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  • Writer's pictureGareth Williams

Confronting the awkward truth

Hello all, having completed the third instalment of the Richard Davey Chronicles, I am currently writing a standalone novel about the life of William Augustus Bowles. I first came across him in a portrait I saw at a National Trust property. He was clearly a European dressed as a Native American.

Cultural appropriation, I hear some of you cry! Well, as a boy growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, I was just as likely to be seen sporting feathers and waving a tomahawk. Whenever there was a Western on BBC2 - usually Friday early evening - I was glued to it, rooting for the Indians, even though they rarely came out on top as we know.

Leaving my own, questionable childhood fantasies to one side, there is a serious question here. William married into the indigenous culture of the American south-east. The truth is, he did so twice. Does that alter how we view his image?

I live on the Isle of Skye but have not a drop of Scottish blood, unlike my wife. But that does not stop me sporting a kilt on occasion. That is, after all, what the Isle of Skye tartan is for, a pattern for those who have no clan to claim.

So, what to make of William Bowles' appearance. Does the fact it was 230 years ago make a difference? We all agree that slavery is an evil. But was that always the case? Was there not a time when no-one in Britain raised an eyebrow at the practice? Does that mean everyone alive before the start of the anti-slavery movement was evil?

Is it reasonable to expect an ordinary person, raised in the social mores of their time, to see through their upbringing and spot what it took hundreds of years for most people to realise?

Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the United States, 2nd President of the United States, is described on his Wikipedia page as 'an icon of individual liberty, democracy and republicanism'. But he owned slaves!

Now, before you get the wrong idea. I readily accept Jefferson was riddled with contradictions, as, I fear, most of us are. I am not arguing that he was right. Indeed, he was an individual equipped to see the absolute wrongness of slavery long before the majority.

Back to William Bowles, he was a product of his time. Many whites were living among indigenous tribes, a good number became chiefs, married locals and saw their children live lives of influence. These are historical facts.

He lived a remarkable life. I don't condone bigamy or the web of lies he deployed. But I am going to write about him. After all, people write about Hitler and Stalin. I have written sympathetically about Napoleon Bonaparte - another deeply flawed character.

What you make of him when I have finished will be interesting. If you think you might be upset or offended, that is quite properly your right and you can avoid my book with a clear conscience.

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