At Brussels in late summer 1786, the opening of the latest packet from the Habsburg minister in Philadelphia, Baron von Beelen-Bertholf, must have startled the receiver and the committee tasked with processing his reports. Contained within his February bundle was a portrait of “one of the principal chiefs of the Indians of Florida.” At this point news of Native Americans came as nothing particularly surprising to the administrators in Brussels or Vienna.
On the contrary the Habsburgs developed an avid interest in the affairs of Native Americans after 1783. Their appetite was fuelled by Beelen’s reports. In March of the previous year, Beelen already reported on the prospects of trade with the indigenous nations in March of the previous year. Merchants across the Habsburg Monarchy, it seems, were clamouring for cheaper furs and spices which, Vienna hoped, the Native Americans might be able supply.
The only difficulty lay in knowing how to trade with the Native American nations and what sort of legal framework any such commercial activity needed to operate within. Could the Habsburg merchants function without a treaty? Could American trader be entrusted with their affairs? What did the attitude of the new United States spell for the future of Native Americans?
These were all questions which the authorities in Vienna, the Austrian Netherlands, and Beelen in Philadelphia were greatly concerned about. At one point, following his orders, Beelen met with representatives of the Oneida people in New York to discover some answers. This meeting between representatives of two nations, the Habsburgs and the Oneida, was the first such encounter and provided the impulse behind his starling shipment back to Brussels.
Beelen used the portrait to extrapolate to his superiors how other “middle Indians” dressed and pointed out “their chiefs, however, appear with great pomp when it comes to negotiations or peace, or for territorial assignments and conventions.” These lessons, Beelen remarked “would flatter me if they are worthy of attention.”
At the same time other interpretive images of Native Americans filtered into Habsburg lands and minds, especially those which portrayed them in the trope of the ‘noble savage’ meme. Voltaire’s famous work Alzire ou les Américans frequently featured in theatres at Prague and Vienna but its influence extended further thanks to the translation into Hungarian as Alzir vagy az amerikánusok by the poet and writer József Péczeli.
A similar translation helped reinforce György Bessenyei’s Der Amerikaner which labelled Native Americans as “Children of Nature,” in Ferenc Kazinczy’s Hungarian version entitled Az Amerikai Podocz és Kazimir keresztyén vallásra való megtérése (The Conversion of the Americans Podocz and Casimir to Christianity). Throughout the 1780s, I argue, the cultural trope of Native Americans as a proud and noble people was embedded deeply within Habsburg preconceptions of the New World.
I also argue the purpose of exploring this Habsburg understanding of Native American power and sovereignty is important when we consider the contrasts they drew with the governance of the United States and moreover the development of the new republic as a sovereign entity in the mid-to-late 1780s.
In this light, Beelen’s reports sharply conveyed the disparate states between the nations of the United States and Native Americans; the US was weak and the indigenous groups were strong. In the exact same report as Mico-Chlucco portrait featured, it described the latest President-elect of Congress, John Hancock, “in such a tottering state of health that it is doubtful whether and when he will be able to go to New York” to take up his position.
The same report also noted how Franklin had also “not yet reached the Congress and is in his eighty-first year of age.” Thus leaders of Native American nations appeared as strong rulers who followed similar, although exotic, forms of custom, dress and ceremony and functioned as “equivalent to our title of emperor” or as “fathers of guardians,” whereas the leaders of the new republic seemed aged, exhausted by war and in a state of disarray following the conclusion of the War of Independence.
Although this work comes out of my research into wider US-Habsburg relations in the eighteenth century, I would like to expand this angle into a more nuanced piece of work which focuses solely on how the Habsburg views of Native Americans and treaty making between them and the new United States influenced the international standing of the Early Republic — following much in the way of Eliga Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth and similar historical works.
At this stage I am looking to expand my methodology and scope in order to be able to fully reconstruct this fascinating cultural and geopolitical dimension of Early Modern European and American history.