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Caroline Warman

51. Diderot, Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, 17721

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  • 1 Denis Diderot, ‘Le supplément au voyage de Bougainville’, in Correspondance Littéraire, ed. Friedri (...)

1One year after the success of the explorer Bougainville’s Voyage Around the World, published in 1771, Diderot wrote a ‘supplement’ comprising various fictional episodes. Here, as the French are about to leave the tropics, a Tahitian elder delivers a speech to the two peoples. The stick of wood he refers to is presumably a crucifix.

2An old man is speaking, the father of a large family. When the Europeans first arrived, he did not appear in any way frightened, curious, or surprised, but looked on them with disdain. When they approached him, he turned his back on them and retreated to his hut. But his troubled silence betrayed his thoughts only too well, and inwardly he mourned his native land and the passing of its golden years. Upon Bougainville’s departure, as the Tahitians thronged the shore, clinging to his garments and clasping his comrades in their arms, weeping, the old man solemnly stepped forward and said:

3‘Weep, unhappy Tahitians! Weep! Not, though, at the leaving of these cruel, ambitious men, but at their coming. For one day you will see them for who they are. One day they will return, brandishing in one hand that stick of wood which you see attached to this man’s belt and, in the other, the blade which hangs from that man’s side. They will come to put you in chains and to cut your throats; they will subject you to their every excess and vice. And one day you will serve under them, and you will be as base, corrupted, and as wretched as they. Yet – as my time draws near, I take comfort in the knowledge that I will not live to see the calamity I foretell. Oh Tahitians! Oh my friends! There is a way by which you might spare yourselves this grievous fate. But I would rather die than offer you this counsel. May they depart, and may they live’.

4Then, turning to Bougainville, he continued: ‘And you, leader of these brigands who obey your every command, quickly remove your vessel from our shores. We are innocent and contented; our happiness you can but disturb. We are guided by nature’s purest instinct, and you have sought to erase its imprint from our souls. Here, all things are everyone’s, yet you have preached some or other distinction between ‘yours’ and ‘mine’. Our wives and daughters belong to us all equally, and you have shared this privilege with us; but in doing so you have roused in them an unknown fury. In your arms, they have become deranged, and you have become enraged in theirs. They have formed a hatred for one another, and you have butchered each other over them; they have returned to us stained with your blood. We are free, yet in our earth you have buried the title deeds to our future enslavement. You are neither god nor demon; who, then, are you to make us your slaves? Orou! Since you understand the language of these men, tell us all, as you have told me, what they have written on that strip of metal: ‘This land is ours’. Yours, you say? How so? Because you have set foot here? If one day a Tahitian were to arrive on your shores and carve into one of your stones or the bark of one of your trees: ‘This land belongs to the people of Tahiti’, what would you say then? So you are the stronger! What of it? When one of those worthless trinkets which are strewn about your vessel was taken, you cried out and wrought vengeance; and immediately you conceived a plan to plunder an entire Country. You are no slave, and would sooner die than become one; yet you wish to enslave us. You think then that Tahitians are incapable of dying in defence of their freedom? Well may you look to seize hold of him as you would a dumb beast – the Tahitian is your brother. You are both children of nature. What right do you have over him that he does not have over you? When you came, did we set upon you? Did we pillage your vessel? Did we make you our captive and leave you to the arrows of our enemies? Did we yoke you to our ploughs and put you to work in the fields like animals? No, we treated you in our own image. Let us alone with our ways; they are wiser and more honest than yours. We have no desire to trade what you call our ignorance for your useless enlightenment’.

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1 Denis Diderot, ‘Le supplément au voyage de Bougainville’, in Correspondance Littéraire, ed. Friedrich-Melchior Grimm, issues of September 1773, October 1773, March 1774, April 1774; first published openly in Denis Diderot, Œuvres, ed. Naigeon, Paris: chez Desray et Déterville, 1798, III, pp. 382-384.


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