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Ilan Benattar

Diderot's Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville: A Study in Historical Precociousness

Casting anti-colonialism as an exclusive product of the nineteenth and twentieth-century colonial experience, though a dominant trend among historians, is tremendously misleading. Such reductive generalizations tend to gloss over significant ideologies or events simply because they complicate the distinct periods which historians have retroactively applied. Indeed, insofar as European domestic colonial opposition is concerned, several articulate and forceful challenges to the colonial enterprise were certainly put forth prior to the nineteenth century. Denis Diderot's novella entitled Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville stands out on several counts in this oft overlooked field of early-modern European anti-colonialism. Diderot's work cogently attacks the ideology of empire while simultaneously undermining the "noble savage" or "natural man" orthodoxy through which proponents of empire typically viewed the colonial Other. In its place, Diderot posited an image of these "others" as profoundly cultured beings, rather than being mere caricatured projections of the European imagination that the "noble-savage" paradigm made them appear to be. As such, Denis Diderot's novella deserves to be considered by future historians as an important example of proto-anti-colonial literature.
Precise working definitions of the terminology used in this study are critical to its methodological approach and the contextualization of its central concepts. The western psyche often perceives the term "anti-colonialism," somewhat erroneously, as an ideology which promulgates a visceral disgust and rejection of Europeans in addition to a rejection of all forms of colonial rule. This perception, however, is one which largely grew out of the specificities of twentieth-century colonial experience. To attribute similar ideological proclivities to Diderot simply because of his shared rejection of empire would be to commit the grave historical error of viewing the past through the lens of the present. Indeed, anti-colonialism in the twentieth century, fanonian sense of the term would have been reprehensible to Diderot; though he was most certainly a radical, forward-thinking philosophe, he was fundamentally a man of his time.

Similarly, Diderot's views towards European involvement in the "New World" and the far flung Pacific islands such as Tahiti were distinct from his opinion on European involvement in what was then referred to as the "Orient." Unlike the Americas and the largely unexplored Pacific islands, the Orient had a long and often contentious history with its European neighbors. Oriental civilization was, in the mind of the eighteenth-century European, the primary, if not the only, feasible claimant to the title of culture besides Europe itself. As such, European interference in this region was viewed by Diderot more as a manifestation of an old and contentious rivalry between adjacent civilizations than as an asymmetric relationship between an avaricious subjugator and innocent natives. Indeed, according to Anthony Strugnell, a noted scholar of Diderot, the philosophe's views on colonialism specifically pertaining to India "denote an inability to escape the straitjacket of European superiority."

Additionally, European involvement in the Orient during this period was principally aimed at expanding trade routes whereas in the Americas and the Pacific colonialism was intricately tied to the institution of slavery. Diderot, a noted supporter of nascent anti-slavery movements, would have been moved to oppose colonial efforts outside the Orient not only due to the fundamental flaws he saw in the colonial logic, but also because of the slave-based economy it often brought with it. This belief in the inevitable comingling of colonialism and slavery greatly informed his argument in Supplément. With these critical geographical and conceptual boundaries firmly in place one can more completely understand what the term "anti-colonialism" signified to Diderot.

As he was certainly a consummate French homme de lettres, Diderot was undoubtedly best acquainted and most concerned with France's specific pursuit of empire. Therefore, the anti-colonial challenge he puts forth in Supplément must be viewed through a fundamentally French lens. The personal reign of Louis XIV, which began in 1661, was the turning point for the French empire as it was then transformed from a "haphazard collection of territories" to a vast and formidable colonial network connected principally through trade. Indeed, the market in goods such as sugar, tobacco and cotton from the French Caribbean alone went from "4.4 million livres in 1716 to 77 million in 1754." The growing number of slaves was central to the production of these labor-intensive products. Similarly, French holdings in Africa and the Indian Ocean grew in the eighteenth-century under the authority of state-authorized trading companies which were involved in expanding the African slave trade and thus the plantation-based economy. The most geographically vast of the areas under French control in this period was the north-western Atlantic region known as Nouvelle France. Though not statistically significant in terms of its involvement in the slave trade, Nouvelle France provided the metropole with considerable wealth because of its centrality in the fishing and fur industries. Such was the state of colonial affairs about which Diderot likely began to learn after his arrival to Paris in 1728.

