Anticipations and aerostatic warfare

From Napoleon’s invasion of Great Britain to the global conflict of the year 1937. A new future-wars series – 1 / 3

It is 1803, on the English coast in front of the Channel, crowds of people are beginning to gather. Looking up, someone points to the silhouette of a large flying object in the distance. New dark dots appear on the horizon as the first one approaches. With horror, the spectators gradually make out a gigantic balloon with a mushroom-like profile. In the huge gondola fixed under the balloon there are dozens, hundreds of men, even horses. The high-altitude wind stirs the French tricolour: Napoleon’s armies have come to invade England, carried by the largest balloons ever built by human hands.

Argaud de Barges, La Thiloriere ou Déscente en Angleterre, “Projet d’une Montgolfiere capable d’enlever 3,000 Hommes et qui ne coutera que 300,000 Francs on y suspendra une lampe qui présentera une nappe de flamme suffisante pour empêcher le refroidissement. Extrait du Publiciste du Jeudi 13 Prairial de l’An XI”, Paris, Chez Boulard, 1803, detail. Copy at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, via Gallica. Work in the public domain, no restrictions on the use of reproduction in scientific publications.

We look away and find ourselves safe and sound at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where we are admiring an etching by Jean Louis Argaud de Barges (1768-1808),[1] printed in the Prairial month of year XI of the French Republic (June 1803) (Figure above).[2]

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Archiving American diversity

Remarks concluding the smallpox series

The last post in the Smallpox series. Read other posts in the series at this link.

Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis also included the observation and recording of material remains and accounts of those Indigenous nations that could be considered rare or extinct.[1] The task of systematically collecting information on aspects of the physiology, culture, organisation, religion, social, political and medical practices of the groups encountered, illustrated by Jefferson in his instructions, was at the crossroads of multiple time perspectives and multiple purposes. Subject of many historiographical debates, Jefferson’s complex relationship with indigenous people was distinguished by the presence of different and contradictory attitudes in successive moments, between philanthropy, assimilation and removal.[2] Within this path, the very horizon of the Louisiana Purchase has been identified as a turning point in the submission of previous idealistic instances to an idea of removal informed by pragmatic needs, functional to the expansion of the republic.[3]

The compilation of vocabularies of indigenous languages , which correspondents and administrators were asked to collect according to a pre-established form, made the lexicographic and grammatical fact a linguistic pendant of the construction of a Euro-American identity in response to the buffoonish denigrations of the “New World”, which on the one hand also passed through the appropriation and mythographic transposition of indigenous cultures and on the other used the linguistic element as a function of racial hierarchy.[4]

The creation of an archive of knowledge about the past and present of indigenous nations was intended to benefit future memory and studies.[5] Tomorrow’s scientific curiosity would have been able to ascertain the origin of these peoples if sufficient samples were collected to allow comparative analysis.[6]

I have long believed we can never get any information of the ancient history of the Indians, of their descent and filiation, but from a knowledge and comparative view of their languages:[7]

for the study of peoples who do not have alphabetical writing systems and systems of documentation of the past similar to the European one, the recording of oral language production became an essential tool also for the reconstruction of genealogical relationships between groups.

This projection forward in time derived from a clear awareness of the demographic decimation to which many groups had already been subjected, as well as from a process of absorption into Euro-American civilisation seen as ineluctable.[8] Moreover, the very proto-ethnographic curiosity and the desire to compose a picture of the forms and hierarchies of socio-political organisation were clearly functional to this process, “as it may better enable those who may endeavour to civilise and instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions and practices of those on whom they are to operate”.[9] The expedition commanders adopted this perspective, both by comparing different groups along an ideal civilisation scale, and by referring to the completion of that process.[10] The urgent need to document American socio-cultural and linguistic variety takes shape within a scenario in which the possible extinction of real-life speakers could otherwise jeopardise knowledge forever:

It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish […] it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race. [11]

The study itself was reserved for posterity, so that this function of the archive was configured as a scientific practice constitutively halfway between the past of which it intended to collect traces and a future time in which the progress of studies would have brought this systematisation of knowledge to the fulfilment of its raison d’être. A movement of temporal hierarchization was therefore present in a double direction: aimed at the reconstruction of an already unattainable past – surrogate for unavailable historical evidence, and programmatic – projecting its documentation projects into the future.


