Guest columnist Harvey Wasserman: Let’s say goodbye to Lord Jeffery Amherst

  • Sir Jeffery Amherst. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

  • “A Poetic Dialogue,” a silhouette sculpture by Michael Virzi, depicts poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost observing social distancing, 6 feet toe-to-toe, in their fictional conversation in Amherst’s Sweetser Park. Though the two were alive during the same time, they never actually had the chance to meet as Dickinson died in 1886, 31 years before Frost first moved to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. Todd-Bingham Picture Collection

For the Gazette
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Amidst the long-overdue furor over statues honoring Confederate generals, and military bases named for them, we are missing the man who brought racist germ warfare to North America: Lord Jeffery Amherst.

Amherst was supreme commander of Britain’s imperial forces during the French-Indian war. Why U.S. towns and counties still honor a former colonial master is itself a mystery.

But Amherst embodies a far deeper scar on the human soul.

In the summer of 1763, Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo warriors threatened to overrun Britain’s imperial outpost at Fort Pitt.

From his headquarters in Manhattan, Amherst wrote Col. Henry Bouquet on July 7 asking, “could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians?”

Bouquet was bringing reinforcements. “We must, on this occasion,” Amherst told him, “Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

Fort Pitt’s infirmary was filled with smallpox. Bouquet wrote back that he would give the tribes its contaminated blankets, “taking care however not to get the disease myself.”

Amherst was pleased. On July 16, he urged Bouquet to use contaminated items to spread the pandemic “as well as try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execreble (sic) Race.”

The tangible impacts of Amherst’s orders are not entirely clear. A land speculator named William Trent wrote in his diary that on June 24, he had given Indigenous peace emissaries two blankets and a handkerchief that had come in contact with smallpox. “I hope it will have the desired effect,” he wrote.

Historians still debate the effects of those specific blankets. But there’s no doubt a pandemic ravaged the region, killing Indigenous and whites alike.

Amherst’s orders do not represent the first conscious advocacy of germ warfare. In 1346, a Tartar army catapulted the bodies of soldiers dead from the plague into the Crimean city of Kaffa. Eastern Europe’s infamous Vlad the Impaler, the model for the fictional Count Dracula, sent subjects afflicted with tuberculosis, leprosy and syphilis into rival settlements, offering them a reward for all they infected.

There are other instances. But Lord Amherst’s written military orders stand alone. He was known for his generosity to his French rivals. But for the Indigenous, his hateful embrace of infectious genocide is a monumental abomination.

In the 1970s, while teaching history at Hampshire College, I wrote uthis up in a local weekly, and solicited a new name for the town.

One suggestion with a strong constituency was Norwottuck, honoring the area’s Indigenous inhabitants.

Another was “Emily,” for the great poet. Only one other American community has that name; it’s in Minnesota, and it’s not for her.

But a rabid fan (he attends a large annual gathering where Ms. Dickinson’s poems are lovingly read) says she would be embarrassed. The “Belle of Amherst,” he suggests, might prefer her favorite gem: Amethyst.

Whatever the final choice — any name is better than that of Lord Jeff.

As issues of official racism, violence and institutional insensitivity have taken center stage in this country, icons of the Confederacy are at last being sent to oblivion.

General Amherst must join them.

Harvey Wasserman is author of “The People’s Spiral of U.S. History: From Jigonsaseh to Solartopia... to Life After Trump,” scheduled for publication the day Donald Trump leaves office.