Thanksgiving Thinky Post: Pilgrims, Raees, and Outlaws

A thinky post! That pulls together all kinds of different things I am thinking about! Including Thanksgiving, so it’s a holiday post.

Thanksgiving is a funky little America only holiday so I am not sure how much my non-American readers know about the origins. And the origins are really interesting, and in a greyer area than you think.

The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Like this picture, grey!

In the late 1500s, Europe was going crazy with reform movements. The Catholic church had dominated religion, and in many ways all of civilization, for hundreds of years. But now through out Europe rebels were speaking up, were demanding a new way. One of these groups was the Brownist Puritan Separatists in England. They were actually separatists of separatists. The Church of England split from the Catholic church not just because King Henry wanted a divorce, but because there was increasing resentment through out England of the power of the Catholic church. England seized the wealth held by the churches and created a new more egalitarian religion. But that wasn’t enough for the Brownist separatists, so they split from Church of England. What they wanted was an entirely democratic system of worship, elected elders and total self-determination, no priests. The English authorities started to come after them a bit, so they moved from England to Amsterdam. They lived there for a few years, some of them finding employment at the local university or in industries. But it was hard for them to live in a country that spoke a different language and had a different background than their English heritage. So they decided to take a risk and travel to one of the new colonies in the American continent.

This was far from the first settlement in the North and South American continents. Columbus had founded his little slavery/rape/torture kingdom, that was fun. And Jamestown had already happened down in the warmer southerner areas of the coast, and failed. The big thing to know is that the Pilgrims were arriving to a civilization in decline. America had settlements and history and all of those things just as much as Europe or anywhere else in the world. But when the first Europeans wandered into the continent, they brought with them diseases. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, the East coast had already been literally decimated (only one in ten surviving) by disease and it was sweeping westward fast.

It wasn’t empty land, it was full. And then they all died and the Puritans arrived and went “this is great! There’s no people, and the fields are already plowed!”

The Puritan Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Rock, which was a TERRIBLE place to land!!!! It’s all rocky, you can’t grow anything, just horrible. But the advantage was that the local Masachussetts speaking communities were already struggling in the wake of other European invasions. While other colonies ended up quickly destroyed by the established communities, or else forced to turn into armed camps in enemy territory, the Puritan Pilgrims got to comparatively just stroll in and settle down. Their only challenge was the land itself. Really, I cannot say enough bad things about Massachusetts as an agriculture state. Just TERRIBLE. Big rocks everywhere, bad weather most of the year, huge storms coming through. STUPID. Thank goodness, there was an English speaking member of one of the Massachussetts communities who decided to help them out and gave them some agriculture tips. They still starved to death all over the place, but they made it through the winter. And next year, when their harvest was good enough to ensure survival through the winter, they had a big party of “Thanksgiving”. Which is where our holiday comes from.

The thing is, this is a very nice story and one every kid in America learns at a young age. But we don’t really think about what kind of people the Puritans were. They were so independent, so unbending, so uninterested in being part of a larger society, that they traveled all the way across the ocean to get away from governments. They were willing to die (and did die) in order to be “free” of any regulation on their lives.

And this brings me to Raees (haha! You probably didn’t think I could get there!). The Pilgrims didn’t actually live “alone”. They were surrounded by the larger Masachussetts civilization. But they held themselves apart, they didn’t interact with it. They figured out ways to be more or less self-sufficient (once Squanto had helped them understand how to farm) and just went their own way. That’s the kind of community that I think, to this day, is far more common America than anywhere else. Not just people choosing to go into the wilderness and be “off the grid”, but who communities that live that way.

Picture this, but in the 1600s in England. That’s why the Pilgrims left, their little alternate community was under attack. Heck, it’s in the movie!!! Raees wanted to buy new land outside the city and move the whole neighborhood to a place they could start fresh and be free.

The easy comparison in Indian culture is all those villages where the old Landlord family, or else the Panchayat, rules everything. Where modern Indian laws (like, say, marriage age) have no effect. But I don’t actually think that is the same. That is people who are stuck in the passed, living by rules that far preceded modern India. There’s something different about a community that has pulled farther away from “modern” life and moved forward to create it’s own new rules. Like the Puritans, Separatists of Separatists, looking for a newer new way.

The community in Raees was that. People living in urban areas in modern India, loving modern India, but wanting to go even farther. No return to Panchayats and child marriages, instead using illegal means and an illegal society to fund schools, free kitchens, all kinds of new ideas that are even newer than the old new ideas.

The thing is, when you isolate your community from the world, you can create change in that community without needing to drag everyone else forward with you. In Raees, Shahrukh’s character understood that the whole community was already part of the illegal alcohol trade just by looking the other way. He decided to take it even farther, spread the wealth, spread the employment, make a society within a society that was structured around alcohol, but became so much more than that. Raees is sold as a movie about a bootlegger, but really it is a movie about Pilgrims, about people forming their own society outside of society. The real shocker of that film isn’t all the alcohol smuggling, it is that this outlaw society was more fair, more safe, more right, than “real” society.