[1] T. Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, in [Lewis and Clark], History of the expedition, I, pp. vii-xxiii, cit. xvi and xvii.

[2] Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction; Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians; P. S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia 2000, pp. 28-37.

[3] C. B. Keller, Philanthropy Betrayed: Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Origins of Federal Indian Removal Policy, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, 1, 2000, pp. 39-66, especially pp. 41-42, 58-59.

[4] S. P. Harvey, “Must not their languages be savage and barbarous like them?” Philology, Indian removal, and race science, Journal of the Early Republic, 30, 4, 2010, pp. 505-532;.

[5] G. M. Sayre, Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and Archive, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by F. Shuffelton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2009, pp. 61-72.

[6] Harvey, “Must not their languages”.

[7] Jefferson to Hawkins, Philadelphia, March 14, 1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. by H. A. Washington, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011, pp. 325-327, cit. 326.

[8] Possible examples from the expedition period include Jefferson’s words about the Cherokee in the 1970s: ‘The chastisement they then received closed the history of their wars, and prepared them for receiving the elements of civilisation, which, zealously inculcated by the present government of the United States, have rendered them an industrious, peaceable, and happy people’, Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, viii.

[9] Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, xv.

[10] E.g. ‘This chief possesses more firmness, intelligence, and integrity, than any Indian of this country, and he might be rendered highly serviceable in our attempts to civilise the nation’, History of the expedition, I, 159.

[11] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia (1783), Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by William Peden (1954), Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press 1982, p. 101, italics added. In this sense, the documentation of linguistic evidence, even if it does not significantly act as a corrective or barrier to the process of extinction that it outlines, presents elements of contiguity with practices of ethno-conservationism, trophies and the exhibition of human specimens in the flesh. G. Abbattista, Trophying human ‘otherness’. From Christopher Columbus to contemporary ethno-ecology (fifteenth-twenty first centuries), in Encountering Otherness: Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture, ed. by Abbattista, Trieste, EUT 2011, pp. 19-42.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the remains of an Omaha (Mahar) village. Here they learned that four hundred inhabitants, together with the chief Blackbird, were wiped out by smallpox four years earlier.[1] A small hill-like grave site remained, on which the expedition erected a flag.[2] What remained of the Omaha village presented a desolate landscape. Clark noted how the community never recovered; a sign of this was the return to a pre-agricultural subsistence. Here and below, we quote while maintaining the linguistic peculiarities of the handwritten “field notes”, which, especially in Clark’s case, often present peculiarities in the handwriting (we limit the squares to the transcription of those editorial interventions that the editor of the edition in use, Moulton, considered indispensable to the understanding of today’s reader): “The Situation of this Village, now in ruins Siround by enunbl. [innumerable] hosts of grave[s] the ravages of the Small Pox (4 years ago) they follow the Buf: and tend no Corn”,[3]

the ravages of the Small Pox […] has reduced this Nation not exceeding 300 men and left them to the insults of their weaker neighbours which before was glad to be on friendly turms with them – I am told whin this fatal malady was among them they Carried ther franzey to verry extroadinary length, not only of burning their Village, but they put their wives & Children to D[e]ath with a view of their all going together to Some better Countrey – They burry their Dead on the tops of high hills and rais mounds on the top of them, – The cause or way those people took the Small Pox is uncertain, the most Probable from Some other Nation by means of a warparty.[4]

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Geographies of Time

Geographies of Time: HD cover
Giulia Iannuzzi, Geografie del tempo. Viaggiatori europei tra i popoli nativi nel Nord America del Settecento (Rome: Viella, 2022), 324 pp. ISBN 9788833139968.


