A select compilation of bibliographical literature for the West Indies during the period 1650-1795 yields some twenty-six titles of works styling themselves variously as histories, travel accounts, and miscellaneous memoirs from abroad, all purporting to describe the natural, moral, civil, and commercial behavior of Caribbean inhabitants, mostly the indigenous but also (inevitably) the immigrants and the Creoles (Goveia 179-81). Of the diverse genres represented, the category "history" is by far the most common. Familiar and obvious as this conventional label may be, the objects of the discourses were not. Charles de Rochefort's Natural and Moral History of the Caribby Islands is a work whose relation to the specific historical moment of West Indian colonization exemplifies this tension between label and contents.(1)
At the deep structure of its unconscious narrative intentions, the History configures the dynamics of this tension into a rhetorical trope of collusion.(2) Assimilating historical narrative to literary discourse, collusion incorporates modes of allegory, notions of play, and poetic constructions to make Rochefort's meaning. It transcends the strictly-drawn confines of history to remap the traditional categories of civilization and barbarism; it reimagines the presumptions of difference, knowledge, and value that privilege subject above Other.
That such far-reaching realignments and disruptions would result from European-Carib encounters was foreshadowed over eighty years earlier in Michel de Montaigne's Des Cannibales (1580). Through an interpreter, Montaigne had interviewed one of three Tupinamba (native Brazilians) visitors with whom Charles IX had held an audience at Rouen in 1562. Through reports, formal and popular alike, Montaigne was well informed about the activities of exploration and colonization, about the New World indigenes, their manners and their mores. Montaigne's essay is the indisputable locus classicus of a new interpretive method for the terms of interaction between "savage" and "civilized" so characteristic of colonizing narratives. The slippages, the designs, the deviousness figured in Rochefort are all intimated in Montaigne's sagely ironic observations on the meaning and consequences of the European-Amerindian encounter. Tempering the excitement of novelty with cautious skepticism against assuming final knowledge from limited contact, Montaigne insists on factoring into the construction of New World epistemology the universal problems of chauvinism and bias, the insoluble enigma of the Other's elusiveness. In a prophetic pre-text to the deeper allegorical references in Rochefort, the essay deflates the sonorous pretensions displayed in the cosmographic titles of histories like Rochefort's, emphasizing the gap between desire and comprehension, between reach and grasp. "I am afraid," Montaigne wrote, "we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but clasp only wind" (150).
Montaigne reveals a deeply ironic understanding of the limitations of travelers' and authors' judgments about exotic places ("they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them" ). He questions the validity of categories like barbarism and savagery ("each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice" ); and, on the whole, elaborates a remarkably liberal, enlightened critique of difference, concluding his affirmations with the coded tag "All this is not too bad--but what's the use? They don't wear breeches" (159).
The allusion to nudity brings us back to Rochefort, for to a considerable degree, the collusions of his text are aimed at normalizing that practice.
Nearly a hundred years intervened between the Tupinambas' travels in France and the first edition of Rochefort's History (1658). Neither the sparse biographical record nor the internal evidence of his text furnishes any suggestion that Rochefort personally met or saw the Tupinambas during their visits, or that he ever set foot in the New World. Still, he accounted himself fortunate to have had access to the testimony of reputable eyewitnesses. Chief among these he named a certain du Montel (reputed to have lived among the Caribs of Dominica), a Mr. Brigstock (the principal source for his account of pre-Columbian Carib history), and sundry former inhabitants of the American colonies (acknowledged in his preface for providing certain memoirs from which this work was developed). Marginal citations and factual details in the History show that Rochefort drew generously from the principal sources that helped to shape French notions of Carib ethnography: Peter Martyr, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Jose de Acosta, Theodore de Bry and Jean Mocquet, to name only a few. Almost without exception, these authors disseminated images of the Caribs as a wholly inhospitable, barbarous lot, whose inveterate ferocity expressed itself in bloodcurdling cannibalism (Boucher 18-22).
Like the assortment of texts alluded to earlier, Rochefort's History attempts to depict the material properties and moral attributes of lands and peoples still not fully assimilated into the European consciousness. But the collusive mechanisms that shape the rhetoric of this historical narrative force a dissent from contemporary intellectual orthodoxy: like Montaigne, Rochefort calls attention to the flawed methods and narrow conceptions of those authors most responsible for the underserved negative images of Caribs. Rochefort feels compelled to invent and redefine "history," in order to display the new body of knowledge constituted by those entities (human and moral) and resources (physical and material) indigenous to the newly appropriated space. The content and procedures of discourses bearing the marker "history," therefore, invite a much closer inquiry to define the …