Any scholar so inclined will have difficulty locating hints of Diderot's future philosophical radicalism in what Diderot himself often described as an idyllic, pastoral childhood in the town of Langres. Diderot's early life and upbringing were in fact rather pious and his family had deep clerical roots. According to Diderot's celebrated biographer Arthur Wilson, Diderot's family was "not only intimately familiar with the tradition of the church but also not in the least rebellious against it." It was thus in large part Diderot's life in Paris, the friendships he forged and the social circles in which he was an active part, which made him the formidable philosophe he became.

Arguably the most significant of the relationships that Diderot built was his storied rapport with another major thinker of eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose caustic assaults on European mores impacted much of his thought (the exchange was, to be sure, reciprocal). Rousseau was, however, one of the principal exponents of the "noble-savage" theory, which Diderot categorically rejected in Supplément. Furthermore, Rousseau's articulation of this exceedingly popular idea was both tremendously influential among his contemporary thinkers and was largely representative of their own approaches. The fact of Diderot's longstanding close relationship with Rousseau and their eventual estrangement renders likely that Diderot based, at least in part, his refutation of "noble savagery" in Supplément on Rousseau's understanding of the concept.

Rousseau expounded the most on "noble savagery" in his work entitled A Discourse on Inequality. He began therein with a bitter rejection of the decadent, corrupt and immoral civilization he perceived all around him. Rousseau was adamant that the Europe of his time had tragically distanced itself from the primitive, natural past in which interlocking social relations, indeed society all together, was non-existent. Man in this natural state was "an amoral creature, akin to an animal that simply satisfied its immediate needs without reflection or moral judgment." He was, in essence, entirely free from artifice. Evidently, in this happy and innocent state of man the only type of moral imperative was to pursue one's own interests "with as little possible harm to others." Man's metaphorical fall from this heavenly existence was to Rousseau's mind "wrought by sex, by competition, self-awareness, self-consciousness and hence personal property, laws, morality, and guilt." All of these factors necessarily involve other people; indeed several of them form the very basis of civil society and culture. This fallen and domesticated man will eventually "grow feeble, timid, servile; and his soft effeminate way of life completes the enervation both of his strength and his courage."

There is little, if any, subtext in Rousseau's writing. His scathing critique of man's current state clearly referenced the advanced stage of social interdependence he saw in France and the rank moral depravity he believed it to have engendered. As for this "natural man" or "noble savage," Rousseau readily admitted at the beginning of "Discourse" that his account was hardly evidentiary or empirical, but was rather a creation of conjectural theorizing which was "better fitted to clarify the nature of things than to expose their natural origins." He does, however, repeatedly employ ethnographic references to various behavioral and cultural features of contemporary "savages" who were described in the accounts of world-travelers.

Hence we must not be astonished that the Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope see ships on the high seas that the Dutch see with their telescopes, or that the American savages scent Spaniards on the trail as well as do the best dogs; or that all these barbarous nations endure their nakedness without discomfort.
This reference, and several others like it, suggest that the "noble-savage" paradigm upon which he elaborated in "Discourse" is, though certainly imaginative at points, fundamentally based on his having studied and scrutinized these previously mentioned travel accounts. Essentially, in constructing a hypothetical ideal state of human affairs Rousseau was also constructing a "referential allegory" of the colonial Other, or "noble savage," as the embodiment of this ideal.

