When he stepped ashore in October 1492, in what he understood to be part of India or Japan, Christopher Columbus’s first act was to claim possession of the land for the Spanish crown. After that, he distributed cloth caps, glass beads, bits of broken crockery, “and many other things of little value” to its inhabitants, recording in his diary that they were a “very simple” people, who could easily “be kept as captives…[and] all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” They reminded him of the aboriginals of the Canary Islands, the most recent victims of Castilian conquest, Christianization, and enslavement. “They are the colour of the Canarians, neither black nor white,” he observed.
Columbus also believed that the “Indians” regarded him and his crew as celestial beings. His earliest description of this, two days after landfall, was unsure: “We understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven.” But speculation soon hardened into certainty. Though the natives “were very sorry that they could not understand me, nor I them,” Columbus nonetheless confidently surmised that they were “convinced that we come from the heavens.” Every tribe he met seemed to think the same: it explained why they were all so friendly.
Over the decades that followed, this notion became a staple of Europeans’ accounts of their reception in the New World. According to the sixteenth-century Universal History of the Things of New Spain, compiled by a Franciscan friar in Mexico, Hernán Cortés’s lightning capture of Moctezuma’s empire in 1519 was made possible by the Aztecs’ misapprehension that he was “the god Quetzalcoatl who was returning, whom they had been and are expecting.” The following year, while rounding the tip of South America, Ferdinand Magellan’s crew encountered a giant native, “and when he was before us he began to be astonished, and to be afraid, and he raised one finger on high, thinking that we came from heaven.” The Incas of Peru initially received Francisco Pizarro as an incarnation of the god Viracocha, so one of his companions later wrote, and venerated the conquistadors because “they believed that some deity was enclosed within them.”
It was a popular, endlessly elaborated trope. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, white men colonizing other parts of the world were hardly surprised anymore to encounter similar instances of mistaken deification. After all, the error seemed to encapsulate the innocence, intellectual inferiority, and instinctive submissiveness of the peoples they were born to rule. What’s more, as Anna Della Subin explores in her bracingly original Accidental Gods, unsought divinity was a remarkably widespread phenomenon that spanned centuries and continents.
In Guiana, the long-lived prophecy of “Walterali” commemorated Sir Walter Raleigh’s supposedly providential exploits against the Spaniards. In Hawaii, the death of Captain James Cook came to be regarded as the tragic apotheosis of a man mistaken for a god. Across British India, shrines sprang up around the graves and statues of colonists who were worshiped as deities with supernatural powers. The tomb of Sir Thomas Beckwith in Mahabaleshwar acquired a clay doll in his image, which received offerings of plates of warm rice. In Bombay, the effigy of Lord Cornwallis, the former governor-general, came to be permanently festooned with garlands and beset by pilgrims performing darshan, the auspicious ritual of seeing and being seen by a god who was present inside his likenesses.
Even as they battled to convert the local heathens from their misguided ways, Christian missionaries met the same fate. Long after he’d returned to Scotland, a portrait of the first chaplain of St. Andrew’s Church in Bombay, the Presbyterian James Clow, became the object of pagan veneration. In the church vestry, the congregation’s “native servants” offered up ritual homage to it and tried to carry off pieces of the canvas as personal talismans.
An especially celebrated cult grew up around the ferocious soldier John Nicholson, a staunchly Protestant Northern Irishman who’d begun his career in the disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, then rose to become deputy commissioner successively of Peshawar and Rawalpindi. He was an unspeakably brutal man, who kept a severed human head on his desk, frequently expressed his immense hatred for the entire subcontinent, and begged his superiors to allow him to flay alive and impale suspected rebels—so instinctively violent were his proclivities that “the idea of merely hanging” insubordinate Indians was “maddening” to him. Yet before he died, while leading the pitiless British invasion, slaughter, and looting of Delhi in 1857, he had inspired a cult of hundreds of indigenous “Nikalsaini” followers, army sepoys and ascetic faqirs alike, who surrounded his unwilling figure at all hours, solemnly chanting prayers and rendering obeisance to their idol.
Something similar befell General Douglas MacArthur, the conquering hero of World War II. From Panama to Japan, Korea to Melanesia, his persona was made to take on divine properties of different kinds, in the form of wooden ritual statues, shamanistic shrines, and spirit persons, and as an avatar of the Papuan god Manarmakeri, whose return will herald the age of heaven. Even Western anthropologists not infrequently became enmeshed as involuntary deities in the very value systems they were trying, as neutral, external observers, to describe.
