Historian John R. Gramm characterized Mary Rowlandson, an Englishwoman captured by allied Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag warriors during King Philip’s War (1675-1676), as “both a victim and colonizer.” This is correct, and observed in what is often labeled the first American bestseller. Rowlandson’s narrative of her experience, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, is written through these inseparable lenses, a union inherent to the psychology of settler colonialism (to be a colonizer is to be a “victim”) and other power systems. Reading the narrative through both lenses, rather than one, avoids both dehumanization and a colonizer mindset, allowing for a more nuanced study.
Rowlandson as victim appears on the first page, with her town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, attacked by the aforementioned tribes: “Houses were burning,” women and children clubbed to death, a man dying from “split open…Bowels.” At the final page, after she was held against her will for three months, forced to work, and ransomed for twenty pounds, she was still elaborating on the “affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over” — that cup of divinely ordained hardships. Between war, bondage, the loss of her infant, and the elements such as hunger and cold, Rowlandson was a woman experiencing trauma, swept up in events and horrors beyond her control. “My heart began to fail,” she wrote, signifying her pain, “and I fell a weeping…”
Rowlandson knew she was a victim. She did not know she was a colonizer, at least not in any negatively connoted fashion. Also from opening to close are expressions of racial and moral superiority. Native peoples are “dogs,” “beasts,” “merciless and cruel,” marked by “savageness and brutishness.” She saw “a vast difference between the lovely faces of Christians, and the foul looks of these Heathens,” whose land was unadulterated “wilderness.” Puritan society was civilization, native society was animalistic. That Rowlandson’s views persist despite her deeper understanding of and integration with Wompanoag society could be read as evidence of especially strong prejudices (though publication of her work may have required toeing the Puritan line). Regardless, her consciousness was thoroughly defined by religion and what historian Kristen Fischer called the “imperial gaze.” Rowlandson’s town of Lancaster was in the borderlands, meaning more conflict with Native Americans; she was a prosperous minister’s wife, making religion an even more central part of her life than the average Puritan woman. (Compare this to someone like midwife Martha Ballard, whose distance from Native Americans and lower social class built a consciousness around her labor and relationships with other working women.) Not only is the distinction between herself (civilized) and them (beastly) clear in Rowlandson’s mind, so is the religious difference — though for many European Americans Christianity and civilization were one and the same. The English victims are always described as “Christians,” which positions the native warriors as heathen Others (she of course makes this explicit as well, as noted).
These perspectives, of victim and colonizer, cannot be easily parsed apart. Setting aside Rowlandson’s kidnapping for a moment, settler colonization in some contexts requires a general attitude of victimhood. If “savages” are occupying land you believe God granted to you, as Increase Mather, who wrote Rowlandson’s preface, stated plainly, that is a wrong that can be addressed with violence. Rowlandson is then a victim twofold. First, her Puritan promised land was being occupied by native peoples. Second, she was violently captured and held. To be a colonizer is to be a victim, by having “your” land violated by societies there before you, and by experiencing the counter-violence wrought by your colonization.
To only read Rowlandson’s captivity as victimhood is to simply adopt Rowlandson’s viewpoint, ignoring the fact that she is a foreigner with attitudes of racial and religious superiority who has encroached on land belonging to native societies. To read the captivity only through a colonizer lens, focusing on her troubling presence and views, is to dehumanize Rowlandson and ignore her emotional and physical suffering. When Chief Weetamoo’s infant dies, Rowlandson “could not much condole” with the Wampanoags, due to so many “sorrowfull dayes” of her own, including losing her own baby. She sees only the “benefit…more room.” This callousness could be interpreted as a belief that Native Americans did not suffer like full human beings, mental resistance to an acknowledgement that might throw colonialism into question. That is the colonizer lens. Yet from a victim-centered reading, it is difficult to imagine many contexts wherein a kidnapped person would feel much sympathy for those responsible for her captivity and servitude, the deaths of her infant and neighbors, and so on. Victim and colonizer indeed.
 John R. Gramm (lecture, Missouri State University, February 15, 2022).
 Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 74.
 Ibid., 118.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 76-77, 113-114.
 Ibid., 100, 76.
 Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-19.
 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999). Ballard and her husband, a working middle-class woman and a tax collector, faced financial hardship and ended up living in “semi-dependence on their son’s land”; see page 265. Compare this to Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 15-16: coming from and marrying into large landowning families, Rowlandson did not need to work to survive. Given her background, her consciousness goes beyond women and work, to larger collective concerns of community, civilization, and faith.
 Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 28.
Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 11.
 Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 97.
 Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 282.