This "noble savage" theory had an extremely significant impact on the discourse surrounding colonialism in the eighteenth-century. Rousseau, whether intentionally or not, created an image of natural man as both animalistic and pre-societal and then inextricably connected this image to the inhabitants of the colonial and pre-colonial regions. By denying to these "natives" even the basic characteristics of humanity as Europeans saw it, Rousseau created an insurmountable sense of alterity and wrapped it in an undeserved aura of anthropological fact. These "savages" were, in the mind of many Europeans, not really human. This, in turn, clearly had the effect of destroying any meaningful basis for understanding between the French and those under their colonial dominion. Conveniently, the dimension of Rousseau's work that constituted an acerbic assault on the foundations of Western civilization was duly disregarded by most. What Rousseau's audience readily grasped was that these primitive peoples were akin to beasts in almost every respect and were thus in dire need of instruction on their path to civilization. Providing this guidance was a role that Europe readily appropriated as its duty.

Two highly representative examples of eighteenth-century French colonial writings, Letters from a Peruvian Woman and New Voyages, strongly reflect the "noble-savage" trope as promulgated by Rousseau. Letters from a Peruvian Woman, an epistolary novel published by Francoise de Graffigny in 1747, presents the reader with a young Peruvian princess named Zilia. Zilia, the story's heroine, after being kidnapped by Spanish conquistadors, is transferred to a French ship and upon arrival in France is invited by the ship's captain, Déterville, to live at his mother's chateau in the countryside. Zilia agrees and the rest of the novel is principally concerned with her first impressions of French institutions, habits, and customs "which are defamiliarized and as a result denaturalized under her ingenuous gaze." Years pass and Zilia assimilates herself to French culture. Though she kept "souvenirs" of her Peruvian past in her personal library, these objects seem to be displayed in a staid and rather uninspired manner. Rather than being representative of something living and vibrant, Peruvian culture was clearly consigned to an inferior position and was firmly fixed as "a pre-colonial tradition." The civilizing mission was thus complete. The erstwhile savage had undergone an internal transformation, a revolution of mind, and had, both in body and spirit, become civilized simply as a result of her contact with "superior" French culture.

New Voyages, a non-fiction work published by Baron de Lahontan in 1703, is similarly dependent on the noble-savage paradigm in its depiction of the Other. The primary structure through which "noble savagery" is presented therein takes the form of a discourse that occurs between Lahontan and an Amerindian he encounters named Adario. The reader learns through this dialogue that Adario's tribe, the Huron, lack all attraction to material goods and enjoy "robust physical constitutions." Furthermore, Adario asserts that in his tribe property rights do not exist, and as a result the gradations of wealth and the social interdependence they necessarily bring are entirely absent. Adario also exclaims at one point, in reference to his tribe, that "the scope of our imagination cannot extend one thumb's length beyond the earth's surface." As Sankar Muthu asserts in Enlightenment against Empire, "Hurons are free because they are their own masters, enslaved neither by their appetites nor by other people who claim superiority." These characteristics are highly evocative of the savage, natural and fundamentally pre-cultural simplicity which Rousseau attributed to his primitive man in Discourse. As such, Lahontan and Madame de Graffigny's works both present their colonial "subjects" as essentially void of all prerequisites for culture or civilization and thereby as imaginative caricatures of the European mind. This view, popular as it was, tacitly reinforced the ideology of empire that Diderot categorically rejected in Supplément.

Attributing a marked anti-colonial position to Diderot's Supplément makes it tempting to identify similar anti-colonial predispositions elsewhere in the vast corpus of his works. Such direct links are, however, exceedingly difficult to locate. It is, though, possible to note the presence of sentiments and insinuations suggestive of such a position in several of his œuvres, albeit not the existence of an overarching anti-colonial system of thought outside of Supplément. For example, in the article he contributed to "L'Encyclopédie" entitled "Political Authority" and first published in 1751, Diderot states unambiguously that "No man has received from nature the right to command others" and that "power that is acquired by violence is only usurpation." Given the centrality of the colonial enterprise in state affairs during Diderot's time, it is difficult to imagine how he could have written these words without realizing their implications. Indeed, it is far more likely that he specifically had the colonial endeavor in mind but was cautious about being specific because of the well-known censorship powers that the Ancien Régime actively employed.

