[Diego Rivera: Creation (1923)]
Behn and the Discoverers
Aphra Behn (c.1640-1689)
In the previous chapter I looked at the mythological foundations of any 'fictional' version of South America in the European tradition. It is now time to discuss the techniques which I shall be employing in order to distinguish between mythological and fictional readings of the same works.
[Columbus on the Beach (1)]
I have already mentioned some of the problems caused by the geographical overlapping of the entities known as 'South' and 'Latin' America, but the difficulties presented by the chronological scope of our study have not yet been made apparent. The best way to illustrate this is perhaps by looking at a single iconic picture of South America, and examining the various different ways in which it could be investigated. The picture which I have chosen, a composite of a number of similar scenes, is called 'Columbus on the beach'. It exists in two forms. In one, Columbus is stepping onto the beach at San Salvador, clad in full armour and surrounded by kneeling natives. In the other, Columbus is kneeling on the beach and giving thanks to heaven for his deliverance and that of his crew. Innocent, unclad natives look on in awe and incomprehension.
[Columbus on the beach (2)]
I shall be looking at the ideological implications of this scene in more detail later. For the moment, what should concern us is the status of Columbus himself. As an historical figure - and since history is the study of documents and documentation - it is clear that Columbus exists for us in the form of texts. But precisely which texts? There are, of course, his various surviving letters to the Monarchs of Spain. These are at least contemporary with his voyages, although they have the disadvantage, at least for purposes of strict veracity, of being written as propaganda for his discoveries (in much the same way as Ralegh's Discoverie of Guiana, discussed above). Then there is his Journal, transcribed and edited after his death by Bartolomé de las Casas, and not published in full until 1825 (information from Clements R. Markham's introduction, in Columbus, 1893, p.vi). Alternatively, one could turn to third-person accounts: the Historie by Don Fernando Colón, the Admiral's son, which only survives in a 1571 Italian translation as Vita dell Ammiraglio (Colón, 1960); Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), with its sequel The Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831); or, more recently, Samuel Eliot Morison's Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942). A study of the figure of Columbus in imaginative literature, on the other hand, might make its choice between Joel Barlow's epic poem The Vision of Columbus (1787) (revised and expanded as The Columbiad (1807); J. H. Campe's Die Entdeckung von Amerika (1780-81) (translated into English as The Discovery of America, for the use of children and young persons (1799)); Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud's Livre de Christophe Colomb, first performed in 1930; or Michel de Ghelderode's Christophe Colomb, performed in 1929 but not published until 1954. His voyages have inspired a series of novels - notably Stephen Marlowe's The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (1987), but also children's books such as C. Walter Hodges' Columbus Sails (1939) and Gordon Stable's Westward with Columbus (1894), not to mention Rafael Sabatini's Columbus: A Romance (1943) or the recent English translation of Abel Posse's The Dogs of Paradise (1987).
If, then, we perceive the history of America as a horizontal ribbon of time, we can see these varying treatments of Columbus as a series of vertical axes passing through it - preserving the intellectual and stylistic emphases of five centuries of European and American culture. We therefore have a choice of levels - we can look at Columbus vertically, examining the variations in his projected image and relating these to the intellectual currents of the day; or horizontally, attempting to reconstruct the day-to-day reactions of the Admiral and his contemporaries to the new discoveries. The corner of our graph is accordingly set on 1492 (for the purposes of this specific image), and its two axes are, respectively, chronology and textuality, both of them running up to the present day.
Each of the texts about Columbus which I have mentioned represents simultaneously an attempt to reconstruct the events of 1492 (within the technical constraints of each genre), and the attitudes of its own historical moment. What is more, many of these works set up their own methodological difficulties - Don Fernando Colón's biography of his father, for example, having been composed in the last years of his life (he died in 1539); then read and quoted by various near-contemporaries such as Las Casas; then translated (inaccurately) into Italian by Alfonso Ulloa and published in Venice; and finally lost or destroyed in its original form. Which of these dates should we take account of when speaking of the historical 'moment' of this work? Presumably the answer must be, both the (unknown) period of composition and the moment(s) of the work's first publication and diffusion.
Problems of methodology similar to this were dealt with by Ferdinand de Saussure in his 1916 Cours de linguistique générale (Saussure, 1964), where he made an influential distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic approaches to semiotic (sign) systems. The diachronic approach examines objects historically, in terms of individual cause-and-effect - the standard example being Historical Linguistics. The synchronic approach studies the system which exists at a particular time, and defines the signs in question in terms of their function within that system. The diachronic, then, is our horizontal ribbon of time - but the synchronic is not precisely our vertical extension to the graph. It is, rather, a vertical, un extended section cut through the diachronic line of history. It cannot continue upwards into subsequent eras and modes of representation.
The advantage of a synchronic mode of analysis is that it eliminates, at a stroke, the necessity to supply a family-tree of causation for every item within a system (a task impossibly vast) - simply because the origin of these factors would not help to define their place within that system. It is thus apparent that there is no advantage to be served in extending our vision above the horizontal base-line of our examination, since this would simply multiply - without clarifying - the objects under investigation. Nor is there any purpose, in a study of this kind, in trying to compete with the numerous excellent (diachronic) histories of Columbus's life and times which already exist. Our purpose is to reconstruct a textual system - the particular implications of the words 'South America' which suggested the way in which one author chose to represent it at a particular time, and in order to do this our choice of texts must be chronologically consistent.
Of course, this is to make things a little too simple. The objects of Saussure's investigation were languages, ideal for his purposes because of the arbitrariness both of signifier (few words can be accounted for either by onomatopoeia or euphony), and signified (if concepts were constant from language to language translation would be an exact science). It was therefore easy for him to argue that language must be divided into two categories: langue and parole - la langue being the 'system of a language, the language as a system of forms, whereas parole is actual speech, the speech acts which are made possible by the language' (Culler, 1979, p.29). If the signs in his system, words - made up of both the concept they signalled and the sounds they consisted of - were arbitrary on both counts, they could only be perceived as having meaning because of their place within the system of language. The historical evolution of each word could therefore provide no clue to its structural positioning; its 'meaning', as it were. Langue is therefore the correct object of study for theoretical linguists (and, by extension, semiologists), and the synchronic approach is the only way in which to isolate their particular objects of study.
