British Romantics and Native Americans: The Araucanians of Chile

By Fulford, Tim | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

British Romantics and Native Americans: The Araucanians of Chile


Fulford, Tim, Studies in Romanticism


SINCE EDWARD SAID'S GROUNDBREAKING ORIENTALISM (1978), MUCH OF the critical impetus within Romantic Studies has been in the area of colonialism and its effects. Developments have been in two directions: in one a number of scholars have questioned the binary relationship implicit in the work of Said and a number of his early followers, showing that not only was knowledge of the East not simply the largely textual and backward-looking production that Said described, but also that it involved many more varied kinds of encounter than first envisaged. (1) The East was a matter of multiple relationships--medical, scientific and consumerist as well as intellectual, taking place in the English shires as well as the Deccan plateau. (2) Some, at least, of these relationships disturbed Britons' notion of who they were rather than confirmed them in a sense of superiority. Some questioned rather than aided the priorities of empire-builders. Some involved Britons and Orientals living beyond their previous identities in cultures to which they had emigrated. The effects of these relationships were registered in literary discourse: sometimes, indeed, that discourse sketched out such relationships for British readers.

In a second direction, historians have investigated the effects on culture and literature of Britain's involvements in other parts of the world. The Romantic era was not only the period in which Britain acquired an Indian empire, but also that in which it extended its reach to Australia, New Zealand and the South Seas, to Northern Canada, and to Africa. The accounts of explorers and colonial officials, writing from what Mary Louise Pratt and Peter Hulme influentially termed 'contact zones' (areas of uncertainty, where people of different cultures met) saturated print culture--and turned the indigenous people of these places into objects of fascinated enquiry. (3) These people were, not, however, represented as being the same, or even similar, to Orientals (stereotypical or otherwise). Different accounts were made of them, reflecting Britons' understanding of their cultural specificity but also mirroring Britons' different cultural and political involvement in these regions. It is the purpose of this article to examine in detail some previously neglected accounts that emerged from a relatively little-studied involvement--the involvement in South America. I hope thereby to reveal the formative role that British depictions of Amerindians had in some of the writing we have come to regard as quintessentially Romantic. In the process, I hope, I will show that these 'Occidentalist' depictions produced more varied and less stable relationships than Said suggested were true of Orientalist discourse.

As the nineteenth century dawned, Britons thought of themselves as the most civilized and enlightened people on earth. Yet despite the spread of British manufactures, technology and culture across North America, the East Indies, Africa and the Pacific, they had to admit that they still knew very little about South America. Dominated since the sixteenth century by Spain and Portugal, the Hispanic New World was effectively closed to foreigners for fear that they would try to grab its wealth for themselves. Britons knew by report that, after the conquests of the Aztecs, by Cortez, and the Incas, by Pizarro, the Indians had been enslaved and worked to death in the lucrative silver mines. They knew of the enconmienda and mita laws, which bound Native Americans to labor on the land that had been taken by the colonist, Creole elite. And some knew about the Jesuit missionaries who brought Indians into villages (called Reductions) for extensive re-education. Yet Britons' version of South America was compounded from historians who mostly relied on sixteenth-century narratives of the conquest. Representations of Indians, especially, depended on eyewitness accounts that were over 250 years old. So few Britons had gained entry in person, and as Nigel Leask has noted, a traveller claimed in 1824 that the last English account of Mexico had been published in Charles I's reign. …

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