San Francisco State University
This is one of the first extended descriptions of contact between Europeans and Amerindians:
[E]llos de cosa que tengan, pidiéndogela, jamás dizen no; antes convidan la persona con ello, y demuestran tanto amor que darían los corazones, y quier sea cosa de valor,
quier sea de poco precio, luego de cualquiera cosica, de cualquiera manera que sea que se le dé, por ello se an contentos. yo defendí que no se les diezen cosas tan
civiles como pedazos de escudillas rotas, y pedazos de vidrio roto, y cabos de agujetas, aunque, cuando ellos esto podían llegar, les parescía haver la mejor joya del mundo.
[. . .] fasta los pedazos de los arcos rojos de las pipas tomavan, y davan lo que tenían como bestias; así que me pareció mal, é yo lo defendí. (Columbus 9)
They never refuse anything which they possess, if it be asked of them; on the contrary, they invite anyone to share it, and display as much love as if they would give their hearts, and if a thing be of value or of small price, at once with whatever they are given they are content. I forbade that they should be given things so worthless as fragments of broken crockery and scraps of broken glass, and ends of straps, although when they were able to get them, they fancied that they possessed the best jewel in the world.
[. . .] They took even the broken hoops of the wine barrels, and, like savages, gave what they had, so that it seemed to me to be wrong, and I forbade it. (8)
Here Columbus is describing his first voyage to the Americas in a letter to the Spanish royal treasurer Rafael Sanchez. In the passages preceding this one, Columbus has identified
three things about the people he has encountered: they go naked, they have no
iron or steel weapons, and they are timid or fearful (temorosos). Columbus has noted these
characteristics with no overt value judgment upon them, but in the text quoted above, he is so disturbed by what this interaction represents that he resorts to prohibition. His first
prohibition is unquestionably directed towards his own men, but in the last sentence his syntax becomes more oblique, and the focus seems to be upon the Amerindians' behavior, and
indeed their nature, as he perceives it through the performance of exchange. Cecil Jane uses the word
savages as a translation for Columbus' bestias (literally
this is a troublesome substitution. In the original, the conceptual problem which will occupy European (particularly Spanish) theological, social and political thinkers in the decades
to come is more clearly foreshadowed: are the Amerindians truly human beings? But the cloudy syntaxwhose behavior is actually being forbidden here?points to another problem:
exactly what does this vexing and seemingly incoherent trading performance signal to Columbus about his own humanity and that of his men? How does the unprecedented encounter with a people
who appear to have no sense of relative material worth begin to problematize the identity of the European? Somehow the emptied ritual of exchange becomes parodic, or perhaps even
blasphemous, like a Black Mass. The idea that mercantilism, as fundamental to the identity of a civilized 15th century European as Christianity, might be a meaningless performance is the
unspeakable idea that haunts this description.
In the sentence following, Columbus strives to recontextualize Amerindians in a way that would be useful to the furtherance of Spanish imperial aims; he attempts to display what he considers
to be real generosity,
porque tomen amor, y allende d'esto se fazen cristianos, y se inclinan al amor é servicio de Sus Altezas y de toda nación castellana, é procuren de ayuntar é nos dar
de las cosas que tienen en abundancia, que nos son necesarias (
in order that they might conceive affection, and more than that, might become Christians, and inclined to the love and service
of their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and strive to aid and give us of the things which they have in abundance, and are necessary to us) (9, 11; 8). In this passage, which neatly
expresses the nexus of Christianity and mercantilism so marked in Columbus' thought, Columbus swings radically away from the truly disturbing cognitive brush with bestiality and construes the
de muy sotil ingenio (
of a very acute intelligence),
que navegan todas aquellas mares (
who navigate all these seas), and who give
buena cuenta (
good account) (11, 10)
of everything, i.e., are rational and possess language. This is the beginning of what I would call the tradition of
polemical ethnography1 in colonial European writing: the depiction of
Amerindian peoples for the purpose of advancing a particular line of thought in a contentious way, and in which a determination concerning their identity is fundamental to the goals of the argument.
In Columbus' case, it is suggestive that there is as yet no other party to the argument; in my view, he is arguing with himself about the
true nature of the Amerindian. And this dilemma of
identityboth an inability to use received paradigms that are not mutually exclusive to fix the identity of the Amerindian and the potential destabilization of European identity threatened by
this aporiawill remain a presence in some of the most significant writings of the century to come. In the study that follows, I look at two seminal Renaissance figures whose writings are expressive
of this tension and grapple with it in diverse ways, Bartolomé de las Casas and Michel de Montaigne. Both were enormously prolific writers; I focus here on particular works that demonstrate the
practice I am calling
polemical ethnography. For reasons I hope will become clear, I have given particular scrutiny to examples where ethnography serves to undermine an existing concept of the
barbarian, which was contemporaneously used as a frame for Amerindian identity. The peculiarly redolent subject of Amerindian cannibalism as a seemingly unanswerable argument for barbarian status
is dealt with by both Las Casas and Montaigne and their treatments of it are also reviewed in this paper.