In the case of a literary study like this, however, the factors - and data - become more complex. The ideological system of 'representations of South America' is obviously linked to a real place, South America (just as words define, as often as not, actual objects within the world) - but this is more a practical than a theoretical difficulty. If we bear in mind that the focus of our study is versions of 'South America' written from the outside - rather than its own history or indigenous literature (except insofar as they assist us in defining what is specific to this external view) - then we see that these three areas of study (reality, textuality, and Latin American literature) in fact complement one another. The real problem, then, is positioning the data at our disposal. If two important texts were published a century apart (like Montaigne's 'Des Cannibales' and Behn's Oroonoko), what is our justification for assuming that they form part of the same synchronic constellation, given that that is determined by a single section cut across the diachronic line? What is more, while laws of syntax and grammar can easily be subsumed under langue, leaving actual utterances produced by a speaker of that language to be described as parole, how are we to distinguish the two when our parole consists of texts by Montaigne and Columbus, and our langue of complex - and never fully consistent - generalizations deduced from them?
My answer to these problems must be a pragmatic one. The methods of 'strategic location' and 'strategic formation' used by Edward Said in Orientalism to place texts within a particular tradition of authority have already been discussed in the General Preface. The first (defined by Said as 'a way of describing the author's position in a text with regard to the ... material he writes about') was identified by me with each author's relationship to the mythologies of South America discussed in the last chapter. The second ('a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres, acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter in the culture at large' (Said, 1985, p.20)) I equated with the relationship between a work and its cultural and generic context. Given that the text at the centre of this chapter, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, was published in 1688, it is clear that our 'synchronic section' should concern the system of influences working upon her in that year. Books. however, like words, do not simply come into existence at a particular moment. In English, for example, words from different eras (the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Norman invasions, for example) all operate together without much distinction at any given time. Columbus's Journal was not physically available to Aphra Behn, but a number of subsequent works reflecting the general insights of the 'discoverer' (including Montaigne's essays) certainly were. It seems not too unreasonable, accordingly, to see discussion of the implications of these texts as a necessary adjunct to any truthful account of how Aphra Behn reacted to these conventions of representation. I therefore allow myself a larger synchronic section than would be desirable in the case of a sign-system such as a language, simply because I see no other way of gathering a sufficiently representative sample from which to deduce the laws of langue which inform - and are, perhaps, subverted by - the example of parole quoted in each chapter. 'Strategic location' denotes the process by which I place Aphra Behn against the set of conventions established by (among others) Columbus and Montaigne. 'Strategic formation' acts, then, almost as a control - an account of how each work obeys the constraints of its particular function (Romance, Journal, Travel account, Critical essay) in order to define its particular version of 'South America'.
[Columbus on the Beach (3)]
Let us begin again, then, with our image of 'Columbus on the beach'. He himself wrote of the original version of this scene:
Yo ..., porque nos tuviesen mucha amistad, porque conoscí que era gente que mejor se libraria y convertiria á nuestra Santa Fé con amor que no por fuerza, les di á algunos de ellos unos bonetes colorados y unas cuentas de vidrios, que se ponian al pescuezo, y otras cosas muchas de poco valor, con que hobieron mucho placer y quedaron tanto nuestros que era maravilla. (Colón, 1941, p.19)
['I, ... that we might form great friendship, for I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see.' (Columbus, 1893, p.37)]
This image of a conqueror metaphorically handing out the 'cap and bells' accords very much with the first version of of the scene outlined in Section I above. He was, however, impressed by their appearance:
Ellos andan todos desnudos como su madre los parió, y tambien las mugeres, aunque no vide mas de una, farto moza, y todos los que yo vi eran todos mancebos, que ninguno vide de edad de mas de treinta años, muy bien hechos, de muy fermosos cuerpos y muy buenas caras ... dellos se pintan de frieto, y ellos son de la color de los canarios. ni negros ni blancos (Colón, 1941, pp.19-20).
['They go as naked as when their mothers bore them. and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances ... They paint themselves black, and they are the colour of the Canarians, neither black nor white.' (Columbus, 1893, p.38)]
Having painted this idyllic picture, he proceeds to spoil it:
Ellos deben ser buenos servidores y de buen ingenio, que veo que muy presto dicen tad a 10 que les decia, y creo que ligeramente se harian cristianos, que me pareció que ninguna secta tenian. (Colón, 1941, p.20)
['They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion.' (Columbus, 1893, p.38)]
This first encounter contains in embryo many of the major themes which would define the intellectual system of the first explorers - the nakedness and humility of the people (witness their contentment with 'cosas ... de poco valor' [things of little value]); their physical attractiveness and the freedom of their lives (they have 'ninguna secta' [no religion]); and finally the duplicity of the Europeans faced with such innocence (Columbus plans to 'free' them by making them servants).
The appeal of this scene is more devious than that, though, as we will find if we compare it with subsequent 'close encounters'. The nakedness and innocence of these people makes them both erotically and theologically stirring. Columbus notes that 'no vide mas de una, farto moza' [I did not see more than one young girl] as if he were looking for just that (not surprisingly, under the circumstances), but one of the first accounts of Brazil enlarges on this aspect of their appeal more unequivocally, talking of a girl who was:
all dyed from head to foot in that [black] paint; and indeed she was so well built and so well curved, and her privy part (what a one she had!) was so gracious that many women of our country, on seeing such charms, would be ashamed that theirs were not like hers (Hemming, 1978, p.4).
What is more, he makes it clear that seeing this nudity inspires him with reflections unfavourable to the women back home. In the rather differently intended words of Joseph Brodsky: 'the discovery of the New World ... gave pensive men of the time a chance to look upon themselves and the nation as though from outside' (Brodsky, 1987, p.79). Their colour ('ni negros ni blancos' [neither white nor black], as Columbus puts it) also helps, since to covet the black by nature would presumably be a perverse, 'African' desire.
Their theological importance is inextricably bound up with the titillation of this innocent nakedness. As Brodsky puts it:
The appeal the concept of the 'noble savage' enjoyed among the literati and, subsequently, with the rest of society had clearly to do with a very vulgar public notion of paradise ... It was simply based on the notion that Adam, too, was naked, as well as on the rejection of Original Sin (Brodsky, 1987, p.334).
Clothes are a consequence of the Fall (the 'shame' felt by Adam and Eve after their disobedience). Therefore not to wear clothes is a blessing to which sinful humans cannot aspire until they reach their final pardon or condemnation - in the one case, to emphasize forgiveness; in the other, to strip off the mask from sin. Columbus's naked natives are therefore either reminders of the bliss before the Fall - or wicked and ignorant savages who are unaware of their own degradation (and whose own theological status is presumably as low as a beast's by consequence).
