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Hard to Be a God

What happens when mortals are invested with divine power?

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin. Macmillan, 480 pages.

In 1940, James M. Nicol, a British officer employed on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, reported on the popularity of the mysterious figure of John Frum, a divine being who had arisen to contest the colonial order, and whose acolytes promoted dancing and kava drinking, much to the consternation of the resident Presbyterian missionaries. Frum’s followers were millenarians who prophesized that he would come from America with such prosperity that work would no longer be necessary. He would even bring his own currency, stamped with an image of the coconut palms that the colonialists grew all over Tanna. The white people would then leave the island. Since the nineteenth century, Europeans had stripped Tanna of sandalwood and forced its people to work as indentured laborers in Queensland, Australia. The doctrine of John Frum repudiated the racialized hierarchies of colonialism and promised a new age of material affluence.

Nicol quickly arrested some of Frum’s followers and put one agitator in the pillory. But the islanders clearly obtained the wrong lesson from this exemplary punishment. Next year, the movement reemerged. In May 1941, Christian churches were deserted by the faithful as the people of Tanna abandoned mission villages, moved inland, and awaited God’s arrival. In preparation for his coming, they left their arduous jobs and began spending extravagantly. Every last sovereign must be spent, they claimed, before the true sovereign would arrive. The events of May 1941 combined a labor strike with a rejection of the colonial monetary economy. The people of Tanna were seizing the divine mode of production.

Nicol was alarmed. He sent police to burn down the houses used by Frum’s followers and imprisoned some of them in nearby Port Vila. There, they met the men of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a friend of Frum’s, it was said. When World War II broke out, American soldiers built military bases at Port Vila, and Frum’s supporters were released from prison to work as manual laborers alongside boatloads of Tannese men. The wages that the Americans paid—six dollars a month—far outstripped those offered by the British. After the war ended, though, the Americans departed, and colonialism resumed, while the islanders carved out airstrips from their fields in preparation for Frum’s return.

Frum was not the last divinity to stalk the South Pacific. A decade or so after the 1941 strike, the worship of Prince Philip began in the New Hebrides—a South Pacific archipelago administered jointly by Britain and France, and now known as Vanuatu—around the time the islands began to struggle for independence. At its height, this group reportedly had several thousand followers. Philip learned of his divinity a few years after a 1974 sojourn through the region, and he seemed to rather like his new status. In 1978, a British delegation was dispatched to his worshippers with a signed photo of the prince. A Tanna politician, Tuk Noao, reciprocated with a nalnal, a traditional pig-killing stick. After much debate with anthropologists and court officials, God posed with the rod on the lawn of Buckingham Palace, and sent back a photograph of the occasion.

One might think that becoming a god is a quick route to an easy life. The problem is that gods are beholden to their believers, and worshippers tend to have plans for their deities. In 1980, after the archipelago’s independence, Philip’s followers had to start paying federal taxes, and they wrote to him, appealing the injustice. While Philip’s reply indicated that the tithes would indeed have to be suffered, his followers nonetheless waved the letter at the tax collectors and demanded a religious exemption. Rather than raising a royal up to heaven, divinizing Philip turned out to be a way of dragging a colonial power back to earth.

Earthly powers have often found unexpected divinity rather useful.

Prince Philip is but one of an improbable array of characters that people Anna Della Subin’s first book Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine. Its thirteen chapters take the reader on a peripatetic voyage through two centuries of deification, ranging from the famously ambiguous deicide of Captain Cook, who was killed in Hawaii as a God or a marauder (or perhaps both), to the lesser-known travails of Nikalsain, the deified form of John Nicholson, a British colonial officer in India who whipped his followers. The book covers three major areas: studies of the way Europeans used myths about natives divinizing white men to justify colonialism; narratives about the theopoesis of Africans—notably Haile Selassie—that are used to usurp racialized imperial orders; and tales about the way even the most resolutely secular figures—such as Nehru—were divinized.

Subin’s critical tasks unfold in hints and fragments, at the edges of the stories she tells. She wants to kill the white gods by unmasking their myths, while also learning to live with the permanence of what she calls mythopolitics—the claim that political power is always in some sense mythological. She succeeds admirably in the first task, and if her explorations of the second raise more questions than answers, that is one of the joys of the book.

Even Gods need good press.

Earthly powers have often found unexpected divinity to be rather useful. According to the Florentine Codex, a sixteenth century account of the conquest of the New World compiled by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, the conquistador Hernán Cortés was hailed as the god Quetzalcoatl in the port of Xicalango upon his arrival in 1519. “Here are your home and your palaces; take them and rest in them,” the Aztec emperor Moctezuma is supposed to have said in a meeting with Cortés soon after—a welcome message for a would-be conqueror. Cortés was preceded by Christopher Columbus and followed by Francisco Pizarro: each of them, or so they would like us to believe, was heralded as a God.