In 1550 and 1551, Bartolomé de las Casas participated in what is probably the single event for which he is best known, a series of debates with the Spanish royal historian Juan Ginés Sepúlveda
before the Council of the Indies in Valladolid. A primary subject of these debates was the putative humanity or inhumanity of the Amerindian. Las Casas' extended and densely argued defense of
Amerindian humanity was transcribed in Latin as the Argumentum apologiae adversus Genesium Sepulvedam theologum cordubensem, but several other contemporaneously produced manuscripts also contained
versions or elements of his presentation. The Argumentum apologiae2 survives in a single manuscript, and it is unclear how widely it was received at the time. In The
Fall of Natural Man,3 a magisterial review of sixteenth century Spanish scholarly discourse on the nature and rights of the Amerindian, Anthony Pagden maintains that
the text of the Argumentum apologiae
we have today has been rewritten for publication [. . . It] was intended to be read, and read by a public larger than the judges at the debate (121). Las Casas indisputably spent much of his time
in the years following the debates working to ensure that his writings on related subjects would be as widely disseminated as possible. His Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Brief Account
of the Devastation of the Indies) may have contributed substantially to the Black Legend, the commonly accepted view (at least outside of Spain) that the Spanish Conquest was an irredeemably brutal holocaust.4
Las Casas' decades-long advocacy for Amerindian rights did not begin or end with the Valladolid debates. Although his political success was ultimately limited, he was arguably more effective than any
other European in challenging the genocidal impact of Spanish policies and practices in the colonization of the Americas. It is, however, Las Casas' attempt to construct a coherent Amerindian identity
using contemporary European paradigms and the relationship of this endeavor to his conception of European identity that specifically concerns me here. There are some challenges involved in reconciling
Las Casas' evangelical Catholicism and its effects on his understanding of Amerindians with the insights provided by a contemporary postcolonial approach to colonial discourse; this issue will be briefly
taken up later in my study.
The opening chapter of the Argumentum apologiae presents the first propositions of a comprehensive thesis on barbarism. Democrates secundus sive de justus causis belli apud Indos, Sepúlveda's treatise
applauding and justifying Spain's violent subjection of the Indians, had relied heavily upon conceiving the Amerindian using an Aristotelian hierarchical taxonomy of human and humanoid beings that was
influential (although, according to Pagden, by no means universally upheld) in 16th-century Spain. In the Politics, Books 1 and 3, Aristotle defined barbarians as a proto-human class that he associated
with the condition of
natural slavery, i.e., those whose essential inferiority justified their conquest and enslavement. Barbarians were
natural slaves because they were by nature irrational or
only partly rational, and thus unable to understand and obtain good governance. The best possible outcome for them was to be subjected to the rule of rational men; their indigenous rulers were
inevitably tyrants. Citing the Democrates secundus, Pagden tells us that for Sepúlveda
Indians belonged to the category 'natural slave,' because [. . .] they are 'barbarous and inhuman peoples
abhorring all civil life, customs and virtue' (Pagden 116, emphasis added).
Las Casas begins his formal argument against Sepúlveda by investigating the Aristotelian conception of barbarism, and shortly thereafter draws the conclusion that it cannot apply unrestrictedly to whole
races of people and still be consistent with Christian doctrine. With the help of Aquinian arguments for the ubiquity of reason in divinely established human nature, Las Casas limits the applicability
of the Aristotelian definition so severely that it would only be considered valid in extremely isolated cases: what he calls
freaks in a rational nature (IDI 34). In fact, before he has finished
with the question of barbarism, Las Casas will make a radical departure from the common theological practice of reliance upon
The Philosopher to bolster any number of arguments, literally bidding him
Goodbye, Aristotle! at one point (40). He will demonstrate that barbarism has no place as an ontological category, that acceptance of the Aristotelian construct is, in fact, demonic if one
adheres to the Christian
single commandment (39) of love:
He who wants a large part of mankind to be such that, following Aristotle's teachings, he may act like a ferocious executioner towards them, press them into slavery, and through them grow rich, is a
despotic master, not a Christian; a son of Satan, not of God; a plunderer, not a shepherd; a person who is led by the spirit of the devil, not heaven. (40)
In the first five chapters of the Argumentum apologiae, Las Casas identifies and describes
four kinds of barbarian (28): 1) people who commit barbaric acts of cruelty and/or violence; 2) people
no written language (30); 3) people who have
no state or politically organized community (32); and 4)
those who do not acknowledge Christ (49). What Las Casas maintains about these
four categories is that none of them represent immutable qualities in a given person or society, and in many cases the definition is relative to the observer, creating as Las Casas says,
literally, but by circumstance because
the Greeks called the Romans barbarians, and, in turn, the Romans called the Greeks and other nations of the world barbarians (31). On the language question
he does not immediately examine the issue of writing, but quotes St. Paul on speech:
'If I am ignorant of what the sound means, I am a barbarian to the man who is speaking, and he is a barbarian to me'
(31). Based on his direct observation of Amerindian societies, Las Casas finds that the first and third of these barbarian typologies do not apply to them at all, and the second and fourth are as
remediable in Amerindians as in any other people. With regard to social structure (the third category), Las Casas is particularly unequivocal:
[L]ong before [the Indians] had heard the word Spaniard they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion and custom. They
[. . .] lived in populous cities, in which they wisely administered the affairs of both peace and war justly and equitably, truly governed by laws that at very many points surpass ours, and could
have won the admiration of the sages of Athens. (43)
In the course of Las Casas' argument, as we can glimpse in these examples, a deep-seated cultural relativism begins to emerge from within his theological framework. Pagden tells us that Las Casas
saw two of Sepúlveda's three basic propositions (Indians as
culturally inferior and as guilty of
'unnatural' crimes) as
anathema because they presupposed an anthropology in which cultural
forms were accepted as being indicative of innate dispositions (TFNM 119). Pagden goes on to link the Argumentum apologiae to Las Casas' subsequent Apologética historia sumaria, which Pagden
maintains is what Las Casas means by the
second part of this Defense referred to at various points in the Argumentum apologiae (TFNM 120; see for example IDI 43). The Apologética historia,
according to Pagden, is a
truly 'original' work that is
an attempt to demonstrate, on the basis of a huge body of empirical and historical data, that the pre-conquest Indian communities
filled all of Aristotle's requirements for a true civil society, and secondly to explain in a way which made no appeal to Aristotelian bipartite psychology why Amerindian culture differed
sometimes radically from European norms. It is also part of
an explicitly polemical programme. This may seem a somewhat obvious statement in view of the adversarial context in which the
information was being produced, but what Pagden is suggesting is that the urgency of the polemical question for Las Casas drives him to produce a systematic ethnology in order to
prove [. . .]