To continue with Columbus, there are two other important points to make about his initial encounter with the natives. The first is his obsessive interest in a very trivial aspect of their attire:
yo estaba atento y trabajaba de saber si había oro, y vide que algunos dellos traian un pedazuelo colgado en un agujero que tienen á la nariz, y por señas pude entender que yendo al Sur ó volviendo la isla por el Sur que estaba allí un rey que tenia grandes vasos delio, y tenia muy mucho. Trabajé que fuesen allá, y despues vide que no entendian en la ida. (Colón, 1941, p.21)
['I was attentive, and took trouble to ascertain if there was gold. I saw that some of them had a small piece fastened in a hole they have in the nose, and by signs I was able to make out that to the south, or going from the island to the south, there was a king who had great cups full, and who possessed a great quantity. I tried to get them to go there, but afterwards I saw that they had no inclination.' (Columbus, 1893, 39)]
They prove unable to fathom this peculiarly European fixation, and show 'no inclination' to drop everything in its service. Columbus, however, continues to question diligently each group of natives he meets about the source of this substance.
The second point to note is the apparent tendency of the natives to regard the newcomers as gods (as in the first of the scenes in Section I above):
entendiamos que nos preguntaban si eramos venidos del cielo; y vino uno viejo en el batel dentro, y otros a voces grandes llamaban todos, hombres y mugeres: venid á ver los hombres que vinieron del cielo; traedles de comer y de beber. Vinieron muchos y muchas mugeres, cada uno con algo, dando gracias a Dios, echándose al suelo, y levantaban las manos al cielo, y despues a voces nos llamaban que fuésemos á tierra (Colón, 1941, p.22).
['We understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven. One old man came into the boat, and others cried out, in loud voices, to all the men and women, to come and see the men who had come from heaven, and to bring them to eat and drink. Many came, including women, each bringing something, giving thanks to God, throwing themselves on the ground and shouting to us to come on shore.' (Columbus, 1893, 41)]
It can never be otherwise than flattering to be taken for a god, and this motif has therefore always been emphasized by European writers. By the principles of doublethink (which is perhaps the most accurate analogy for the processes of any pervasive ideology), this 'error' of the natives proves simultaneously their gullibility (and therefore their unfitness to rule themselves, or their souls), and their good taste ('if they take us for gods, that proves that we must be god-like - just as we always suspected'). It is not, therefore, an entirely innocent emphasis on the part of these discoverers and explorers. Nor is it really naivety that leads Columbus to exclaim:
siempre están de propósito que vengo del cielo, por mucha conversación que ayan avido conmigo.
['they are always assured that I come from Heaven, for all the intercourse which they have had with me' (Jane, 1930, I: 10-11).]
Having looked at the parameters of this scene, we should be able to extrapolate some more general principles.
The first point to be made is the tendency, from the beginning, to see the 'New World' in terms of some pre-existing intellectual system. Not that this is a novel point, but its precise workings in this case are surprising. Columbus shows considerable scepticism in his treatment of the stories told him by the natives:
Toda la gente que hasta hoy ha hallado diz que tiene grandísimo temor de los de Caniba ó Canima, y dicen que viven en esta isla de Bohio, ... y cree que van á tomar á aquellos á sus tierras y casas, como sean muy cobardes y no saber de armas ... decian que no tenian sino un ojo y la cara de perro, y creia el Almirante que mentian, y sentia el Almirante que debian de ser del señorio del Gran Can que los captivaban. (Colón, 1941, pp.60-61)
['The Admiral says that all the people he has hitherto met have very great fear of those of Caniba or Canima. They affirm that they live in the island of Bohio ... The Admiral understood that those of Caniba come to take people from their homes, they being very cowardly, and without knowledge of arms ... They declared that the Canibas had only one eye and dogs' faces. The Admiral thought they lied, and was inclined to believe that it was people from the dominions of the Gran Can who took them into captivity.' (Columbus, 1893, p.87)]
De esta gente diz que los de Cuba ó Juana, y de todas esotras islas tienen gran miedo, porque diz que comian los hombres. Otras cosas le contaban los dichos indios, por señas, muy maravillosas; mas el Almirante no diz que las creia, sino que debian tener mas astucia y mejor ingenio los de aquella isla Bohio para los captivar quellos, porque eran muy flacos de corazon. (Colón, 1941, pp.69-70)
['The Admiral says that the inhabitants of Cuba, or Juana, and of all the other islands, are much afraid of the inhabitants of Bohio, because they say that they eat people. The Indians relate other things, by signs, which are very wonderful; but the Admiral did not believe them. He only inferred that those of Bohio must have more cleverness and cunning to be able to capture the others, who, however, are very poor-spirited.' (Columbus, 1893, p.98)]
We can see in these two quotations Columbus's two principal sources of information displayed. One is the sailing instructions given him by the Florentine astronomer Paolo Toscanelli in 1474, which detail the western route to the Indies, and the wonders to be found there, mainly from the account given by Marco Polo two centuries before (hence the reference to the 'Gran Can'). We see, thus, that Columbus has a textual justification for setting aside the stories of those who just happen to live there - and this also explains his equation of 'Cuba' with 'Cipango' (Japan), and 'Caniba' with 'Gran Can' (Colón, 1941, pp.34 & 76).
His other criterion of evaluation is common sense. The stories of the 'Caniba', or Caribs (or cannibals) are obviously implausible, and can therefore be set aside by a European intellect. It is tempting to despise this ready dismissal of what in fact turned out to be the case - the existence of cannibals - but it is difficult to see how else a man like Columbus could have acted when faced with stories of 'hombres de un ojo, y otros con hocicos de perros, que comian los hombres' (Colón, 1941, p.44) ['men with one eye, and others with dogs' noses who were cannibals' (Columbus, 1893, p.68)]. Unconditional acceptance, or judicious 'interpretation' were the alternatives - and twenty years of trying to convince European monarchs to send a fleet westwards to the Indies may not have accustomed Columbus to accepting received opinion.
In any case, as we have remarked before, what is wholly new is wholly meaningless. It must be interpreted in terms of what one already knows in order to make sense. Columbus was thus engaged in setting up a textual system the moment he began to rationalize his view of the natives. By the same token, the natives too can be observed employing similar means of interpretation.
Despues, á la tarde, vino el Rey á la nao; el Almirante le hizo la honra que debia, y le hizo decir cómo era de los Reyes de Castilla, los cuales eran los mayores Principes del mundo. Mas ni los indios quel Almirante traia, que eran los intérpretes, creian nada, ni el Rey tampoco, sino creian que venian del cielo, y que los rein os de los Reyes de Castilla eran en el cielo, y no en este mundo. (Colón, 1941, p.82)
['In the afternoon the king came on board the ship, where the Admiral received him in due form, and caused him to be told that the ships belonged to the Sovereigns of Castille, who were the greatest Princes in the world. But neither the Indians who were on board, who acted as interpreters, nor the king, believed a word of it. They maintained that the Spaniards came from heaven, and that the Sovereigns of Castille must be in heaven, and not in this world.' (Columbus, 1893, p.114)]
Again, this seems a reasonable hypothesis on the Indians' part - making sense of an entirely unforeseen invasion in terms of religion. (That is, assuming that the incident was not simply invented in order to flatter 'los Reyes de Castilla', as in Ralegh's account of the native reaction to a picture of Queen Elizabeth). The same process can, however. be observed in the first accounts of the Conquest of Mexico.