Resistance was always futile: disclaiming one’s divinity never seemed to dispel it. Nicholson was deeply revolted at being worshiped. He raged against the Nikalsainis who followed him around, kicked them into the dirt, beat and whipped them savagely, and imprisoned them in chains, yet they interpreted all this as “their god’s righteous chastisement.” “I am not God,” Gandhi repeatedly yet fruitlessly declared from the early 1920s on, as ever more elaborate tales began to spread about his supernatural powers, and he was pestered incessantly by people wishing to touch his feet. “The word ‘Mahatma’ stinks in my nostrils”—“I am not God; I am a human being.”
In 1961 a group of Jamaican Rastafarians traveled to Addis Ababa to meet for the first time with their living god, Haile Selassie. They were unfazed by the aging Ethiopian emperor’s own stance on the matter: “If He does not believe He is god, we know that He is god,” his apostles maintained. In despair, the Jamaican government invited Selassie for a state visit, hoping that his public disavowal of their delusions would sap the movement’s growing strength and political clout. “Do not worship me: I am not God,” the diminutive septuagenarian politely beseeched his dazzled followers when he arrived in the Caribbean. But this only had the opposite effect, for Rastafarian theologians knew full well what the Bible taught: “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted, and he that exalteth himself shall be abased.”
What are we to make of such episodes? As Accidental Gods brilliantly lays out, European observers were quick to jump to obvious-seeming conclusions. Accidental divinity bespoke the natives’ recognition of the personal greatness of their overlords: Nicholson was adored because he epitomized “the finest, manliest, and noblest of men,” as a typical Victorian paean put it. The question of why such worship sometimes alighted on arbitrary, obscure, and unheroic figures (violent sadists, deserters, anonymous memsahibs) was submerged beneath the general idea of effeminate natives in thrall to their masculine conquerors.
It was also believed to testify to their intellectual inferiority. As the academic study of religious beliefs developed over the course of the nineteenth century, European scholars defined “religion” in ways that classified the practices of “uncivilized races” as superstitious, backward, or “degenerate”—thereby further justifying colonialism. Compared to “real” religions with fixed temples, scriptures, and “rational,” monotheistic worship, above all Christianity, the beliefs of “the lower races,” they theorized, were stuck in an earlier stage of development. The worship of deified men was a primitive category error, “the irrational, misfired devotions of locals left to their own devices,” in one of Subin’s many luminous turns of phrase: proof of their inability to rule themselves.
In reality, from Columbus onward, Europeans repeatedly blundered into situations they didn’t properly understand and whose meaning they then invariably recast as vindicating their own actions. Across the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia, the indigenous terms and rituals applied to them were in fact commonly used of rulers and other powerful figures, not just of deities, and signified only awe, not some separate, nonhuman, “godlike” status. Likewise, because sudden death precluded reincarnation, people in India had for millennia been accustomed to appeasing the powerful spirits of those who were therefore eternally trapped in the afterlife—that, not reverence for white superpower, was why they singled out many random, prematurely deceased Britons for the same treatment. Nor was the apotheosis of living colonists usually intended to honor them, let alone to reflect some personal virtue: it was simply a way of mediating and appropriating their power, one way of creating collective meaning in the midst of imperial precarity and violence.
Above all, the very idea of a binary division between humanity and divinity was itself a peculiarly Christian dogma. In most other belief systems, the two were not strictly separated but overlapped. Reincarnations, communications with the spirit world, living gods, avatars, demigods, ancestor deities, and the powers of kings and lords—all were part of an interwoven spectrum of natural and supernatural authority. Much the same had been true in European antiquity. The ancient Greeks thought it normal for men to become gods. Among the Romans, apotheosis became a tool of statecraft, the ultimate form of memorialization. Cicero wanted to deify his daughter, Tullia; Hadrian arranged it for his wife and his mother-in-law, as well as for his young lover, Antinous. For emperors, it became a routine accolade—“Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god,” Vespasian is said to have joked on his deathbed in 79 CE.
Similar ideas circulated among Jesus’ early followers. It was only from the Middle Ages on that the notion of humans being treated as gods came to be regarded by Christians as absurd, despite the fact that their own prophet, saints, and holy persons embodied similar principles. And so it happened that modern Europeans ventured abroad and began to impose their own category errors on the views of others. As Subin tartly observes, “correct knowledge about divinity is never a matter of the best doctrine, but of who possesses the more powerful army.”
