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“The Sagacity of the Indians”: William Dampier’s Surprising Respect for Indigenous Knowledge

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

English privateer and amateur ethnographer William Dampier’s work abounds with admiring descriptions of the knowledge and skills of the indigenous societies he encountered on his global voyages. These positive descriptions of indigenous culture make a surprising juxtaposition against the tenor of ethnography little more than a century later, when biological theories of race grounded disparaging attitudes toward indigenous cultures. This article explores the conditions of possibility of a historical moment during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Anglophone world, in which it was possible to acknowledge some of the merits of indigenous knowledge. I argue that it was the framework of Baconian natural history, with its focus on useful knowledge, and its methodological emphasis on empirical data rather than theorizing, which made it possible for Dampier to treat indigenous societies not only as the objects of knowledge, but more importantly, as sources of knowledge.

Affiliations: 1: Western Sydney UniversityAustralia


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