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.