Markéta Křížová: “Native Americans and Inuits commemorated the death of John Hus”

Source: Nicolas de Fer, Atlas of Canada, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

Colonial history has increasingly come into the spotlight over the past years. The Czechs of course didn’t colonise any other countries – but that doesn’t mean they had no involvement at all in this controversial episode in European history. Charles University historian Markéta Křížová, an expert on pre-Colombian civilisations and American colonial history, has done a lot research into Czechs and colonialism. In part one of this two-part interview with Professor Křížová, the focus is on the activities of Czech adventurers and missionaries during the early days of colonial settlement.

Markéta Křížová, photo: Prokop Havel, Czech Radio

Professor Křížová, the Czech Republic is a landlocked country in the middle of Europe. Does it even have a colonial past?

“Well, what do you call a colonial past? Of course neither the Czech kingdom nor the Austro-Hungarian Empire, up to the very last decades of their existence, actively pursued colonial activities. The political entity of the Czech lands never owned or dominated any non-European region. However, there were people born in the Czech lands that took part in colonial ventures in the service of various imperial powers.

“There was what I can call ‘colonial phantasies’, a colonial complicity as it is called in contemporary historical literature. That means that the intellectuals within Czech lands discussed colonial issues and actually formulated plans for more active involvement of Czechs in these activities.

“Intellectuals within Czech lands discussed colonial issues and actually formulated plans for more active involvement of Czechs in these activities.”

“Last but not least, the Czech lands benefited from the general wellbeing of Europe caused by colonial expansion. They benefited from the triangular trade system, from imports of new products and materials. Our present wellbeing is also a result of these processes.”

Augustin Herman, author: Jacques Reich, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

Speaking of Czech colonists, tell me about Augustin Herman. I understand he was a Czech explorer, merchant and cartographer and established an enormous plantation in what is today Maryland, US, that he named Bohemia Manor?

“He was also a pirate and a slave trader, which is interesting because he was one of the many emigrants, or exiles, which left the Czech lands after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. That was at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, when the whole protestant section of Czech society lost and the whole population was forced to convert to Catholicism leading many Protestants to leave the country. Why I am mentioning this is because this wave of migration is portrayed very positively in Czech historiography. All of the emigrants are considered good people.

Virginia and Maryland by Augustin Herman, source: David Rumsey Maps, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

“Augustin Herman was of course a part of this fantastic multinational and multicultural community in the Atlantic. He made use of the opportunities open to him. He probably started in the Netherlands and settled in the English colonies. What is interesting is that he maintained his allegiance to his native Czech land, a land identity in a sense as it is too early to call it a national identity. He was a cartographer and he named various landmarks in Maryland with Bohemian titles, such as the Three Bohemian Sisters, Bohemian River and Bohemian Estate.”

What about missionaries? Were there any Czech missionaries who went out to spread their faith beyond the continent?

“Many of the wealthy patrons of Comenius during his years in Britain and the Netherlands were slave traders, so the great humanist was supported by slave money.”

“Yes. We know a lot. However, I would like to add something about John Amos Comenius [the famous Bohemian pedagogue]. There is one item I would like to mention to show that history is not black and white - many of the wealthy patrons of Comenius during his years in Britain and the Netherlands were slave traders. So the great humanist was supported by slave money.”

Although I suppose that in 500 years’ time people may dismiss us as oil traders, or foreign labour exploiters. We seem to forget that in their world things operated differently. Or am I wrong?

Augustin Herman's map of the Chesapeake Bay, source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0

“Precisely. That is what I am trying to say. I am not putting blame on anyone. I am saying that was the Atlantic world and the Czech lands were part of it. The important thing is what you ask towards the end. We could ask whether these things should be taught at schools?

“One of my arguments is that of course nowadays many of those attitudes and things that were done seem despicable. However, perhaps some of the things that we consider moral or beneficial to humanity may be perceived completely negatively in 200 years’ time. But that is precisely why I feel it is necessary to mention this, because it shows the complicated intertwining nature of religion, trade and I think we will touch on this with the missionaries actually.”

I was planning on asking you that question about education towards the end, but, for now, let us stick to the missionaries. I am particularly interested in whether there were any missionaries of a typically Czech imprint on the Christian religion such as Utraquists (Hussites), or Protestant groups?

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, author: Xavier Donald Macleod, Flickr, CC0

“There were basically, two groups of Czech missionaries that had their roots in the Czech lands. The first were the Jesuits. The Jesuits came to Bohemia already when Saint Ignatius of Loyola [the founder of the order] was still alive. It was a very interesting moment. I have seen the documents. The Spanish Jesuits who arrived in Bohemia actually considered that country not much better than Africa, Asia or America. They were talking about being in a desert, or in a forest full of wild beasts and building a fortress.

I suppose that makes sense in a way if viewed through the prism of a Christian ‘battle for souls’.


“Then they educated the first and second generation of Jesuits who were deeply tied to their native land and deeply affected by the fact that even 50 years after the Battle of White Mountain, Bohemia was considered almost a pagan country. These young and enthusiastic Jesuits were pained by this and so, when they went to America or Asia, they not only contributed of the general objectives of the Jesuit order, but also fulfilled their duty to their mother country, spreading the fame of a Catholic Bohemia. They proudly thought of themselves as bringing light to other people because their predecessors brought light to their fellow countrymen.

Bust of Samuel Fritz in Peru, photo: Simona Binková

“In total, there were around 150 Jesuits from Bohemia. It is difficult to say that they were Czechs, There were some like Josef Neumann who was born in Brussels to some German speaking servants at the Habsburg court, but he entered the Jesuit order at Olomouc and he forever considered himself as a Bohemian in the sense of belonging to that province. He was a long term missionary in Mexico and wrote a book about the Tarahumara Uprising which was published at Charles University. There were others such as Samuel Fritz who drew the first map of the Amazon. There was also lay brother Camel from Brno who was an apothecary in the Philippines and did wonderful botanical studies. His findings are still preserved at the Museum of Natural History in London.

