Public/Private Subjectivity in the Early Modern Period: The Self Colonizing and Colonizing the Self

Jonathan Hart
University of Alberta

Hart, Jonathan. "Public/Private Subjectivity in the Early Modern Period: The Self Colonizing and Colonizing the Self." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 9 (January 2002): 3.1-23 <URL:>.

  1. Differences in subjectivities in the early modern period had material consequences. Two principal meanings of "differences" apply here: being at odds and being unlike. The disruption of identity and subjectivity occurred as a result of many factors: here, I wish to discuss alternative critique from within Europe and two related occurrences in the New World -- kidnapping and mediation.

  2. The critics of the abuses of colonization, like Bartolomé de Las Casas and Montaigne, could not alter the kind of commercial development and treatment of Natives that their countrymen were bent on pursuing. Las Casas did not have enough of an effect on Spanish policy to save the Indians. As I have discussed Las Casas extensively elsewhere, I would like to concentrate most on Montaigne here. Part of European subjectivities depended on the opposition within, or on an alternative critique, so that writers about the New World used satirical and ethnological techniques to turn a critical lens back on Europe.

  3. These satirical and ethnological turns have their beginnings in classical Greece, which embodied critical thought as well as official notions of dominance and empire, so that the classical world was different from the parodic representation of it by the moderns (as Swift knew) and their postmodern and postcolonial successors. Montaigne's discovery of the classical past as part of the Renaissance should illustrate this multiplicity and alternative critique. In his essay, 'Des Cannibales' (1580), Montaigne uses a classical context, including the Greek habit of calling all foreign countries barbarous and Plato's representation of Solon's account of Atlantis, to criticize French and European expansion and commerce in the New World, so that the simple equation, now made too often from neglect or ignorance, between classicism and the ills of colonization was too simple an assessment.[1] Classicism bore an ambivalent relation to colonization, which was itself fraught with ambivalence.

  4. Montaigne framed his critique in terms of ancient Greece, but what is of more direct interest here is to recent events in French colonization, ones that we have met with in Léry, probably a source for Montaigne. In writing about Villegagnon and 'Antarctic France', for one of Montaigne's employees had been on that expedition, Montaigne wondered whether so many 'great personages' had been wrong about what whether any other such 'discovery' would be made in the future: 'I am afraid that we have eyes bigger than the stomach, as it is said, ... . I also fear that we have much more curiosity than we have capacity: we embrace all, but I fear that we grasp nothing but wind'.[2] This criticism of French expansion, like Las Casas's critique of Spanish colonization, did not seek to blame another country and served as a balance to those in France who would criticize Spain in the New World. Montaigne represents the desire for colonization in an image worthy of Rabelais: clearly the French should be aware of their own limits. Unlike Las Casas, Montaigne did not advocate the expansion of Christendom and the conversion of the Indians as a justification for colonization. Montaigne's method was to compare and contrast the classical and the contemporary.[3] Montaigne could use the classics for critique and could criticise them and the world in which they were written. Nor did he wish to avoid pointing out the follies of his contemporaries.

  5. By choosing the Spanish as a target, Montaigne thereby used the stereotype of them to suggest fractures in stereotyping of the Europeans, particularly in the relations between Europeans and between the classical past and the expansion of the early modern present.[4] Whereas in the essay on cannibals Montaigne had concentrated on the French and Europeans in relation to the New World, in 'Des Coches' he focused on the Spanish.[5] He asked why the new lands could not have been conquered under the Greeks and Romans to bring the peoples virtue rather than teaching them European avarice and 'all sorts of inhumanity and cruelty and pattern of our customs'. (Essais, III, 399-400). Instead, in search of pearls and pepper, the Europeans had exterminated nations and millions of people, so that Montaigne exclaimed 'mechanical victories'.[6] It is clear, however, that Montaigne meant to chastise the Spanish, the king of Castile and the Pope, who appear in the usual Spanish ceremony of possession in which the Spaniards, searching for a mine, tell the Natives that their king is 'the greatest Prince in the inhabited earth, to whom the Pope, representing God on earth, had given the principality of all the Indies' and that they want the Natives to be tributaries who yield up food, medicine and gold, believe in one God and the truth of the Spanish religion.[7] To this customary ritual, the Spanish added 'a few threats' (Essais, III, 399).

