How critical are Seventeenth century writers of emergent colonialism?

Kirstin Papworth

With reference to early modern paradigms of colonialism, this essay considers how authors such as Swift, Behn and Milton use their contemporaries' polarised notions of civilisation to challenge readers' understanding of European culture and its relationship to the 'other' of colonised races.


“Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves, or if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command and those who are born to obey” (Aristotle 1946: 91253 b cited in Thomas 1997: 28).

Aristotle presents the binary oppositions evident in seventeenth-century society; those who are rulers, and the majority who are subjected to their rule. Far from condemning this hierarchical notion of society, Aristotle believes it is the ‘right’ of some to have authority over many. This dual notion of authority was frequently abused; granting privilege to some and giving no power to others. Emergent colonialism in the seventeenth-century entailed the exploitation by a stronger country of a weaker one; the use of the weaker country's resources to strengthen and enrich the stronger country, whilst subjugating the colonised based on xenophobic and racial grounds. Milton, Swift and Behn all challenge this imbalance of power in the colonial period in their novels,whichwere written at the height of the period of exploration and discovery. In Paradise Lost Milton approaches the archetypal opposition between Satan and God from a radically converse perspective; in Gulliver’s Travels Swift challenges the received concept of authority in seventeenth-century society through Gulliver’s displacement between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos; and Behn boldly confronts the colonialist binary opposition of slave and masterin her subversive novella Oroonoko.

The dominant ideologies of colonialism were expressed through binary oppositions and used to naturalise European dominance in colonialism. In his 1609 novel A Good Speed to Virginia Gray demonstrates how the discourse of colonialism emerged as binaries. From his perspective of perceived European superiority, Gray describes the natives of Virginia as “savage” (Gray 1970: 45) and “beasts” (Gray 1970: 45), revealing that they were seen as unintelligent and uncivilised. The justification for this outlook was their apparent worship of the devil, an assertion which immediately created an over-arching binary opposition of good versus evil, allowing the Christian colonials to differentiate themselves from those they colonised on religious grounds. This opposition was reflected in appearance: of dark and light skin colouring, denoting good and evil, suggesting that through race colonists also assumed moral superiority.

Gray suggests that difference in behaviour, as well as appearance, is directly influenced by religious faith, “brutishness to civility […] to Christianity” (Gray 1970: 45), implying the great ignorance colonial forces held of cultural differences in an alien society that had “no art, no science [and] no trade” (Gray 1970: 45). Simultaneously, Gray relates the responsibility the Europeans assumed to convert those they colonised to Christianity. The justification for invasion and oppression, mirroring the Crusades, was based on religious grounds, consequently naturalising European dominance. However, “the report goeth” (Gray 1970: 45) suggests that Gray’s view of the natives, and consequently colonists’ views were based on rhetoric rather than fact, and colonial literature’s claims were based only on imagined inferiority and superiority. Gray expresses contemporary attitudes that existed in the dominant colonial ideologies of white Western supremacy, racism and misogyny. These are contained in stark oppositions of superiority and inferiority, which can be more specifically identified for the purpose of this essay as civilised versus uncivilised, white versus black, and purity versus impurity.

Montaigne, however, challenges the colonial rhetoric of the seventeenth-century. He argues that Western superiority is only due to ignorance of alternative cultures and subsequent reliance on pre-conceived and limited ideas of an ideal society,

The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but 'tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them (Montaigne 2003).

Montaigne observes the similarities rather than the differences between cultures by questioning the veracity of colonists’ judgements, and suggesting that the innocence of natives’ societies leads them to be purer and thus more superior. Montaigne’s idea of “the laws of nature” (Montaigne 2003) governing all societies is a revolutionary philosophy that challenges Aristotle’s hierarchical concept of authority and the dominant ideologies of colonialism. His views are subsequently taken up by Swift, Milton and Behn and influence their arguments against emergent colonialism[1].

In Paradise Lost Milton examines the birth of this crucial mode of binary oppositions contained in Western Christian dominance through the rebellion of Satan against God’s authority and the consequent battle between good and evil. Milton makes a strong argument against Gray’s reliance on the opposition of good and evil to justify colonialism. Instead, Milton uses Satan’s voice as a vehicle to express his misgivings of hierarchical authority and implicate his radical humanism in the poem,

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
[…] And what I should be, all but less than he
[…] Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven (Milton 2008: 11).

