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Writes of Passage: The Cape of Good Hope in Late Seventeenth-Century Narratives of Travel to Asia

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The last quarter of the seventeenth century witnessed the publication of a bevy of narratives of travel to India and to Southeast Asia. Many of these were very widely read, and they continued to be cited as authoritative source of knowledge throughout the entire eighteenth century. Very frequently, these narratives included accounts of the Cape of Good Hope, along with descriptions of the Khoi peoples, so-called "Hottentots," who lived there. These descriptions, while they have not entirely escaped the attention of scholars (especially South Africans), have largely been wrenched out of their original contexts. This paper will examine several French and English accounts — Tavernier's and Ovington's journeys to the Mughal court of India; Tachard's and La Loubère's missions to the king of Siam; and Dampier's voyage around the world — comparing the portrayal of Africans at the Cape to those of Asians described at greater length throughout these books. Such a comparison yields a more nuanced appreciation of European understanding (and misunderstanding) of non-Europeans, not only in terms of their "otherness" but also of their differences from one another. In fact, the terms of the contrast of Asians to Africans are highly ambivalent: order vs. anarchy, liberty vs. despotism, or industry vs. sloth, and also dissimulation vs. honesty. Such contrasts defined the parameters of much of the Enlightenment's characterizations of Asians as well as Africans, but also sets the tone for fundamental debates about Europe's own political values.

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Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.


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