Other examples of this anti-colonial tendency can be drawn from Diderot's numerous uncredited contributions to Abbe Raynal's banned colonial history entitled Histoire des Deux Indes. Besides subtly and sometimes explicitly decrying the colonial enterprise, Diderot also made numerous allusions to a coming revolution in which he believed the European overlords would be overthrown by their colonial subjects. In Yves Benot's celebrated work Diderot, de l'athéisme à l'anticolonialisme the author pointed specifically to several such occasions. One such example can be found when Diderot, addressing himself to "injust, cruel, inflexible tyrants" exclaims "The world that you have invaded must free itself from the one in which you live. Then, the seas will only separate two friends, two brothers." In invoking such a radical liberationist tone and depicting an image of global unity Diderot was clearly demonstrating not only a disgust for the proponents of empire but also empathy for the plight of those under colonial dominion and hope for a future world in which cross-cultural relations were grounded in equality. Though these disparate and scattered points in the massive corpus of Diderot's work express strong anti-colonial sentiments they are not sufficient evidence to claim the existence of a coherent ideology outside of Supplément. They do, however, suggest that Diderot's radical assault on the foundations of colonial theory in Supplément was not entirely anomalous, but was rather indicative of strong convictions which had manifested themselves earlier in his career.

Supplément was based in part on an actual memoir written by the real Captain Bougainville upon his return to France after having circumnavigated the globe. The novella, which was published posthumously, specifically centers on Diderot's retelling of Bougainville's experiences in Tahiti during his travels. It begins with a conversation between two unnamed semi-narrative characters, A and B, the latter of whom claims to have previously read Bougainville's memoirs while the former has not. The two discuss for a time the specifics of Bougainville's voyage, lamenting the hardships he must have endured and the dangers he surely faced. They then turn to discussing the fact that Bougainville writes about having encountered, on even the remotest of islands, various species of animals. In explaining this seemingly bizarre phenomenon to his companion, B begins to philosophize and states "Who knows the primitive history of our globe? How many spaces of land which are now isolated were once continuous?". Diderot was certainly making no claims to an evidenced scientific theory here, yet this seemingly idle speculation is ripe with meaning. Though Diderot does not further expound on this point he is undoubtedly implying that, to his mind, all of humanity has a shared ancestry. These foreign peoples, Diderot seems to say, are no more than a branch of the human tree which has developed in a different environment, thereby accounting for their radical differences. Therefore, from the very beginning of Supplément, Diderot posits a fraternal image of humanity which, if fully appreciated, provided a solid grounding for understanding and empathy which the noble-savage theory did not allow.

Further along in this first chapter, A and B began discussing the story of a Tahitian named Aotourou whom Bougainville brought back with him to France. The pair briefly discuss several difficulties Aotouru encountered in attempting to adjust to French life. Evidently, soon after having disembarked Aotouru "threw himself upon the first European woman who came to encounter him, and was about to very seriously show her Tahitian politeness." He was also unable to learn to speak French because it gave his "inflexible organs" too much difficulty. Simply saying that these two pieces of information about Aotourou reflect the typical noble savage trope is, though on the surface true, far from what the author was implying. Diderot was suggesting, albeit subtly, that though Aotouru may appear outwardly savage, his inability to understand French culture or learn the French language are not therein derived. Indeed, they are rather a result of the fact that he had matured in the context of a profoundly different society. He was not savage, only unaccustomed. Aotourou did not live a pre-societal primitive existence; he was simply a product of his own culture. Diderot further addresses this theme, which turns the noble savage paradigm on its head, later in the text.

The second chapter, "Farewells of an Old Man," is essentially Diderot's fictionalization of a scene which took place when Bougainville and his crew were leaving Tahiti. Diderot employs the voice of an old Tahitian both to excoriate Bougainville and his rapacious crew and to lament the fact that Bougainville's visit undoubtedly augured the future implementation of their colonial designs. Early in the chapter the old man vehemently articulates a verbal assault on Bougainville's presumably ravenous intentions and, consequently, on the very logic of empire.