  6. The response that Montaigne gave the Natives is characteristic of the 'savage indignation' he often attributed to their response to European folly: 'concerning their King, as he made demands, he must be indigent and needy, and he who had made this distribution to a third party of something that was not his, to use it in a debate against its ancient possessors, was a man liking dissension' (Essais, III, 399). Montaigne reported that the Spaniards stayed only where they found the merchandise they sought, but when they did, they could be brutal, for instance, in ransoming and then killing the king of Peru, whose nobility Montaigne contrasted with the Spanish (Essais, III, 399). The noble king of Mexico was subjected to Spanish cruelty and torture, which diminished Spain and not the victim (Essais, III, 400-1). These and other atrocities were a source of Spanish pride: 'We have from themselves these narratives, for they not only confess but publish and extol them' (Essais, III, 401). The Spaniards, according to Montaigne, exceeded the force necessary in conquest and have met with providential justice as they have fought one another in civil war and have had the seas swallow up some of their treasure (Essais, III, 401-2).

  7. Montaigne offered a king of apocalyptic judgement of the Spaniards who had not brought religion into the New World but death: their apparent use of God would bring the wrath of God and darkness (Essais, III, 401-3). While Montaigne's work, which was skeptical of empire, was making its impact felt in the 1580s, Richard Hakluyt was in Paris much of the time (1583-88), preparing and prompting England to pursue imperial expansion.[8] The controversy over the expansion into the New World suggests that individual Europeans were not sharing some absolute subjectivity or that their nations had some monological identity that the ventures in the western Atlantic reinforced or furthered. In that world on the other side of the Atlantic Europeans and Natives were finding that their subjectivities and collective identities were under pressure and called into question.

  8. Two significant challenges to the persons and cultures of subjects were mediation and kidnapping. Both disturbed boundaries between European and Native groups and bear directly on the subjectivity of the individuals of those different cultures. Nor did mediation or taking representatives of Native groups prevent great devastation in the indigenous populations. The extinction of the Natives, of their different collectivities and subjectivities, suggests that existential, epistemological and cultural differences, between various European groups on the one hand and Natives on the other, led to a disaster and that mediation and métissage were difficult to maintain.

  9. Mediators or go-betweens challenged notions of pure identities and subjectivities. They were sometimes made into scapegoats and can become an excluded in any cultural negotiation (see Chambers 1991 and 1995, see Serres, Girard, Nancy; de Certeau, ch. 5) . The temptation was to scapegoat the mediator and to deny any possibility of coexisting with a different cultural group. The consequences of such polarization were and are disastrous. The Métis, who acted as go-betweens, sometimes became an excluded group in negotiations between European and Native.

  10. Interpreters, that is Europeans, Natives or those of mixed backgrounds who interpreted signs and languages in negotiations and other cultural mediations, became important from Columbus onwards. In sixteenth century writers we find suggestions on cultural practices that propose an alternative to stereotyping, so that the ideological othering of mediators is not inevitable. Communities found meaning and existence to negotiation. Mediators allowed for a dialogue, a possible community, between two interlocutors from different cultures. The difference between scapegoater and scapegoated can be viewed in terms of mediation within a community: the scapegoat is a member of the scapegoating community, so that scapegoaters are potential members of a scapegoated community. Through a politics of invitation, the scapegoated group transvalues its difference from the scapegoating group into a new difference that forms the ground of a possible communitarian or cooperative dialogue (Chambers 1995). Whether this desire in postmodern discourse theory to transform mediation into a politics of invitation and community works in an early modern setting and takes into account enough the material dimension of the historical record is something worth examination. It is important to see how mediated our European texts are in the representations of mediation: they contained interpretations before the interpreters.

