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There is something inherently cathartic, inherently exciting about the ‘travel literature’ genre that emerged in the later 17th and early 18 th centuries. The lands viewed were never accurately depicted; instead, the author would embellish local details and cultures to bring the reader into unexplored territories. This allowed for the audience to safely read the material – their own moral guidelines would be imbued into the story to place itself in the cultural spectrum, and would therefore make the lands stimulating, but not too foreign. Literary scholar Dianna Tillotson claims there is something essentially human about the genre, saying “Ultimately, [the readers] may also be seeking [their] own origins and trying to tie [their] culture and customs into a sense of place” (Tillotson). Therefore, it only makes sense that the author’s own cultural bias translates so vividly to a text that tries to be different. As seen in “The Masque of Blackness,” “Oroonoko, The Royal Slave,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” local cultures are both examined with wonder and condemned for their cultural differences.
It is clear that Ben Johnson’s “The Masque of Blackness” would have been performed for white audiences, even though its main subjects are black. The Jacobean-era masque was based around the idea of ladies of other cultures traveling to the English Court to be “cleansed” of their blackness by King James (McDermont). Written at the request of Queen Anne, who acted in the play in blackface, the clear disparity between the two cultures in the masque show a classic portrayal of the “others” as they were often seen in travel literature – exotic, but still subject to the same ideals and morals as Europe.
The description is never overtly racist or negative; rather, it is almost condescendingly complimentary from the opening lines. When describing the daughters of Niger, Jonson writes, “Since the fixed color of their curled hair/(which is the highest grace of dames most fair)/no cares, no age can change, or there display/Since death herself…/Can never alter their most faithful hue” (1329, 45-50). Here, Jonson is describing the daughters as exotic, beautiful beings that are beautiful because their skin color never fades or becomes pale, even in death. However, the opening song, lines earlier, seems to almost completely contradict any sort of false positivity this sentiment holds. It reads: “With all [of Niger’s] beauticious race/Who though but black in face/Yet they are bright/And full of life and light/to prove that beauty best/which is not the color, but the feature…” (1328 6-13). Here, Jonson is saying that the daughters are beautiful in spite of their skin color, not because of it. The juxtaposition of placing “but black in face/Yet they are bright” not only implies this idea, but ultimately implies a white supremacy or ideal of sorts because their ultimate beauty is still described as bright. The second half of the quote furthers this notion. Once again the daughters are beautiful because of certain physical attributes, in spite of their blackness. Their skin tone cannot be seen as a positive aspect of beauty; instead, their skin tone is the part of their physical features that should be overlooked ( “not the color, but the feature… ” ). As the masque progresses, their skin tone is the only thing that hinders their overall beauty and in making this the conflict of the masque. Jonson writes, “…the Ethiops…were now black with black despair…and believing [the poets] they wept… [and] it hath thus far overflowed his shore” (1330 63-71). The British influence and their introduction of Petrarchan poetry into the Ethiopian culture, while tragic for the daughters of Niger, is still ultimately seen as a very positive thing. The daughters are recognized as having nice physical attributes, and even though earlier – while Jonson specifically said that the tone of their skin did not hinder their beauty – fair skin ends up being the social ideal. Jonson’s work ultimately serves as an excellent reference point for the conventions in travel literature. Surely the audience enjoys exploring foreign lands, and in some cases the author can be complimentary towards the natural cultures of the region, but ultimately, other cultures are still held to the same ideals and standards as Europe’s. This pattern sustains a harmful ‘us versus them’ mentality.
Before ever discussing Oroonoko himself, Aphra Behn conforms to classic travel literature constructs by going in great detail about the colony and lands from which the former prince had come. Listing species after species, from exotic birds to exotic fauna, the first paragraphs serve as a springboard that transports the reader to a glamorized, unscientific, but highly adventurous land. The inhabitants of this settlement are seen already embodying many of the European ideals – modesty, classic romantic relations, and Christian virtuousness. “
[T]hese people represented to me,” says the narrator, “an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin, ” an obvious reference to both the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve – which, considering the description of the surroundings and its inhabitants in general, comes as little surprise (2184). The description of some of the garb the natives traded as having a likeness to how “Adam and Eve [wore a similar style of clothing] with fig leaves,” once again returns to biblical allusion (2184). Furthermore, when discussing their affinity for nudity, the narrator says, “There is not to be seen an indecent action or glance; and being continually used to see one another so unadorned, so like our first parents before the fall” (2184). This statement goes beyond the same reference towards Adam and Eve – at the end of this statement there’s a larger human statement, that these foreigners, for all of their different habits and customs, are still sons and daughters of the same Christian father. It’s the perfect example of the ‘travel log’ genre because it notes the exotic nature of the world and portrays the natives in a somewhat positive light, but at the same time applies to another culture the same standards and ideals of its own.
