Rachel B. Herrmann, Cornell University Press, 2019. 296 pp.
No Useless Mouth is a definitive contribution to the field of food and hunger history. In her contribution to historiography, Herrmann successfully conveys how food and hunger shaped early Atlantic colonial policy, both conceptually and materially, in North America and West Africa. Central to Herrmann’s argument are her claims that Indigenous peoples held more power in the colonial and revolutionary periods than many historians are likely to admit, and that enslaved Black and Indigenous people also had liminal spaces where they could exercise power through the utilization of hunger as a political tool. Using nearly exclusively primary source material from 1760 to 1830, Herrmann insightfully approaches the topic through three case studies, which focus on the role of spatial sovereignty as it pertains to food and hunger. Meanwhile, Herrmann offers three novel and tangible analytic concepts—victual imperialism, food diplomacy, and victual warfare—terms that have broad implications for approaching the history of food and hunger.
In Part One (chapters 1-3) entitled “Power Rising” Herrmann demonstrates the role that food played as a weapon and means of settler colonialism. She details how white settlers eroded Indigenous political and social stability through “victual imperialism,” a term which describes how colonists used discourses and practices of “civilization” and “famine prevention” to circumvent Indigenous methods of agriculture, food storage, and hunting. This colonial strategy is exemplified by the seizure of Indigenous lands for “famine prevention” initiatives. These relied wholly on settler and imperial notions that Indigenous land use was inefficient, that land would be put to better use by colonists, and thus that Indigenous people required less land (12).
Food was not merely a source of antagonism during this time period. Herrmann also examines food diplomacy—that is, diplomatic rituals shared between Indigenous peoples and settlers in the form of gifts, feasts, food aid, and shared hunger. As these forms of diplomacy began to fail, the destruction of food stores regularly occurred as an act of military escalation. However, in some cases the destruction of food stores was an act of solidarity, as Indigenous tribes vowed to hunger together with their settler allies for the purpose of promoting unity. As Herrmann writes, food diplomacy provided a distinct advantage to the Indigenous population over the settler society, in which the “sharing of, or collective abstention from (9)” food and alcohol provided a diplomatic foundation for all “sides”. That being said, Indigenous groups rarely depended on settlers for sustenance in the colonial and revolutionary periods, whereas settlers regularly required additional food aid from the Indigenous population.
Nevertheless, all interests also regularly destroyed food stores as a form of war, which brings us to the third of Herrmann’s explanatory concepts: victual warfare. Victual warfare entails attacks on food supplies, or other efforts to either promote or prevent hunger amongst enemies or allies. Victual warfare was the primary motive for the 1791 Sullivan Campaign, where settler militias and militaries destroyed thousands of pounds of Indigenous food stores, forcing Indigenous tribes closer to their settler allies. With access to source material created overwhelmingly from the settler point of view, Herrmann reads against the grain to paint a picture of Indigenous hunger and ascertain Indigenous positionality. Herrmann’s subversive reading of settler sources, though insufficient to properly ascertain the complete truth of the matter, provides the reader with an opportunity to revisit previously held notions of Black and Indigenous power in this era while maintaining source integrity.
In Part Two (chapters 4-6), entitled “Power in Flux,” Herrmann shifts her focus to the post-revolutionary period to detail the extent to which enslaved people interacted with other groups based on hunger, appetite, and direct subjugation. Despite staving off soldiers’ hunger on all sides of the Revolutionary War through their labor (albeit forced), people of African descent benefited only marginally during wartime. After the British promised freedom in exchange for military service during the Revolutionary War, many formerly enslaved people and white British loyalists emigrated to Nova Scotia. There, the government briefly granted informal economic freedoms to self-liberated immigrants, such as the freedom to buy and sell goods at market, while white loyalists won “lasting legal rights” including the right to buy and sell land (137). The juxtaposition of the Nova Scotia case study with the colonial American period illustrates a nearly simultaneous and continental effort to prevent white hunger at the abject expense of Indigenous, enslaved, and self-liberated people.
Part Three (chapters 7-8), “Power Waning,” imbues Herrmann’s transatlantic analysis with more ambition as she moves across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone. Utilizing the documented expropriation of Indigenous land through victual warfare and imperialism in the British colony of Sierra Leone, Herrmann illustrates the effect of empire on the material conditions of food and hunger. In Sierra Leone, British efforts to control Black food production took the form of the implementation of restrictive economic and agricultural laws on multiple occasions, leading to generations of food insecurity, and inevitably, a large-scale food riot in September 1800. Herrmann places the 1800 food riot within a larger imperial context to demonstrate what white settlers had learned during the American revolutionary period; there is a direct tie between hunger and civil unrest. The application and significance of the Sierra Leone case study is crucial because it took place during a paradigm shift against European Empire following the American and French Revolutions’ destabilization of the Atlantic colonies.
No Useless Mouth is a definitive piece of scholarship in the fields of food and hunger studies. While Herrmann makes creative use of white archives to access Indigenous and Black points of view, there are limitations to this methodological approach. Had Herrmann turned to available Black and Indigenous sources or existing histories, particularly the Colonial Papers held by Brown University that contain transcripts from the era, No Useless Mouth could have been a groundbreaking book. Additionally, Herrmann’s use of the words “native” and “indian” to describe Indigenous peoples throughout the work certainly holds colonial attitudes that have no place in the contemporary academic landscape. Herrmann’s lapses in editorial judgement impact the work on a molecular level, despite her aim of highlighting Indigenous and Black power in this era. However, Herrmann nonetheless succeeds in her ambitious depth and range that covers the rise of Indigenous, Black, and settler power in the colonial, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary era across the Atlantic—as well as the extent to which Indigenous and enslaved peoples had agency—offering novel insights and lenses to view the nascent field of food and hunger history. Academic and armchair historians alike should use the indexed material of No Useless Mouth to better inform themselves on the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Herrmann sets a high bar in addressing the effects of the American and British Empires on the food systems of Indigenous and enslaved peoples.
Cooper-Morgan Bryant is a graduate student at Harvard University from Atlanta, Georgia studying History and International Security. He graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies in 2020 and currently lives with his wife Hannah, their German Shorthair Pointer, B.B., and two cats in Portland, Oregon. Cooper-Morgan’s love of food and wine has brought him through multiple Michelin Star restaurants as a chef and into the academic world of food. His favorite food is foie gras, and his favorite grape is Gamay. You can reach out to Cooper-Morgan at email@example.com.