Y lo más cierto era, según entendimos, que les habían dicho sus antepasados que habían de venir gentes de hacia donde sale el sol, con barbas, que los habían de señorear. Agora sea por lo uno o por lo otro, estaban en posta y vela muchos indios del gran Montezuma en aquel río (Díaz, 1942, I: 43).
['Now it is a fact, as we afterwards heard, that the Indians' ancestors had prophesied that men with beards would come from the direction of the sunrise and rule over them. So, for one reason or another, many of the great Montezuma's people were posted beside that river, watching for us' (Díaz, 1974, 35).]
Unfortunately, it is clear that what these methods of reading have in common is a tendency to make their proponents see what they expect to see. The Indians have apparently been conditioned to expect gods from afar, and accordingly that is what they encounter ('por mucha conversación que ayan avido conmigo' [for all the intercourse which they have had with me], as Columbus puts it). Columbus, on the other hand, trained in a more arrogant ethnocentric tradition, is prepared to decry the Indians he meets as timid and unagressive on the flimsiest evidence:
y certifica el Almirante a los Reyes que 10 hombres hagan huir a 10.000: tan cobardes y madrosos son (Colón, 1941, p.67).
['The Admiral assures the Sovereigns that ten thousand of these men would run from ten, so cowardly and timid are they. (Columbus, 1893, p.95)]
This belief almost leads him to grief on more than one occasion (and led him to sacrifice the lives of thirty-nine of his men, whom he left as a 'garrison' on Hispaniola). On the very same day that he wrote the entry quoted above his interpretation proved false:
uno dellos se adelantó en el ria junto con la popa de la barca, y hizo una grande plática, quel Almirante no entendia, salvo que los otros indios de cuando en cuando alzaban las manos al cielo y daban una grande voz. Pensaba el Almirante que lo aseguraban y que les placia de su venida; pero vido al indio que consigo traia demudarse la cara, y amarillo como la cera temblaba mucha, diciendo par señas quel Almirante se fuese fuera del rio, que los querian matar (Colón, 1941, pp.67-68).
['One of the natives advanced into the river near the stern of the boat, and made a long speech, which the Admiral did not understand. At intervals the other Indians raised their hands to heaven, and shouted. The Admiral thought he was assuring him that he was pleased at his arrival; but he saw the Indian who came from the ship change the colour of his face, and turn as yellow as wax, trembling much, and letting the Admiral know bv signs that he should leave the river, as they were going to kill him.' (Columbus, 1893, 95)]
The second important point to make about our schematic picture of 'Columbus on the beach' is the nature of Columbus's influence in this period. For example, while his claim that he had reached Japan and China was soon dismissed - his equally 'textual' belief that the Earthly Paradise was located somewhere in the hinterland of the Orinoco was far more influential:
creo que pueda salir de allí esa agua, bien que sea lexos y venga á parar allí donde yo vengo, y faga este lago. grandes indiçios son estos del paraÿso terrenal, porqu'el sitio es conforme á la opinión d'estos sanctos y sanos theólogos.
['I believe that this water may originate from there, though it be far away and may come to collect there where I came and may form this lake. These are great indications of the earthly paradise, for the situation agrees with the opinion of those holy and wise theologians' (Jane, 1933, II: 38-39).]
This adoption of the paradigms of Biblical and classical authority to 'explain' new features of the landscape became the dominant mode throughout the period of the discovery. More important than this for our purposes, though, was the extent to which Columbus became an emblematic figure in his own right. His action in taking captive a native who came to plead for the release of his wife and three children (hostages for the Indians' good behaviour), is denounced by Las Casas as:
a breach of the law of nations, which is not excused by the Admiral's good intentions; for it is never right to do evil that good may come of it ... on account of this act alone ... he well merited all the sorrows and misfortunes which he suffered during the rest of his life. (Columbus, 1893, p.75)
All of Columbus's sufferings in jail and exile were thus seen as justified by one evil deed, according to this reading (similarly with Cortés, robbed of the fruits of his labours by bureaucrats - or Pizarro, killed in the faction fights between the Conquistadors). One might see these as classical exempla - like Belisarius begging his bread on the streets; or Croesus punished for presumption in declaring himself happy - but they are somewhat more. They represent a determinedly metaphysical approach to the dilemma of finding a world where no world was meant to be. How could the fates of its conquerors not share something of that New World's nature as (potential) heaven or hell? We can thus see the two different versions of the beach scene as contrasting emphases of the same essential pattern - in the one, Columbus is arrogant, a conquering god; in the other, a 'man of sorrows', having suffered in crossing the ocean, and prepared to suffer more.
We shall have more to say of this later, when discussing Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, but for the moment, the implications of the natives on the beach may be expressed in a simple, four-cornered paradigm:
Taking the Europeans as gods makes the Indians seem:
- Idolatrous: unable to distinguish between man on earth and God in Heaven;
- Foolish: like children who have to be thwarted for their own good.
If, however (as Las Casas was the first to contend, in his 1552 Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias), the Europeans were in fact mere despoilers, the Indians become both innocent and dignified.
In fact, though, the two positions are not so diametrically opposed as they might seem. They embody some constants. For example, the Indians are consistently child-like and innocent - whether that gave Europeans a right to lord it over them or not. The Europeans are always powerful, dominant, and 'adult' whether using their power to do evil or good.
Our paradigm, then, to some extent explains how both of these attitudes to the Indians can subsist in the same work without being perceived by its author as contradictory. In Columbus, the Indians are said to be 'muy simplices y muy lindos cuerpos de hombre' (Colón, 1941, p.23) ['very simple-minded and handsomely-formed people' (Columbus, 1893, p.42)], and 'la mejor gente del mundo' (p.81) ['the best people in the world' (p.112)], all of which makes them 'buenos para les mandar y les hacer trabajar, sembrar, y hacer todo lo otro que fuere menester, y que hagan villas (p.83) ['to be ordered about, to work and sow, and do all that may be necessary, and to build towns' (p.114)].
[Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)]
In general terms, there seem to be two reactions to this paradigm of South America among contemporary writers. One is what might be called the 'aesthetic' response - revelling in the sheer imaginative possibilities of an Edenic landscape. The other is more analytical, and involves attempting to reconcile the European (or, rather, Renaissance) system of ideas with the observations made in America. Michel de Montaigne is the most famous example of the latter tendency, and I therefore propose to devote some time to the implications of his essay 'Des Cannibales' (already mentioned in Chapter One) before going on to examine the treatment of landscape in Columbus and Bernal Díaz del Castillo. A few exemplary quotations should suffice for this purpose:
Or je trouve, pour revenir à mon propos, qu'il n'y a rien de barbare et de sauvage en cette nation, à ce qu'on m'en a rapporté, sinon que chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n'est pas de son usage; comme de vray, il semble que nous n'avons autre mire de la verité et de la raison que l'exemple et idée des opinions et usances du païs où nous sommes. Là est tousjours ta parfaicte religion, la parfaicte police, perfect et accomply usage de toutes choses. Ils sont sauvages, de mesme que nous appellons sauvages les fruicts que nature, de soy et de son progrez ordinaire, a produicts: là où, à la verité, ce sont ceux que nous avons alterez par nostre artifice et detournez de l'ordre commun, que nous devrions appeller plutost sauvages. (Montaigne, 1967, p.203)
['Now, to return to my argument, I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions current in the land where we live. There we see always the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything. These people are wild in the same way as we say that fruits are wild, when nature has produced them by herself and in her ordinary way; whereas, in fact, it is those that we have artificially modified, and removed from the common order, that we ought to call wild.' (Montaigne, 1985, pp.108-9)]
Montaigne's information is entirely at second-hand, as he admits - but since his intellectual method works by imposition rather than empirical deduction, this causes him little trouble. His real intention is to criticize contemporary Europe through the agency of the 'golden age' savages of America, and what would normally be perceived as an obstacle to this view, their status as cannibals, he turns into a point in their favour:
Je ne suis pas marry que nous remerquons l'horreur barbaresque qu'il y a en une telle action, mais ouy bien dequoy, jugeans bien de leurs fautes, nous soyons si aveuglez aux nostres. Je pense qu'il y a plus de barbarie à manger un homme vivant qu'à le manger mort, à deschirer par tourmens et par géenes un corps encore plein de sentiment ... que de le rostir et manger après qu'il est trespassé. (Montaigne, 1967, pp.207-08)
['I am not so anxious that we should note the horrible savagery of these acts as concerned that, whilst judging their faults so correctly, we should be so blind to our own. I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead, to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling ... than to roast and eat a man after he is dead.' (Montaigne, 1985, p.113)]
Montaigne, of course, is in a long tradition of satirists who used other, theoretically 'ideal' societies to point out the faults of their own (Tacitus's Germania, and the second book of Virgil's Georgics are cases in point) - and he acknowledges this by using quotations from the Classics as his 'authority' for denouncing Christian Europe - but his real importance is almost inadvertent. He intended to show the weakness of our case if we sought to criticize others for 'barbarism' - however, the picture he drew of the Indians (whether drawn from published sources, as some commentators believe, or obtained, as he claims, first-hand from a house-guest) was so alluring as to support an image of them as pure innocents. 'Earthly Paradise' mythology, the connotations of nakedness, sexual liberty (as John Hemming puts it, 'an adolescent's dream world [of] carefree single women' (1978, p.17)) - all worked, as we have seen, as much in the Indians' disfavour as in their favour; and Montaigne, with his eulogy of a Platonic golden age, had succeeded in fostering the very notions he sought to defuse. His attempts to quash an ethnocentric myth of superiority had, paradoxically, reinforced an eschatological one.
Montaigne, then, could be said to straddle two traditions - one exemplified by the stern and denunciatory Las Casas, with his belief in the absolute evil of the colonists; The other best summed up as the 'landscape' tradition: the sensuous (and nostalgiac, since it was constantly being eroded) appreciation of the beauty of the New World and its inhabitants.
Columbus is the first great exponent of this mode of response:
Ella es isla muy verde y llana y fertilísima, y no pongo duda que todo el año siembran panizo y cogen, y así todas otras cosas; y vide muchos árboles muy disformes de los nuestros, y dellos que tenian los ramos de muchas maneras y todo en un pie, y un ramito es de una manera y otro de otra, y tan disforme que es la mayor maravilla del mundo cuánta es la diversidad de la una manera á la otra, verbi gracia: ... ni estos son enjeridos, porque se pueda decir que el enjerto lo hace, antes son por los montes, ni cura dellos esta gente ... Aquí son los peces tan disformes de los nuestros qués maravilla. Hay algunos hechos como gallos de las mas finas colores del mundo, azules, amarillos, colorados y de todas colores, y otros pintados de mil maneres; y las colores son tan finas que no hay hombre que no se maraville y no tome gran descanso á verlos. (Colón, 1941, p.27)
['It is a very green island, level and very fertile, and I have no doubt that they sow and gather corn all the year round, as well as other things. I saw many trees very unlike those of our country. Many of them have their branches growing in different ways and all from one trunk, and one twig is one form, and another in a different shape, and so unlike that it is the greatest wonder in the world to see the great diversity ... Nor are these grafted, for it may be said that grafting is unknown, the trees being wild, and untended by these people ... Here the fish are so unlike ours that it is wonderful. Some are the shape of dories, and of the finest colours in the world, blue, yellow, red, and other tints, all painted in various ways, and the colours are so bright that there is not a man who would not be astonished, and would not take great delight in seeing them.' (Columbus, 1893, p.47)]
The points, then, that Columbus emphasizes are: the country's fertility, the fact that one can harvest all year round; the country's wildness, the fact that 'grafting is unknown' and that the trees grow spontaneously in the shapes preferred by art; the country's diversity, the fact that the fish come in all the primary colours ('and other tints' besides), and that this is something that would cause wonder and delight ('maravilla') to any man.
In essence, then, he is describing a landscape which is different from that of Europe - but different in very patterned ways. It does all the things that a landscape can, but more so. It is continuously fertile, endlessly various, and yet absolutely wild - untended except by the hand of God. The influence of this 'garden' description can be seen to extend to Aphra Behn as well, in her account (quoted in Chapter One above) of the diversely-coloured trees in Guiana:
some are all White, some Purple, some Scarlet, some Blue, some Yellow; bearing at the same Time ripe Fruit, and blooming young, or producing every Day new. (Summers, 1915, V: 178)
Nor is it perhaps superfluous to remark here that the main reason why Alexander von Humboldt, chief exponent of the idealist conception of American history, was prepared to herald Columbus as the 'discoverer' is because: 'Columbus was sensitive to the beauty of tropical nature, which enabled him to announce the existence of a truly new world' (O'Gorman, 1961, p.32).