  11. The texts kidnapped meaning as the Natives were literally kidnapped, and we are now in danger of further kidnapping. Columbus ventriloquized Natives, and we ventriloquize him (not to mention Natives). In the "Letter of Columbus" there were contradictions. Later, Bernál Díaz spoke of Montezuma's divided mind, which became a trope in the Spanish view of the fall of the Mexican empire, but Columbus' letter suggested a division in his mind (or perhaps in the corporate Spanish editorial project on Columbus and the encounter). After saying how timid the Natives were, Columbus then admitted that he took some of them by force:

    And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first Island which I found, I took by force some of them, in order that they might learn and give me information of that which there is in those parts, and so it was that they soon understood us, and we them, either by speech or signs, and they have been very serviceable.[9]

  12. Columbus then reiterated that the Natives still treated him like a god and said that they inclined to Christianity, but what he did not emphasize was why he thought it necessary to use force to capture Indians as interpreters. Was it his ignorance of their timidity or was it a feeling that they were his property because they were, in his eyes at least, subjects and possessions of the crown?

  13. The practice of kidnapping was well-established in European contacts with Natives in the New World. Gaspar Corte-Real kidnapped many Natives and sold them into slavery in Portugal (Corte Real in Quinn 1979, 1:149). In 1502 three Indians were at the court of Henry VII of England (P.R.O. in Quinn 1979: 1:110). An interesting example for the purposes of my argument is Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, a Norman who sailed to Brazil in 1504. He saw the bringing of Christianity to the Natives as the custom of all those who came to the Indies and said that the lord Arosca wanted his son, Essomericq, to return to France to live in Christendom. This 'kidnapping' of the Natives was like Columbus's. The French promised the father and the son that Essomericq would be returned home after twenty moons at the latest. Arosca, according to Gonneville, was interested in the French tools and weapons, which to them were as gold, silver and gems to Christians. After Arosca had asked the captain to swear to return at the promised time and the ship was departing, 'all the said people made a great cry, and gave their word that they would conserve well the cross; making this sign by crossing two fingers' (Gonneville, 38). Like Columbus, Gonneville read the signs, but their meanings were not always as simple and clear as these European captains thought. After l'Espoir was shipwrecked, Essomericq settled in Honfleur and married one of the close relatives of Gonneville, his godfather, whose name and some of his goods he inherited. In 1658, Essomericq's descendants contested paying taxes because they were foreigners and because their ancestor had wanted to return home as Gonneville had promised him. They presented the journal for evidence.[10]

  14. This kind of kidnapping persisted. Later, Martin Frobisher's first expedition departed England on 15 May 1576 in search for the Northwest Passage, a goal that preoccupied the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese and was an outcome of John Cabot's voyage in 1497. In October 1576, Frobisher returned to England having thought that he had found the Northwest Passage, having brought with him an Inuit and having discovered what he thought was gold. Michel de Montaigne told of the three Natives who spoke with Charles IX in Rouen, but in recounting that event Montaigne emphasized their ignorance of how knowledge of French corruption would cost them repose and happiness, of how the commerce would lead to their ruin, which Montaigne assumed was already advanced and of their misery for having quit their mild air for that of France. These three wise men exposed the French by turning the ethnological glass back on itself. Montaigne says he remembered two of their three comments. First, why would strong well-armed men obey a child rather than choosing one among them to assume power? Second, why do the hungry beggars outside the gates of the well-fed great not seize them by the throats or burn their houses down? The Native observations suggested French corruption even if that decay and barbarism might be applied to all of Europe. Montaigne ended 'Des Cannibales' with the modest celebration of great warriors amongst the Natives and with their near nakedness (Montaigne, trans. E.J. Treichmann, 180). There was, then, no monologic agreement within France on what it is to be French and to be Native, that the colonizers are good and superior to the "colonized."

