Monthly Archives: March 2017

Imperial Russia’s Penal Colonies

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 239-264:

The Tobolsk Central Penal Labour Prison continued to serve as a penal institution until 1989, when the authorities finally shut it down. Like many of the tsarist-era prisons, it had been refurbished after 1917 and eventually become part of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn would call the “archipelago” of penal facilities that formed the Stalinist Gulag. Both in Russia and abroad, the Gulag has overlaid memories of the tsars’ use of Siberia as a place of punishment. Long before the Soviet state erected its camps, however, Siberia was already a vast open prison with a history spanning more than three centuries.

Siberia—the Russian name Сибирь is pronounced Seebeer—dwarfs European Russia. At 15,500,000 square kilometres, it is one and a half times larger than the continent of Europe. Siberia has never had an independent political existence; it has no clear borders and no binding ethnic identity. Its modern history is inseparable from Russia’s. The easily surmountable Ural Mountains have acted less as a physical boundary than as the imaginative and political frontier of a European Russia beyond which lay a giant Asiatic colony and a sprawling penal realm. Siberia was both Russia’s heart of darkness and a world of opportunity and prosperity. The continent’s bleak and unforgiving present was to give way to a brighter future, and Siberia’s exiles were intended to play a key role in this vaunted transition.

For the imperial state sought to do more than cage social and political disorder within its continental prison. By purging the old world of its undesirables, it would also populate the new. The exile system promised to harness a growing army of exiles in the service of a wider project to colonize Siberia. In theory, Russia’s criminals would toil to harvest Siberia’s natural riches and settle its remote territories and, in so doing, they would discover the virtues of self-reliance, abstinence and hard work. In practice, however, the exile system dispatched into the Siberian hinterland an army not of enterprising settlers but of destitute and desperate vagabonds. They survived not by their own industry but by stealing and begging from the real colonists, the Siberian peasantry. The tensions embedded in this dual status of “prison colony” were never reconciled over the more than three centuries separating the banishment of the Uglichan insurgents and the implosion of the tsarist empire in 1917. Contrary to the ambitions of Russia’s rulers, penal colonization never became a driving force behind Siberia’s development. Rather, as the numbers of exiles grew, it became an ever greater obstacle to it.

Over the nineteenth century, the scale and intensity of Siberian exile increased so significantly that it easily surpassed the exile systems of the British and French empires. The British transported around 160,000 convicts to Australia in the eight decades between 1787 and 1868; the French state meanwhile had a penal population of about 5,500 in its overseas colonies between 1860 and 1900. By contrast, between 1801 and 1917, more than 1 million tsarist subjects were banished to Siberia.

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Wild Young Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 7351-7381:

MANY YEARS after the Apache Wars were over, Chatto, who was a rising Chokonen leader in the early 1880s, would declare, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” The daughter of the Chokonen chief Naiche agreed. “Geronimo was not a great man at all. I never heard any good of him. People never say he [did] good.” A reliable interpreter and licensed trader who lived on good terms with the Chiricahuas for two decades said they distrusted and feared Geronimo, especially when he was inebriated. Once while hopelessly drunk, he berated a nephew, “for no reason at all,” so severely that the young man committed suicide. After sobering up, a shamed Geronimo packed up his family and bolted from the reservation for several months.

Army officers otherwise sympathetic to the Apaches detested Geronimo. Lieutenant Bourke found him “a depraved rascal whose neck I should like to stretch.” He was a “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man,” agreed Lieutenant Britton Davis, who would come to know him all too well. “His only redeeming traits were courage and determination.”

And “power,” Davis might have added, had he understood the concept. What the whites dismissed as superstition was quite real to the Chiricahuas. That Geronimo possessed mystic attributes uniquely valuable in raids and war, few Apaches doubted. Rifles were said to jam or misfire when aimed at him. Some warriors thought the mere act of riding with Geronimo would render them impervious to bullets, a belief this consummate troublemaker heartily encouraged. Many Chiricahuas also attributed to him the gift of divination. Others thought him able to make it rain or to prevent the sun from rising. Geronimo also enjoyed a reputation as a master herbalist and surgeon. Despite his supposed powers, he was too strongly disliked to ever become a chief. His baleful countenance, locked in a perpetual scowl, probably didn’t help. All told, Geronimo’s personal following never exceeded thirty warriors.

The minatory shaman of the Bedonkohe band was born Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns,” in 1829. Because he was saddled with such a singularly uninspiring name, it is little wonder he assumed the name Geronimo, which the Mexicans had bestowed on him. The Spanish equivalent of Jerome, it lacked the verve of Victorio but certainly was a better name than Goyahkla. Unlike Victorio, Geronimo felt no compelling ties to the place of his birth. He fought not to defend a homeland but to avenge the murder of his mother, first wife, and children by Mexican soldiers and because he enjoyed taking lives. “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting,” he said shortly before his death. If he were young again, Geronimo added, “and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.”

Geronimo’s forays into Mexico often led him to the Sierra Madre, home to the Nednhi Chiricahua band of Chief Juh, one of his few real friends. Although a better war leader than Geronimo, Juh lacked the shaman’s gift for oratory. When excited, particularly in battle, Juh stuttered so badly that he had to use hand signals to communicate or rely on Geronimo to make his intentions known. Both men were wary of Americans. Juh had had little contact with them; he was naturally suspicious of everyone. Geronimo’s distrust derived from personal experience—first the murderous betrayal of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, and then his own humiliating arrest at Ojo Caliente and lockup at San Carlos by Agent John Clum in 1877.

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Filed under Mexico, migration, military, nationalism, religion, U.S., war

Tame Old Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 8022-8037:

Geronimo lived for twenty-three years after his surrender. In 1893, the government resettled Geronimo and the Chiricahuas—still prisoners of war—at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home to the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation. They received plots of land to farm, and the men were taught the techniques of the range cattle industry. Geronimo went through something of a metamorphosis, becoming a model farmer and impressing his growing circle of white friends as a “kind old man.” He said he had learned much of the whites during his long years of captivity, finding them to be “a very kind and peaceful people.” In his later years, Geronimo also enjoyed celebrity. He appeared regularly at fairs and festivals, including the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where at age seventy-five he joined in calf-roping contests and sold signed photographs of himself. In 1905, Geronimo rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade and dictated his autobiography, which, over the army’s objection, was published with Roosevelt’s permission.

Although he never lost faith in his personal power, Geronimo embraced Christianity, more to supplement than to supplant traditional Apache beliefs. “Since my life as a prisoner has begun I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers. However, I have always prayed, and I believe that the Almighty has always protected me.”

Geronimo’s divine protection ran out on a cold day in February 1909, when he rode into Lawton, Oklahoma, alone to sell some bows and arrows. With the proceeds, the old shaman bought whiskey, for which he had never lost his fondness, and began the return ride after dark deeply intoxicated. He was almost home when he fell off his horse beside a creek. A neighbor found him the next morning, lying partially submerged in the freezing water. Four days later, at age seventy-nine, the man whom no bullet could ever kill died in bed of pneumonia.

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