In these words the Italian historian Carlo Botta, writing in 1809, re-enacted the Boston massacre of 5 March 1770, an early prelude to the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The passage forms part of Botta’s monumental History of the War of Independence of the United States of America, often (mis-) read as a blueprint for Italy’s own struggle for national independence. Although Botta never set foot in the United States, his book became one of the most successful histories of the American War in any language. How do we understand the passions associated with wars fought for “good” causes? What happens if images of these events cross borders?
Most likely a piece of fiction, for Italian readers Botta’s description of the Boston massacre came to symbolise the brutality associated with the North American colonies’ quest for independence. Many Italians writing about the American War of Independence found the brutality of a war dividing entire families, spouses and brothers, deeply unsettling. Making full use of the emotional register that characterised the literary as well as the political language of the Risorgimento, these authors described the American Revolution as a civil war, an image that contrasts dramatically with the enthusiasm for America among many of the French philosophes and the idea of America as the political realisation of Enlightenment ideals. For instance, the Wyoming Massacre of July 1778 is reported in almost all Italian accounts of the American War of Independence and serves to illustrate this point.
In an effort to gain control over the Hudson River, British troops recruited American Loyalists as well as native Iroquois to conquer a stronghold of revolutionaries in the fertile Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. Several hundred revolutionaries were killed in combat, while many dozens more, including women and children, were massacred after the battle was over, their houses set on fire, their fields devastated and their cattle killed. The Italian descriptions of the massacre go into almost unbearable detail:
A Tory, “whose mother had married a second husband, butchered her with his own hand, and afterwards massacred his father-in-law, his own sisters, and their infants in the cradle. Another killed his own father, and exterminated all his family. A third imbrued his hands in the blood of his brothers, his sisters, his brother-in-law, and his father-in-law.”
Botta concludes his description with an apocalyptic image of total devastation:
“They cut out the tongues of the horses and cattle, and left them to wander in the midst of those fields lately so luxuriant and now in desolation, seeming to enjoy the torments of their lingering death”.
What then is a War of Independence, once its images are received in a different political and cultural context?
Botta, in his own words, “long hesitated whether we ought to relate particular instances of this demoniac cruelty; the bare remembrance of them makes us shudder. But on reflecting that these examples may deter good princes from war, and citizens from civil discord, we have deemed it useful to record them.”
© Axel Körner (The narrative opens a chapter of the forthcoming book The United States in the Political Thought and the Imagination of the Risorgimento, 1763-1865)