Tropical Visions in an Age of Empireby Felix Driver, Luciana Martins
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The contrast between the temperate and the tropical is one of the most enduring themes in the history of the Western geographical imagination. Caught between the demands of experience and representation, documentation and fantasy, travelers in the tropics have often treated tropical nature as a foil to the temperate, to all that is civilized, modest, and enlightened. Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire explores images of the tropical world—maps, paintings, botanical drawings, photographs, diagrams, and texts—produced by European and American travelers over the past three centuries.
Bringing together a group of distinguished contributors from disciplines across the arts and humanities, this volume contains eleven beautifully illustrated essays—arranged in three sections devoted to voyages, mappings, and sites—that consider the ways that tropical places were encountered, experienced, and represented in visual form. Covering a wide range of tropical sites in the Pacific, South Asia, West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, the book will appeal to a broad readership: scholars of postcolonial studies, art history, literature, imperial history, history of science, geography, and anthropology.
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Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
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Chapter One Views and Visions of the Tropical World
FELIX DRIVER AND LUCIANA MARTINS
Our knowledge of the earth is constructed in a variety of ways, through experience, learning, memory, and imagination. This book is devoted to an exploration of images of the tropical world produced by European travelers over the past three centuries. It is concerned more particularly with the ways in which tropical places are encountered and experienced, the significance of travel for the process of producing knowledge about these places, and the relationship between geographical difference and generalized notions of "tropicality." The contrast between the temperate and the tropical is one of the most enduring themes in the history of global imaginings. Whether represented positively (as in fantasies of the tropical sublime) or negatively (as a pathological space of degeneration), tropicality has frequently served as a foil to temperate nature, to all that is modest, civilized, cultivated. The idea of the tropical as a distinct assemblage of natural and human relations has taken diverse forms in different geographical and intellectual settings. Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire brings together contributors from various disciplinary backgrounds-principally art history, cultural geography, literature, imperial history, and the history of science-in order to consider the visualization of the tropical world.
Images of tropical natures and cultures have a long history and complex geography. At different moments, in different contexts, the notion of tropicality has been enrolled in a variety of philosophical, political, scientific, and aesthetic projects. Within the literatures of natural history, travel, and exploration, for example, the idea of tropical difference has had a remarkably sustained influence, even when-perhaps especially when-the actual experience of tropical travel has failed to live up to expectations. Throughout the early modern period, its presence can also be detected in a host of cultural forms, from epic poetry to landscape painting, as well as in the historical and philosophical reflections on human nature and the wealth of nations. From the nineteenth century, we see tropical difference given institutional expression in the emergence and development of distinct subdisciplinary specializations-tropical medicine, tropical climatology, tropical geography, and so on-though in each of these fields the definition and limits of the "tropical" have been anything but settled. Over the past century, the discourse on tropicality has further proliferated under the influence of modernism, decolonization, development discourse, global tourism, commodity advertising, and environmental politics. The tropics, then, have long been the site for European fantasies of self-realization, projects of cultural imperialism, or the politics of human or environmental salvage. In the postcolonial world, these fantasies have if anything become more pervasive, if distinctly less enchanting.
The imaginative flow has certainly not at all been one way. Artists and intellectuals working in what we now call the global South have appropriated the language of tropicality for their own ends, and this in turn has influenced the ways in which Europeans have understood tropical nature and culture. Take, for example, the concept of Luso-tropicalism, initially developed by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre during the 1930s. In his writings, Freyre emphasized the ideal of the harmonious blending of racial, religious, and cultural differences that he suggested had emerged historically in Brazil during the colonial period. His conception was subsequently adopted by the governing elite within Portugal in an attempt to provide an ideological framework that would sustain what remained of their colonial empire in Africa and Asia. Within Brazil itself, Freyre's concerns with cultural fusion would later be reframed by the aesthetic of tropical modernism, as, for example, in the work of the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Further encounters between modernism and tropicality were reflected in the ambivalent cultural politics of the Tropicália movement in Brazilian popular music during the late 1960s, most notably in the work of Caetano Veloso. These are of course highly specific engagements with the idea of tropicality, in place, style, and period. But in these cases the task of interpretation leads us beyond rigid distinctions between the metropolis and colony, core and periphery, the cosmopolitan and the indigenous, temperate and tropical, as we see new forms of tropicality emerging in the process of transculturation.
