Of all terrestrial species, only humans ever learned to control fire. They domesticated it to warm their homes, ignited it to turn plants and animals into food, stoked it to transform wood into power, and channeled it to refine ore into currency. Manipulated by human hands, fire became a weapon of war and a conduit for communicating with the gods. Europeans and Native Americans also used fire for unspeakable cruelty during the period of conquest as they fed one another to the flames in the name of their gods. And yet for all the ways that humans used fire to their own ends, it proved a rebellious servant that frequently eluded control by its putative masters.

The collections of the John Carter Brown Library record the inextricable link between fire and all facets of the American experience. The Americas on Fire, guest curated by historians Jake Frederick (Lawrence University, USA) and Júnia Furtado (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil), depicts fire harnessed for agriculture, embraced as a mechanism for communicating with the divine realm, and wielded in combat by Native Americans and European colonizers alike. The exhibition sheds light on how the human experience of the Americas has – for better and for worse – always been shaped by fire.

The Fires of Daily Life

When Europeans wrote about the culture of the Americas, they included within their descriptions many familiar ways that fire pervaded the daily life of native peoples. Fire heated the home and provided flame for cooking. Fire was used to shape wood for practical purposes, such as building canoes or preparing land for cultivation. Fire also served to sanctify religious ceremonies and to facilitate worship. Fire was an instrument of culture, and its many uses had to be handed down with care from generation to generation.

Contact, Confrontation, and Condemnation

As Europeans crossed the Atlantic and attempted to subjugate Native inhabitants, fire served as an instrument of coercion and a measure of and justification for depravity. Ritual cannibalism among the Native peoples of the Americas shocked European observers, who grossly exaggerated the frequency of this practice in accounts presented to Old World readers. Such “savage” behavior helped Spanish conquistadors justify the violent conversion of Native communities.

In response, indigenous populations also put Europeans to the torch, burning them in revenge for mistreatment. The viciousness of the conquistadors would later be used by other European powers as evidence of a characteristically Spanish brutality. In many of the following images, Spanish conquerors are depicted in much the same manner that early Portuguese and Spanish images represented indigenous Americans: as barbaric killers.

Commodities and Consumption

Tobacco and cacao are native to the Americas, and prior to contact, both were unknown in the Old World. These two commodities proved to be among the unforeseen riches of the Americas.  Through the application of fire, each fundamentally changed European tastes. Inhaling the burning fumes of tobacco was imagined to cure a variety of ailments, and its sale was quickly proven to make money. Europeans’ obsession with tobacco transformed this American crop into a global commodity. Long esteemed by Mesoamerican cultures, cacao beans were fermented, toasted, and ground into drinks. Both tobacco and cacao were exchanged as currency as well. 

Fueling Colonization

Europeans and native peoples of the Americas employed fire in the transformation of the landscape, opening up unimagined new spaces for agriculture. Fire's capacity to domesticate landscapes followed Europeans’ incursions across continents. Home fires and signal fires followed European expansion as they sought to "tame" a landscape to their own ends. Fire played a crucial role in expanding commercial enterprises as well. As Spanish colonizers exploited vast silver mines in the colonies, fire was required to smelt ore into ingots, which were then shipped across the Atlantic. Along with ore, sugar thrived on an unprecedented scale in the New World thanks to fire. Brazil and the Caribbean became global centers of sugar production, whereby fire enabled the processing of cane into usable sugar through heating. Sugar production also, tragically, required an enormous amount of human labor, which in turn fueled the transatlantic slave trade. 

Fire as Foe

As much as fire has aided humankind in myriad ways, it remains a force capable of tremendous destruction. Natural fires in the form of volcanoes and prairie fires contributed to an ever-evolving landscape. And yet, while sometimes constructive, these natural processes could be utterly devastating to human endeavors. The Americas are geologically far more active than mainland Europe, and fire and ash often poured over the settlements and ambitions of people and their communities. Fire was also wielded by people who themselves deployed it for destructive purposes. Canadian Natives burned French trade goods in an effort to oppose intrusions into their territory. Conversely, the threat of torture with fire by Natives of Louisiana frightened potential settlers in that region. European pirates and privateers used fire to destroy the settlements of other Europeans as they fought for control over the landscape and riches of the Americas.

Fires of Resistance

The colonial era drew to a close in the conflagrations of the wars of independence, from the late eighteenth- through the early-nineteenth centuries. Across the Americas, fire symbolized the upheaval of revolution, but it also played a more literal role as a tool of warfare. In this final section, we see fire as a representation of unrest in the British North American colonies, as a destructive consequence of warfare in New York, and as a mark of the transition of power from European to American hands in Haiti. In the exhibition’s final image, Haitian leader Henri Christophe stands before burning colonial buildings wielding power in the form of fire. In the guise of a flaming torch, power was symbolically passed – or, more accurately, wrenched – from Europe to the Americas. 


The John Carter Brown Library would like to acknowledge and thank Jake Frederick (Lawrence University, USA) and Júnia Furtado (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) for guest curating "The Americas on Fire."