Humboldt goes on to claim that 'in spite of his crude expression, he rose above Camoëns and other poets of his day, who were still anchored to the literary fiction of an imaginary artificial arcadian Nature'. Certainly there are some distinctions to be made here, but it is difficult to agree with Humboldt that the conventions of Pastoral landscape description did not influence Columbus almost as much as his poetic contemporaries. He says, a little further on:
En este tiempo anduve así por aquellos árboles, que era la cosa mas fermosa de ver que otra que se haya visto, veyendo tanta verdura en tanto grado como en el mes de Mayo en el Andalucía, y los árboles todos estan tan disformes de los nuestros como el dia de la noche; y así las frutas, y así las yerbas y las piedras y todas las cosas. Verdad es que algunos árboles eran de la naturaleza de otros que hay en Castilla, por ende había una gran dlferencia, y los otros árboles de otras maneras eran tantos que no hay persona que lo pueda decir ni asemejar á otros de Castilla. (Colón, 1941, pp.28-29)
['During that time I walked among the trees, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, beholding as much verdure as in the month of May in Andalusia. The trees are as unlike ours as night from day, as are the fruits, the herbs, the stones, and everything. It is true that some of the trees bore some resemblance to those in Castille, but most of them are very different, and some were so unlike that no one could compare them to anything in Castille.' (Columbus, 1893, p.49)]
The comparison of what he saw to his experience of May in Andalusia - the most 'tropical' part of Europe - emphasizes the point. 'Everything' is different from Europe, but everything is categorized as an ideal version of its European counterpart. As in Pastoral, pests and predators have been de-emphasized and pushed to the periphery of the picture; but, also, the forms of the seasons, and the plants, and the stones, have been changed and made more various and delightful.
Columbus, in finding a verbal equivalent for his delight in the scenery, is forced back on two complementary textual modes. One, as we have seen, is the language of Pastoral (Virgil, or Longus, or Sannazaro); the other is the language of Millennial discourse (exemplified in the descriptions of paradise in the Middle English Pearl). Whether he wishes to or not, he cannot convey a sense of what he has seen to other people's minds except by employing these recognized paradigms. A similar dilemma is signalled in Bernal Díaz's description of his first sight of Tenochtitlán, the city of the Aztecs:
Y desque vimos tantas ciudades y villas pobladas en el agua, y en tierra firme otras gran des poblazones, y aquella calzada tan derecha y por nivel cómo iba a Méjico, nos quedamos admirados, y decíamos que parescía a las cosas de encantamiento que cuentan en el libro de Amadís, por las grandes torres y cues y edificios que tenían dentro en el agua, y todos de calicanto, y aun algunos de nuestros soldados decían que si aquello que vían, si era entre sueños (Díaz, 1942, I: 297-98).
['And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns and cues and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.' (Díaz, 1974, p.214)]
We have seen, then, the relentlessly textualizing and interpretative spirit in which these first interpreters of South America approached their task. Not much has been made of the distinction of genres between Columbus's Journal - with its dual purpose of providing a record of events and a set of suggestions for the possible commercial exploitation of his discoveries - and that of Bernal Díaz's history. Or, for that matter, between the genre of the 'essay', recently invented by Montaigne, and that of the 'novel' - not really far developed beyond classical models such as Daphnis and Chloe - as exemplified in Oroonoko. The way in which they have been discussed, too: going from Columbus to Las Casas to Montaigne, may have given the impression of a rhetorical evolution apparent in historical terms. It remains for me to say, then, that while such precisions can and perhaps should be made, that has not been the purpose of these introductory sections. Any sense of ideological 'progress' from Montaigne to Behn would be one of which I was extremely suspicious; but I do feel that it is legitimate to layout a 'synchronic section' of texts in this schematic fashion in order to provide a sense of the paradigms which governed an undoubtedly differently motivated work by Aphra Behn.
[John Gabriel Stedman: Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (engraved by William Blake)]
(a) Conventional Elements
When Behn published her novel Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave in 1688 (shortly after the upsurge of interest in American subjects which had been started by Dryden's Indian Emperor (1665), D'avenant's Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1685), and Sir Robert Howard's collaborative The Indian Queen (1665)), the principal way in which her work was distinguished from theirs stemmed from her claim to have spent her childhood in South America - in Surinam (then a British colony). She could therefore claim to be presenting authentic experience, untinctured by fictional invention:
the History of this ROYAL SLAVE ... shall come simply into the World. recommended by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the Addition of Invention. (Summers, 1915, V: 129)
I shall have more to say about this claim of hers later, but for the moment let us note the effect which it has upon the implied authority of her work. Behn's work is no less a fiction than the novels of Daniel Defoe, which similarly supplied a 'factual' genealogy of autobiographical witness for the events recounted. Merely claiming to be an account of 'Reality' rather than the product of 'Invention' is enough, however, to align her statements with the (alleged) objectivity of Columbus and his commentators Las Casas and Montaigne. Her work is shaped according to the dictates of fiction, but it claims (whether rightly or wrongly) to be the result of experiences she had had. Since this is more or less the state of affairs already detected by us in these other 'textualizers' of South America. it would therefore seem appropriate to examine some of the features in her work which run parallel to theirs.
Her description of the country, in the first few pages of the novel, begins with an account of the Indians, whom she characterizes as:
Gods of the Rivers, or Fellow-Citizens of the Deep; so rare an Art they have in swimming, diving, and almost living in Water: by which they command the less swift Inhabitants of the Floods. (Summers, 1915, V: 133)
This rather curious metaphor, recalling Columbus's wonder at the multi-coloured dories, at least explains the habitual mode of dress of the Natives, with whom 'we trade for Feathers, which they order into all Shapes', and 'Beads of all Colours' (Summers, 1915, V: 130).
The Beads they weave into Aprons about a Quarter of an Ell long, and of the same Breadth; working them very prettily in Flowers of several Colours; which Apron they wear just before 'em, as Adam and Eve did the Fig-leaves (Summers, 1915, V: 130).
Aphra Behn has negotiated herself very cunningly around the nakedness of the Indians. They swim a lot, and almost 'live' in the water - and therefore wear next to nothing - but on land they adopt aprons, after the manner of Adam and Eve after the Fall. To avoid any more unequivocal sense of 'paradise lost', however, she emphasizes that the materials of the aprons are sold to them by the Europeans. They may or may not have been perfect in their natural state - but, in any case, now they have to accommodate themselves to our ways.