that beneath the glaring cultural differences between the races of men there existed the same set of social and moral imperatives (121, emphasis in original). George Sanderlin describes the
Apologética historia as
a comparison, using criteria from Aristotle's Politics, of the culture of 'these Indian peoples' of the New World to that of famous nations of the Old (Bartolomé de
las Casas, a Selection of His Works 110). The bulk of the work is a detailed depiction of
the religious and political life of the Indians, where, according to Sanderlin, Las Casas found
best evidence for their rationality (111). Pagden refers to it as the first piece of
comparative ethnology [. . .] to be written in a European language (TFNM 122). Weighing in at 1,350 pages,
it is perhaps the most extended piece of polemical ethnography in existence. The physical environment of the Indies is described not just as a catalogue of commodities as is often the case in
colonial chronicles, but primarily for its perceived effect on the temperament and physique of its inhabitants. A version of the thesis on barbarism from the Argumentum apologiae is the subject
of the concluding chapters.
Returning to the Argumentum, where ethnographic description is scarcer but still clearly essential to the polemic, we find that Las Casas' next task is to limit or eliminate the sweeping jurisdiction
Sepúlveda awards to the church and the Spanish crown in the name of spreading the Christian faith. This is by far the bulk of the text, and in the course of it, Las Casas must deal with one of the most
hyperventilated concepts to haunt the imagination of Europeans since Herodotus, the idea of cannibalism.
His engagement with this fraught practice is almost anti-climactic. In the 28th chapter of the Argumentum apologiae, Las Casas confronts the proposition that
the Church can exercise actual coercive
jurisdiction over any unbelievers; that is, if they are found to oppress and injure any innocent persons in order to sacrifice them to their gods or in order to commit cannibalism (IDI 185-86). His
next sentence is telling:
According to reports, some tribes in the Indian world do this (186). It is, of course, Columbus himself, whom Las Casas admired and whose journals he edited, who had first
associated New World peoples with anthropophagy; his lacuna-laden communications with Arawaks about the neighboring Caribs resulted in the coining of the term canibal. Las Casas has never witnessed
the practice, and has, in fact, bemusedly called into question Columbus' interpretative certainty5 but in place of his more common reliance on hyperbole, on absolute negatives or
positives, Las Casas makes a far more interesting choice here. In Chapter 28 (bis) he declares:
For the practice is not all that common among Indian peoples. And if it is, no great number of persons are
killed (190). This pronouncement may be unique among European utterances about cannibalism in the New World for its lack of prurience, emotionalism or judgmentat least until Montaigne's treatment of the
subject in the eponymous essay
Des Cannibales (
Of Cannibals), which I will examine subsequently. It is impossible to say whether Las Casas, whose writing is rarely distinguished by irony or humor, is
making a joke when he goes on to say:
Otherwise all would have been totally destroyed before this. And yet we find that all the regions are densely populated (190). In Chapter 33, Las Casas presents the
idea that there are cases where cannibalism is justified, such as
necessity and extreme hunger (219), and cites the historical example of
the Spanish city of Numancia [, whose] citizens, oppressed by
extreme hunger during a siege by Scipio, ate human corpses (220)another pointed example of Las Casian relativism.
