The History Behind Assassin’s Creed III – Nationalities

Not as simple as Americans Vs British.

The Assassin’s Creed series has always taken its history seriously. An enormous amount of research goes into making sure that the world around our extraordinary protagonist is as  closely tied to reality as possible. So it seemed strange to see fans of the franchise worrying that the apparent “anti-British” themes evident in the trailers for Assassin’s Creed III were an indication that the series was slipping into becoming a kind of bombastic American cheerleader.

In this mini-series of features, I’m hoping to show that defining the approach to the American Revolutionary War using modern day terms of nationality is largely futile. I hope to show the intricacy of cause and reason behind the war and what it meant to people living in that region at that time – the people you’ll be walking among as Ratonhnhaké:ton (or Connor, to make things easier…) in Assassin’s Creed III.

Assassin’s Creed III is set during a time of shifting ideas of nationality. In 2012, most of us have the luxury of being able to define ourselves quite clearly as British or American (or whatever nationality you define yourself as). In the latter half of the 18th century, in those years leading up to the American Revolutionary War, that distinction was not at all clear.

Assassin’s Creed III takes place over 30 years that have defined our modern world, in a region which became the wealthiest, most influential nation on earth. But the view that brave American patriots rousted out morally objectionable British subjugators is hugely over-simplified. Much more complex and subtle notions were at work here and they had wide-ranging repercussions for free people, and people who aspired to be free, around the world. In short, a lot happened in the American colonies between 1753 and 1783.

For more than 20 years of in-game history, a notion of colonists as a united people didn’t even exist. They were British subjects of 13 separate colonies in America, and considered themselves as subjects of the British King. The most separated from Britain they thought themselves was as individual colonists, like Georgians, Virginians, etc.

The notion of an “American” was barely conceived as anything other than a descriptor for which of the British colonies a person lived and worked in. It was barely different to being a Yorkshireman, representation in parliament aside, although it might also be worth noting that the common man in Yorkshire didn’t really have much more representation in parliament at that time – governance was for rich people. As Assassin’s Creed III’s timeline begins, the colonies in America were starting out on their journey towards nationhood.

The first year of those covered by the game is notable as the start of the French and Indian War fought between Britain and the Iroquois on one side, with France, Spain and some Indian tribes including the Algonquin and Shawnee on the other side. The war formally started in 1754 but the visit to the French Fort La Boeuf in Virginia by a young British Lieutenant Colonel, sent to demand they remove themselves from Virginian territory, is the first really notable event.

The French refused, turning the British party back after a civil dinner and the 21-year-old Lieutenant Colonel would report, in Williamsburg, that the French had “swept south” and were fortifying all along the disputed region. Several months later, he would lead his men as the first shots were fired outside Fort Duquesne. That young British Lieutenant Colonel was George Washington.

The last year covered by the game – 1783 – is notable for being the year that the Treaty of Paris was signed. This was the formal end to the war and the first instance that the British recognised the sovereignty of their (now former) colonies in the modern day United States.

This treaty saw the British give up their claim to what is now the Eastern United States, with the colonies forming their own nation from the Great Lakes in the north (Canada, effectively) to Florida in the south (which was French territory). On the west, the new nation was bordered by the Mississippi river. All land to the west of that great river was still claimed by the French and Spanish and wouldn’t become part of the United states until various purchases, annexations, treaties and the war with Mexico.

I should probably also make it clear that the Revolutionary war was not simply fought between colonists and royalists along the Eastern seaboard of the modern day United States.

It was a war between Britain and some German auxiliaries on one side and the colonists, France, Spain and the Dutch on the other. Both sides counted among their allies several Indian nations, the Mohawk and Cherokee probably the most famous of the British-supporting tribes and the Onieda and Tuscarora probably most notable on the colonist side.

It’s one of the great, often forgotten, tragedies that the Indian part played in the birth of a nation was, after the famous conflicts, rewarded with endless redrawing of territories and the massive forced migration of people from their homelands to less hospitable areas of the expanding country.

Even the victors in this war were not averse to the oppression of other nations and peoples if it suited them. It would be almost another 100 years before Abraham Lincoln used his emergency war powers to make the Emancipation Proclamation and even that only assured freedom – not citizenship – to slaves who were kept in the rebelling states of the Confederacy. It would be another two years before the Thirteenth Amendment made good on the Declaration of Independence’s promise of the unalienable right to freedom for all those in the union and another 100 years before that started to become anything like the reality.

It was also a global war. France and Spain threatened to invade England, there was fighting in Gibraltar and the Balearic islands. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the peace it assured was traded for with sovereignty of land as far apart as Florida (which became French) and Negapatnam, a huge swathe of India (which became British).

The intervening years, both the years of the Revolutionary War and those leading up to it, are a densely packed timeline of actions and reactions which are both surprising and yet tinged with some inevitability. During the years straddled by Assassin’s Creed III, many notable people went from considering themselves as nothing other than British subjects to thinking of themselves as having a new nationality – American.