The other, erotic implication of nudity is not ignored by Behn either, though she weaves her way around it, again, in a most original way.
tho' they are all thus naked, if one lives for ever among 'em, there [is] not to be seen an indecent Action, or Glance: and being continually us'd to see one another so unadorn'd, so like our first Parents before the Fall, it seems as if they had no Wishes, there being nothing to heighten Curiosity: but all you can see, you see at once, and every Moment see; and where there is no Novelty, there can be no Curiosity. (Summers, 1915, V: 131)
There is a certain dignity in this refusal to take refuge in innuendo. Her Indians are naked and unashamed; but this is the result of custom, not of any exceptional passivity or lack of feeling, for, as she says:
Not but I have seen a handsome young Indian, dying for Love of a very beautiful young Indian Maid; but all his Courtship was, to fold his Arms. pursue her with his Eyes, and Sighs were all his Language (Summers, 1915, V: 131).
It is, of course, as much of an artifice as the thinly veiled voyeurism of Columbus or Caminha - only in this case the model has been transferred to the language of the cult of sensibility (with which Behn was well acquainted, having herself written three volumes of Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (1683-84), full of high-minded sentiments).
A more significant parallel with these predecessors is her version of the Indian / European paradigm described in Section II above. Her Indians are innocent:
these People represented to me an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence, before Man knew how to sin: And 'tis most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous Mistress. (Summers, 1915, V: 131)
Her Europeans are full of duplicity:
they being on all Occasions very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress 'em as Friends, and not to treat 'em as Slaves: nor dare we do otherwise, their numbers so far surpassing ours in that Continent. (Summers, 1915, V: 133)
By the same token, her Indians are foolish and easily duped into regarding their visitors as gods:
I soon perceiv'd, by an Admiration that is natural to these People, and by the extreme Ignorance and simplicity of 'em, it were not difficult to establish any unknown or extravagant Religion among them. and to oppose any Notions or Fictions upon 'em. For seeing a Kinsman of mine set some Paper on Fire with a Burning-Glass, a Trick they had never before seen, they were like to have ador'd him for a God (Summers, 1915, V: 186).
However sincere her admiration for the state of innocence, one cannot help seeing that Behn - like her contemporaries - also regards it with a little contempt. In short, she is the very type of the 'double' European - like the Governor who gave the Indians his word to come on a particular day; and, when he failed to do so, was mourned for by them:
And when they saw he was not dead, they ask'd him what Name they had for a Man who promis'd a Thing he did not do? The Governor told them, Such a Man was a Lyar, which was a Word of Infamy to a Gentleman. Then one of 'em reply'd, Governor, you are a Lyar, and guilty of that Infamy. (Summers, 1915, V: 132)
The simple moral of this story is complicated by the fact that Behn herself is capable of telling it with apparent approval, while contradicting it with her own attitude not only towards the Indians - but towards Oroonoko, the 'Royal Slave' hero of the novel, whom she deceives as a result of thinking him a danger to the community, despite her sympathy for his position: 'After this [his confession to her 'in whom he had an entire Confidence'], I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our View, nor did the Country, who fear'd him' (Summers, 1915, V: 177).
Having observed in her the duplicity of the European, it remains to be seen how Behn's fiction accommodates itself to the 'aesthetic' / 'analytical' divide analyzed above.
Like Montaigne, she has theories about the Indians' displays of valour:
when any War was waging, two Men ... are ask'd, What they dare do, to shew they are worthy to lead an Army? When he who is first ask'd, making no Reply, cuts off his Nose, and throws it contemptibly on the Ground; and the other does something to himself that he thinks surpasses him, and perhaps deprives himself of Lips and an Eye: So they slash on 'till one gives out, and many have dy'd in this Debate. (Summers, 1915, V: 188)
Unlike him, however, she has no larger scheme to set it in. Hers is, essentially, the art of an impressionist - rendering a landscape and supplying each part of it with the appropriate emotion (in this case, horror; but also black humour).
Her descriptions of the country have a tendency, as a result, to become a kind of catalogue of 'Excellencies':
little Paraketoes, great Parrots, Muckaws, and a thousand other Birds and Beasts of wonderful and surprizing Forms, Shapes and Colours ... prodigious Snakes, of which there are some three-score Yards in Length; as is the Skin of one that may be seen at his Majesty's Antiquary's; where are also some rare Flies, of amazing Forms and Colours, presented to 'em by myself; some as big as my Fist, some less; and all of various Excellencies, such as Art cannot imitate. (Summers, 1915, V: 130)
Like Defoe's after her, Behn's fiction depends on an appearance of veracity - and the melodrama of her plot, while admirable in itself, seems sometimes just an excuse to present strange landscapes and vistas to her readers (for example, the three expeditions that interrupt the narration of Oroonoko's adventures just when they have reached their peak).
As an artist, then, we can see her paralleling quite closely the topics and concerns of the discoverers, but always with a subtle twist. Her naked Indians entertain only the loftiest of emotions, and are careful to wear 'fig-like' aprons whenever they are out of the water. The high-mindedness of these sentiments does not prevent her from mocking the credulity of her hosts in the Indian village, nor does she trouble to moralize the bloody rituals of the warriors there into an ethnographic system.
This is partly because, for the purposes of her slave narrative, she is compelled to place the wonders of Surinam in the background but it also seems to show a personal and considered response to the problems of representation implied by such a project. Fiction must, after all, resist the pressure to generalize exerted on all other forms of analytical prose in order to distinguish its function from theirs.
Having matched her against these models, then, the necessity to chart her innovations becomes more apparent.
[Albert Jones and Toi Perkins in 'Oroonoko' (2008)]
(b) Innovation - Subversion
The first point to note about the structure of Behn's novel is one that has already been raised in passing - the 'realism' claimed for her descriptions. So striking, indeed, is the appearance of verisimilitude, that it has itself been the central topic in most discussions of Oroonoko. Recent research has thrown doubt on the previous orthodoxy, established by Ernest Bernbaum's article 'Mrs. Behn's Biography a Fiction' (1913), which claimed that she had never visited the country, but had instead constructed her entire narrative from hints in other writers. B. Dhuicq has demonstrated that many of the Indian words listed in the novel could not have been fabricated, since they match quite closely (but not precisely - proof of dependence) the words in a French vocabulary of the Guianese language (1979, pp.524-26).
Any attempt to resolve this long-standing controversy would be outside the scope of this study, but the fact that it has dominated debate for so long is significant. The impression of depth and accuracy given by her listings of native customs, local animals, and features of the landscape must be accepted to be a datum in itself. Paradoxically, for all the obscurity of Romance which envelops its African scenes, the first major innovation in Oroonoko is its attention to detail. This might seem a surprising characterization of a writer of fiction, when set against explorers and historians - but (as we have noted with her description of 'savage' customs) she seems less concerned to explain and interpret, more intent on watching and describing.
