European Depictions of the Other: Man in the State of Nature

a) Christopher Columbus among the Arawaks at Tortuga, 18 December 1492

He [a native American `ruler'] and his counsellors were extremely sorry that they could not understand me, nor I them. Nevertheless I understood him to say that if there was anything I wanted, the whole island was at my disposal. I sent for a wallet of mine in which I keep, as a memorial, a gold coin bearing the portraits of your Highnesses and showed it to him, saying, as I had done on the previous day, that your Highnesses were lords and rulers of the greater part of the world and that no princes were greater. I showed him the royal banners and the banners of the cross, which he greatly admired. He said to his counsellors that your Highnesses must be very great princes, since you had sent me fearlessly from so far away in the sky to this place. Other conversation took place between them of which I could understand nothing except that they were clearly most astonished by everything.(Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages, Penguin 1969, p. 89)

(b) Jean De Léry among the Tupinamba at the Bay of Rio, 1557

[On the natives' fear of thunder] Adapting ourselves to their crudeness we would seize the occasion to say to them that this was the very God of whom we were speaking, who to show his grandeur and power made heavens and earth tremble; their resolution and response was that since he frightened them in that way, he was good for nothing.

... the Americans are visibly and actually tormented by evil spirits ... even in this world there are devils to torment those who deny God and his power ... one can see that this fear they have of Him whom they refuse to acknowledge will render them utterly without excuse.

While we were having our breakfast, with no idea as yet of what they intended to do, we began to hear in the men's house (not thirty feet from where we stood) a very low murmur, like the muttering of someone reciting his hours. Upon hearing this, the women (about two hundred of them) all stood up and clustered together, listening intently. The men little by little raised their voices and were distinctly heard singing all together and repeating this syllable of exhortation, He, he, he, he; the women, to our amazement, answered them from their side, and with a trembling voice, reiterating that same interjection He, he, he, he, let out such cries, for more than a quarter of an hour, that as we watched them we were utterly disconcerted. Not only did they howl, but also, leaping violently into the air, they made their breasts shake and they foamed at the mouth - in fact, some, like those who have the falling-sickness [i.e. epilepsy] over here, fell into a dead faint: I can only believe that the devil entered their body and that they fell into a fit of madness.

[At this point Léry adds an account of the European witches' sabbath, taken from a leading French witchcraft expert, Jean Bodin. Then he continues:] I have concluded that they have the same master: that is, the Brazilian women and the witches over here were guided by the same spirit of Satan; neither the distance between the places nor the long passage over the sea keeps the father of lies from working both here and there on those who are handed over to him by the just judgement of God.

[Léry then continues with his account of the chanting of the Tupinamba] Although I had been among the savages for more than half a year and was already fairly used to their ways, nonetheless (to be frank) being somehat frightened and not knowing how the game might turn out, I wished I were back at our fort. However, after these chaotic noises and howls had ended and the men had taken a short pause (the women and children were now silent), we heard them once again singing and making their voices resound in a harmony so marvelous that you would hardly have needed to ask whether, since I was now somewhat easier in my mind at hearing such sweet and gracious sounds, I wished to watch them from nearby... At the beginning of this witches' sabbath, when I was in the women's house, I had been somewhat afraid; now I received in recompense such joy, hearing the measured harmonies of such a multitude, and especially in the cadence and refrain of the song, when at every verse all of them would let their voices trail, saying Heu, heuaure, heura, heuraure, heura, heura, oueh - I stood there transported with delight. Whenever I remember it, my heart trembles, and it seems their voices are still in my ears.  (Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, 1991, pp. 14-16)

(c) Bernal Díaz among the Aztecs of Mexico, 1519

When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns and cues and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before... (p. 214)

They led us to some very large buildings of fine masonry which were the prayer-houses of their idols, the walls of which were painted with the figures of great serpents and evil-looking gods. In the middle was something like an altar, covered with clotted blood, and on the other side of the idols were symbols like crosses, and all were coloured. We stood astonished, never having seen or heard of such things before. (p. 20-21)   (Bernal Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin, 1963)


(d) Arthur Barlowe, The First Voyage Made to Virginia  (1584)

Two English captains, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, were sent forth in 1584 by the powerful courtier Sir Walter Raleigh to discover territories in North America suitable for colonization. In honor of Queen Elizabeth, who styled herself the "Virgin Queen," Raleigh named the land his captains encountered "Virginia." Barlowe's account of the voyage appeared in Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589, with an expanded edition 1598–1600). Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia (NAEL 8, 1.939-43) appeared in the same collection.

"We found the people most gentle, loving, and faithful, void of guile and treason, and such as live after the manner of the golden age. The people only care how to defend themselves from the cold in their short winter, and to feed themselves with such meat as the soil affordeth; their meat is very well asodden, and they make broth very sweet and savoury. Their vessels are earthen pots, very large, white, and sweet; their dishes are wooden platters of sweet timber. Within the place where they feed was their lodging, and within that their idol, which they worship, of which they speak incredible things."

(e) Ovid, The Golden Age: Metamorphoses  Bk I:89-112 The Golden Age

This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment: there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection. No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands: human beings only knew their own shores. There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets. Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself. Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.

(f) Montaigne, "On Cannibals" (1587) (Study Guide)

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity.... for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork.

(g) Daniel Dafoe, from Robinson Crusoe (1719)  chapters 14 and 15. (Friday)

He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight, strong limbs, not too large; tall, and well-shaped; and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age. He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face; and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled. His hair was long and black, not curled like wool; his forehead very high and large; and a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness in his eyes. The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not an ugly, yellow, nauseous tawny, as the Brazilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are, but of a bright kind of a dun olive-colour, that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe. His face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat, like the negroes; a very good mouth, thin lips, and his fine teeth well set, and as white as ivory.


After he had slumbered, rather than slept, about half-an-hour, he awoke again, and came out of the cave to me: for I had been milking my goats which I had in the enclosure just by: when he espied me he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a great many antic gestures to show it. At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived. I understood him in many things, and let him know I was very well pleased with him. In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to me: and first, I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name: I likewise taught him to say Yes and No and to know the meaning of them. I gave him some milk in an earthen pot, and let him see me drink it before him, and sop my bread in it; and gave him a cake of bread to do the like, which he quickly complied with, and made signs that it was very good for him. I kept there with him all that night; but as soon as it was day I beckoned to him to come with me, and let him know I would give him some clothes; at which he seemed very glad, for he was stark naked. As we went by the place where he had buried the two men, he pointed exactly to the place, and showed me the marks that he had made to find them again, making signs to me that we should dig them up again and eat them. At this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission. I then led him up to the top of the hill, to see if his enemies were gone; and pulling out my glass I looked, and saw plainly the place where they had been, but no appearance of them or their canoes; so that it was plain they were gone, and had left their two comrades behind them, without any search after them.

1.     John White Watercolors: "The True Pictures and Fashions of the People in That Parte of America Now Called Virginia" (1585) (from Virtual Jamestown)

2.      Shakespeare, from The Tempest (Act I, scene ii) (1610) Study Guide

3.     Voltaire, from Candide (1755)  Chapter 16: “The Biglugs: Man in the State of Nature”; Chapter 19: “Surinam

For extra reading: Norton Anthology 16th Century Topics: Renaissance Exploration, Travel, and the World Outside of Europe