The Tempest, In Defense of the Indians, and Montaigne’s essays each illustrate what happens when two very different worlds collide. As Europe begins to saturate New World soil, the three authors offer their accounts of the dynamic between the European invader and native other. Though each work is unique in its details, they all share a common bond: Shakespeare, de Las Casas, and Montaigne show the reader how European colonialists use differences in appearance and language to justify theft and slavery.
The Tempest’s Caliban serves as an instrument to highlight the colonialist notion of the other. Caliban is the original inhabitant of the island; it is his native land. But Caliban is ugly. Prospero claims that he is “not honored with human shape” (p. 17), and so the new European inhabitants never think of him as a potential equal- they see him as their inferior. This initial incongruity between characters supports further dehumanization of the native for the remainder of the play.
Caliban’s appearance does not only contribute to the Europeans’ poor estimation of him, but it also serves as the justification of his slavery. When Trinculo says, “Wilt thou tell a monstrous lie, being but half a fish and half a monster” (p. 55), he communicates two important concepts. First, Trinculo reinforces the idea that Caliban is more animal than man. Next, he assumes that Caliban’s exterior mirrors Caliban’s interior. Caliban’s physical deformities, according to Trinculo, also indicate deformity of character. Together, these faults aid Prospero’s justification of forcing Caliban to “serve in offices that profit us” (p. 18).
A second factor of Caliban’s oppression is language. The ability to communicate that ends man’s isolation from others and leads to civilization. When Prospero discovers Caliban, the native has no knowledge of Europe, much less its tongue. Miranda and Prospero take it upon themselves to educate Caliban in “civilized” language. Miranda says:
“I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or other, When thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble, like a thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes with words that made them known.” (p. 20)
Miranda believes that communication indicates that one is civilized. She does not for a moment consider that Caliban’s “gabble” was most likely his own language, the language he used to with Sycorax. Miranda believes that true communication (and true civilization) comes only in the words of her own language.
Prospero agrees with this notion. He believes that Caliban’s deformity and inability to communicate with foreigners make the native his subordinate. Caliban is only “a lying slave, whom stripes may move, not kindness” (p. 54). Prospero refuses to hear Caliban’s exclamation that he was “firstmine own king” (p. 54). Once Caliban controlled his own life. With the arrival of Prospero, who sees no redeeming qualities but brute strength in Caliban, the native becomes a slave. Prospero believes that Caliban is not human and sees no reason to treat him as one.
Montaigne and de Las Casas also explore the humanity of natives. Though their portrayals of the Indians are very different, their aim is the same: to promote the humane treatment of the Indians. Both works oppose the colonialist mentality that appears in The Tempest. Montaigne and de Las Casas argue that differences in culture are not tantamount to inferiority.
De Las Casas’ account of the Indians describes a race of people who are “completely innocent, meek, harmless, and temperate” (p.26). Like Caliban, de Las Casas’ natives are very simple, even childlike. However, de Las Casas believes his child-natives are capable of “growing up.” He maintains that “they are quite ready and willing to receive and embrace the word of God” (p. 26). With this, he shows his confidence that the Indians have the potential to equal the Europeans.
Montaigne has a very different opinion of the natives. He shares the Shakespeare’s belief that language and culture are synonymous, but he differs in that he lauds the Indian tongue. Montaigne even goes so far as to compare Indian language with the most “civilized” language when he describes it as “a soft language, with an agreeable sound, somewhat like Greek in its endings” (Of Cannibals, p. 64). Montaigne also makes a point of describing the poetry and song of the Indians. The ability to create beautiful poetry certainly connotes civilization. Montaigne comments that “not only is there nothing barbarous in this fancy, but it is altogether Anacreontic” (Of Cannibals, p.64).
Though the primary focus of Montaigne’s essays and In Defense of the Indians is to vouch for the humanity of the Indians, the works also share a second purpose. As chronicles of European action in the New World they proof that Shakespeare was not unique in his belief of the inequality between European and native. Like Prospero and his peers, the Europeans in Montaigne and de Las Casas never consider the fact that the natives have the right to self-determination. The Europeans take over the land, imposing a new religion, a new language, and a new status on the natives. It is not even as if the Europeans choose to ignore indigenous society; they do not entertain the possibility that a society can exist. Much like Prospero’s treatment of Caliban, Montaigne and de Las Casas’ Europeans believe that the Indians are no more intelligent than animals, and just about as capable of organizing a society. This perceived inferiority justifies the natives’ enslavement.
Shakespeare, Montaigne, and de Las Casas all describe the usurpation of land from the Indians. De Las Casas discourages taking land with force, claiming that it is wrong to wage “war against men who are harmlessunarmed, and destitute of every human defense” (p. 26). Montaigne writes disapprovingly,
“He who had awarded their country to him must be a man fond of dissention, to go and give another person something that was not his and thus set him at strife with its ancient possessors.” (Of Coaches, p.67)
With this, Montaigne describes how the Europeans ignore the fact that the natives have any rights to property. Again, the Europeans ignore the humanity of the Indians.
Like the colonialists of de Las Casas and Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s Europeans overlook Indian humanity when they seize the native land. Though Caliban defends his rights when he says, “this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother which thou tak’st from me” (p. 19) all Prospero hears are the words of an ugly, ignorant savage. Prospero pays no more heed to Caliban’s complaint than he would the lowing of a cow. To Prospero, both are animals meant for service.
In spite of their similarity, Shakespeare, de Las Casas, and Montaigne portray natives and colonialism in very different manners. De Las Casas insists that it is wrong to attack a childlike culture. Montaigne maintains that the natives are already a highly civilized people. In Shakespeare, the European actions that de Las Casas and Montaigne despise come to life. For Prospero, the native culture that Montaigne deems “evolved” and de Las Casas calls “gentle” is simply different and inferior. Montaigne says, “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice” (Of Cannibals, p.58). Without understanding Montaigne’s true meaning, Prospero would wholeheartedly agree. Caliban certainly does not partake in the “practice” of Prospero. Like the natives in de Las Casas and Montaigne’s New World, Caliban has a different appearance and language. However, where Montaigne and de Las Casas are proponents of respecting differences, Shakespeare’s Europeans use those differences to defend robbery and subjugation.