Rochefort's 'History': The Poetics of Collusion in a Colonizing Narrative

Article excerpt

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" [152]). He questions the validity of categories like barbarism and savagery ("each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice" [152]); 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. …