Food Diplomacy, Victual Imperialism, and Victual Warfare

A Food Studies Model for Vast Early America

Rachel B. Herrmann


In the scholarly subfield of what Karin Wulf calls ‘Vast Early America’, food history currently runs into two significant problems. First is the inability to position studies of cooperative food exchange alongside examinations of violent crop and animal destruction, and second and relatedly is the failure to describe U.S. food policy immediately after the American War for Independence. Part of the problem, as Kariann Yakota has observed, is that Americans in the new United States had to ‘unbecome’ colonial Britons before knowing what it is they would become as Americans. U.S. inhabitants tried to constitute their country by seizing land from Native Americans, and so the U.S. government had to craft an Indian policy that was confused and contradictory. At times the government burned Native crops and destroyed Native cattle; at times it attempted to benevolently distribute food aid, and at times it sought to interfere with and reform Native agriculture and husbandry practices while taking Native land.

My book, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution, will be published in November with Cornell University Press, at the time of this conference. No Useless Mouth argues that Native Americans could not lose their land to American landgrabbers until they had lost their fight against hunger with the U.S. government. My book proposes a model of accommodating behaviour (food diplomacy and victual imperialism) and violent behaviour (victual warfare and victual imperialism) as a way of conceptualising Native American efforts to create and maintain their own food systems; as a way to understand how Britons and then Americans learned to intervene in and change those systems; and as a way to delineate how the U.S. government in North America gradually seized control of hunger prevention efforts with a nascent U.S. food policy. The book compares these later efforts with similar British policies in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. This paper would offer the chance to describe this model, to offer some definitions, and to pose some questions about the model’s transferability to other historical subfields as well as other scholarly disciplines.