What you will be doing in Assassin’s Creed III is killing British soldiers loyal to the King. We’ve seen that in the game footage that has been shown so far and in the game’s cover art. You’ll be picking off Redcoats, who were the only uniformed standing army in the region for the entirety of the game’s timeline so, from a game design perspective, they present the only logical option for general enemy fodder. Is that any reason to get precious about nationality in 2012? I don’t think so.

You’ll play as a half English, half Mohawk protagonist. Both of those nationalities were on what we now consider to be the British side of the war.

So you’re playing as someone who is most likely allied to the British side but, and this is purely conjecture, probably representing the interests of normal colonists and native people more than the rich merchants and public figures on either side of the Revolutionary War that we’re all familiar with. In killing those British soldiers, you’ll be eliminating members of an army that is attempting to enforce taxation and grossly unfair regulation on people who have no say in how their country is managed.

Would people be so upset to be playing as Robin Hood, an English folk hero who killed British soldiers in protest of the way the people were being taxed unfairly and not given representation in royal court? There’s no reason to assume that Connor is any different, he’s just engaged in a fight a little further from the seat of power.

Assassin’s Creed games have never been about nationality or national wars. They’re always about corruption and subjugation with over-arching themes which also span nationalities. It doesn’t matter that Altair was Palestinian or Ezio was Italian (or, more accurately, Florentine). What mattered, was that they were Assassins fighting against the Templars.

You don’t really play as a Palestinian or a Florentine and there’s no reason to assume you’ll be playing as an American or Englishman. You always play as an assassin fighting against agents of tyrannical corruption and, as we’ve seen, corruption was rife on every side in every conflict throughout this time period.

More in this series:

  • For the second, on in-game locations, click here.
  • For the third, on other important locations, click here.
  • For the fourth, a timeline of some key events, click here.
  • For the fifth, on secret societies we may hear from, click here.

49 Comments

  1. thanks for clearing that up CB, basically all it shows is that there are no ‘americans’ in the game, so all we’ll be slaughtering is the british.
    nice one… im real proud now of my favourite franchise =/

    • And that’s different from attacking the Florentines in the last 3 games?

      • I dont know why I feel this way about this, it just feels…. I don’t know, weird, to be killing your own people, game or not.

      • For someone though it’s always their nationality being killed. At least this is something that actually happened, rather than targeting Russians (for example) as they were “the enemy” for so long in the Cold War.

      • What about the getaway (i think) that was set in London? Were people so bothered then that you were killing English people? In GTA games, you’re killing American citizens, is that so bad?
        Its a game, thats all. If we don’t like the idea we don’t have to buy it.
        As with all AC games these events really did happen to an extent, or at least the historical concept is accurate, so playing your way through a historical event really shouldnt be seen as so bad.

      • They’re not people, they’re pawns, in a game, much like in chess, which I’ve never viewed as a racist game. I think most of us would agree that the taking of any human life (outside of extenuating circumstances) is an abhorrent act, but game characters are not people at all, so what matter race? Personally I find it odd that someone would be ok killing “someone” just because they’re of a different nationality.

    • Why does it matter that were killing Brits in AC3 anyway, we were the enemy of that conflict, we didn’t do the right thing and the right country won that war.
      Somewhere down the line when Ac4,5 and 6 are released one of them could show america as the enemy, maybe during the Vietnam war or the american civil war.

      • “We didn’t do the right thing” is more than debatable., but I agree with your general point.

      • It was more of the fact that when the stamp act was put in place the (what we call Americans now) originally wanted to sort the issue out peacefully (they still flew an american flag that had the union jack in the corner of the flag), we instead opted for the option of shooting them and hoping they fell back into line.

      • I agree with this completely, of course in this case the Americans were the ones fighting against injustice and that’s what AC games are about fighting oppressors, and the English were the oppressing force in this conflict.

        Also most the settlements were the English/American colonials so you need some where to base the game. It would suck not to be able to go anywhere apart from military encampments.

        An other reason to pick the Americans side is that they won the war so that gives you the victory at the end.

      • It wasn’t a country until the wars end. Who is to say what was the right thing to do? Tax was funding the Seven Years War with France that were doing everything they could to destroy us and the colonists clearly weren’t bothered enough not to join sides with them. It is lucky with so many countries joining up against us and being so badly outnumbered in these conflicts that we survived in the numbers we did. Not that the facts will stop the americans claiming they were the ones outnumbered.

  2. Fascinating and incredibly informative. Thank you.

    • Couldn’t have put it better myself.

  3. Bravo Cb, bravo

  4. Great article peter, it was a joy to read.

  5. An excellent piece of writing, I never understood people who were offended by this game, we have been killing Germans, Russians and middle eastern nationalities since the dawn on the ps one. As it was said in the piece the red coats were the only form of gaurds during that time and as we have seen in other AC games the Assassain tends to take a dislike to the authority of the time.

