Strangers in Paradise

May 17, 2013

  

From Herman Melville’s Typee:

Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted into NOMINAL Christians, that disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth. Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns, spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and that too on the very site of the hut where he was born. The spontaneous fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the starving inhabitants, or sent on board the numerous vessels which now touch at their shores.

When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their natural supplies, they are told by their benefactors to work and earn their support by the sweat of their brows! But to no fine gentleman born to hereditary opulence, does this manual labour come more unkindly than to the luxurious Indian when thus robbed of the bounty of heaven. Habituated to a life of indolence, he cannot and will not exert himself; and want, disease, and vice, all evils of foreign growth, soon terminate his miserable existence.

But what matters all this? Behold the glorious result!—The abominations of Paganism have given way to the pure rites of the Christian worship,—the ignorant savage has been supplanted by the refined European! Look at Honolulu, the metropolis of the Sandwich Islands!—A community of disinterested merchants, and devoted self-exiled heralds of the Cross, located on the very spot that twenty years ago was defiled by the presence of idolatry. What a subject for an eloquent Bible-meeting orator! Nor has such an opportunity for a display of missionary rhetoric been allowed to pass by unimproved!—But when these philanthropists send us such glowing accounts of one half of their labours, why does their modesty restrain them from publishing the other half of the good they have wrought?—Not until I visited Honolulu was I aware of the fact that the small remnant of the natives had been civilized into draught-horses; and evangelized into beasts of burden. But so it is. They have been literally broken into the traces, and are harnessed to the vehicles of their spiritual instructors like so many dumb brutes!

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Tasty Frenchman

August 14, 2011

How Tasty was My Little Frenchman (1971) is classed in many reviews as a black comedy, but except for the first few scenes, that is totally off the mark.  It takes place on the coast of Brazil when the French and the Portuguese were fighting for dominance of that part of the New World.  The Frenchman, fed up with life as a member of the French force, rebels and is put in chains.  The narration tells us he was given a hearing and allowed to speak in his defense while we see him summarily pushed off a cliff to drown.  That was black comedy.

He survives, and is taken prisoner by the Portuguese.  Shortly after that, they are attacked by Indians allied with the French, and he is taken prisoner.  The Indians assume he is Portuguese, and the chief makes him his personal slave to be kept in the community for eight  months, then eaten.  An amoral French trader who periodically visits the tribe meets the slave and tells the Indians that he is indeed Portuguese – he has his own uses for the man.  He gives him an axe and a lot of hints on how to make himself useful in gathering material to trade – maybe he will escape, maybe the Indians will change their minds, maybe not…

The film is shot in a verite style, and the native dialog is in a local dialect.  Everyone is naked (recall the naked-nude distinction), i.e, unclothed, as people actually lived then.  (Many reviewers refer to this as National Geographic realism, which says a lot about a lot of cultural attitudes and histories.)   Given the date of production, there must be a political subtext here (Brazil was under a military dictatorship) in addition to the unsettling questions it provokes about the nature of The Encounter between the civilizations of the New and Old Worlds.   It would make a good double-feature with Black Robe.


New World Order

June 16, 2010

Circa 1540, a map of the New World.  I saw this at the New York Public Library exhibit on the history of mapping the NYC shoreline.  The same image with coloring is shown below in an image from the University of Houston.  A description of the map from a  dealer follows.

Amazing image!  Looking at this, one understands what that common phrase, The New World, really meant!

An early example of Munster’s map of America, first issued in 1540. The earliest map of all of America and the first to name the Pacific Ocean (Mare Pacificum). It is also one of the earliest depictions of Japan. The depiction of North America is dominated by one of the most dramatic geographic misconceptions to be found on early maps—the so-called Sea of Verrazzano. The Pacific cuts deeply intov into North America so that the part of the coastline at this point is a narrow isthmus between two oceans. This was the result of Verrazzano mistaking the waters to the west of the Outer Banks, the long barrier islands along North Carolina as the Pacific. The division of the New World between Spain and Portugal Spain and Portugal is recognized on the map by the Castille and Leon flag planted in Puerto Rico, here called Sciana.