The conventional discourse of tropicality might be compared with that of Orientalism, to the extent that both have conventionally been used to define and legitimize essential differences between cultures and natures, both understood in strongly spatial terms. However, our emphasis on cultural encounter and exchange prompts questions about the ways in which the effects of such discourses are often conceived. In particular, the model of projection that drives some accounts of colonial discourse, the "West" projecting its sense of cultural difference on the "rest," needs to be problematized. One obvious risk here is that images (like "the Orient" or "tropicality") are conceived as already fully formed, ready-to-be-projected, a position that greatly exaggerates their coherence and consistency. Another is that the cultural and natural worlds of the East, or the tropics, are represented as homogenous screens on which these images of difference are depicted. A properly postcolonial perspective must also bring into question not just the representation of Europe's others but also the production of "Europe" itself-in our case, Europe as a space of temperate culture and nature. We have become so used to thinking of European expansion-including the exploration and colonization of the tropical world-as the means of extending and dramatizing an already existing worldview, that we have underestimated the extent to which the process of extension is actually transformative of the European sense of culture and history-of the temperate self. Culturally as well as economically speaking, this European self has never been self-sufficient: it has always learned, borrowed, or stolen from elsewhere. We need to develop ways of conceiving this process of exchange in terms of transactions rather than projections: to think of images, certainly, but to understand the process of their being made as negotiated-and sometimes contested-in various ways. This would enable the production of knowledge about the tropical world to be understood as a more differentiated, more uneven, and ultimately more human process; and moreover, it would give more agency, and autonomy, to the world being represented-understood not simply as a screen but as a living space of encounter and exchange.
TROPICAL VIEWS AND VISIONS
In this volume, we are especially concerned with the ways in which "the tropics" have been represented as something to be seen-a view to be had or a vision to be experienced. In the writings of European naturalists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, notably Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russel Wallace, tropical nature was figured in strikingly visual terms. During the same period, traveling artists, such as William Hodges and Johann Rugendas, attempted to give form to the new sense of tropicality, which was emerging in the course of European scientific exploration. The significance of tropical views and visions for the development of new models of science is explicit in the case of Humboldt, who once declared the tropics to be "his element." His lyrical depictions of tropical nature and its sublime geographies inspired many subsequent travelers, not least Charles Darwin. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro in April 1832, Darwin wrote of his first sight of "a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur," as if the scene demanded such a response from any truly philosophical traveler. "I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him; he alone gives any notion of the feelings that are raised in the mind of first entering the Tropics." Humboldt's writings and reputation loomed large over the discourse of tropicality during the nineteenth century and indeed right up to the present day (fig. 1.1). The reasons for renewed scholarly attention to his work in recent years are not hard to find. It raises far-reaching questions about the relationship between science and aesthetics, about the balance between holistic and analytical views of nature, and about the prospect of reconciling sedentary scholarship with observation in the field. This book seeks to situate Humboldt's influential vision in the larger context of European encounters with the tropical world.
As the essays in this volume attest, the spaces of the tropics have been imagined in a wide variety of ways, within diverse forms of writing, sketching, mapping, charting, panoramas, painting, and photography. In very general terms, we use the words "view" and "vision" here to capture two contrasting modalities through which the tropics have been pictured. The view emerged in the context of a topographical aesthetic, in which landscapes are depicted at a distance, their surface features translated into a recognizable visual code. In this very general sense, the term belongs equally to landscape sketching, coastal survey, and terrestrial mapping: it is part of a topographic culture in which the world is apprehended from afar. The vision, in contrast, is something that in principle takes hold of the observer in a much more transformative way: it engages the imagination and turns the spectator into an active participant in the scene. Where the view is the product of an enlightened reason, the vision is the means of asserting a new sensibility: the realization not just of an image of the world but of a new sense of self as well. In this sense, Humboldt's vision of the tropical world is rather unlike, say, Cook's views, insofar as it brings the eye of the observer itself into the frame. Of course, this distinction is more about epistemology than practice, as the fantasy of eliminating all traces of subjectivity from the map or the chart could never be fully realized. The lines on the paper spoke of desire as well as distance; in the case of maritime surveyors, for example, they trace an experience of trial, error, and inference-and in particular, speculation about what lay beyond the visible coastline.
In this context, Humboldt's significance lies in his efforts to synthesize views and visions within a new conception of the natural world. In recent years, much attention has been devoted to his interests in various forms of visual representation as a means of apprehending the complex unity of nature, his perpetual return to reflections on the aesthetics of landscape, and the uneasy relationship between the personal narrative and the scientific overview in his writings. Humboldt's speculations on the sources of human enjoyment in the contemplation of the face (Ansichten, or "aspects") of nature suggested that such an aesthetic had a history-and a geography. In a different register, as Michael Dettelbach shows in this volume, his own brand of self-experimentation as a traveling observer was designed to measure the effects of landscape impressions on his own sensibility. Humboldt reflected further on these themes in Cosmos, where he suggested that the distinctive physiognomy of the tropical landscape was expressed in a specifically tropical aesthetic, associated above all with sentiments of grandeur and luxuriance. "In the Humboldtian version of romantic imagination," Nigel Leask suggests, "aesthetic and emotional responses to natural phenomena counted as data about these phenomena, in contrast to their rigorous exclusion from contemporary practices of naval and military surveying."