Cannibalism, for Las Casas, is a side issue, far less important than the real problem he seeks to engage with in the Argumentum, and that is war. In Chapter 4, reviewing the third category of
barbarism, which involves the nature of government, he has stated his position on war in a way which remains deeply relevant to this day:
it is wrong for one nation to attack another under pretext
of being superior in wisdom or to overthrow other kingdoms [. . .] This is not an act of wisdom, but a lying excuse for plundering others. The only conceivably just war is defensive:
no matter how barbaric, has the right to defend itself against a more civilized one that wants to conquer it and take away its freedom (47). In the Brevísima relación, Las Casas sympathetically
describes Indian acts of resistance, such as digging pit-traps outside villages to stop Spanish raidsguerrilla warfare justified by the utter imbalance of forces in the Conquest. While he argues
that these acts are infrequent, and uncharacteristic of Amerindian behavior, which is distinguished by
humildad, ofertas, paciencia y sufrimiento (
humility, offerings, patience and suffering),6
he portrays the Spanish response as typically genocidal:
para vengarse hicieron ley los españoles que todos cuantos indios de todo género y edad tomasen a vida, echasen dentro en los hoyos (
themselves the Spaniards made a law that all these Indians of any sex or age whom they took alive they would throw into the pits). Las Casas' choice of words in closing this passage hints that this kind
of activity is truly cannibalistic; it is the literal swallowing up of a people. After seven years of it, he says,
júzguese aquí cuánto sería el número de la gente que consumirían (
yourself how many people they would have consumed) (Tratados 87). Carlos Jáuregui and Juan Pablo Dabove refer to the tradition of
gothic-Marxist tropes in Latin American writing beginning with
Las Casas (12); the Brevísima relación is surely an exemplary text for such tropes.
As with barbarism, Las Casas' strategy in the Argumentum apologiae is to progressively limit the case for war, the grounds upon which
just war may be waged, so as to exclude any war waged for
gain of property, land, or conversion of souls. The practices of cannibalism and human sacrifice had been used interchangeably by Sepúlveda as justifications for a religious war against the Indians.
Las Casas argues at length that killing thousands of innocents in order, hypothetically, to rescue the few who may be victims of sacrifice is not justified by canonical authority. Instead, war itself
the sea of all evil (IDI 248),
the plague of body and soul (360),
the most wretched and pestilential of all things under heaven (359). Wars of aggression are unquestionably barbaric.
While the Valladolid debates are often remembered as a watershed moment for Renaissance humanism, through which Amerindians are allowed by dedicated European advocacy to join the family of man, it
should not be forgotten that Las Casas' main subject here is war, that is, the praxis of his own society, and he abominates it.
Therefore the purpose of this extended argument is not merely to establish how Amerindian identity is contained in the schema Las Casas employs, but to determine and regulate proper and improper behavior
on the part of Spaniards. The real urgency of the question lies precisely in Las Casas' perception that the Amerindian question is linked to Spanish identity and thus to what we might call Spanish
praxisthat they are co-creative, in fact, and what is determined about Amerindian identity will either help reinforce a Spanish identity that is coherent, moral, and perfectible, exemplified by
the behavior of the Franciscan missionaries Las Casas sometimes admires, or one that is chaotic, violent, and meaningless, exemplified by the Spanish conquerors and colonists. Michel de Certeau's
dia-bolic in his essay on Montaigne finds suggestive embodiment in Las Casas' thought: for the Spanish priest, human identity is ultimately either symbolic,
i.e., a representation of Christ, or diabolicthat is, disconnected from Christian praxis, and thus unable to mean (Certeau 72). Adherence to a demonic policy makes one's life literally unable
to signify. It is also worth noting here that throughout the Brevísima relación, Las Casas denies proper names to the Spanish commanders who oversaw the Conquest, labeling them only as anonymous
tyrants), among other epithets; by doing so he is erasing their individual identities and refusing to award their lives any enduring significance. As mentioned earlier, according to
the Aristotelian standards Las Casas has rejected in the case of Amerindians, a tyrant is also the only type of ruler a
true barbarian is capable of becoming; the effect of the term is thus highly
calculated when applied to Spaniards.
Las Casas has of course been subjected to revisionist analysis in the light of insights provided by contemporary postcolonialism. Even if one resists the argument of a seminal critic like Tzvetan
Todorov that Las Casas must be construed as a figure entirely within colonialist discourse, Todorov's reading of Las Casas succeeds in implicating the latter in the colonial project, both by his
mere historical presence and through his belief in a hierarchy of faiths and a mandate for a universal expansion of Christianity. It is arguable that Las Casas' belief in a teleological, progressive,
universal history causes him to understand the Amerindians paternalistically as Pagden says, as
a still 'young' people (TFNM 142), when modern scientific evidence points to their inhabitation
of the Americas and development of complex social structures over tens of thousands of years.7 When it serves his argument, Las Casas metaphorically infantilizes Amerindians,
preferring to present them, in Pagden's terms, as
nature's children rather than
nature's slaves (TFNM 57-108). Las Casas' work does not, as Pagden says,
provide the modern reader with a
convincing picture of the ancient Indian world.
But that, Pagden immediately continues,
after all, was not the purpose of the work (TFNM 123). While Pagden elsewhere faults Las Casas'
work as inadequate in historiographical terms (New World Encounters 96), he does not dismiss the significance of Las Casas' argument about Amerindian identity because it was predetermined by
his fundamental beliefs.