And that’s why they had to change the ending. In real life, the person Raees was loosely based on wasn’t killed. He was elected to political office and was successful. It worked. “Crime” did, in fact, pay.

And in America, that’s why we have to change the beginning of the Thanksgiving story. It isn’t about a bunch of radicals who broke from civilization and formed an outlaw society. It is about Noble Pilgrims who settled and made a boring safe stable society. Because if you start to think too much about the Pilgrims, or the American Revolution, or any of that, you may realize that the outlaws sometimes are right, and sometimes win.


6 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Thinky Post: Pilgrims, Raees, and Outlaws

  1. In the film you want Raees to make it, to become the politician. But regardless of reality, I have to admit his film death makes him only part of the story. The story of the policeman who kills him comes forward and the society as a whole that created them both… Thanks for highlighting the decimation of American civilizations when the Pilgrims arrived. One of the joys of living right next to a reservation is that none of my children had to recreate the non-existent peace and harmony first thanksgiving plays common in our country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Illinois is really REALLY weird in terms of our relationship with the pre-European civilizations. When I got to college and had an American history teacher explain how the diseases traveled so much faster than the settlers, it made a lot more sense. By the time the first Europeans arrived in IL, the only people here were subsistence hunter gatherer communities. We had two straight up no cheating actual fair war battles, and then they took a big pay out and signed a treaty and left. And those wars happened before the major settler movements, the non-European civilization was so sparse that the American army never got involved, it was just some random early settlers (Abraham Lincoln!) forming up a militia and riding out. By the time the first big boom of settlers arrived, the state was totally empty of any non-European communities. We were taught in school the Mayflower myth, and also generally learned about pre-European civilization as something strange and special and kind of like a fairy tale.

      And then years later, as an adult, I learned that the random state park we drove over to once when I was a kid has the LARGEST EARTH MOVING MONUMENT IN THE WORLD!!!!! The Cohokia mounds are bigger than the pyramids, whatever civilization was here before the Europeans was clearly one of the largest strongest and most settled civilizations in North America, But they were all wiped out by disease decades before the first European got here. Heck, that’s even why Illinois is such a lush land, this massive dead civilization plowed the earth and prepared the ground for agriculture, and then died, and 200 years later my ancestors showed up and replowed the land and planted it again.

      Anyway, I totally bought into the myth of fair dealing because that’s what our local history was. But really we were vultures and scavengers, took over the homes of the dead and chased out their few descendents. The IL settlers did nothing wrong, but how much culpability do we share for the earlier settlers who spread the disease that cleared the land ahead of us?

      Also, why the heck are the Cahokia mounds so little known and why have I only been there once in my life? Bigger than the pyramids! A 4 hour drive away! And yet, I don’t bother.

      On Fri, Nov 27, 2020 at 6:33 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t really understand the toll of disease on Native populations in the Americas until I was an adult. I was reading 500 Nations and a bit described the first Western observations of communities in Florida, and then, second observations 20 years later. In 20 years it was like a whole civilization vanished. Where we live we can visit sites, caves, old villages, of prehistoric people. The Paiute mostly lived in the northern part of our valley, but before them, other people lived here, maybe related, but maybe not. It is interesting when it comes to the idea of ancestors. One thing I know, is that the prehistoric people who lived here were short. At one site there is a rock overhang, under which are numerous grinding holes. My children can sit comfortably there, but I, at 5ft, 4inches, am too tall. We used to be able to reach our hands into a ledge and find the stones stored away for grinding, but within the last year those stones were stolen. BLM land. If it was in a national park it would have been guarded and a major attraction.

        Liked by 1 person

        • My Mom reminded me about the bluffs in the park in the town where my grandfather grew up. It’s called “Indian Bluff” park I think, or something like that. Everyone knows they are old burial mounds, but no one thinks to excavate or anything, they just know they are there and built a park around it. Although now that I think about it, the most interesting thing is probably that right next to that park was the first cematary for Europeans. So two cultures separated by a gap of loss of population, but both ended up burying their dead in the same place.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. This version of the origin story of Thanksgiving accepts a large amount of national myth building that started during the Civil War (not coincidentally shortly before the last Indian Wars) before which Thanksgiving wasn’t a national observance. And I think talking about the Puritans as exceptionally modern is a bit of a stretch – they wanted total control over their own religious practices, but didn’t extend the belief that they should be free to worship as they chose to anyone else. But where I can see a parallel is in the relationship to state power. The Church of England did accept some religious reform, but mostly it was a transfer of wealth and political and religious authority from Rome to the English monarchy. The Puritans defied this power structure and tried to create the separate community you describe. Raees shows the same entanglement of religion with political power, and the minority community’s attempt to create a separate enclave that defies the rules imposed by the majority. What’s interesting, in both the real life Raees and the Puritans later in US history, is once you introduce democracy as a way of apportioning political power, it becomes possible for the minority to become part of the power structure and change the rules, or be assimilated and moderated by the need for political compromise. I guess that story was too subversive for the movie to tell?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m thinking it was too subversive. I know there is also a major issue in Indian government related to reserved seats for religious minority in governments, even having that as part of the discussion changes EVERYTHING.

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