As a follow-up to our june 1989 issue ("1789: An idea that changed the world"), we publish this assessment of the portrayal of the American Indian in 17th- and 18th century French literature. Descriptions of Indian life were used by the philosophers of the Enlightenment as a powerful and subversive means of expressing criticism of French society. . HE discovery of the New World was a powerful influence for change in the social structure of the ancient regime. The American Indians had made their appearance in French literature in the sixteenth century in the writings of Montaigne, but it was not until the following century, when France in her turn ventured into colonization, much later than Spain, Portugal and Britain, that there emerged a corpus of travellers' tales m which the Indians took pride of place.
The first French incursions into North America were linked to the fur trade. The Indians of Nouvelle France had no fabulous cities bursting with riches to arouse the greed of the European newcomers and, in the early days, there was no urge to acquire land at all costs. Under these circumstances, the Indian was seen as an indispensable trading partner. He was an equal whom the Europeans hoped soon to fashion into their own likeness.
With this in mind, from 1632 onwards, the jesuits found themselves taking on an evangelizing role, the success of which depended on the sedentarization of the main tribes with the exception of the Hurons who were already sedentary and in whose midst a number of missions were soon established), and on learning Indian languages. From then until 1672, the jesuits sent back to France Relations (narrative accounts), describing their experiences in the New World, which met with huge success. The indians were unquestionably the leading characters in these accounts. Their physical appearance, qualities, defects and beliefs were described at length, with an infectious curiosity and sympathy.
The Jesuits were not to remain for long the only ones interested in the Indians. in the eighteenth century a profusion of texts appeared which confirmed or contradicted each other. The French traveller and writer Baron de la Hontan was perhaps the first of those whose avowed aim was to make a critical assessment of his contemporaries. In 1703, he published Voyages du Baron de la Hontan dans I'Amerique septentrionale ("The Travels of Baron de la Hontan in North America"). His work was so successful that it was reprinted twenty-five times between 1703 and 1758. In his Dialogue ou entretiens entre un sauvage et le Baron de la Hontan "Dialogue or Conversations between a Savage and Baron de la Hontan"), the baron ridicules the evangelization project and reports the words of an Indian, Adario, who takes issue with the dogmas of the Catholic Church and then attacks the person of the king: "... we are born free and closely united, each as important as anyone else, whereas you are afl the slaves of one man."
In 1724, outraged by the opinions of La Hontan, Father joseph Lafitau published Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains comparees aux moeurs des premiers temps ("Customs of the American Savages Compared to those of Ancient Times"), a laborious comparative history of the Indians and the ancient Greeks designed to demonstrate that the peoples of the New World were not devoid of religion. He also aimed to correct the thrust of jesuit accounts which had affirmed the lack of any religious beliefs among the peoples of Canada, so as to convince metropolitan France of the need to convert them. Above all, his book was a vigorous counter-attack against the views put forward by Baron de la Hontan who sought additional justification for his atheism in the standpoint of the Indians.
The Indian as a critical tool The year 1770 saw the publication of Abbe Raynal's monumental Histoire philosophique et politique des establissements et du commerce des Europeens dans les deux Indes ("A Philosophical and Political History of European Colonies and Trade in the Two Indias"), to which Diderot has been shown to have made a large contribution. …