Colonial Encounters

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Session Chair: Alastair Learmont

Soile Ylivuori (University of Helsinki) 

Materiality and Tropical Gothic in the British West Indies, c. 1760-1820

The Caribbean tropics occupied a place simultaneously sublime and horrific in the eighteenth-century British imagination. The unruliness of nature with its luscious vegetable life, savage fauna, slave economy, and tropical storms prompted both awe and terror in the minds of West Indian immigrants, travellers, and the public at home in Britain. In this sense, the Caribbean tropics were essentially a gothic space—and were indeed used as a setting for several gothic novels during the Georgian period. This paper examines the material foundations of the tropics as gothicised. My main argument will be that the processes of material change from familiar to unfamiliar, from pristine to tainted, from civilised to savage were crucial to the push and pull of the tropics as sublime/awful. Examining both travel accounts, letters, and journals as well as fiction, the paper will show that the ways in which the tropical nature wrecked, decomposed, and spoiled the imported civilised material culture of the British immigrants played a key role in shaping the ambiguity that surrounded the perceptions of the West Indies. As their mahogany furniture were disintegrated by wood ants, their genteel houses were demolished by hurricanes, and their good British beef rotted in the tropical heat, the material ties that tethered British immigrants to the temperate familiarity and civilised whiteness of Britain slowly but surely eroded away, transforming them into something hybridised and monstrous.

Agnieszka Anna Ficek  (City University of New York) 

Picturing the Péruvienne: the Exotic and Erotic in the illustrations to Mme. de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne 

Madame de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (first published 1747) was a renowned bestseller, widely translated and published in multiple editions. The titular character, the Peruvian princess, Zilia, who was kidnapped by the Spanish conquistadors and rescued by French sailors, is commonly understood as an allegorical device which allowed Graffigny to level critique against the patriarchal systems of ancien regime France. This paper examines the way that objects in illustrations of the péruvienne in several key editions of Graffigny’s novel communicated racial and cultural difference, and explores the theme of ‘colonial fantasy’ that was central in Inca-themed Francophone literature of the period. Starting with Charles- Dominique Eisen’s illustrations for the 1752 edition, the visual representations of Zilia emphasize the themes of personal autonomy and identity so central to Graffigny’s proto-feminist epistolary fiction. When compared to the 1797 illustrations by Lefevre and Le Barbier, it is apparent that later images privilege the eroticized and exoticized virginal body of the péruvienne as opposed to her pre-established role as a “spokeswoman for the Incas’ lost glory”.1

Finally, this paper also explores how the péruvienne became a trope in eighteenth-century French visual culture beyond Graffigny’s novel. The French artists who constructed such Inca were not concerned with accuracy, but instead aimed to tantalize by presenting an alluring American princess in need of rescue from the cruelties and fanaticism of the villainous conquistador who embodied Spain. Proud, yet pretty and pliable, the péruvienne was cast as a conquerable object in French fantasies of South America.