Whereas, as many postcolonialists have argued, encounters between the English and Africans/natives in the 18th and 19th century expressed a total (ontological?) othering of difference as codified by physical traits, customs, societal practices, language, etc., Hall’s analysis of the early narratives of these encounters shows that the central site of difference is gender. These 16th/17th century travel accounts register a set of anxieties around sexuality and femininity, the “depravity” of the former and the instability of the latter, which were perceived to a large degree as threads to the social order of an emerging English identity.

What at this stage registers as nearly benign narrations of physical difference will later get mixed up with the topos of chaos—blackness goes from being a visible differentiating trait to signifying the disorder of African people’s sexual practices, societies, and even the natural environment in which they live. Perceiving this chaos as an “internal threat” (42), the project of re-ordering these societies/natural environments became more and more a way to construct an English identity predicated on the inversion of Africanness and blackness. This was seen as much as a scientific endeavor as it was one of nation-building. The task was to re-order the newly discovered natural world, including their human inhabitants—a task that would prefigure English colonization and participation in the slave trade on the self-justifying basis of the need to convert (another name for “re-ordering” chaos) and seize non-Christian lands and property.

Hall’s repertoire of primary texts encompasses 16th and 17th century travel narratives, from Mandeville’s descriptions of monstrous races (Eng translation 1499), to Abraham Hartwell’s A Reporte of the Kingdom of Congo (1597). She spends most of her time on Hakluyt’s and Leo Africanus’ writings, however, probably because in them she is able to locate a very strong emphasis on the “ordering” of the world that takes place during this period—an ordering that has as its main objective to rectify the gender and sexual chaos encountered in non-European lands as a means to build a collective sense of Englishness. Moreover, this ordering served to inscribe a range of meanings onto the gendered notions of order/disorder that would place them—in what features as an early figuration of racism—on the side of “white/fair/light” and “black/grotesque/dark” respectively.

For Hakluyt and Africanus specifically, the editorial task of harmoniously sectioning their texts was of such importance as to rival the job of the navigators themselves. Hall’s analysis of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations reveals a double authorial intention beyond the cataloguing of disparate accounts from English travelers: as a political agenda, Hakluyt was invested in making England a competitive power in the emerging European expansion spearheaded by the Spanish and the Portuguese. But even in his method, which he both explains and executes, his nearly obsessive vow to bring order to the manuscripts reflects “his sense of the destined order of the English empire” (44).

In similar fashion, in Leo Africanus’ text we find an instance of translation where the textual intervention of John Pory, the translator, spills into a mediation of the threat of cultural difference brought about by the Moorish origins of the author. Hall’s conclusions ask us to consider whether the figures of the reader-author gatekeeper, and that of the ever-suspect native informant, could not easily be ascribed to the Pory/Africanus duo, in such a way that this text tells us as much about Africanus’ practice of powper via description, as it does about Pory’s fear of the corruptive potential of non-Englishness and his perceived duty to discipline–to order–every threatening instance int he original text.

Threaded into the fear of disorder, the trope of conversion (including the “conversion” of previously seized lands and people by the wayward Catholicism of the Spaniards) did a lot of ideological and discursive work through the task of re-ordering an increasingly chaotic world where gender and sexual practices predicated on English “reason” were under thread. In other words: “conversion and enterprise” (61) gave shape and rationale to the reactionary project of ordering the world into light and dark, with the racialization that this task performed even as England was beginning to lose “its traditional insularity” (3). Thus, Hall notes that Hakluyt and Purchas’s use of the light/dark trope serve as early configurations of the formation of Africa as the “dark continent,”—that is, Africa as an obscure site of mystery whose endemic unknowability serves as the justification—perhaps even as a call of duty—for the English to penetrate the continent both pursuing, and as bearers of, “light.”

The Guinean voyages of George Barne (~ 1550s) offer a curious instance where the dark/light trope gets inscribed into the materiality of ivory’s whiteness, which in itself is made to symbolize elephants’ natural submissiveness, ready acknowledgement of authority, monogamy, and hierarchical gendered structures. While on the surface, Barnes is simply praising elephants for upholding, naturally, these principles, he is simultaneously building an English imperial identity by asserting himself (the English) as the discoverer of this “light” (English/Catholic values) in the midst of “darkness” (Africa), as well as, conflating ivory’s whiteness with elephants’ behaviors, “reifying his own notion that white is the ‘natural’ color of humans” (51). Yet, as Hall notes, inscriptions of whiteness of Renaissance texts is often accompanied by reference to the instability of the (racial/national) category. Subsequently, the need to stay vigilant against the corrupting agents of blackness remains a running thread, whether implicit or explicitly stated, in all or most of these texts.

It goes without saying, but that this discursive configuration is, indeed, the work of discourse, brings up questions that, up to the point of Hall’s writing in the mid 1990s, were not being asked in or to the field of early modern and/or Shakespeare studies. To state, for instance, that Hakluyt’s writings were ideologically motivated, and that the ideology was a reactionary one against the internal thread of the foreigner within, was also to say that there was an inherent dependence on Africa and blackness in the construction of an English national identity. Despite the relative novelty of this intervention, Hall’s arguments in this chapter are informed by deconstructionist analysis, such as Foucault’s writings on power (specifically on the role of pleasure in perpetuating certain power practices), as well as Greenblatt’s foregrounding of both power and ideology in early modern theater through the concept of “self-fashioning.” For instance, the idea of self-fashioning is central to Hall’s argumentation that these early travel narratives fundamentally informed the burgeoning English nationalist identity as a light-bearing force to be spread through the world, in and against the darkness permeating unknown lands, the African continent in particular. But, by bringing this concept out of drama and into the multifaceted study that this book presents, she is able to accomplish more in the realm of exposing ideological, self-serving underpinnings that cut across early modern discursive (and material, in other chapters) modalities.

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