Our Savages, Ourselves

Sarah Park

The discovery of the New World not only broadened the topographical horizon of Europe, but also seemed to herald triumphant new beginnings for European nations. A clean slate with fresh resources to exploit, wealth to amass, and strange indigenous people to enslave and convert to respective factions of Christianity, America was the land of opportunity from the outset. However, as these two worlds came into contact and collided, the complexity of rationalizing colonization became apparent and the values and norms held by the Europeans were suddenly challenged. Both Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition are sympathetic to Native Americans and expose their own struggles with European culture, but with significantly different approaches. While Montaigne idealizes the Americas as a magnificent Eden of rebirth, a second chance at a purer life like that of the "noble savage," Cabeza de Vaca depicts the harsh reality of the wilderness that he is thrust into and his disillusionment with the “savages” that lead him back to civilization.


As Cabeza de Vaca is plunged into the unknown, his concepts about the natives are also shattered. He encounters peaceful Indians, hostile Indians, "docile" Indians (Cabeza de Vaca p.83), and Indians that are "great liars and drunkards" (Cabeza de Vaca p.51)..            _________________

When the indigenous people of the Americas were encountered, numerous European accounts surfaced deeming them barbaric for being unclothed, primitive cannibals. Michel de Montaigne disputes this in "Of Cannibals," arguing that there is beauty in the naivety of the Tupinamba Indians from Brazil. He states that "prying so narrowly into their faults, we are so blinded in ours" (Norton Online) and what ensues is a profound critique of European culture. As Montaigne deems fruit "altered by our artificial devices and diverted from their common order" (Norton Online) a savage crime against nature, it becomes quite evident that he himself is fantasizing about a simpler time. He laments the urbanization and modernization of Europe, projecting his fantasy for an unspoiled world, "unchoked" (Norton Online) by mankind onto the Americas and its natives.

This is, of course, problematic as Montaigne claims the Indians have "no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural" (Norton Online). As these are evidently all corrupt institutions he despises in his own society, he is making the sweeping assumption that the natives lack these institutions and is therefore playing into the assertion that they are uncivilized and need to be brought to Christianity. Furthermore, he states the Indians do not have words for "lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon" (Norton Online) and creates some sort of Utopia where the inhabitants lack all human flaws, and as a result, lose the privilege of humanity.

The natives supposedly even point out certain European flaws, asking why strong, grown men bow down to a child king instead of voting on a leader and why there is such a severe disparity in wealth. This, once again, is a reflection of Montaigne's own grievances against the political and societal norms so many of his contemporaries blindly accept. He even defends the alleged cannibalistic acts and warlike behavior of the Indians to be "noble and generous" (Norton Online) compared to the atrocities committed by Europeans against each other "under pretense of piety and religion" (Norton Online).

Montaigne's projection of yet another fantasy is even more telling, and quite troublesome. He declares that there is a correlation between how many wives a man has and how valiant he is reputed to be, and deems this system to be "wondrous strange and remarkable" compared to how European wives hinder "the love and affection of other women" (Norton Online). Believing the native women to be so above jealousy and self-centeredness that they try to obtain more wives for their husbands' reputations, Montaigne misinterprets the oppression of women in a patriarchal society for his own desire for extramarital affairs. He implies the natural state of a woman's nobility lies in her subservience to her husband, and once again, alienates the "self," the white, male European, from the "other," the native woman.

Unlike Montaigne, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca experiences numerous indigenous tribes firsthand, although not by choice. He is initially sent as a conquistador to colonize present-day Florida, and yet he is shipwrecked, separated from his men, and left "naked" at the mercy of the very people he was sent to oppress. This shift in power allows Cabeza de Vaca to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about both Europe and the Americas, and come to respect the natives as human beings. In Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, Cabeza de Vaca even records each of the tribes' distinct languages, customs, and diets, rather than generalizing or idealizing their cultures.

Whereas Montaigne believes the nakedness of the Indians reveals their innocence and strength, Cabeza de Vaca realistically depicts his nakedness after the shipwreck as incredibly vulnerable and a sense of rebirth into a harsh, cold truth. As the crew of the Narváez expedition literally falls apart, Cabeza de Vaca looks to Governor Narváez for orders, and yet his superior answers that "this [is] no time for orders" and "that each one should do the best he could to save himself" (Cabeza de Vaca p.30). The only system of political and martial hierarchy Cabeza de Vaca has ever known betrays him in the wilderness and the only thing he has to hold onto is his Christian God.

 As Cabeza de Vaca is plunged into the unknown, his concepts about the natives are also shattered. He encounters peaceful Indians, hostile Indians, "docile" Indians (Cabeza de Vaca p.83), and Indians that are "great liars and drunkards" (Cabeza de Vaca p.51). At the hands of the peaceful, he is shocked to find such empathetic, and dare we say humane treatment. He states, "Upon seeing the disaster we had suffered, our misery and misfortune, the Indians sat down with us and began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune" (Cabeza de Vaca p. 33). Despite this, Cabeza de Vaca and his men still believe they will be sacrificed by the natives, and yet they are fed and treated well. When Cabeza de Vaca does encounter the cannibalism Montaigne so earnestly defends, it is in fact the Christians eating each other out of desperation and the Indians are violently "startled at this" (Cabeza de Vaca p.37). It is remarkable that Cabeza de Vaca chooses to emphasize, "In the two thousand leagues we traveled, on land, and by sea in boats, and in the ten months more after our rescue from captivity that we untiringly walked across the land, nowhere did we come upon either sacrifices or idolatry" (Cabeza de Vaca p.102). While Montaigne claims "barbaric" behavior is natural, Cabeza de Vaca states that there is no barbaric behavior at all, and that the actions of the natives do not go against God.

Perhaps the most poignant part of Cabeza de Vaca's account is when he finally finds Spanish colonies, and he unexpectedly disputes with the Christians, "for they wanted to make slaves of [his] Indians" (Cabeza de Vaca p.95). When the Christians try to explain that Cabeza de Vaca and his men are their subordinates and have no authority at all, the Indians defend them, saying "that we cured the sick, while they had killed those who were healthy; that we went naked and barefoot, whereas they wore clothes and went on horseback and carried lances" (Cabeza de Vaca p.95). In this profound moment, there is a mutual sense of empathy and respect between Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians, where the boundaries between the "self" and the "other" are blurred... something that is inherently lacking in Montaigne's argument.

It is through the Eurocentric lens that these writers perceive the Americas, and yet Montaigne's introspective journey and Cabeza de Vaca's odyssey allow us to understand what the New World meant to Europeans beyond pure exploitation. Unfortunately, both of their writings, despite Cabeza de Vaca's anthropological efforts, did not thwart the destruction of the Indians. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the idea of being able to start fresh, whether for conquest or for liberation, filled the Old World with an invigorating sense that immigrants today know very well. It is through these accounts of cross-cultural contact between the "self" and the "other," that we learn to look at the "self," and learn what it means to be empathetic beings.

(This essay was originally submitted for a Survey of American Literature I class)


The City University of New York