Todorov himself actually ends up going further towards a recuperation of Las Casas in one sense, by conceding the development of what he calls
perspectivism in the latter that enabled him
in his old age to love and esteem the Indians as a function not of his own ideal but of theirs (Todorov 249). This is an attractive idea, although strangely utopian, since Todorov has
elsewhere noted Las Casas' inability to truly understand the people to whom he dedicated his life. Jeffrey Coombs is one of several critics who have questioned the validity of perspectivism
(Coombs 163), since Las Casas in no way renounced or questioned the superiority of his Catholic faith; he merely stated that no person could be compelled against his/her will to adopt it.
In the end, it seems fruitless to judge Las Casas' writings on Amerindians as if there were an ahistorical standard of cultural comprehension, uncontaminated by any relationship to power,
to which they could be held. Rather I believe the bulk of Las Casas' work, including his decades of activism (particularly his defenses of indigenous sovereignty and resistance to colonization,
and his open call for Spain to renounce all material claims to the Americas), can more fruitfully be seen in terms of a dialectic already present in European thought and praxis, which had long
demonstrated both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies.
In its nature as polemic lies the enduring significance of Las Casas' worknot as history, not as theology, nor as scientific ethnology, political doctrine or literary artifact, but as
an argument generated by a specific historical crisis whose resolution has not yet occurred. In fact, despite the best efforts of a number of critical perspectives to resolve or efface
it once and for all, the question of whether
the entire human race is one8 or radical difference is fundamental persists within a variety of discourses, particularly
those operating outside of academia. And, as in Las Casas' time, attempts at a determinative resolution of this question continue to have direct consequences upon the minds and bodies of living
Several recent scholars of Renaissance literature have traced correspondences between Las Casas' writings and Montaigne's. Tom Conley begins an article on Montaigne's New World writings in the
Essais by citing Las Casas scholar Marcel Battaillon's rejection of direct influence:
Montaigne [. . .] a connu [. . .] Gómara et Benzoni, mais ignoré Las Casas (
Montaigne knew Gómara
and Benzoni but was unaware of Las Casas) (Conley 226).9 However, by the conclusion of his piece, which deals with the significance of a topographical understanding of
the Essais as a whole, and the focal placement of the New World material within them, Conley maintains that
in more pervasive and unconscious ways, the relation may have been far more
intimate (251). He tells us that
Montaigne and Las Casas meld in their study of slavery and excess (252). Conley also mentions a scholarly consensus that
associates Montaigne with a 'clairvoyant
skepticism' that favors the early development of ethnography (226). But even though Montaigne's subtle and complex rhetorical strategies are far from Las Casas' dialectical scholasticism and
hyperbolic jeremiads, Conley is equally cognizant of the polemical content of the New World writings, particularly in the essays
Des Coches (
Of Coaches) and
Des Cannibales (
According to Conley,
Des Cannibales, like Las Casas' work,
turns the sources of Spain's official history against itself for the sake of advancing positions against intervention and expansion
(251). Deconstructing the figure of the Amerindian barbarian, particularly by way of a consideration of the practices of warfare and cannibalism, is similarly a linchpin of the argument in
William Hamlin's The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser and Shakespeare: Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection begins with an examination of the concepts of Amerindian identity presented in Spanish colonial texts and treats Las Casas' writing as central to this examination. Hamlin also links the work of Las Casas and Montaigne. He briefly takes up the source
criticism argument which Conley avoids, mentioning the availability of a French translation of Las Casas' Brevísima relación and
a sufficient number of anecdotal parallels [. . .] between this notorious tract and various chapters of the Essays that it seems difficult to believe Montaigne was ignorant of its existence and contents (41). However, Hamlin ultimately accepts the limitations of such a line of inquiry by acknowledging that
'[s]ources,' in fact, may be too strong a word (43). Instead, like Conley, he detects thematic parallels: a shared
revulsion at the cruelty and greed of his fellow Europeans in America, and most particularly,
the dawning realization that barbarity lies in the eye of the beholder. Strangely, Hamlin presents Montaigne as differing from Las Casas in
his [Montaigne's] greater willingness to employ accounts of the New World as leverage in his [. . .] critique of the Old; I would maintain rather that he
is closely following his Spanish predecessor in this activity, though it would be difficult to argue with Hamlin that Montaigne's critique, as we will see, is far more
nuanced and extends into a personal territory that was of little concern to Las Casas (42). The Brevísima relación is an extended diatribe condemning the systematic destruction of the New World's harmony and innocence by Spanish greed and cruelty in which only the Spanish king's hypothetical ignorance offers the excuse that may save his entire nation from perdition. In the Argumentum apologiae Spain is condemned as
a proud, greedy, cruel and rapacious nation precisely during a defense of the Amerindian practice of human sacrifice (IDI 221). One could say that Las Casas, in fact, sets the bar for using the New World to critique the Old.