Subin is quick to puncture these just-so stories of European superiority. Narratives of white divinity, she argues, were rather foundational myths that served to justify the colonization of the Americas. Cortés’s record of his conversation with Moctezuma has the emperor miraculously referencing the Castilian legal code and the Aristotelean doctrine that some men are natural slaves. That Moctezuma had mistaken him for a god would become central to European explanations for the Aztec empire’s collapse, and the claim would later come to serve as part of the basis for a racialized order that placed the Spanish at the top of the pyramid and the two hundred thousand Africans who survived the Middle Passage in the following century at the very bottom.

It comes as little surprise that it was a woman who was blamed for the original sin of mistaking the Spaniards for gods. According to the Dominican friar Diego Durán, who wrote the History of the Indies of New Spain, Malinche, a slave who Cortés took as his translator and concubine, announced: “These teules say that they kiss your hands and that they will eat.” Teules, or teotl, was translated into Spanish as dios, or gods. The two terms, however, denote very different things. Teotl was a kaleidoscopic divine force, capable of appearing in images and idols, as well as priests and sorcerers. At its most basic level, the term simply indicated someone in a position of authority and worthy of respect. But the colonialists preferred to believe they were mistaken for a Christian, monotheistic god, a substitution that allowed them to tell a paternalistic tale about misguided natives: the Europeans were not gods, for there was only one god, and luckily for the peoples of the Americas, the men mistaken for deities had arrived to bring clarity and Christianity to the whole affair.

Colonial regimes were founded simultaneously on racial discrimination and Christian theology.

In many of Subin’s case studies, tales of European apotheosis can only be spun by ignoring the cultural and religious traditions of those supposedly worshipping at the feet of the colonialists.  For instance, in nineteenth-century India, sunbaked colonial officers became obsessed with the deification of British soldiers. In 1846, Reverend Thomas Ragland wrote a letter about the “inveterately heathen town” of Illamulley in Rajasthan, where the most “dreaded deity of the place” is the spirit of Captain Pole, a British army officer mortally wounded in 1809 in a surprise attack in the Arambooly Pass during the Veluthampi Revolt. Upon leaving the field of battle, Pole was found by a group of Tamil palm sugar cultivators, who tended to him as he died. After his demise, a shrine was erected in his honor—though reportedly, in death, Pole had grown even more malign and could only be appeased with arrack, mutton, and cheroots. The British took this as further evidence of the foolishness of the natives. But Subin shows us that the divine dead cast a much longer shadow in Rajasthan than the colonial presence. Those who had been violently killed, it was thought, could not reincarnate and so remained in this world as embodiments of violence. To divinize the dead was to try and appease them—thus the cheroots. The British were not so special.

In exposing the myths of white divinity, Subin tells a powerful story about colonial ideology. Sometimes, though, her success in slaying white gods comes at the cost of too much simplification. Colonial ignorance might be a near universal, but to tell the same story of self-interested white men in India and Mexico is also to conceal the very real differences between the way religion and colonialism were intertwined in the two places. The larger danger is that in recounting piquant tales of accidental apotheosis, Subin reproduces the snide, superior tone of the colonial myths, casting the natives as inscrutable naïfs. It takes a brave writer to recount, with little exegesis, the way that a 1931 copy of the National Geographic, which described Haile Selassie’s coronation, was given quasi-Biblical status by early Rastafarian preachers. Yet that is just what Subin does.

What saves Accidental Gods from exotica is that Subin places her tales at the interstices of empire. For instance, she notes that for Rastafarian thinkers, one of the crucial elements of Selassie’s coronation is that it shows white men—the ambassadors and nobles who came to the event—bowing before a black man. Her larger point is that colonial regimes, founded simultaneously on racial discrimination and Christian theology, had to justify contradictory claims of political hierarchy and spiritual equality. From these contradictions emerged new deities that exposed the uneasy sand on which European beliefs were built.

The term fetishism originates from the encounters that Portuguese and Dutch adventurers and sailors had from the fifteenth to seventieth centuries on the west coast of Africa. Searching for gold, often in adverse conditions, they encountered people with very different values to themselves who seemed to worship entirely arbitrary things. In his canonical study of fetishism, published in two journal articles from 1985–87, the intellectual historian and political activist William Pietz cites the Dutch merchant Willem Bosman’s popular travelogue, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, published in 1702. Bosman asks one of his informants how many gods they had:

He obliged me with the following Answer, that the Number of their Gods was endless and innumerable: For (said he) any of us being resolved to undertake any thing of Importance, we first search out a God to prosper our designed undertaking: and going out of Doors with this design, take the first creature that presents itself to our Eyes, whether Dog, Cat, or the most contemptible Animal in the world, for our God.

