The Last Frontiers

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History book series (CIH)


French Enlightenment interest in the non-European world was not confined to Asia and the Americas. As Enlightenment thinkers sought to elaborate a new universal science of man, they supported their competing theories with a wide range of examples, drawing not only upon Greco-Roman antiquity and contemporary Europe, but also upon travel narratives from distant lands. They recognized, however, that much of the available information regarding the peoples of these remote regions was unreliable. The medieval belief that distant countries were populated by monstrous races such as cyclopses and dog-headed men had not completely dissipated, and even in the eighteenth century, serious scholars debated whether there existed giants in Patagonia or men with tails in the Philippines. In a footnote to the 1755 Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau wrote:

We know nothing of the peoples of the East Indies, who have been frequented solely by Europeans more desirous to fill their purses than their heads. All of Africa and its numerous inhabitants, as distinctive in character as in color, are still to be examined; the whole earth is covered by nations of which we know only the names—yet we dabble in judging the human race! Let us suppose a Montesquieu, Buffon, Diderot, Duclos, d’Alembert, Condillac, or men of that stamp traveling in order to inform their compatriots, observing and describing, as they know how, Turkey, Egypt, Barbary, the empire of Morocco, Guinea, the land of the Bantus, the interior of Africa and its eastern coasts, the Malabars, Mogul, the banks of the Ganges, the kingdoms of Siam, Pegu, and Ava, China, Tartary, and especially Japan; then, in the other hemisphere, Mexico, Peru, Chile, the straits of Magellan, not forgetting the Patagonias true or false, Tucuman, Paraguay if possible, Brazil, finally the Caribbean islands, Florida, and all the savage countries: the most important voyage of all and the one that must be undertaken with the greatest care. Let us suppose that these new Hercules, back from these memorable expeditions, then at leisure wrote the natural, moral, and political history of what they would have seen; we ourselves would see a new world come from their pens, and we would thus learn to know our own.1


Eighteenth Century Colonial Expansion Southern Continent Civilized People Enlightenment Thinker 
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© David Allen Harvey 2012

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