Des Cannibales begins with one of Montaigne's recurring devices, the anecdote from Classical history. He cites the Greek king Pyrrhus observing the opposing Roman troops he will face in his attempt to extend his empire into Italy, and remarking ironically:
Je ne sçay [. . .] quels barbares sont ceux-ci [. . .] mais la disposition de cette armée que je voy n'est aucunement barbare
I do not know what kind of barbarians these are [. . .] but the disposition of the army that I see is not at all barbarous) (200; 76).10 Here is a clear echo of Las
the Greeks called the Romans barbarians, and in turn [. . .], etc. Montaigne's idea that warfare can illuminate the question of barbarism, which will serve as a large portion of the
argument, and is quite distinct from Las Casas' views on the subject, is also introduced here.
Montaigne then refers to a manservant who has reputedly spent
dix ou deux ans en cet autre monde (
ten or twelve years in that other world) (76; 200),
Antarctic France (Brazil) where an
attempt at a French Protestant colony had been made. Scholars agree that Montaigne, who never traveled outside of Europe, had read travelers' accounts of the colony and relied heavily on Jean
de Léry's Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, dite Amerique (History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Called America) for much of the description that follows
in this essay. Hamlin notes that Léry was a
Huguenot parson whose account of Brazil's Tupinamba people
moves strongly in the direction of a critique of contemporary European society (Hamlin 38).
But it is the manservant, whose veracity the text goes to some lengths to establish, who will be identified as the true source of the ethnography on the
cannibals themselves. This man,
never named, is referred to as
[un] homme simple et grossier, qui est une condition propre à rendre véritable témoignage (
a plain ignorant fellow, which is a condition fit to bear
true witness). This description leads to an attack on
les fines gens (
the sharp sort of men)the French
fines also implies a higher level of education and a superior
gloss their accounts and try to make them seem more than the very personal interpretation they are. The passage closes with the specific admonition that s/he
who would write such an account
n'ait rien espousé (
has not espoused any cause). Montaigne's choice of verbs suggests the need for total authorial independence not only from
any cause, but any doctrine or even relationship in depictions of this kind, perhaps an example of the aforementioned
clairvoyant skepticism that anticipates the goals
of modern ethnography. So his first critique of contemporary practice is a polemic against polemicizing by
les cosmographes (
cosmographers) (202; 77); the ensuing highly
selective and polemical description of Amerindian society has thus been given its ironic frame, its distancing shield.
In the following passage, offered as remedy for the deficiencies of subjective cosmography, the striking, signatory line occurs:
je voudroy que chacun escrivit ce qu'il sçait,
et autant qu'il en sait (
I would have everyone write what he knows, and as much as he knows [about it]) (202; 77). The subsequent lines make clear that this must be read as:
what he knows [. . .]. This statement goes beyond advocacy for a scientific practice in certain types of writing. Much has been made of Montaigne's
depiction of Amerindian society; I would suggest that this single, impossible prescription is the sole location in this essay of any truly utopian perspective. Its genesis is
satirical, like More's utopianism. It reads as if epistemology were not the incredibly problematic subject the author knows it to be, with a simple directness that implies
an entirely transformed human condition. For everyone to write only what s/he knows, s/he would have to know what s/he knows, and were this to be a possible state for
every human, consciousness itself would be entirely altered, and with it, social relations. The imagination produces a silent utopia of direct communication; even to envision
the world in which it would be possible to say
everyone should write only what s/he knows in a meaningful way is to imagine an ideal but impossible state of things.
Then the authorial voice calls itself back to its subject, in a summary dismissal of ontological barbarism:
je trouve [. . .] 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 qu'il n'est pas de son usage (
I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in
this nation [the Tupinamba of Brazil] according to what I have been told, except that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not according to his
usage) (202; 77). This is almost identical to the conclusion that Las Casa's eyewitness experience of Amerindian societies has produced in him. There follows a paean
to the superiority of nature over art, a reference to the Golden Age, and then the ethnographic description of an Amerindian society begins with the famous negative list,
what Certeau calls part of the sequence of
that's not it in this essay (to which the Golden Age itself also belongs) (Certeau 69), that serves first to destabilize
preconceptions of the New World, and then assumptions about European society. The negative list, it should be noted, was also a feature of earlier European descriptions
of the New World, from Peter Martyr to Las Casas to Montaigne's likely sources Gómara, Benzoni and Léry.
They have no and
they are not abound in these early conceptions,
and by demonstrating an absence of the trappings of European civilization, help to reinforce the Arcadian11 perception of Amerindian societies,
the idea that they are a lost branch of the human tree which has retained a closer connection to the prelapsarian past. This passage,
it is a nation wherein there is no
traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, etc., finds its way into Shakespeare's The Tempest and into a broader diffusion of the Noble Savage
figure to which Las Casas has also been linked.12 I will only note that
trafique (mercantilism) is found at the head of it, and that, strangely,
pardon is at its foot. The critic David Quint uses this odd choiceno pardon?as a point of departure for his argument against a utopianist reading of
Cannibales. His Marxian view of the essay as a critique in which the Tupinamba cannibals represent the supposedly Stoical values of the French aristocracy is ultimately
unconvincing,13 but it does attempt to deal with a point many examinations of this piece appear to overlook, and that is: why, after beginning
with a glowing and detailed description of the apparent health, wholesomeness and simplicity of Amerindian daily life, does the text proceed to deal at such length and
with such a wealth of ethnographic detail with Amerindian warfare, and cannibalism's prominent role in it? Here Las Casas is not echoed; as we have seen, Las Casas
dismissed both war-making and cannibalism as functionally inconsequential in Amerindian societies.
