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Toward the Desertion of Sycorax’s Island: Challenging the Colonial Contract

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 91-111 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0047

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the second scene of The Tempest, Prospero shares with Miranda the dramatic story of his past and of his “sea-sorrow” (1.2.171)—the story of how this father and daughter of noble birth, after being unjustly discarded at sea by the usurping Antonio, came to be ensconced on an unnamed island. “By foul play … we were heaved thence,” he tells his daughter, “But blessedly holp hither” (62–63). Significantly, in identifying the source of this most crucial help, without which, he suggests, the pair would have surely perished, he singles out and champions the good Gonzalo, whose providential donations allegedly sustained the exiles throughout their long ordeal. As Prospero explains in more detail,

Some food we had, and some fresh water, that
A noble Neopolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity—who being then appointed
Master of this design—did give us; with
Rich garments, linens, stuffs, and necessaries
Which since have steaded much. So, of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

(1.2.161–68)

These details have the intended effect upon Miranda, who, in seeming awe of her supposed benefactor, promptly exclaims, “Would I might / but ever see that man!” (168–69). However, what is perhaps most interesting about this list is the utter superficiality of the lauded items—the expensive clothing, the bed sheets, and the books. Indeed, while the food and water would have helped Prospero and Miranda to stave off death temporarily, there is very little here to ensure the long-term survival of a single father and his infant child after they are shipwrecked on a barely-peopled island.

How, then, did Prospero and Miranda survive after finally drifting ashore in their “rotten carcass of a butt” (1.2.146)? The rather obvious answer to this question comes later in the same scene, when the summoned slave Caliban confronts Prospero with his own version of events: “When thou cam’st first,” he bitterly recalls,

Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’th isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.

(1.2.335–41)

Here, as Caliban describes an exchange of information upon and after first contact, he suggests that his initial love for Prospero and Miranda was based on a hospitable assumption of symbiosis—a belief that the trio could productively cohabitate on the island. In good faith, then, he unwittingly entered into what Mary Louise Pratt termed the contact zone: “the space of imperial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (8). From his own cultural perspective, Caliban had no particular reason to believe that he would be viewed as an exploitable resource from the very first moment of contact, nor did he have cause to suspect that, through Prospero’s “imperial eyes,” his knowledge of how to survive on the island would be viewed as his only viable currency—apart, of course, from his labour.

That similar misunderstandings occurred frequently during the long period of European colonial expansion is a well-established fact. During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, entire communities of fledgling Europeans were routinely nursed to stability in the Americas by hospitable indigenous nations who believed, as the Abenaki historian Lisa Brooks has explained, that “sharing space meant sharing resources” (5). In 1492, upon his initial arrival in Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus offered “hawks bells and glass beads” (121) to Native inhabitants in exchange for information about where to find fresh drinking water. Of course, even after initiating this system of trade, Columbus all but disregarded the function of exchange in building and maintaining reciprocal relations, repeatedly rejecting seemingly “worthless” indigenous offerings—items like yarn and cotton—in his obsessive hunt for gold and other valuables. Some forty years later, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de...


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