To name the first thing one sees in the morning as a god struck the monotheistic Europeans as insane. Pietz, however, notes how remarkably similar this custom was to the conduct of Europeans, who were risking life and limb for a contingently valued metal. That both gold and dogs can be gods is an example of a common human experience: the way we invest power in non-human things that then turn out to have power over us. An anthropologist only needs to watch the way the New York Times anxiously tracks the peregrinations of the markets as they quiver with each explosion in Ukraine to confirm that the West, too, is engaged in its own forms of fetishism. At least the Dutch merchant’s informant got to choose what he worshipped.

Like Pietz’s work, Subin’s book partakes in a classic anthropological task: to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. She carries out the first with subtle understatement. For instance, Subin contrasts the extravagant spending of John Frum’s followers with the decision of U.S. forces to drive their supplies of engines, guns, and bottles of Coke overboard after World War II, rather than giving them to the islanders. Both parties were engaged in an economic war: the former refusing integration into a world market that exploited them, the latter giving lie to the promise of equitable development made to the islanders by Americans and Europeans alike.

To make the strange familiar, Subin demystifies the exoticism of the accidental gods. The famous cargo cults of the South Pacific supposedly believed that Western powers would deliver a plenitude of goods—precisely the promise of globalization. They were first written about in an article in 1945 in the Pacific Islands Monthly, warning white settlers to protect their daughters against islanders who were awaiting gods who would expel the colonialists and bring prosperity. One such “cargo cult” was Wislin, which began in 1914 on the island of Saibai, in the Australian-occupied Torres Strait. Speaking an invented version of German, the Wislin group awaited the arrival of a deified Kaiser Wilhelm II, who they believed would expel the white settlers who used them for cheap labor. In the meantime, they urged the people of the Torres Straits to stop working for the colonialists. In a sense, the Wislin group combined the realism of a State Department policy paper—in calling for one imperial force to fight another—with a labor strike designed to disrupt production. Nothing very strange about any of that.

If all politics is mythical, are some myths better than others?

Does one need gods? Why was there not simply a secular labor strike in the Torres Straits, without a deified Kaiser? One might ask the same question of colonialists who founded their empires on dreams of white gods and Christian salvation. For Subin, politics cannot be separated from mythology. She approvingly quotes the German philosopher and one-time Nazi party member, Carl Schmitt, who argued in Political Theology, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” As political theory, this isn’t convincing. It’s true that the line between politics and mythology is slippery because political power itself is created ex nihlo. Nations, royals, and gods all need to be imagined. Yet the imaginary roots of political institutions do not mean that politics is somehow innately mythic, or that it should be. Moreover, the claim doesn’t address the difficult question that follows: If all politics is mythical, are some myths better than others?

Having spent the prior three hundred pages looking at men turned into gods, Subin shifts direction in her final chapter, through an inquiry into the nature of the monotheistic, Christian god. She discusses a 1973 pamphlet, Is God a White Racist?, by the Reverend Dr. William R. Jones, who was led to pose that question by the immense suffering of the black people at the hands of the white race. After a consideration of black liberation theology, Jones ends up in a very secular humanist position: God does not have a politics, because humans are the agents of their own histories, and racism is theirs alone. If God exists, he is unknowable and not a being of this world. Subin’s approving quotation of Jones leaves us at an impasse. As we see in the rest of the book, we do know gods—because we make them of our own material. Which gods, then, should we choose?

In the book’s closing section, the reader is presented with an alternative founding myth. Subin describes the Cercle Harmonique, a group of nineteenth century Afro-Creole intellectuals, based in in New Orleans, who conducted nighttime seances. George Washington, Saint Augustine, and Napoleon would debate around a crowded table, in which space was found for Jesus. The news from the afterlife? Everyone lives in harmony, there is no race, and laws are enacted without violence. Everyone is free and equal, and they share the same rights and opportunities. The spirits, Subin tells us, implored the earth to follow the example of this great republic in heaven.

The snark in me wants to retort that this heavenly paradise seems to have walked out of a book of liberal political theory. But I think the real redemptive power of Subin’s conclusion is subtler than that. Throughout Accidental Gods, the work of the white gods has been to reduce others to the level of animals. In this final, post-humanist vision, all are raised to the level of gods. It’s an anti-monotheistic vision, a Katechon that promises a day when “race becomes a relic, white divinity a curiosity of a pagan past . . . the day someone, catching sight of a woman, will turn and say, The infinite suits you.” It’s a compliment to Subin’s book that I find this vision deeply dissatisfying, and I cannot stop thinking about it.