The next important point is her introduction of a third factor into the racial equation in the New World. Columbus and the chroniclers dealt only with the Indians and their own followers, but for commentators of Behn's generation, there were the complications of slavery to be addressed. Negroes were, in a sense. honorary natives - simply by virtue of not being white - but they lacked most of the eschatological mystique of the Indians. As Aphra Behn remarks:
before I give you the Story of this Gallant Slave, 'tis fit I tell you the Manner of bringing them to these new Colonies; those they make Use of there, not being Natives of the Place: for those we live with in perfect Amity, without daring to command 'em (Summers, 1915, V: 129-30).
What is more, it is notable that one of these slaves, the 'Royal Prince' Oroonoko of the title, should be the hero of the book - the indigènes being largely relegated to the sidelines. Almost half of the book is set in Coramantien, in Africa, and relates the early adventures of Oroonoko, who is the heir to the throne - focussing on his rivalry with his grandfather for the favours of the lovely Imoinda 'the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars' (Summers, 1915, V: 137). It is only the contrast in actuality and vividness between the descriptions of this prototypical 'savage kingdom' and those set in Surinam that justifies the claim that it is principally a version of 'South America'.
In a deeper sense, however, one could claim that this choice of a black hero is crucial to the thematic development of the book - and that this in fact constitutes an interpretation of Surinam and what it has become. To explain what I mean, a brief summary of the plot may be in order.
Oroonoko has found his lover Imoinda in Surinam, and has been allowed to unite with her thanks to the good offices of his sympathetic master Treffry (a friend of Aphra Behn's - herself a character in this little drama). The growing conviction that he will not be allowed to return to his own country, and the knowledge that the child that is growing within Imoinda's womb will be born a slave, persuade him to revolt - and he leads the other slaves off into the woods to found a new country:
He said he would travel towards the Sea, plant a new Colony, and defend it by their Valour (Summers, 1915, V: 192).
On the way, however, they are overtaken by the whites, and all of his faint-hearted followers flee. Oroonoko surrenders, after being assured of honourable treatment, but is promptly flogged 'in a most deplorable and inhuman Manner' (Summers, 1915, V: 197).
This is the last straw. Betrayed by his hypocritical masters and abandoned by . his own countrymen, he escapes to the woods with Imoinda, and there, in a secluded glade:
he told her his Design, first of killing her, and then his Enemies, and next himself, and the Impossibility of escaping, and therefore he told her the Necessity of dying. He found the heroick Wife faster pleading for Death, than he was to propose it ... and, on her Knees, besought him not to leave her a Prey to his Enemies ...
All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador'd Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love. (Summers, 1915, V: 202-3)
The horror of this scene lies essentially in its emphasis on opposites: instead of loving her, the man kills the woman - the Edenic landscape inspires them to death and despair instead of hope (this the man who hoped to 'see if we can meet with more Honour and Honesty in the next World we shall touch upon' (Summers, 1915, V: 166-67)). The looking-glass logic of killing her in order to save her from his enemies is paralleled by the fact that our 'New World' Adam and Eve are black and enslaved - not fair and 'free of the fruits of the garden'.
A more substantial paradox, though, is the ghastly way in which Oroonoko is executed by the Europeans - for the crime of 'murder', to which they themselves have driven him by first robbing him of position and dignity, and then forcing him to sacrifice everything to his revenge:
the Executioner came, and first cut off his Members, and threw them into the Fire; after that, with an ill-favour'd Knife, they cut off his Ears and Nose, and burn'd them; he still smoak'd on, as if nothing had touch'd him (Summers, 1915, V: 208).
This is almost a reenactment of Montaigne's diatribe against the hypocrisy of European complaints about the barbarism of cannibals. Oroonoko is robbed of strength by his 'sacrifice' of Imoinda, and lacks even the steadiness to complete his own suicide when he is found by the Europeans. He must, however, be nursed back to health in order to be killed in the appalling way described above. Once again, a topsy-turvy world with its own negative logic.
There was, in a perverse sense, a sort of love in Oroonoko's action - not so much the fact that he did not want his enemies to trifle with Imoinda, as the way in which the two of them transformed the killing itself almost into an act of love an erotic ritual of death, paralleling the obsessions of warrior cultures such as the Aztecs (or the Spanish?). In his death, however, there is no love - though it significantly recalls the self-inflicted wound competitions of the Indians:
it's by a passive Valour they shew and prove their Activity; a sort of Courage too brutal to be applauded by our Black Hero; nevertheless, he express'd his Esteem of 'em. (Summers, 1915, V: 188)
This native passivity was displayed before - when Oroonoko insisted on grasping an electric eel, and was fished out of the river, stunned, by the Indians. While in the background of the action, they are, therefore, a pervasive influence a kind of commentary on the increasingly futile activity of the trapped Oroonoko. The Indians exist on sufferance in their own country, on condition that they cause no trouble. trade with Europe, and remain in the majority. As soon as they step outside these bounds, sentimental regard for their innocence will turn to stern adult retribution.
Oroonoko, then, is the ideal hero for the South America of Aphra Behn's time. Not a native, but a slave; not there by choice, but by force; not able to act, but punished by enforced passivity - he exemplifies the element of 'Dystopia' or malign pastoral in the book. It is, indeed, his personal tragedy, but it is also the tragedy of America. The act of love has been transformed to murder, the verdant landscape to a slave plantation - the Earthly Paradise has been transformed to a Hell on Earth by its discoverers.
Or, as The Great Gatsby has it:
as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees ... had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (Fitzgerald, 1949, pp.163-64)
Aphra Behn had found herself a niche - if not a very comforting one - among the interpreters of South America. The 'picture' of the country that she gives us is full of the same features as Columbus's, but with the polarities reversed. Where he allows us to extrapolate doubleness, she embodies it - where he saw a paradise, she sees a trap (the 'golden Indians' from up-country in the middle of the novel) where he imposed an Andalusian pastoral, she puts grand guignol.
Our mythological paradigms can thus be seen to lend themselves as much to melodrama as to landscape evocation. A desire to specify the 'moment' of her fictional interpretation has compelled a perhaps misleading emphasis on the chronology of this picture of the New World; but in the next chapter, we will see a proportionate stress on the genealogical complexities of genre.
[F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)]
1. It must be specified that the peculiar processes of textual transmission in the case of the Journal, which survives only in the form of an abstract prepared for his own purposes by the Conquest's bitterest critic, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, mean that only some of the entries are attributed verbatim to Columbus by the editor. In this case, for example, it is Las Casas who summarizes 'el Almirante's' reflections in the third person, rather than some self-aggrandizing bent of Columbus's.
[Aphra Behn: Oroonoko (1688)]
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[Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)]