Though Accidental Gods wears its learning lightly and is tremendous fun to read, it also includes a series of lyrical and thought-provoking meditations on the largest of themes. How should we think of identity? What is it to be human? How do stories work, grow, and stay alive? Belief itself, Subin suggests, is as much a set of relationships among people as it is an absolute, on-or-off state of mind. European myths about the primitive mentalities of others served to justify colonization and theories of white supremacy, and still do. Regarding indigenous practices as antithetical to the “reasoned” presumptions of “developed” cultures has always allowed Western observers to overlook their complicity in creating them—to see them only as the errors of “superstitious minds, the tendencies of isolated atolls, rather than a product of the violence of empire and the shackling of peoples to new capitalist machineries of profit.”
It also serves to mask the extent to which Western attitudes depend on their own forms of magical thinking. Our culture, for example, fetishizes goods, money, and material consumption, holding them up as indices of personal and social well-being. Moreover, as Subin points out, none of us can truly escape this fixation:
Though we may demystify other people’s gods and deface their idols, our critical capacity to demystify the commodity fetish still cannot break the spell it wields over us, for its power is rooted in deep structures of social practice rather than simple belief. While fetishes made by African priests were denigrated as irrational, the fetish of the capitalist marketplace has long been viewed as the epitome of rationalism.
To see a myth is one thing; to grasp it fully, quite another. It turns over, changes its shape, slips away, fades out of view. The further back in time Subin ventures, the more fragmentary her sources become, the larger the gaps in what they choose to notice. But more than once she is able to illustrate, almost in real time, how indigenous and Western mythmaking can be intertwined, codependent, and mutually reinforcing.
Following its “discovery” by Captain Cook in 1774, the Melanesian island of Tanna was devastated by centuries of colonial exploitation: its population kidnapped to provide cheap labor, its landscape stripped bare for short-term profit, its culture destroyed by missionary indoctrination. By the early twentieth century this treatment had provoked a series of indigenous messianic movements that looked forward to the expelling of the colonizers and the return of a golden age of plenty. The messiah would incarnate a local volcano god, it was believed, though the exact human form he would take was not clear.
One perennially popular idea was that the savior would appear as an American (perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt, perhaps a black GI). This was because the island was under British and French control—movements of deification provoked by colonial injustice often sought to access the power of their tormentors’ rivals or enemies. In 1964 the Lavongai people of the occupied Papua and New Guinea territory sabotaged the elections organized by their colonial masters by writing in the name of President Lyndon B. Johnson, electing him as their king and then refusing to pay taxes to their Australian oppressors. On similar grounds, midcentury Indian and African religious sects sometimes deployed avatars of Britain’s enemies—in India, Hitler was seen as the final coming of Vishnu, while Nigerians worshiped “Germany, Destroyer of Land”: My enemy’s enemy is my friend.
During World War I, indigenous populations in far-flung Allied colonies independently developed cults of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, it was said, would shortly sweep away the English-speaking whites who had stolen their land and were exploiting their people. High above the Bay of Bengal, on the plateau of Chota Nagpur, tens of thousands of Oraon tea plantation workers gathered at clandestine midnight services and swore blood oaths to exterminate the British. They spoke of the Germans as “Suraj Baba” (Father Sun), passed around the emperor-god’s portrait, and sang hymns to his casting out of the British and establishing an independent Oraon raj:
German Baba is coming,
Is slowly slowly coming;
Drive away the devils:
Cast them adrift in the sea.
Suraj Baba is coming…
The salient point is not that such hopes were untethered from reality, but what they expressed. For what can the powerless do? To what can they appeal to restore the rightful order of things, in the face of endless loss? “Do you know that America kills all Negroes?” a Papuan skeptic challenged one of LBJ’s apostles in 1964. “You’re clever,” the apostle replied. “But you haven’t got a good way to save us.”
Around this time, the British colonizers of Tanna were indoctrinating its inhabitants in the goodness of their young queen Elizabeth II and her handsome consort—a man, they learned, who was not actually from Britain, or Greece, or anywhere in particular. As it happened, the legend of the volcano god told that one of his sons had taken on human form, traveled far, and married a powerful foreign woman. Prince Philip vacationed in the archipelago and participated in a pig-killing ritual to consecrate a local chief. He was the Duke of Edinburgh, and Tanna’s island group had once been called the New Hebrides. In 1974 one of the many local messianic factions realized that he must be their messiah.
It proved to be a match made in heaven, for the British monarchy itself, in the twilight of its authority, was ever more reliant on invented ritual and mythmaking. Once Buckingham Palace learned of the prince’s deification, it began to celebrate and publicize the story for its own purposes, deftly positioning it as evidence of the affection in which the royal family (and by inference the British) were supposedly held all across the former empire, and as a counterweight to the prince’s well-deserved domestic reputation as an unregenerate racist. This Western interest in turn produced an unceasing stream of international attention and visitors to Tanna, to investigate and report on the islanders’ strange “cult,” which not only helped to strengthen the myth’s local appeal but even influenced its shape.