    Can’t wait for this to come out

  6. Personally, i don’t give a toss who i am killing, as someone has to be the enemy & for teh time period, this would be about right.

    I just hope that the British accent is not restricted to either ‘Posh Twonk’ or ‘Cockney Geezah’ like it so often is in games & films.

    • Tbh, I’d love to hear the cockney accent in this time setting as it would sound so out of place haha

      • Hmm, indeed – Something like;

        “Ugh, cor blimey geezah, you done stabbed me!! Nah ahm all brown bread.”

        :)

  7. Excellent article Peter. I don’t understand why so many gamers are up in arms over the fact that you will have to kill brits. I didn’t see Russains complain when every modern FPS to date has painted them as the bad guys. I didn’t see the spainish complain when Leon, an american had to defend himself against infected Spainish people.

    In the Assassains franchise you are an assassain fighting the corrupt templars where ever they are based. I will be surprised if our posh sterotype is not in AC3 as that is ironically the best time to include it in the media despite everyone growing tired of it. And i doubt that Conner will go America Feck yeah after he has killed the final boss. :)

    • I agree. It’s beyond belief some of the outcry over a computer game, we want games to be testing the boundaries and trying something fresh (personally I don’t even think AC3 is doing that), I cant get my head around this neo-patriotism if you will, over a piece of fictional entertainment. Maybe its the fact that this game is a visual reinactment of history, people don’t like some of our shady history.

    • You are comparing a small group of Russian Terrorists and Spanish zombies (no control over their actions) to general British of this time period. That itself is insulting. The claim that there were some wrongdoings by the British, just the French involvement in this is wrong. The French did not stop being French during the Napoleonic wars and they were considered the enemy yet the americans being on the French side makes them the good guys? Even though as stated in the article the French were their enemies at first too.
      Regardless of this the King was never really bothered about this war and could not afford to send any more firepower away from the far larger war being fought with India and the several other wars being fought around the world with the Spanish and the French.

  8. Our country has done some horrendous things in its illustrious history, it would be naive to try and suggest otherwise. We are the villain in this game. America was very much the villain towards the end of MW2 but I can’t remember the public outcry in the u.s being too loud. I understand that it’s a different and slightly surreal feeling killing people usually characterised as the good guys but I actually feel quite refreshed by this, in this narrative, a narrative that tries to follow history as accurately as it possibly can, we are the enemy and thats it. This isn’t some plan by Activision to declare war on all things British. It’s a video game, lets get that to the front of our minds.

    • The Assassin’s Creed series is made by Ubisoft.

      • Yep, I knew somebody would pick up on that. You see, I said Activision because I was making a comparison between MW2 and AC3. Confused I got.

    • The problem many people has is that although you are right in pointing out the obvious – this is a game, what reason is there for the game series to miss out the other possible game locations. Italy to the american revolution? History is being disrespected by skipping out the best bits.

  9. & By the way, what a fantastic article. A great read. Almost feels ludicrous that we don’t have to pay for some of the content written on here, it’s brilliant usually.

    • Agreed, I’ve been reading games journalism for around 15 years now and that, is without shadow of a doubt, the single best piece of games journalism I’ve read in all of that time. Well done Peter, you have my utmost respect.

  10. I understand what you’re saying here: Both sides were British and the enemy are really just the greedy upper class. I have some problems with your arguments though.
    1: Those loyalists were my ancestors, while the colonists were more likely to be ancestors of the average white American.
    2: Unity is important – If a small village springs up on an oil reserve once discovered and quickly secedes from unity with the poorer regions which form the rest of the country, is it’s claim just? American colonists saw a rich land and wanted the money for themselves rather than the rest of the loyalists who nursed it to early prosperity and defended against other European colonial powers. Why were the union the “good” guys in the American civil war and the British the “bad” guys in assassin’s creed 3?
    The British started to assert it’s legal and rightful control over America after the conclusion of the seven years war, and that was the reason Americans rebelled.
    4: Connor being half English and half Mohawk makes it worse, as it makes him a traitor.
    5.: In Britain, the red coat and union jack are seen as symbols of pride and saying as much as a bad word against those who wore the combo is seen to be in poor taste – treacherous (much like modern Americans view their colonists’ uniform). This is probably the main reason why the Robin Hood analogy doesn’t work, and also the primary cause for British unease about AC3.

    • “Why were the union the “good” guys in the American civil war”
      Probally because they were fighting to end slavery :)

    • “In Britain, the red coat and union jack are seen as symbols of pride and saying as much as a bad word against those who wore the combo is seen to be in poor taste “.

      Jubilee notwithstanding, I’m not really sure that’s true. Generally those are icons that are held up by splendid isolationists like UKIP and worse, the BNP and EDL. Please understand, that I’m in no way trying to infer anything about your political opinions :)

      Personally I can’t think of a single person in my social circle who would “view so much as a bad word” against those icons as poor taste or treacherous but would more likely consider such a stance to be outmoded, dated and a challenge to free speech.

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