In this seminal moment of the poem, Satan questions the authority of God, the divine and absolute ruler, and Milton suggests thatman rather than God should be at the centre, despite setting this argument within a deeply orthodox framework. Significantly, Milton begins Paradise Lost from Satan’s perspective, suggesting that Milton’s sympathies lie with the oppressed. Milton aligns the reader with Satan and even imitates Satan’s rebellion: Satan rebels against God’s authority and Milton rebels against the idea that “[T]he goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors” (Lewis 1975: 73), and thus the presumed natural superiority of colonisers. In a sense Milton is even more radical than Montaigne in his argument against colonialism, as he refers back to the original binary opposition of God and Satan to challenge the constructs of colonialism.

Swift, Behn and Milton all challenge the dominant ideologies of colonialism through the binary oppositions of civilisation, race, and purity exposed in colonial discourse. Swift illustrates how the European colonists projected ideas of Western civilisation and supremacy onto the colonised. When Gulliver is captured by the Lilliputians in book one of Gulliver’s Travels he appears to accept their initial dominance over him as they function similarly to European colonists, “they shot another flight into the air, as we do bombs in Europe” (Swift 1992: 13). Gulliver’s comparison of “bombs” (Swift 1992: 13) conjures a violent image of exploration and discovery, implying that Western colonialism was executed by force rather than reason[2], which is reflected in Lilliputian society. Gulliver thus believes that they match a European level of civilisation, as they are able to exert physical dominance over others, despite using different methods.

At first, Gulliver’s comparison appears wholly innocent as it allows him to comprehend and negotiate the alien land, and relate his experiences to the reader, “the European mind […] was projected onto the colonised as a means of understanding the cultures they came into contact with” (Haynes 2001: 1). However, Swift frequently satirises Gulliver’s views regarding his perception of a civilised European Empire. In book two, the King is amazed how “so impotent and grovelling an insect [as Gulliver can] entertain such inhuman ideas” (Swift 1992: 100). Swift disassembles the prominent notions of aristocratic rule, Western privilege, war and plunder, which formed the antithesis of colonial identity. Yet this does nothing to dissuade Gulliver from his pompous and ill-informed belief in Western supremacy.

Swift continues to deconstruct Gulliver’s belief in the perfection of European society through his biting satire on the natural order of man in book four. Swift upends the colonists’ argument of superiority by pointing out that the “barbarian” (Rawson 2002: 9) Yahoos are superior in build compared to Gulliver, and spectacularly unseats the reader’s own preconceived ideas of the presumed civilisation of the human race, “mine eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head: that I was not able to feed myself, without lifting one of my fore feet to my mouth” (Swift 1992: 182). After being exposed to Houyhnhnm’s society Gulliver is aware that he sits uncomfortably between the binary of uncivilised and civilised, and this consequently begins to erode the colonial ideologies he subscribes to.

Behn also challenges white Western supremacy by subverting the ideology of European supremacy in both values and appearance. She analogises Oroonoko to European values, “all the civility of a well-bred great man […] nothing of barbarity in his nature” (Behn 2003: 80) unlike the Yahoos. Yet Behn does not directly query the natural power hierarchy as Swift and Milton do. She is only able to write about race from a sympathetic point of view by effectively casting Oroonoko as a prince to ensure the reader’s acceptance of him as the heroic protagonist. However, the title of the novella, Oroonoko: The Royal Slave acts initially as an oxymoron. By portraying Oroonoko as living in a similarly structured society to Europeans, Behn is able to more forcefully challenge the typified inferior slave of the European colonists’ imagination. Swift and Behn’s satire seeks to expose and challenge received ideas about white Western supremacy and superiority, which is based on the belief of a natural order of man and hierarchy of authority, through irony and inverted comparisons.