In 2005 a BBC journalist arrived on the island to report the story, bringing with him a sheaf of documents compiled by the prince’s former private secretary, including official correspondence from the 1970s, press clippings, and other English descriptions of the islanders’ beliefs. His sharing of these papers, and his lengthy discussions with the locals, inadvertently seeded new myths, many of which, as Subin dryly notes, sounded “much like palace PR describing philanthropic activities in an underdeveloped land.” Myths stay alive by constantly adapting, encompassing, and feeding off one another. This was a classic case of mutual mythmaking: the deification of Prince Philip was produced in Buckingham Palace and Fleet Street, as well as in the South Pacific. To this day, white men from Europe and America keep turning up on Tanna, claiming to be fulfilling the prophecy of the returning god.*
In Subin’s irresistible medley of history, anthropology, and exhilaratingly good writing, the most powerful stories are those of indigenous mythmaking as outright political revolt. For in many instances in which white men were turned into gods, the purpose was wholly subversive: not just to channel the strength of the colonial imperium for one’s own ends, but to grasp the colonizers’ power and turn it against them. In 1864 a Maori uprising led by the prophet Te Ua Haumene killed several British soldiers. The head of their captain, speared on a pole, became the rebels’ protective talisman against other white invaders and their divine conduit to the angel Gabriel. Just as they reinterpreted the Bible to mean that Maori land should be restored and the British driven out, so too they appropriated a colonist’s actual mouth and made it speak their truth.
Even more unsettlingly, across their newly conquered African territories, from the 1920s onward British, French, and Belgian administrators found themselves faced with a strange contagion of spirit possession, in which the locals took on the colonists’ identities. People would fall into a trance and then claim to be channeling the governor of the Red Sea or a white soldier, secretary, judge, or imperial administrator. They demanded pith helmets and libations of gin, marched around in undead formations, issued commands, and refused to obey imperial edicts, calling themselves Hauka, or “madness,” in the Sahel, and Zar in Ethiopia and the Sudan.
One version in the Congo claimed to have created deified duplicates of every single colonial Belgian. Each time an African adept joined the movement, he’d adopt the name of a particular colonist, and his wife that of the spouse. In this way, Hauka captured the entire colonial population, from the governor-general down to the lowliest clerk. On entering their trance state, the locals usurped the colonists’ power: the wives went around with chalked faces and wearing special dresses, screeching in shrill voices, demanding bananas and hens, clutching bunches of feathers under their arms in representation of handbags.
Precisely because spirit possession was unwilled and painful, this was a means of resistance that mechanisms of imperial power could not easily counter. Early on, a district commissioner in Niger named Major Horace Crocicchia decided to suppress it by force. He rounded up sixty of the leading Hauka mediums, brought them in chains to the capital, Niamey, and imprisoned them for three days and nights without food. Then he forced them to acknowledge that their spirits could not match his own power, taunting them that he was stronger and that the Hauka had disappeared. “Where are the Hauka?” he jeered repeatedly, beating one of them until she acknowledged that the spirits were gone.
It only made things worse. Almost immediately a new, extremely powerful specter joined the spirit pantheon. All across Niger, villagers were now possessed by the vengeful, violent avatar of Crocicchia himself—also known as Krosisya, Kommandan, Major Mugu, or the Wicked Major. Deification of this kind was a form of ritualized revolt, a defiance of imperialist power that not only mocked but appropriated its authority.
All this also explains why, toward the middle of the twentieth century, the rise of a powerful, proud, anti-imperialist black ruler at the heart of Africa was so intoxicating to people on the other side of the globe who had been dehumanized for centuries because of the color of their skin. For black people in the Babylonian captivity of the New World, Ethiopia had long been held up as Zion, the land of their future return. Even before its dashing new emperor was crowned in 1930, American and Jamaican prophecies had begun to foretell the coming of a black messiah. Rastafarianism became a religion for all who opposed white hegemony: to worship Haile Selassie as a living god was to reject colonial Christianity, racial hierarchy, and subordination, and to celebrate black power. No wonder its tenets have spread across the globe and attracted nearly a million followers. As Subin’s rich, captivating book shows, religion is a symbolic act: though we cannot control the circumstances, we all make our own gods, for our own reasons, all the time.
This is evocatively documented in the photographs, images, and text of Jon Tonks and Christopher Lord, The Men Who Would Be King (Dewi Lewis, 2021). ↩