Herrnhut - Unity of Brethren’ refuge in Saxony, source: Deutsche Fotothek

“Then there were missionaries that also claimed allegiance to Bohemia, or rather Moravia and these were Protestants. They were members of the so called Moravian Church, or the Unity of Brethren (Jednota bratrská), which was founded at the beginning of the 18th century by a group of Protestant exiles, another wave of migration after the re-Catholization of Bohemia intensified at the end of the 17th century. They found refuge in Saxony at the estate of a certain Count Zinzendorf. They founded this church explicitly related to Comenius, Czech Utraquism and Protestantism.

“When I was studying this Moravian missionary activity…I came across several absurd events when Native Americans, Inuits from the island of Labrador, or African slaves in Jamaica are commemorating the death of John Hus, or the birthday of Comenius.”

“Many of the first generation of missionaries, who came from this church, were actually born in Bohemia. The latter generations were of various nationalities but they were still keeping the memory of Bohemia. When I was studying this Moravian missionary activity in North America or the Caribbean I came across several absurd events when Native Americans, Inuits from the island of Labrador, or African slaves in Jamaica are commemorating the death of John Hus, or the birthday of Comenius.”

Wow, that is fascinating. There may perhaps be people listening to us from all parts of the world, so what are the most well-known names or places around the world that were inspired by Czechs, or named by Czech explorers?

Johan von Nepomuk, photo: Tereza Kalkusová

“In Mexico there were churches named by them. In California there is a port named after Johan von Nepomuk.”

You were also saying that there were natives commemorating, or mourning the death of John Hus. I was wondering, how did you discover that?

“The city they founded still exists. It is called Herrnhut, Ochranov in Czech. The name is a pun where Herrnhut means ‘lord’s hut’, but also ‘under the protection of the lord’. This little town was founded in 1723 near the German city of Zittau, which is just about 50 kilometres away from the Czech city of Liberec. This city still is the centre of the Moravian Church until today and it has an enormous archive. It is huge, because the city exists until today and the collection is thus still expanding. There is also a fantastic ethnographic museum there which contains exhibits from various parts of the world, so there are letters, drawings and other items. These Moravian missionaries were explicitly transnational. They remembered Moravia as their place of origin, but also as a place of persecution.

Carl Hagenbeck, photo: Atelier Theodor Reimers, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

“I will tell you one story. At the end of the 19th century there was this great interest among the European public in ethnographic shows. Natives from all over the world were brought to Europe and exhibited to paying audiences, usually in the Zoos together with animals that were typical of their place of origin. One of the first groups that came to Europe, and actually passed through Prague, was a group of Inuits from the Labrador Peninsula and one of the families among them was part of the Moravian mission. They were recruited by a Hamburger entrepreneur called Hagenbeck.

“Even though the Moravian missionaries did not want them to go, the father of the family insisted. One of the reasons why he wanted to do so was, because he was sure he would go to Prague, the original land where John Hus and Comenius were born. However, at the same time he knew that his brethren were being persecuted in Bohemia. He was literate and kept a diary. It is a very sad story, because the whole family died from smallpox. However, the diary was preserved.

“This Inuit man was writing in Prague saying: ‘We are now in Prague, the country of the Catholics. We are afraid of going out, so that the Catholics do not kill us.’ But, of course, the audience did not see Czech Brethren, they saw barbaric Eskymos, so there was a complete misunderstanding.”

Miskito Coast, author: Thomas Strangeways, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

Did these Moravian Protestants succeed in pushing through their religious views in a lasting fashion? In other words, are there places today where we still see a bit of that?

“There are. For example, this was another topic I studied in detail - the so-called Miskito Coast on the eastern coast of today’s Nicaragua. It was settled by English and Dutch pirates. It developed as a sort of quasi-colony, quasi-protectorate, which then existed for some time as the Miskito Kingdom under the protection of Great Britain until the end of the 19th century when it was forcibly joined with Nicaragua. However, it still maintains a specific identity.

Miskito Coast, source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0

“The Moravians came there in the middle of the 19th century accompanying a failed German settlement effort to establish a merchant colony. Most of the German colonists left again or died, but the Moravians stayed. They helped the local inhabitants to develop their specific identity. They helped them to establish their language as a language of prestige, because up until then English was the only language of prestige. They still have a school named after Comenius with his statue in front of it.

“Suddenly there arrived these missionaries who spoke German, learned the local language and started teaching it as a literary language. They helped to forge something like a specific Miskito identity, which was Protestant. It was a specific variant of Protestantism while the rest of Nicaragua was Catholic.

Miskito Coast, source: DaDez, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“The problem was that this specific identity kept until the end of the 20th century and, during the civil war in Nicaragua, the Miskito Coast was a place of some very fierce killings. Precisely because of their local identity, the locals could not join this general, let’s say, Spanish speaking revolutionary spirit of the revolution.

That is very nice what you are saying, but it also sounds kind of tragic.

“It was a very difficult situation, because although it was a very poor and almost uninhabitable region, it was important strategically. It was one of the places considered for the building of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.”

“There were powers fighting for this region and the local inhabitants were a very heterogeneous lot. There were remnants of various native tribes, black ex-slaves from the Caribbean, descendants of various pirates. And they were all forged together via this religious and cultural inspiration from the Moravians who somehow also got incorporated and identified pretty well with this new political entity.”

In part two of this interview with Professor Křížová we will discuss Czech nineteenth and twentieth century colonial phantasies, the plans for acquiring Togo and Jan Baťa’s idea of settling Czechs in the south of Brazil.