Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

REVISING THE VANQUISHED: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial Encounters

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

REVISING THE VANQUISHED: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial Encounters

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2003, Australian television played a provocative commercial set apparently in the Australian or New Guinean bush.1 The commercial's sparse desert setting at first holds only two white men, one fat, one thin; both dressed in khaki shorts, shirts, and safari hats walking forward into the bush setting, the camera to their backs, moving with them. Then two men of color, perhaps native Papua New Guineans, carrying sticks and dressed in spare loincloths, trot onto screen from the left. A second-long shot of each set of men simulates their thorough inspection of each other, interrupted when the fat white man nudges the thin one, who raises his camera to aim at the indigenous men. In response, the indigenous men quickly turn away and hide their faces, crying out in language subtitled in English, "No, no don't!" As the camera shifts behind them, so that viewers see their faces, but the white men do not, the indigenous men explain: "That's not Olympus digital. It hasn't got prescription optics. We'll look rubbish." Not understanding the indigenous men's speech and stunned by their gestures of refusal, the thin white man slowly lowers his camera. The fat white man nods, a look of understanding crossing his face, and explains in a thick Australian accent "Hnh. It's the camera. Taking a picture takes their spirit away." The advertisement ends with an image of the Olympus camera clicking and whirring and the clever pronouncement: "Using the wrong equipment is an insult."

The humor of the commercial's moment of misrecognition comes from its ironic rewriting of what could be, without the subtitles, a typical moment of colonialist encounter.2 Based on common-knowledge folklore about indigenous culture, the white men assume that the indigenous men refuse to let their picture be taken because of a misunderstanding of technology. But the viewer knows from the indigenous men's comments that these men, dressed in loincloths and presented as native to the bush, are, in fact, more technologically savvy than the white men; they reject having their picture taken because the camera is inferior. It is not the "native" but the arrogant, unsophisticated white men, who are, so to speak, the butt of the joke. By providing subtitles of the indigenous men's speech, the commercial invites viewers to contrast this version of colonialist encounter, where the indigenous people are more technologically sophisticated, with traditional versions of such a moment that depict indigenous people misunderstanding technology. By providing insight into the perspective of the indigene, the subtitles change the viewer's response to that typical scene of cultural misrecognition.

This essay will examine other texts that similarly rewrite moments of colonialist encounter, texts that offer audiences alternatives to traditional views they might encounter in history books. This essay will examine how and why two works of postcolonial literature-Master of the Ghost Dreaming by the Aboriginal Australian writer Narogin Mudrooroo and Indigo: Mapping the Waters by the British writer Marina Warner-and two films-Werner Herzog's German classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's film Babakiueria-invite readers to re-imagine colonial contact from the perspective of indigenous Australian and Caribbean people. These four texts are not the only ones that replay moments of colonialist encounter, but I want to examine these particular texts together in order to analyze different narrative techniques-cinematic and literary, fictional and somewhat documentary, serious and humorous-and different colonial textual targets-letters, reports, diaries, and ethnographies. Looking at this range of techniques and topics allows us to speculate on the intent and efficacy of these revisionary texts and to explore how they use narrative point of view metaphorically to shift political perspective just as the camera in the Olympus commercial literally shifts its viewers' perspectives, from being (literally and cognitively) aligned with the white men to being aligned with the black. …

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