The intermediary manservant quickly disappears and is never reintroduced. This invisible man, whom Certeau calls
the pivot of the text (71), is, in his view, a kind of domestic embodiment of the Amerindian in his inability to lie, his
simplicityalso, one might suggest, in his function as a literary device. Source criticism could step in here and argue that the section on Tupinamba warfare represents Léry's taking over the narrative from the servant; Léry's account does spend a considerable amount of time describing the Tupinamba at war. But Montaigne never names Léry or his other textual sources; they have been exiled from his text as a result of the opening critique of polemical cosmography. Instead, the
true source's simplicity and inability to speak or act falsely or opportunistically are mirrored in the depiction of war.
In fact, the operative quality of Amerindian warfare as described here is its straightforwardness. The Tupinamba's enemies are clearly identified as tribesmen who live elsewhere but are enemies for no other apparent reason. The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate valor, to kill without running away, to bring home a trophy head to hang above one's door, and to consume the flesh of one's enemy
pour représenter une extreme vengeance (
as a representation of extreme revenge) (207; 82). While this is meant to be admirable, in a conspicuously contrarian fashion, it is far from utopian or Arcadian. Instead, unadorned Tupinamba violence serves as a counterpoint to baroque European practices like torturing live victims to death or having them consumed by animals. The activities Montaigne describes Europeans carrying out
sous pretexte de pieté et de religion (
in the name of piety and religion) are intended to be seen as more truly barbaric than displays of honor which involve dispatching victims quickly and eating them after they are dead (208; 83).
Both Certeau and Quint (citing the former) note the shadow of a vanishing medieval chivalric paradigm in the valorous conduct of the Amerindian in war. Montaigne recurs, as does Las Casas, to known European historical examples to contextualize his favorable portrait of the Amerindian, but as with his ethnographic sources, deeply covers his tracks. For Montaigne the European past offers no more stable and durable a frame for Amerindian identity than do current writers. Earlier in the essay, just before rejecting Classical authority as a legitimate source for New World historiography, he has aphorized:
nous embrassons tout, mais nous n'étreignons que du vent (
at all, but catch nothing but wind) (200; 74). Wind and water are here and elsewhere his metaphors for instability and flux; they are forces that undo all overreaching
activity, from the fixing of territorial boundaries to the excesses of thought or speech. While the text next describes Classical examples of exemplary behavior in war,
particularly by the defeated (recalling the initial anecdote of Pyrrhus, who gave his name to victories that are nearly indistinguishable from defeats), these are self-contained
and pointed towards a critique of contemporary European practices. This is not the systematic comparative ethnology of Las Casas' Apologética historia, but rather the
use of two distinct and equally distant mirrors to show the European present to itself.
Montaigne then returns (again) to his stated subject, his ethnography, and specifically the Tupinamba practice of cannibalism. Instead of marginalizing it as Las Casas does,
Montaigne provides a description which zeroes in on the suggestive qualities of anthropophagy that are perhaps most challenging to a contemporary European construction of
identity: the absolute elimination of boundaries and lineage, the complete dissolution of self into other.
J'ay une chanson faicte par un prisonnier, où il y a ce traict: qu'ils viennent hardiment trétous et s'assemblent pour disner de luy; car ils mangeront quant et quant leurs peres et leurs ayeux, qui ont servy d'aliment et de nourriture à son corps. «Ces muscles, dit-il, cette chair et ces veines, ce sont les vostres, pauvres fols que vous estes; vous ne recognoissez pas que la substance des membres de vos ancestres s'y tient encore: savourez les bien, vous y trouverez le goust de vostre propre chair.» (211)
I have a song composed by a prisoner [of Tupinamba warfare] in which there is this thrust, that they come boldly, all of them, and assemble to dine upon him, for they will be eating at the same time their own fathers and grandfathers, whose flesh has served to feed and nourish his body.'These muscles,' says he, 'this flesh and these veins are your own, poor fools that you are. You do not recognize that the substance of your ancestors' limbs is here yet; savor them well, and you will find in them the taste of your own flesh.' (86)
In another signature touch, Montaigne concludes this passage with
Invention qui ne sent aucunement la barbarie (
An idea that does not smack at all of barbarity)
(211; 86). The translation of sent as
smack by Cotton and Hazlitt makes the gustatory joke plain; the French verb is more subtle, implying discernment of any
kind, including taste. Rather than exemplifying Amerindian barbarity, cannibalism, like the natural elements of water and wind, is an agent of reciprocity, circulation,
and ego-deflation. This dissolution of artificial boundaries and constructed identities is necessary to a true understanding of self, the understanding possessed by the
Tupinamba warriors. The
simple manservant, the voyager who circulates from one culture to the other, continues to shadow the narrative; it is his circular voyage that
has made possible the salutary circulation of this alterity in Montaigne's benighted France.14
The final statement in
Des Cannibales against ontological barbarism is this:
Sans mentir, au pris de nous, voilà des hommes bien sauvages; car il faut qu'ils le
soyent bien à bon escient, ou que nous le soyons (
In plain truth, here are men who are real savages in comparison with us; for either they must be absolutely so,
or else we are savages) (211; 87). Irreducible paradoxes often assume such deceptively simple syntactic form. Either
they are or
we arebut which is it? It
can't be us, but it isn't them either, yet it must be one of the two. The irresolvability of the dilemma exposes the incongruence of barbarism as a state of being.