  15. The various subjectivities of mediators, including those concerning gender, also called into question unified notions of subjectivity in Native and European cultures. In fact, the transitive space between cultures fractures and multiplies questions of what selves and cultures mean alone and together. Some examples of mediators should, through induction, suggest ways in which mediation in the period is partly a matter of gender but also involves other complications.

  16. La Malinche was a woman and a mediator. She helped translate and interpret Native culture while being Cortés' mistress and on his campaign to conquer the Aztec (see Gutiérrez 48). In the Conquest of Mexico Bernal Díaz suggests that she may not have been a Nathua or Aztec and may have been seeking revenge for their exploitation of her people. Broken Spears gave the Aztec version of events, including a portrait of La Malinche from another point of view. Apparently, she was from the coast and spoke Nahuatl and Mayan. None the less, she translated from Nahuatl into Mayan, so that Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who lived among the Mayas for eight years and one of the two captives Cortés had wanted to ransom, could translate the Mayan into Spanish for Cortés (Leon-Portilla 3, Díaz 86-7, see below). The European had crossed the boundary to Native culture and the Native to European culture. They now worked together. None the less, tensions existed between European nations and between Native nations: both "sides" were also in conflict. Mediation often involves various interlocking stages. It is often precarious as it occupies a place between resistance and capitulation. Instability is sometimes met with a reconstruction or reaffirmation of received cultural identity.

  17. The case of Cortés provides a good example of this attempt to reaffirm Spanish identity in the individual, the subject of the Spanish crown. He came upon two Spaniards, de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, who had been taken captive: one wanted to return into the Spanish fold and the other wished to remain in Native society. The Spanish and the Aztecs (Mexicas or Nahuas) were soon able to communicate. The Aztec messengers communicated with La Malinche and de Aguilar as she spoke Mayan and Nahuatl and he had learned Mayan over the eight years since his shipwreck in Yucatan in 1511. After La Malinche translated the messengers' Nahuatl into Mayan for de Aguilar, he translated it into Spanish for Cortés (Leon-Portilla 31). The story of Aguilar was also the tale of his shipwreck. The Natives were said to have sacrificed many of his companions to their idols. Other companions perished from disease; two women died of overwork; Aguilar escaped sacrifice and fled to a Cacique, who protected him as a slave. The only other survivor of the shipwreck was Gonzalo Guerrero. Aguilar and Guerrero became the good son and the bad son, Abel and Cain in the New World. Aguilar was thankful to be saved by the Spanish, Guerrero was not (I 106).

  18. Cortés could never resist using his interpreters and mediators as scouts for his military campaign. The chiefs were pleased to discover that Aguilar could speak their language. He advised them to revere the image of the Virgin and advised them to ask Cortés for a letter of recommendation that would protect them from any Spanish mistreatment (65-6). In this advice we can observe the ambivalence and double vision of a mediator: he spoke to them of Spanish religion and tried to seek protection for them from Spanish cruelty. Guerrero was much more successful in the Native world. That is probably one reason he did not want to leave it. He had risen in the world by "going Native." The question of class is also important to mediation. Cortés wanted to find out from Aguilar more about Guerrero (65) Here, Guerrero comes to us through a triple filter -- the narratives, descriptions and reactions of Díaz, Aguilar and Cortés. Cortés did not like Guerrero's kind of mediation, although he would take Native help against Native as often as he could find it. La Malinche and Melchior were examples of his Natives mediators, both of whom Díaz describes in considerable detail. Melchior prefigured Squanto's fate amongst the Pilgrims but only more tragically for him personally. Guerrero was a traitor, a dangerous precedent, especially for the soldiers of more humble origin. The New World might offer them freedom from the religious ideology and economic system they left in Spain. No more is heard of Guerrero in Díaz's narrative. The White Indian is a problem that haunts the Europeans from the beginning. Giving up apparently old and stable identity for the unknown of a new identity creates a crisis.

