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Decolonizing Whiteness in the early 18th century

By Guillermo Pupo-Pernet

“Quel besoin avions-nous des François? avant eux ne vivions-nous pas mieux que nous ne faisons, puisque nous nous privons d’une partie de notre bled, du gibier & du poisson que nous tuons pour leur en faire part? en quoi donc avions-nous besoin d’eux? étoit-ce pour leurs fusils? Nous nous servions de nos arcs & de nos fléches qui suffisoient pour nous faire bien vivre : étoit-ce pour leurs Couvertes blanches, bleues ou rouges… Enfin, avant l’arrivée des François nous vivions comme des hommes qui sçavent se passer avec ce qu’ils ont; au lieu qu’aujourd’hui nous marchons en Esclaves qui ne font pas ce qu’ils veulent.”

This quote comes from L’histoire de la Louisiane, published by Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz in 1758. By reading this excerpt, one might realize that Serpent Piqué, the Natchez’s chief, developed a decolonial consciousness. In simple words, Serpent Piqué recognized that they had enough for a living before Frenchmen came with their idea of “modernity” and “development.” Natchez had food, prey, and tools such as bows and arrows. However, everything changed after Natchez started trading weapons and clothes with Frenchmen. Serpent Piqué juxtaposes commerce with slavery by stating that now, after the trading began, Natchez became slaves because they did not do what they want. In other words, Frenchmen modified Natchez’s identity by creating a dependence on manufactured products.

Frenchmen created a need for Native Americans to become a “modern” society. Civilization was measured based on written evidence and ancient monuments. Consequently, Natchez’s technology, religion, and manners were considered “barbarous” and “savage.” By doing this, one can see how colonialism functions twofold: first, it recognizes the differences between the colonizer and the colonized based on a reference point. Second, it promotes a solution to homogenize the community to avoid social conflicts. Thus, I believe colonialism hides the rhetoric of racial purity that should be studied to grasp race, racism, Blackness, and Otherness. In other words, without understanding the meaning of Whiteness, we cannot discuss race. For that reason, I will attempt to demonstrate how Whiteness’s rhetoric worked in the early 18th century.

It is important to define my understanding of race and Whiteness. Even though there are several definitions based on anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and others, I consider that race is a social construct developed through various discourses made by the government, church, universities, etc. For example, in the United States of America, citizens and aliens must be aware of their ethnicity. This country creates and spreads lots of racial discourses, starting from legal paper forms to media. Nevertheless, this is not a rule for every single nation. As another illustration, Colombia does not have a section on legal paper forms where people must choose their ethnicity. Still, media spreads stereotypes promoting regionalism, which has the same negative effect as racism. Thus, one can see that the conception of race might have a political impact on some countries, while in others, it does not directly affect physical features. Although these examples show how differences are seen in two different countries, both illustrations reveal that there must be a Zero-Point Hubris where everything starts.

The social conception of race starts at the Zero-Point, and as a result, some boundaries do not work bidirectionally. For instance, a moreno in South America would pass as an African descendant in the United States. Hence, race is not a static concept; it has different, modified, and maintained layers that commence from the Zero-Point. Race studies in academia have demonstrated that black bodies experienced rejection due to Arts, Christianity, slavery, etc. Minority groups such as Latinos also have experienced social rejection, especially in the United States of America, where our identity is associated with illegality and drugs. Even though these studies are essential to understand, identify, and find a solution for racism, we are not facing the creator of these hatred discourses yet. Once again, we cannot grasp the whole meaning of race without examining Whiteness. There is no doubt that Whiteness controls power, laws, education, religion, and society; therefore, it is crucial to define what I mean by Whiteness.

I want to clarify that Whiteness does not mean white people per se. I define Whiteness as a racial discourse that prioritizes one racial group over others by creating division in a multicultural territory. Through this division, Whiteness recognizes who the other is through several elements such as skin color, manners, doctrine, etc. The primary purpose is keeping the Zero-Point pure and keep the Other away. In sum, Whiteness’s rhetoric can be understood as a writer that creates characters and assigns them personalities based on her/his own experience. She/he already knows where each character must live, work, study, etc.

In the early 18th century, we can see how the rhetoric of Whiteness functioned. Science is shown as the first element to categorize people and places. For example, Le Page du Pratz utilizes science to express that Native people could not understand it due to their language and knowledge. Thus, language and “knowledge” became boundaries to repudiate Native people. Nowadays, it is known that Native Americans had a different conception of time, history, property, and science. However, as it is evident, science was used to assign a place to the Other. Through knowledge and science, the rhetoric of Whiteness classifies, denigrates, and oppresses the Other.