Titled Geographies of Time: European travellers and indigenous peoples in eighteenth-century North America, this book investigates the consequences that contact with the indigenous peoples of North America had on the idea of historical time in the eighteenth-century European mind. Against the backdrop of the historiography devoted to the theories of progress with which the culture of the Old World hypostatised in the societies of the globe different stages in the development of humanity, the primary corpus of this study consists of travel accounts, reports, and treatises based on direct observation. The purpose of this choice is to add, to the attention enjoyed by historical-philosophical and erudite thought and writing, the complementary exploration of the cultural uses of given ideas of time in the context of the encounter with North American human otherness. This perspective allows us to focus on and problematise the interplay that representations based on first-hand experiences reveal between pre-existing cultural palimpsest and empirical validation of knowledge. The identification of a humanity perceived as different from oneself with one’s own ancestors has been a common trope since the early modern age – between conceptual domestication of a radical difference, geographical projections of a golden age, and stratification of textual and figurative conventions.

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Jefferson and smallpox in late-18th century North America

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

The interest that the expedition led by Lewis and Clark cultivated in medical knowledge and in the observation and treatment of contagious diseases such as smallpox and syphilis was largely due to Thomas Jefferson. The correspondences between the protagonists allow us to reconstruct in detail various aspects of cultural as well as logistic planning in the preparation of the expedition, with the extensive involvement of Jefferson, who gave Lewis, already his secretary, minute indications for the recording of information in the field and its preservation.[1] Promoter of the whole project, Jefferson was also a key figure in soliciting indications from scholars and colleagues from the American Philosophical Society in various disciplinary branches regarding the information that the expedition would hopefully have to collect on the populations encountered.

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“I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”

Adair and Colden witnesses to epidemics in eighteenth-century North America: a new post in the smallpox series

The fur trader James Adair, who lived between the turn of the century and the 1770s in an area between present-day North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, recorded smallpox as an imported disease among the First Nations he came in contact with. “I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”:1 Adair highlighted the first-hand experience that has made his History of the American Indians, published in London in 1775, one of the primary sources adopted in studies of the historical ethnography of the peoples of the South East.2

With the linguistic-cultural awareness that is typical of his compilation, Adair reported the mythographic conceptualisation of smallpox by the Cherokee (Cheerake):3

“The small-pox, a foreign disease, no way connatural to their healthy climate, they call Oonatàquára, imagining it to proceed from the invisible darts of angry fate, pointed against them, for their young people’s vicious conduct.”4

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Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America

A new post in the smallpox series: An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptualisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

In the journal of his voyage to the Carolinas published in 1709, John Lawson connects the arrival of syphilis in America to Columbus, describing the striking consequences for the Santee,1 a Siouan population near the river of the same name in present-day South Carolina, which declined from about a thousand in the seventeenth century to less than ninety at the beginning of the eighteenth.2

On behalf of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, to whom he dedicated his New Voyage, Lawson set out from Charleston on 28 December 1700, and arrived at the mouth of the Pamlico River (Pampticough) on 24 February 1701,3 drawing a wide arc in Carolina territories. It crossed and described an unmapped area, about which Europeans’ knowledge was largely lacking. The observer clearly identified the role of diseases of European origin, smallpox above all, in the rapid decline of populations such as the Sewee, another nation probably of Siouan stock, whose numbers, estimated at around eight hundred in the seventeenth century, were reduced to seventy-five in 1715:4

the Sewees have been formerly a large Nation, though now very much decreas’d since the English hath seated their Land, and all other Nations of Indians are observ’d to partake of the same Fate, where the Europeans come, the Indians being a People very apt to catch any Distemper they are afflicted withal; the Small-Pox has destroy’d many thousands of these Natives.

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