from the river they can by the varying of the said birds note tell whether the water ebbeth or floweth…
Yours to command,