Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part VIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

A noteworthy feature of 16th-century French political culture was the ceremonial entry of a new king into each of the principal cities of his realm. These "joyeuses entrees" were festive events marked by parades, pageants, feasts, public addresses, and (usually) the city's presentation of a large gift to the king. The festival of entry satisfied the king's need for homage, but it also served two important purposes for the local citizens: it allowed them to re-affirm their special corporate identity as city-dwellers, and it gave them the opportunity to express their community's aspirations. (Frederic Baumgartner, Henry II: King of France, 1547-1559 [Duke University Press, 1988], 92-93.)

In October 1550 the city fathers of Rouen, a maritime community on the Seine estuary, organized an unusual entry festival for King Henri II and Catherine de Medici, one intended to promote royal interest in overseas colonization. In a field outside of the city walls the inhabitants prepared a simulated Brazilian forest and village, complete with fake brazilwood trees, imported parrots and monkeys, log huts with thatched roofs, hammocks, and dugout canoes. The tableau included over three hundred "Brazilians," who paraded before the monarchs and conducted a mock battle with bows and clubs.

Fifty of these tribesmen were actual Brazilians, probably Tupi-Guarani kidnapped by Portuguese slavers and sold to sailors involved in the lumber trade. (Brazil's primary export in the early 16th century was brazilwood, which Europeans used as a dyestuff.) Some of the other 250 participants were French sailors familiar with the Brazilian coast, its inhabitants, and their language. Most were ordinary young French men and women dressed, or rather undressed, as Indians, wearing little more than a coating of red dye. (This must have been chilly in early October). The pageant thus represents one of the earliest recorded examples of a cultural activity that would, in time, become quite popular in British America: "playing Indian."

Rouen's merchants and sailors hoped that the pageant would build political support for trade with the Indies and colonization in America, and their hopes were soon realized. In 1555 Henri II commissioned a party of adventurers to establish a French colony in southern Brazil, near the site of present-day Rio de Janeiro. The settlement of "France Antarctique" survived for twelve years, and descriptions of its Native American neighbors inspired Michel de Montaigne to write his essay "Of Cannibals," an early exploration of the theme of the "noble savage." (Parts of his theme found their way into Act II, Scene 1 of The Tempest). It seems possible that some of the kidnapped Tupi-Guaranis who participated in the 1550 pageant came to the new colony as guides and translators, though there is no certain documentary proof of their fate.

A contemporary description of the Brazilian pageant, titled La deduction du sumpteux order plaisantz spectacles et magnifiques theatres dresses ... par les citoiens de Rouen ... a la sacrée maieste du treschristian roy de France, Henry seco[n]d ... et à tresillustre dame, ma dame Katharine de Medicis [Rouen, 1551], p. 67, can be found here on the British Library website. A 2006 book on the pageant, Michael Wintroub's A Savage Mirror, is available from Stanford University Press.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

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