This country is yours! And why? Because you put your foot here! If a Tahitian landed on your coast and engraved on one of your stones or on the bark of one of your trees: This country belongs to the inhabitants of Tahiti, what would you think?

It was certainly a radical notion for an eighteenth-century Frenchman to conceptualize a "savage" claiming ownership of European territory. Diderot thereby exposes the logic behind the flawed equation of physical presence and colonial ownership by simply stating its logical opposite in a cogent reductio ad absurdum.
The old man then details how Bougainville and his crew have been undeserving and ungrateful of the kindness and hospitality shown to them by the Tahitians. He also claims that, because of the Europeans' intrusion, "The idea of crime and the danger of sickness have entered with you among us." Here Diderot clearly intended to attack the notion of European moral superiority and the supposed translatable universality of European culture which were found at the heart of the colonial endeavor. He suggests not only that European culture should be imposed on none because of its fatally flawed moral depravity, but also that it could never exist peacefully in Tahiti because it was too different from native habits and customs. As a result, forcing the juxtaposition of European culture and Tahitian culture would serve no good whatsoever and would only sow strife and discontent.

The third and fourth chapters in Supplément revolve around the story of a chaplain who had accompanied Bougainville and was invited by a Tahitian native named Orou to stay in his home during the ship's sojourn in his country. Through their conversations the reader learns of the tremendous amount of social planning which occurs in Tahitian society. Furthermore it becomes clear that this social planning is focused on harnessing natural instinct for the common welfare instead of repressing it, a tendency which Diderot explicitly attributes to Europe. On the first day of his stay with Orou the two begin discussing the religion to which the chaplain claims to adhere strongly. Orou has much difficulty understanding the fundamentals of Christianity not only because of his incredulity about the existence of an omnipotent divine-being but also because he cannot understand why so much of Christianity seems focused on suppressing sexual urges. Furthermore, the chaplain readily admits that Christian religious protocol is often transgressed by even the most pious, including monks and nuns. He also concedes that adultery and incest are rampant. When the chaplain inquires as to how the Tahitians keep their sexual urges in check without the imposition of religious mandate, Orou responds: "Such is the principal object of domestic education and the most important point about our public mores." He then continues to detail the utilitarian practices which have engendered healthy sexual attitudes that appear aimed at increasing the Tahitian population (which serves the interests of all). Instead of vilifying sexual relations which occur outside of marriage, the Tahitians encourage all sexual liaisons between fertile partners and celebrate the birth of all children regardless of their parental status.

After reflecting on all he has learned of Tahitian culture the chaplain remarks plainly "this passion which produces so many crimes and ills in our countries would be here absolutely innocent." The significance of this phrase is twofold. For one, the chaplain (and through him Diderot) is saying that "this passion" has an equivalent in Tahitian society and is thereby identifying a cross-cultural similarity which could serve as a basis for understanding the shared humanity of Tahitians and Europeans. Secondly, the chaplain is asserting that the Tahitians have made out of this instinct a culture which does not ascribe to nature the status of sin but was rather a system for the greater good. He seems to laud this achievement and is thus implicitly admitting that Tahitians have admirably reconciled their natural urges with the demands of their civilized existence.