Swift and Behn reverse the roles of two races or species routinely contrasted with one another as superior and inferior as a powerful device in their argument against colonialism (Roberts 2001: xii). Behn does this through race, by mixing European standards with others to cause the reader to rethink their pre-conceptions of colonised societies, “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (Behn 2003: 81). Behn first ensures that the reader views Oroonoko through a European lens, based on similar facial features, so he is accepted as an equal. She then weaves in other descriptions to challenge received racist attitudes, “His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of the nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet”(Behn 2003: 80). Behn subverts attitudes of beauty based on race focusing first on Oroonoko and then extending to Imoinda, “the beautiful black Venus, to our young Mars” (Behn 2003: 81). This portrayal analogises Oroonoko and Imoinda to Roman mythology, and fits them into the European tradition despite their African background. Behn places Oroonoko and Imoinda in an even higher position of analogical hierarchical authority by comparing them to gods to compensate for their race. This problematic comparison suggests that they are still judged on European standards rather than on their own culture’s merits.

Behn attempts to reposition European racial attitudes by extending this comparison to the whole of the race, “I forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that country are so delicately cut and raced […] resemble our ancient Picts […] but these carvings are more delicate” (Behn 2003: 113). Her assertion that she had forgotten is merely tactical, as this would not have been accepted by the reader at the beginning of the novella. Behn radically suggests that beauty encompasses race and cultural differences, but for every positive representation of the natives’ race, Behn has to balance it with an extreme resemblance to European features, mythology or history in order to maintain the reader’s subscription – which is also achieved by intertwining the narrative of colonial oppression with Oroonoko and Imoinda’s romantic love story. However, these comparisons ensure that Behn can additionally suggest that the natives’ differences are more superior, “more delicate” (Behn 2003: 113), than the ideal European characteristics.

Gulliver’s racist attitudes, resembling European colonists’, in books one to three are directed at the ‘other’ based on European standards of society. Said attests, “the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside of Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Said 2003: 7). However, when Gulliver resides in the Houyhnhnm society in book four, he judges his own society on the non-European Houyhnhnm standards of society. This is partly due to Yahoos bearing great resemblance to human beings, especially to enslaved Africans,

My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure; the face of it, indeed, was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide: but these differences are common to all savage nations (Swift 1992: 173).

Gulliver is desperate to distance himself from any comparison with the Yahoos, which are Swift’s version of the ‘other’, “whom we distinguish from ourselves and whose all too probable kinship with ourselves has always disturbed our consciousness, as well as our conscience” (Rawson 2002: 3). Gulliver rejects his own European culture in favour of the Houyhnhnms’, and Gulliver instead applies his views regarding the ‘other’ to his own country’s traits, “our barbarous English” (Swift 1992: 185).

However, the Houyhnhnms also display colonialist attitudes of racism in their society, “The Houyhnhnms are your masters” (Swift 1992: 181). Houyhnhnm means “perfection of nature” (Swift 1992: 177), alternatively Yahoo is used as the ‘mis’ or ‘dis’ prefix in the Houyhnhnm language, and are therefore everything that is anti-perfection (Roberts 2001, xiv). Swift chooses not to show a society in which hierarchy is removed, but instead subverts the dominant model of humans, and places the Houyhnhnms higher in the authoritarian hierarchy. This allows Swift, in accordance with Montaigne, to engage with the similarities rather than the differences between Gulliver and the Yahoos who represent the colonised natives. Swift goes a step further and questions the superiority of the human species in nature as well as the Europeans in race. However, unlike Behn, this strategy does not lead to an acceptance of the natives. He fails to remove hierarchy completely from any society Gulliver comes into contact with, suggesting that however corrupted hierarchies of authority are, they are unavoidable. Significantly, Gulliver attempts to live isolated on a desert island after being expelled from Houyhnhnm land (Swift 1992: 214). This is not due a new belief in a society without hierarchy, but because of seeing, in his eyes, a more perfect type of civilisation, the inversion of the human form as ‘the other’ and his consequent revulsion and inability to go back into the European model.