In the Argumentum apologiae, Las Casas uses juridical and theological authority to undo an established position on the concept of barbarism in order to establish
his own position, a classic exercise in dialectical argument as practiced by the scholastics. Montaigne's anecdotal and divagatory style is his own creation; he is
cognizant of but not bound to the conventional rules of rhetoric. While the
pervasive and unconscious thematic similarities noted by Conley and Hamlin are still evident,
the cognitive effect of this work is thus quite different. Montaigne, as Certeau aptly demonstrates, undoes the concept of barbarism linguistically as a means of
determining that no fixed position upon it can be established. It cannot denote a person or a state of being, it can only describe certain types of behavior,
and even that adjectival status is undermined by the unstable identities of the nouns to which it should refer, and
it becomes dispersed in contradictory meanings,
which are indifferently assignable to cases that used to be kept carefully separate (Certeau 73). Like the profound erasure of boundaries that is cannibalism,
the disappearance of the barbarian undoes pre-existing notions of identity. The argument is traced, elaborated, the critique of European praxis is a ghostly presence,
but any forced resolution of the identity question
oursis also ghostly. As with
everyone [should] write what he knows, the clearer and
more apparently declarative the syntax, the muddier the epistemological or ontological waters.
Marvelous Possessions, looks to the experience of
wonder or the marvelous to do in the similar context of the European encounter with radical cultural difference. However, the presence of polemic so tightly interwoven with ethnographic information in these Renaissance works suggests that no durable neutral ground can be found. Identity is being contested as much as it is being established in the production of Montaigne's or Las Casas' polemical ethnographies, and the understandings that are generated are not produced by a detached, quasi-scientific or aesthetic gaze, but its opposite, an engagement which is driven by the desire to persuade. Montaigne's suasive strategy is covert, anecdotal, Las Casa's is overt, dialectical but, in Montaigne's titular phrase,
by diverse means we arrive at [at least some of] the same ends.
Arcadia and Utopia. The Pastoral Mode. Ed. Brian Loughrey.
London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984. 90-92.
Casas, Bartolomé de las. Bartolomé de las Casas: A Selection of His Writings. Ed.
George Sanderlin. New York and Toronto: Knopf, 1971.
---. History of the Indies. Trans. and ed. Andrée M. Collard. New York: Harper
and Row, 1971.
---. In Defense of the Indians. Trans. and ed. Stafford Poole. DeKalb, IL:
Northern Illinois UP, 1974.
---. Tratados de Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Ed. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso.
México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1965.
Certeau, Michel de.
Montaigne's 'Of Cannibals': The Savage 'I'. Heterologies:
Discourse on the Other. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 1986. 67-79.
Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Columbus. Trans. and ed. Cecil
Jane. New York: Dover, 1988.
Historical Reality and the Detractors of Father Las Casas.
Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man
and His Work. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 1971. 487-537.
Montaigne and the Indies: Cartographies of the New World.
1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Eds. Rene Jara and
Nicholas Spadacini. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 225-262.
Was Las Casas Postcolonial?. Semiotics 1995. Proceeds
of 20th Annual Meeting of Semiotic Society of America. New York: Peter Lang,
Hamlin, William M. The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser and Shakespeare:
Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
Jáuregui, Carlos A. and Juan Pablo Dabove.
Mapas heterotrópicos de América
Heterotropías: narrativas de identidad y alteridad latinoamericanas.
Eds. Juan Pablo Dabove and Carlos A. Jáuregui. Pittsburgh, PA:
Biblioteca de América, 2003. 7-35.
Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves,
Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston:
Montaigne, Michel de. Montaigne: Selected Essays. Trans. Charles Cotton and W.
Hazlitt. Ed. Blanchard Bates. New York: Modern Library-Random House,
---. Oeuvres Complètes. Eds. Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat. Bruges, Belgium:
Éditions Gallimard, 1962.
Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of
Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1982.
Ius et Factum: Text and Experience in the Writings of Bartolomé de las
New World Encounters. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1993. 85-100.
Silence and Writing: The History of the Conquest.
1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Eds. Jara and Spadacini.
Perry, T. A.
Just Say No: Montaigne's Negative Ethics. Approaches to Teaching
Montaigne's Essays. Ed. Patrick Henry. New York: Modern Language
Association of America, 1993. 78-83.
A Reconsideration of Montaigne's 'Des Cannibales.' America in
European Consciousness, 1493-1750. Ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman.
Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, 1995. 166-191.
Utopian Ethnology in Las Casa's Apologética. 1492-1992:
Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Eds. Jara and Spadacini. 263-289.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Trans.
Richard Howard. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.
The Forms of Wildness. The Wild Man Within: An Image in
Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism. Eds. Edward
Dudley and Maximilian E. Novak. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1972.