  19. Mediation challenges subjectivity and does not rely completely on race or culture. In fact, the reluctant Spaniard had literally been treated as a prince owing, it seems, to the mediation of a Native woman, so that he had no desire to return to his far more humble place in Spanish society. This phenomenon of "going Native" or the "White Indian" was a concern that persisted into the eighteenth century and beyond amidst the French and English administrators (Axtell 1985 302-5, see Clendinnen, Jaenen 1976, 1988, Wright 17-18). Tecuichpotzin or Isabel Moctezuma, daughter to Moctezuma II, had two Native and three Spanish husbands (Chipman 216). Her children crossed the bounds of race. Some of her descendants became titled in Spain. She was an Aztec princess. Her class allowed her to claim the lands Cortés had claimed on behalf of the Spanish crown. The Spaniards wanted her to be a symbol of the assimilation of Aztec culture into the new Spanish Mexico, but it was  not so simple. She was a Christian, but she also became involved in a long law suit with the Spanish crown over her land claims. Mediation did not preclude some resistance and assimilation. Another aspect of mediation, and therefore subjectivity, was class. There is a public dimension to private identity.

  20. The creation of new identities was disturbing for colonizers and Native alike. In Of Plymouth Plantation : 1620-1647 (pub. 1847) William Bradford represented the ambivalent situation in which Tisquantum or Squanto found himself. Unfortunately, Bradford's papers were not published for another two hundred years, so that their portrayals of the relations between Native and European could not affect his immediate successors and their children. Bradford viewed this mediator as a divine gift to the Pilgrims: "Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation" (81). The next sentence provided a juxtaposition not unlike the relation between gold and God in Columbus, that is a transition between the spiritual and the material, and led into a description of Squanto's past, before Samoset, the Algonkin sagamore of Pemaquid Point who had learned English from fishermen, introduced him to Bradford at Plymouth. Despite Hunt's earlier kidnapping of Squanto, a practice enacted and recorded by Columbus, Cartier, Frobisher and others, Squanto survived to help keep the peace between the English and the various Native nations ( 81).

  21. Squanto's life was as hard as the much-buffeted hero of a romance. He was caught between the two groups: to different groups of Natives and English, he was a go-between or a turncoat. Bradford quotes Dermer at length about Squanto, failing to mention that this mediator had jumped Dermer's ship in 1618 and had then made his way to Plymouth, where he found his Patuxet nation to have been wiped out by pestilence (this happened the previous year) (see 81n.2, 82). Despite having himself suffered badly at the hands of the English and having witnessed the decimation of his nation through pestilence, Squanto chose mediation over revenge.

  22. This was not always the case. The Spanish had baptized a Native they had captured in Chesapeake in 1561, Don Luis de Velasco, who was given a Spanish education and became close to Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the commander in Florida, but who, in 1571, helped to murder the Jesuits whom he had accompanied back to the New World (Quinn 1979, II:556-57, see 557-66 and Trigger, 1985, 125). Mediation is an intricate role, so that not all go-betweens like or accept their roles: some even seek revenge for being placed in this situation. Their subjectivities and identities become problematic for themselves or for others.

  23. Subjectivity mediates its difference to itself and to others. Mediators find room to maneuver as go-betweens, interpreters and peace-makers, but they are often subject to scrutiny, control or condemnation by those who command power, the chiefs and governors in the exchange. They are of the system and against it. By finding alternatives, sometimes the middle way, they work against the extremes that the logic of stereotypes, conflict and war work towards. In Cortés' view, Aguilar was good to return to the fold and Guerrero was a turncoat for not doing so. Champlain praised Etienne Brûlé as a great patriot saved by God in the cause of France and, later, reviled him for being a Godless turncoat (Champlain 3:213-26, 6:98-9). Squanto saved the Pilgrims and alienated certain Natives. Later, Bradford and Standish were split on whether he could be trusted as he may have been playing the two ends against the middle. The mediator is subject to the distrust of both sides, the two poles between which he or she attempts to mediate. Here is another example of split interpretations of split subjects caught in a radically new situation between cultures. Before mediation seems like an unmediated possibility, it is also important to recognize that Tisquantum (or Squanto) had been kidnapped, and that, on both sides, mistrust coexisted with trust.