Later in this dialogue between Orou and the chaplain the Tahitian speaks more of the negative aspects of life on his native island. The reader learns that the Tahitians constantly have "neighboring enemies to fight" and a "need for soldiers." All is most certainly not peaceful and innocent in this supposedly primitive society. These "savages" do not live an almost heavenly, edenic existence. Societal structures exist not only for reproductive purposes but also for common defense. Tahitian culture evidently interacts with other groups as a cohesive unit; it is a cultural group which, like any other, defines itself by what it is against, both figuratively and literally. Diderot thereby directly contrasts Tahitians with Rousseau's pre-cultural, peaceful and fiercely independent image of the "noble savage."
The fifth and concluding chapter of Supplément revolves around a dialogue between A and B in which they review the stories that they have read and discuss their implications. It is at this point that Diderot brings his discourse full circle and posits what was surely a major component of his philosophical outlook (not only in relation to colonialism). Early in the chapter, upon being asked by A how he understands the meaning of the word "mores," B responds "I understand a general submission and a consequent behavior to good laws or bad ones. If the laws are good, the mores are good. If the laws are bad, the mores are bad." Here Diderot again forwards his image of human beings as profoundly cultured and formed in large part by the society in which they find themselves. The mores of Tahitians were not determined by something etched into nature, but were in fact malleable and determined by the Tahitians themselves. Tahitians were, like Europeans, products of their environment. To compare their two cultures side by side would be to assume that they had enough common bases, besides their shared humanity, upon which to base such a claim. European civilization, therefore, could not have been superior to anything. It could have only been different and incomparable. Diderot thereupon subverted the "civilizing mission" that rested on this supposed superiority and was at the center of the logic of empire.
Diderot further addresses this issue through A and B later in the chapter. When A asks B if it is in fact necessary to civilize the Tahitian "savage," B responds pointedly in saying,

     If you intend to be the tyrant, civilize him. Poison him as best you can with a morality contrary to nature...Do you want him to be happy and free? Don't intervene  
     in his affairs. 

"Civilize" as used in this quote essentially implies raising the Tahitians to the cultural standard that was Europe. Since, however, the Tahitians were in Diderot's mind radically different people, "civilizing" them was a course of action which would flout the moral equivalency of their culture with that of Europe and would only yield tyranny.

The two previously demonstrated points that Diderot makes in this final chapter, that culture forms morality and that "civilizing" is thus implicitly moralizing, are tied inextricably together with a short yet profound phrase which A pronounces in the last lines of Supplément."Take the frock of the country where one is going and keep that of the country where one is." The moral here is quite clear: morality is a relative, fluid concept which fluctuates widely in different contexts. The Tahitians were their own people and should thus be allowed to continue to pursue their society's vision of the "good life" as they saw fit. Colonialism, as Diderot suggests in this text, inevitably sets one culture above another regardless of the fact that cultures are context specific and thus incommensurable. If one takes "frock" to be a metaphor for culture Diderot was therefore promulgating a culturally relativist worldview which, as expressed in Supplément, argues specifically against colonialism and its discontents.

There are many historians and literary theorists who scoff at the possibility that Diderot was assaulting the foundations of colonialism in Supplément. Their arguments typically take one of two positions. First, they claim that the novella is more of a clarion call to sexual libertinism than anything else. This, however, is a prima facie reductive view which virtually ignores the multifaceted centrality of sex to the human experience and thereby its tremendous metaphorical capacity. Secondly, there are many who say that Supplément is primarily a critique on European culture done through the mouthpiece of the Tahitian foreigner. This claim is certainly true in part. It is hard to imagine, however, how Diderot could have chosen such strikingly current interlocutors and used such referential diction without having understood what they implied. In literature everything is included by choice and as such nothing can be said to exist in a vacuum.

Denis Diderot was, even in a period noted for its sparkling minds, a radically unique talent. One specific way in which this radicalism manifested itself in his career was through the assault he launched on the lucrative state-sponsored colonial enterprise in his work entitled Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville. In undermining the image of the colonial Other, which had been largely defined through the noble-savage trope, and in asserting the fraternity and common origin of all humanity, Diderot postulated a view which framed colonialism as wildly unjust and necessarily inhumane. In the epoch following the writing of Supplément both the colonial enterprise itself and the field of anti-colonial literature which it influenced were to be tremendously expanded. Supplément, however, appears to have been largely forgotten or misconstrued because of its genesis in an era noted for a widespread support of the colonial endeavor. Historians would do well to eschew assumptions of cultural uniformity in future studies of anti-colonial thought. Indeed, such presumptuous generalizations are indicative of a superficial approach to historical research. Supplément, more than two centuries after it was first published, should now be allowed to take its place in the pantheon of anti-colonial literature.


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Last Updated: 8/12/16