Titled Geographies of Time: European travellers and indigenous peoples in eighteenth-century North America, this book investigates the consequences that contact with the indigenous peoples of North America had on the idea of historical time in the eighteenth-century European mind. Against the backdrop of the historiography devoted to the theories of progress with which the culture of the Old World hypostatised in the societies of the globe different stages in the development of humanity, the primary corpus of this study consists of travel accounts, reports, and treatises based on direct observation. The purpose of this choice is to add, to the attention enjoyed by historical-philosophical and erudite thought and writing, the complementary exploration of the cultural uses of given ideas of time in the context of the encounter with North American human otherness. This perspective allows us to focus on and problematise the interplay that representations based on first-hand experiences reveal between pre-existing cultural palimpsest and empirical validation of knowledge. The identification of a humanity perceived as different from oneself with one’s own ancestors has been a common trope since the early modern age – between conceptual domestication of a radical difference, geographical projections of a golden age, and stratification of textual and figurative conventions.
In eighteenth-century accounts this ‘topos’ fades into a complex and contradictory picture. The distribution of civilisations according to phases of development interacts with a proto-anthropological curiosity for the variety of political and social organisations, which may be exploited by the European observer as terms of comparison with which to call into question his own society of origin. The myth of the “noble savage” could inspire reflection on the colonial world and, at the same time, dissolve in the observation of the complex articulations and histories of “other” societies in their diversity.
The interactions described by the primary sources are concentrated in geographical and political scenarios with three main focal points. A northern Atlantic pole – the coastal area of more ancient French and British colonisation and the Great Lakes area straddling the present-day United States and Canada – was the site of intense trade and Franco-English, then Anglo-American conflicts in the second half of the century, involving First Nations at many levels. In a vast southern Atlantic area – between present-day Virginia and Florida and in between the Appalachians and the Great Plains, where the European presence expanded during the century – native peoples were increasingly linked to colonial societies by economic relations, and by shifting alliances as part of the competition between the British, French and Spanish. Along the present Canadian Pacific coast and the Gulf of Alaska contacts increased from the 1770s onwards, with the trade routes to Asia opened up by Spanish and British expeditions, leading to exchange between Europeans and native peoples at these latitudes, and bearing direct and indirect traces of the Russian presence.
The primary corpus is chronologically enclosed between the editorial success of Baron Lahontan’s voyages – undertaken in the 1680s and given to print in 1703 – and the Lewis and Clark expedition promoted by Thomas Jefferson, which opened the nineteenth century, starting from the eastern inland territories and reaching the Pacific coast. Accounts and reports written by policy makers such as Cadwallader Colden and surveyors such as John Lawson, by explorers with scientific interests such as William Bartram and Bernard Romans, or with military ones such as Jonathan Carver and Henry Timberlake, by fur traders such as Alexander Henry, James Adair, John Long are analysed in their connections with French precedents such as the histories and chronicles by Bacqueville de la Potherie and Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, and as part of a longer history of the Euro-American cultural encounter of which the (long) eighteenth century represents a particular chapter.
The introduction that opens the work is dedicated to outlining the research central questions and primary corpus. The first chapter that follows delineates the historiographical framework within which this work is situated, with particular regard to the cultural history of time and the history of the European encounters with the rest of the globe. The second chapter is devoted to outlining the textual characteristics of primary sources and their place within coeval communicative circuits and political projects. This allows to lay bare deep connections between discursive and colonial constructions, clarifying the background against which the forms of knowledge of American otherness elaborated in the following chapters took shape. Some key issues in the historicisation of American peoples are addressed in the second chapter, focussing on the application of pre-existing concepts to the North American case and what distinguished their use in the Eighteenth century.
A number of themes linked to the observation of societies stimulates speculation on the past: the idea of a cultural contamination brought by the European presence, the perception of an ongoing extinction due to diseases unknown in North America before the arrival of the Europeans, and the categorisation of gender roles – a place par excellence of deep interactions between discursive constructions and power dynamics. Historical-geographical knowledge of American societies functioned as an arena in which different colonial projects competed for the acquisition of cultural as well as political, economic, and military supremacy. The fourth chapter explores Anglophone witnesses’ awareness of such competition, with particular reference to Francophone and Russian contenders.
The fifth chapter is devoted to examining two particular cases: the historical work of James Adair and the account of James Cook’s third voyage. Different from each other in terms of genetic context – Adair’s History was laboriously self-financed with subscriptions, the British Admiralty commissioned the official account of the last voyage of the most famous English explorer of the Pacific – these two case studies are particularly suited to discuss a theme that runs through all this work: the relationship between experience and secondary sources in the historicisation of the “other”, and the textual-discursive nature of the historical knowledge thus constructed.
Chapters six and seven explore the historicisation of the American humanity on a linguistic and communicative level. Respectively delving into figures and processes of linguistic-cultural mediation and compilations of vocabularies and expressions in translation, they shed light on verbal communication as a means of historical hierarchisation and genealogical disquisition, and as an element in debates about the origins and rational nature of American indigenous peoples, in the context of the systematic-comparative approaches and proto-ethnographic curiosities that characterised the Eighteenth century.
The eight chapter projects the theme of American indigenous peoples seen as a fragment of the past onto the time to come, exploring the implications of a heliotropic idea of civilisation. The speculation about the future became an arena in which new epistemologies and methodologies of historical knowledge were tested, laying bare new conceptions of temporal linearity and causal links, and – whether in predictions or fantastic constructions – providing a virtual laboratory to demonstrate political theses.
The concluding section is devoted to summarising the research’s main original findings. Eighteenth-century observers attributed to native societies a lack of credible tools to understand the world and historical time, giving substance and contributing, with their writing, to wider processes of agglutination of a disciplinary system that was global and universalistic in its ambitions but Eurocentric in its epistemological foundations. The past and future of native societies became objects of discursive appropriation, and by constructing these discourses, travellers consciously participate, if not necessarily in a movement of historical hierarchisation, in broader projects of collecting and systematising European knowledge.
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Publisher’s website (external): https://www.viella.it/libro/9788833139968
Elena Giorza – Geografie del Tempo, Giornale di Storia, 8 novembre 2022 (Link) (PDF: Geografie del Tempo_REC Giorza_GdS)