This pattern is also evident in the narrator’s portrayal of Oroonoko himself. The narrator says that the prince has “so much humanity…refined notions of true honor…absolute generosity…real greatness and soul… [and] was capable of the highest passions” (2186). Clearly, Oroonoko is being painted as a pinnacle of human ideals, a man that embodies many of the principles toward which many Europeans strive. The following line, however, is quite telling: “…we may attribute [part of it] to the care of a Frenchman…the royal tutor to this young black…and perceiving him ready to teach him morals, language, and science” (2186). The success of Oroonoko, then, has effectively been debauched. He isn’t responsible for his outstanding moral character or his substantial intelligence – a French tutor ‘perceived him ready’, meaning that Oroonoko wasn’t even the one to initiate his studies. He embodies the European ideals because he was taught them, not because of any sort of natural capacity for learning or from natural goodness. It took a kind, outstanding European citizen to transform Oroonoko into a kind, outstanding black citizen, suggesting that the “other” group had little merit on its own.
Jonathan Swift’s satire in “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” is so apt and poignant because it captures perfectly the ideas of both the colonized and the colonizers. Swift sets up Gulliver as a very standard man, and in doing so, allows him to not only embody British culture but also sets up a travel log situation where the exotic lands and the change in culture is delivered with a knowing wink. The social divide between the Houyhnhnms – horses, wild animals with only a demeanor of civility, morality, and pride – and the Yahoos, humans that act as the foreign culture in the tale. The Houyhnhnms are almost impossible to take seriously. Their lack of any sort of regard for humanity seems absurd, which completes Swift’s purpose perfectly. When the Houyhnhnms ask Gulliver why men go to war, he responds, “Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long continuance, as those occasioned by a difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent” (2432). Here, Swift is satirizing his own culture by discussing both the absurdity and the mindlessness of war. Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms get along so well because neither of them have any regard for humanity (during the general assembly, their justifications for destroying the Yahoos were just as absurd as Gulliver’s list of reasons why humans fight). Clearly, then, the Houyhnhnms embody the colonizing mindset – a complete disregard for humankind, and a lack of respect for any sort of culture that differentiates in mindset.
When Gulliver goes home, he does so because he is forced to, and because he cannot imagine living with such “ vile as well as miserable creature [s]… ” as the Yahoos (2451). This is humorous for a multitude of reasons, mainly because Gulliver is unaware that they are human beings like him. He knows little about the Yahoos and is ignorant of their culture, yet he is still shocked and disgusted by them. The Houyhnhnms, on the other hand, are completely willing to destroy any culture they encounter for any inane reason they can justify. The story works so well because Swift so marvelously satirizes the ‘travel log’ literary subgenre as a whole. Gulliver, though technically a Yahoo, is accepted by the Houyhnhnms because he believes what they believe and he is willing to be trained by them. They only accept Gulliver because he is a stupid, culture-less person who is willing to take on their culture. Swift delivers a message of humanity on the inane nature of war and how despite the tolerant, exotic and forward-thinking appearance of the travel log genre, it actually embodies the height of intolerance.
In “The Masque of Blackness,” the daughters of Niger are seen as pretty in their own right, but they don’t become truly beautiful until they discover the supposed pinnacle of human achievement (British culture) and their poetry, realizing that fair skin is perfection. In “Oroonoko, The Royal Slave,” the piece is a little more daring – a member of the ‘other’ embodies European ideals and is the protagonist of the tale – but the book remains unthreatening to Europeans because all of these attributes were taught to him by a Frenchman. Swift’s book differentiates itself by delivering a truly apt satire, noting the faults of the travel literature genre and the adversarial “colonizer versus colonized” mindset as a whole.
McDermont, Kristen. “Performers in the Masque of Blackness.” English Literature Guides. 10 Dec. 2007 < http://www. chsbs. cmich. edu/Kristen _ McDermott/ENG235/blackness. guide. html> .
Tillotson, Dianne. “The Travel Log.” Medieval Writings. 9 Dec. 2007 < http://medievalwriting. 50megs. com/word/travel. htm> .
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