In accounting for the spirit of Humboldtian science, or the efforts of artists to capture the physiognomy of tropical nature, it is tempting to exaggerate the constancy and consistency of the European gaze in the tropics. This book pays particular attention to the ways in which travel has the capacity to dislodge the certainty of the self, confronting European travelers in the tropics with often unexpected visions. If knowledge of the tropical world was not always a settled knowledge but frequently a contradictory knowledge-in-the-making, how should historians view the documents that are its material traces? Here we have an opportunity to reconsider approaches to the visual inventory of tropical travel and the variety of interpretative strategies it allows. According to the model of cultural critique founded on the idea of projection, Europeans often saw what they wanted to see when they traveled into the tropics, projecting an imaginative geography of natural and cultural difference onto the new worlds they encountered. But tropical nature and society was far more than a screen, and the apparently simple act of projection was in fact a laborious process in which a variety of transactions were involved. Thinking in these terms enables us to conceive the work of representation as a process of unequal exchange, suggesting an alternative point of departure for historians of tropicality. It also allows for a more discriminating view of the coherence of the European view of the tropics, one in which the experience of disorientation, uncertainty, and novelty has its place. This in turn raises questions about the multiple practices through which the tropics were known, practical and bodily as well as intellectual and discursive; and it encourages greater attention to the ways in which European conceptions of the tropics may have been shaped by interactions with a wide variety of peoples and places.
The modern cartographic definition of the tropics is rooted in the astronomical, climatic, and moral geographies of antiquity, in which the habitable earth or oecumene is identified as that portion of the globe lying between the torrid and frigid realms. The torrid or tropical zone is bounded by two parallels of latitude stretching around the earth, one 23°27' north of the equator and the other 23°27' south, together marking the limits of the region in which the sun shines directly overhead. In this cosmographical vision, the circles of Capricorn and Cancer define both a natural and a moral limit: the intertropical zone is imagined as a realm of otherness, beyond humanity. The genealogy of the "monstrous races" at the ends of the earth as represented in mappae mundi and medieval encyclopedias, as Denis Cosgrove has shown, owes much to this classical vision. The expansion of the Ptolemaic oecumene in the long sixteenth century produced new visions of otherness and a newly historicized vision of European destiny: in the frontispiece to Ortelius's Theatrum orbis terrarum of 1570, for example, a crowned Europe is seated above figures representing Asia, Africa, America, and the much dreamed-of southern continent. The wonders of the "new world" that dominate this age of discovery were accommodated within reworkings of both classical geographical theory and biblical schemas: significantly, this is a moment of continuity as well as transformation. In this context, too one sees signs of more familiar tropes of tropicality, as in Sir Walter Raleigh's account of his quest for El Dorado, in which the "indecipherable landscape" of Guiana is figured alternately as a plentiful paradise and an unrelenting hell.
The role of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century voyages of exploration in perpetuating or challenging dominant views and visions of the tropical world is a major theme in this context. The new planetary consciousness of science was reflected in the global scale and functions of maritime expeditions of navigators like Cook and La Pérouse, the ambition of terrestrial explorers like Humboldt and Park, and the efforts of metropolitan savants and statesmen who sought to make the world an orderly place in the name of enlightenment. They imagined the establishment of vast archives of texts, images, artifacts, and specimens, patiently assembled, through which the geography and natural history of the earth could be made known. They created great empires of learning presided over in Britain, for example, by such influential figures as Joseph Banks, Roderick Murchison, and Joseph Hooker, whose networks extended across every continent and every sea. Theirs was a suitably imperial vision, of order, system, and progress, in which the explorer's role was to fill in the blanks: the keepers of the imperial archive would do the rest. Looking more closely at the archive of tropical travel, however, it is clear that such projects raised as many questions as they answered. Could the encounter with the tropics challenge as well as confirm European constructions of nature? How was the experience of traveling itself to be put into words and images? To what extent did the experience of encountering difference, in nature and culture, undermine existing canons and conventions? Such questions were first seriously addressed in Bernard Smith's seminal work on the impact of Pacific island cultures and landscapes on the development of European scientific theories and landscape art between the ages of Cook and Darwin. Smith's interpretations of the work of William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second Pacific voyage, are extended here in Claudio Greppi's chapter on traveling artists. If European Vision and the South Pacific remains a fundamental reference point today, even for quite different forms of analysis and interpretation, it is partly because of its concerns with the epistemological status of image making-in what ways, precisely, can seeing be the equivalent of knowing?-and partly because of its treatment of the experience of travel and encounter, in which the space of experience is left open.
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Meet the Author
Felix Driver is professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Luciana Martins is lecturer in Luso-Brazilian studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
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