Behn and Milton challenge misogynistic ideas implicit in colonial discourse of the period in their novels. Women were traditionally oppressed in the male dominated seventeenth-century society, “masculinity has ceased to be an unproblematic dominant category defining the ‘other’ of femininity” (Munns 2003: 1). Yet Eve and Imoinda are unconventionally represented as autonomous and independent, instead of wholly inferior to men. This is seen in Eve’s decision not to obey Adam, “Less winning soft, less amiably mild,/ Than that smooth watery image; back I turned” (Milton 2008, 99). Milton provides a partner for Adam, yet still allows Eve a voice in the poem. He allows her to consider that her place as the female in their partnership is inferior, “And render me more equal, and perhaps, […] / Superior; for inferior who is free?” (Milton 2008: 230)[3]. Milton’s rather paradoxical representation of Eve includes the thoughts of the period, whilst also subverting them ahead of their time. Behn represents Imoinda even more subversively, as Oroonoko’s equal, “she was female to the noble male” (Behn 2003: 81). Behn further presents the inverted ideology of superiority by suggesting that Imoinda is more beautiful than a white woman, “she was the most beautiful that had ever been seen” (Behn 2003: 87). Behn uses Imoinda equally to Oroonoko to challenge the superiority of the colonists’ ideologies, despite her unstable position as a woman. This is perhaps a less radical decision because Behn herself is a woman, and is challenging the climate of oppression simply through writing, as well as the ideas contained within the novella. Eve and Imoinda’s position in the texts, as the last speech and last word respectively, should dispel any doubt as to their position as autonomous subversive women.

As Anna Zehnpfund explores in her chapter, Swift’s novels are often described as misogynistic. However, Swift does not celebrate the male tradition of exploration and heroism,

The adventure quest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when men journeyed in search of fortune and renown to new worlds that were opening up beyond the frontiers of Europe, was explicitly gendered (Bassnett 2002: 225).

Due to travel accounts being written from a male perspective, it is arguable that the mythology and fantasy surrounding colonialism was created by men, and women are eliminated from the narratives as they were not able to embody the heroic male myth. Swift’s satire is often focused on “the male vanity, infantilism and insecurities that underlie misogyny and displaced self-disgust” (Roberts 2001: xx) evident in Gulliver’s revulsion of female breasts (Swift 1992: 68), and ripping open rats bellies (Swift 1992: 69). Women are either absent or represented from the received misogynistic perspective, yet, as men are not upheld as heroes in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift implies, rather tenuously, that gender is represented more equally.

All authors acknowledge the “deep untidy relationship between humankind and its own despised subgroups” (Rawson 2002: 7) and seek to challenge the received dominant ideologies defining seventeenth-century colonialism. At the end of Paradise Lost Milton focuses on a “paradise within” (Milton 2008: 315), effectively rejecting a hierarchy of strict divine authority; Swift leaves Gulliver with a deep “hatred, disgust and contempt” (Swift 1992: 219) for his own family. Swift does not wholly stand up against emergent colonialism, preferring to hide behind Montaigne’s arguments embedded in the novel. Behn, however, directly and explicitly challenges colonial authority through the master and slave binary in Oroonoko. She “was more influential than popes or missionaries” (Thomas 1997: 452) in changing people’s perceptions of colonialism. Behn is able to subvert the superiority of the colonisers more directly, yet by undermining authority Milton and Swift are able to also deliver a critical judgement of colonialism.

Word count: 2816 (excluding references)


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[online] (available: <>) [Access date: 2nd June 2011].

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11. Rawson, C. (2002) God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination 1492-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

12. Roberts, D. (2001) Introduction. In Swift, J. Gulliver’s Travels. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

13. Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin.

14. Swift, J. (1992) Gulliver’s Travels. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

15. Thomas, H. (1997) The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. London: Picador.

[1] Lola Serraf explores Montaigne’s philosophies further in her chapter.

[2] “[T]here are two ways of contending: one by using laws, the other force. The first is appropriate for men, the second for animals” (Machiavelli 1998: 61), also referred to in Paradise Lost, “Whom reason hath equalled, force that made supreme/ Above all equals” (Milton 2008:11).

[3] This occurs after Eve has eaten from the tree of knowledge and Adam and Eve are about to be expelled from Paradise, suggesting that it is the Fall has led Eve to question her hierarchical position in the opposition of male and female. The loss of purity and innocence is biblically attributed to the Fall. Montaigne’s suggestion that “such purity” (Montaigne 2003) exists within the colonised natives implies that colonisers are a corruptive and evil influence, rather than upholding a ‘natural’ hierarchy of authority.



Kirstin Papworth


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011