1. David Quint argues that this essay is about France as about the New World and does not seek to congratulate Montagne for his freedom from prejudice: 'Des cannibales' 'turns out to be at least equally about his own France and that the terms with which it discusses the Brazilian natives are deeply rooted in his own historical and political preoccupations' see Quint, 1995, 168, see 166-91. This view supports my notion of typology between New World and Old.

2. Montaigne, Essais de Michel Seignevr de Montaigne (Paris, 1588); rpt. as Les Essais (1906) I, 167. Here, I am using the sixth edition of 1588, which involves a number of corrections to the edition of 1580. Courbet's 'Advertisement' (v-xv) explains some of the textual complexities of the Essais, including the intercalations and the corrections of Pierre de Brach. In Courbet's text, if the readers so choose, they can, on facing pages, see the changes to the text, one reason I used this text rather than the many editions available to me in England, Boston and Providence. Unless otherwise indicated, the translation is mine here and below. Having discussed the opposition or ambivalence of humanists, like Erasmus and More, to colonization, it is appropriate to consider their relation to Montaigne; see Scaglione in First Images of America, I, 63-70.

3. Montaigne's motive was a simple and true narrative of the New World, so that he sought to qualify the use of rhetorical and narrative embellishment and to establish the credentials of his man as a witness. 'This man who I have was a simple and plain man, who was in a proper condition to bear true witness, for refined people are more curious and notice more things, but they gloss them, and to asset their interpretation and make , they cannot prevent themselves from altering the History as little'; Montaigne, I, 169. Perhaps Montaigne mimics the travel literature he discussed. Michel de Certeau thinks of Montaigne's essay on cannibals as having the same structure as a travel account, including the 'outbound journey', the depiction of 'savage society' and the 'return voyage'; see de Certeau, Heterologies, 69-70.

4. For an interesting theory of stereotyping, based on nineteenth and twentieth century examples in French culture, see Mireille Rosello, Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures Hanover: University Presses of New England, 1998, esp. 1-40.

5. The translation is 'Of Coaches'.

6. Ibid., 399. Florio renders the passage 'Oh mechanicall victories, oh base conquest'; see Montaigne Essayes, II, 314.

7. Montaigne, Essais, III, 399. In discussing the French rituals of possession, Patricia Seed says that Montaigne, too, assumed that body language was universal, so that if this assertion were true, his criticism would be qualified and he would resemble Columbus more than I have been saying. I am not sure, none the less, that this is a general position Montaigne took, particularly in his views of natives; see Montaigne, 'Apologie de Raymond Sebond, ed. Paul Porteau (Paris, 1937), cited in Seed, 55.

8. Frank Lestringant has an interesting discussion of Hakluyt's mission in Paris; see Lestringant, Le Huguenot, 213-18.

9. (10). The original reads:

Y luego que legué á las Indias, en la primera isla que hallé tomé por

fuerça algunos d'ellos, para que deprendiesen y me diesen noticia de lo que

avía en aquellas partes, é así fué que luego entendieron, y nos á ellos, quando

por lengua ó señas; y estos han aprovechado mucho. (11)

10. Here is a helpful note from Julien and his co-editors. Of Essomericq, they write: 'Ses descendants se virent réclamer, en 1658, des taxes d'aubaine en tant qu'issus d'étranger. Ils protestèrent que leur aòeul n'était pas venu demeurer en France de son plein gré, mais qu'il avait eu l'intention de regagner son pays après un court séjour, ce qu'il ne put faire, en dépit des promesses qu'il avait reìues, pour des raisons de force majeure. En conséquence, ils dénièrent aux traitants le droit de leur réclamer des taxes et présentèrent, à l'appui de leurs affirmations, le rapport établis par Gonneville à son retour, dont le tribunal fit vérifier l'authentcité par le grossoyement d'une expédition régulière. Les traitants furent déboutés de leur demande' (25).

Works Cited

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(PD 23 January 2002)