Science also produces social hierarchies by centralizing knowledge. As an illustration, Le Page du Pratz said that Louisiana needed more inventive and hardworking people from Europe to make a fortune with commerce. Not only this comment shows Europe as the centre of the knowledge and America as a beneficiary, but it also reflects how knowledge is intertwined with economics. The economy in Louisiana generated a massive appropriation of land and resources, a massive exploitation of Indians/Africans’ labour, and an accumulation of the capital in the banks of Europe; in other words, capitalism.

Le Code Noir, a series of regulations to control and maintain slavery in French colonies, works as a historical background in the early 18th century to grasp the body and ethnicity’s value. First, Le Code Noir shows an explicit distinction between whites, slaves, and freeborn. Second, it is clear that women’s bodies were used to define race and maintain the racial order. For that reason, enslaved women became “producers” of cheap labour force, and a point of reference to determine the level of Whiteness in an individual.

Now, I will introduce the second element of the rhetoric of Whiteness: commerce. In the early 18th century, the government, hospitals, and slave owners benefited from Le Code Noir. According to this group of articles, there was a “penalty” for people who had children with slaves. Even though there is no evidence that people paid these fees, the central purpose was to obtain more financial resources for the government.

We shall analyse how Le Code Noir benefited them. First, confiscated slaves were sent to the hospitals, another branch of the government, to work for free without the option of becoming freemen. Then, children born from legal marriages between slaves became slaves. Both government and plantation owners started commercializing human bodies to increase their profits.

Le Page du Pratz also shows that through commerce, Whiteness’s rhetoric defines the value of its inhabitants. The first step was recognizing the economic benefits of the land and its natural resources. As one can see in Le Page du Pratz’s three-volume book, he described the soil, plants, and animals in detail, taking into account the European market. These books aimed at discovering new niches that could increase the capital of industrial people willing to invest in Louisiana. Second, Le Page du Pratz realizes that Frenchmen will benefit from the Other by supplying their needs. He aimed at trading products and improved the quality offered by Spaniards, which was not good at all. For that reason, early Louisiana became a multicultural venue where it was possible to make alliances between Natives and Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Englishmen.

Through religion, Christianity in the case of Louisiana, I want to describe how the rhetoric of Whiteness operated. Being classified as “savage” by missionaries was related to the idea that Native people did not have a “worthy” belief. Ministers had the privilege to write and record most of the events in the early 18th century. Sometimes they complained about the difficulties of spreading the gospel because Native people had “barbarous” customs, were lazy, and aggressive.

Christianity and morality were intertwined, and their core purpose was to judge people’s behaviour according to laws. On the one hand, Christianity’s principles were established based on the Bible. Members of this community know that there are rewards and punishments by following or ignoring these principles. Indeed, Paul Du Ru, a Jesuit missionary who wrote his journal in 1700, explains that he used images to teach them that planets were not gods, and death rituals were unnecessary. In other words, he used paintings to tell what was right and wrong.

On the other hand, Louis de Jacourt, a contributor to L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, defines that laws ruled morality. Thus, one can see that Christianity and morality are centred on regulations that idealize a perfect individual. In conclusion, these two branches define Whiteness by creating boundaries between what was right and what was not.

Indeed, Paul Du Ru refused Native people because they did not believe in God, had a “peculiar” mourning process, were lazy, killed people because of tradition, and had a different understanding of weather. This first encounter between Du Ru not only refuses the Other, but it also determines the rhetoric of Whiteness. He also demonstrates that not every single white individual was included into this category. As an illustration, Canadians were rejected because of their close relationship with Native Americans in Canada.

In conclusion, the rhetoric of Whiteness has been presented in America since the first group of missionaries arrived. Whiteness not only focuses on nuances of skin colour, but it also works together with several discourses to assign a social position to other ethnic groups. Even though Whiteness has been around America for centuries, now it is time to define it and neutralize its social consequences. 

Photo: Library of Congress

References

Castro-Gómez, Santiago. La Hybris Del Punto Cero. Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2010. Print.

Du, Ru P. Journal of Paul Du Ru [february 1 to May 8, 1700] Missionary Priest of Louisiana. Chicago: Printed for the Caxton Club, 1959. Print.

Le Page du Pratz, -1775. Histoire De La Louisiane: Contenant La Decouverte De Ce Vaste Pays; Sa Description Geographique; Un Voyage Dans Les Terres; l’Histoire Naturelle, Les Moeurs, Coutumes & Religion Des Naturels, Avec Leurs Origines; Deux Voyages Dans Le Nord Du Nouveau Mexique, Dont Un Jusqu’a La Mer Du Sud. De Bure, l’aine [etc.], Paris, 1758.

Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.  

Bio:
Guillermo Pupo-Pernet is a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas in the program of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. His dissertation attempts to demonstrate how French and Spanish travel literature depicts race, especially Whiteness.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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