Much has been written in recent decades about one of Shakespeare’s more controversial characters, Caliban, the native inhabitant of the island that forms the setting of The Tempest, which Shakespeare wrote in 1610-11. Some scholars have viewed this character as a racist assemblage of people that early modern Europeans considered savage and lacking in civilization, an approach fueled by Michel de Montaigne’s c. 1580 essay Des Cannibales (see, for example, A. T. Vaughan’s article, “Shakespeare’s Indian: The Americanization of Caliban,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39.2 (1988)).
Often projected as an allegory for Indigenous enslavement upon the invasion of white people in the Americas, The Tempest exposes several key themes that would later attract criticisms of European settler-colonialism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Caliban’s grievance resonates with us today in the face of continuing land theft and the quieting of Indigenous voices, most recently witnessed in Australia following the nation’s decision by referendum not to make room for Indigenous representation within government. Yet, one of the limitations of viewing Caliban and Indigenous people as victims is that such portrayals can serve to reinforce racist stereotypes that have historically characterized them as primitive, incapable of looking out for themselves, and in general needing the guidance and support of white people.
Evidently, Caliban, along with most scholarship about this character and his creator, tends to be Eurocentric or western-minded in ways that objectify and “other” Caliban, leaving him unknowable, while in the balance much is known about Shakespeare or even Prospero, who invades Caliban’s island. In part, this is because western readers are probably already familiar with the narrative arc of how the European colonization of what becomes the Global South unfolded, as was Shakespeare when he wrote this play. Whether along racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or geographical lines, westerners struggle not to see difference when gazing toward the Global South, or when imagining the early modern transatlantic world.
But what if we switched the perspective—how might non-fictional islanders in 1492 have interpreted Columbus and his ships approaching the Caribbean region? And in 1517 when a Spaniard washed up along the Yucatan peninsula—much as Prospero does in The Tempest—how did the Maya with whom he met perceive the Spanish homeland, and what about when Tlaxcalans and Maya eventually travelled to Spain themselves? And how might we realize the degree to which Spain was othered by visitors such as Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy in her 1690-91 Relation du voyage d’Espagne?
Examining what Indigenous people in places such as post-invasion Mexico thought of Spain, and Europe more generally, is an intriguing exercise, especially because many resources for the study of Indigenous interactions with Europe and Europeans have come to light in archives. There are also published accounts and works of scholarship: for an excellent source of Tlaxcalan and other Indigenous performers in the Spanish court in 1528-29, see the unpublished illustrations of Christoph Weiditz as well as Catherine Medici’s “Brazilian Ball” in Rouan in 1550 featuring Tupi and French men dressed as Tupi as court spectacles, which was described visually and textually in published form; there is a reproduction of this work at the Folger.
Re-reading these under-studied sites of intercultural encounter to understand the material affordances of Indigenous lives in Europe, as well as their motivations for being there, offers a valuable opportunity to mainstream marginalized experiences to loosen the grip that white, European masculinity has on how we understand the early modern period.
That being said, most travel narratives published to date that centre on Spain reflect European or North American travels (such as Alessandro Magno’s c. 1557-1565 account of his tour of Spain and other countries). These rich narratives shed light on how foreigners were received and what sort of experiences and knowledge they valued while in Spain. They also expose travellers’ preconceptions and stereotypes about the Spanish people. But few travel narratives authored by women, non-white, and non-European travelers inform this corpus of travel literature despite the importance of Spain’s colonies between 1492 and 1800 and the fluidity of travel enabled by imperial expansion.
In the early modern period, travelers came to Spain from all corners of the empire to do business, seek out educational opportunities, meet distant relatives, or request an audience with the king or pope. They also came as dancers, artists, and musicians, among other vocations that they exercised while in Spain. These travellers hailed from various Indigenous groups from the Spanish Americas, often speaking Spanish as a second or third language, and included women and people of colour. Spain’s caste-like social hierarchy offered everybody a place in society, with many of the travelers from non-European regions finding themselves among the lower echelons of Spanish society. As a result, we must make more effort to study the experiences of classes of people that usually go undocumented and which tend not to attract the attention of the period’s chroniclers.
There are urgent questions to ask of this body of travel literature beyond these inquiries about identity: How did non-European visitors interact with new foods and culinary preferences? What sort of entertainment or leisure experiences did travelers seek out and enjoy? How did they adapt to Spanish infrastructure and institutions? How did interpersonal relations work and what reflections did travelers express about romance, children, gift-giving, and the accumulation of wealth? What sorts of comparisons did travelers make between Spain and their home country? How did travelers self-actualize within Spain’s caste system and what were their impressions of being a colonial subaltern in the metropolis? How did travelers essentialize and belittle Spanish customs and way of life? In asking these questions, we can also engage anew with The Tempest by seeing Caliban explore Prospero’s homeland, and to hear his impressions and experiences.
During my fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library (April-June 2024), I will make use of the Folger’s excellent collections to research early modern perceptions of, as well as foreign travel to, Spain by focusing on two cohorts of texts (travel relations, descriptions of foreign travellers) and images (maps and book illustrations): (1) Non-European travel from within the Spanish empire (the Philippines, Latin America, Equatorial New Guinea, and the Ivory Coast) to Spain, and (2) non-European travel from other areas of the world (Morocco and the Arab world, China, and Japan) to Spain. By separating these travelers into two groups, I hope to understand if travelers from within the empire were treated and received differently than visitors who came from outside of its reach. Travellers in this sense include ambassadors, scholars, and theologians, or settlers in the form of wives, children, household staff, and the enslaved. Laws and policies existed in Spain to shape travel to and from the country, moreover, and already my research has shown that most travellers do not seem to have observed these laws nor been policed under them once arrived in Spain. In many ways, Spain’s borders prove to have been porous despite these restrictions on travel from the colonies.
I have already identified and transcribed about a dozen unpublished travel narratives (some with illustrations) prepared by subaltern or marginalized travelers from the Americas or from places such as Morocco during the early modern period (see my 2015 article in the Journal of North African Studies on the late seventeenth-century travels of a Moroccan ambassador whose ancestors were exiled from Spain two centuries before). Surprisingly, many of these narratives have yet to attract the attention of scholars, in part because they remain unpublished or are housed within published early modern works that describe foreign travel to Spain. This last group of texts often deploys the exoticizing gaze of the European author or editor who witnessed and later described foreign travel, and scholars then tend to reproduce some of this tonality, which reinforces the normativity of European experiences either as travellers or as witnesses of non-European travels.
It is important to return to these second-hand accounts of non-European travel to parse the rhetorical strategies they employ in constructing and exoticizing the non-European traveller. A secondary area of study for this project involves non-European perceptions of Spain (whether or not travel took place), through cartography, illustration, material culture, or in textual form.
In the end, my goal is to articulate a counter-narrative that resists the acquisitive westward gaze of transatlantic studies using primary and scholarly sources so to challenge the Euro-settler paradigm with which Caliban and The Tempest have been interpreted. By loosening the western hold on the canonicity of certain texts and character typologies, we can find ways of activating a more productive approach to The Tempest and other works like it that focuses on the experiences of non-fictional people represented by Caliban’s character.
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