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Blessed Bane: Christianity and Colonial Disease in Southey's Tale of Paraguay

  • Tim Fulford

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  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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By the 1820s British colonies, old and new, were flourishing across the globe. Recent acquisitions such as Ceylon, Singapore, Cape Colony, and Botany Bay, plus extensions of existing territories in India and Canada, had given Britain a second empire vastly larger than the first empire it had lost in North America. At the same time, revolutions in South America, assisted by British soldiers and sailors, yielded new opportunities for political influence and commercial profit.

Colonial expansion was accompanied by the development of a new justification of empire. As evangelical opinion gained ground in country and parliament, mercantile riches were no longer their own justification. In 1813 the East India Company was forced to allow the activities of Christian missionaries in its lands on the subcontinent; Protestant proselytising also became an official activity amongst the Buddhists of Burma and the animists of the West Indies and the South Seas. Britain's empire was beginning to be defined as the mission to Christianise and "civilise" natives that the Victorians were to accept as their destiny.

In the opinion of William Eimo Ellis, one of the missionaries who spread Christianity in Tahiti, a vital factor in their success was the press campaign that the Poet Laureate Robert Southey carried on (Life 134). In The Quarterly Review, Southey gave the missions respectability with conservative supporters of Church and State. In political articles, meanwhile, he promoted a vision of empire in which, by teaching Christian civilisation, Britons would redeem themselves from corruption at the same time as they improved their colonial subjects. It was on South America and the South Sea islands that Southey was considered especially expert. As the author of the massive History of Brazil (1810-19), he had an unparalleled knowledge of the region's colonial history; as the reviewer of recent travel narratives in the area he had a textual grasp of recent political developments. In books and journals Southey helped popularise the imperialist ideology that William Wilberforce was pushing through parliament.

Southey had never been to South America himself, so that when he came to depict it in verse, he had to rely on others' words. In The Tale of Paraguay (1825), he turned the prose of a Christian colonist—the Jesuit priest Martin Dobrizhoffer—into a poetic romance designed to promote missionary colonialism as a model Britain should follow in its own empire. The verse, that is to say, was intended to complement the arguments Southey had been making as a historian and political journalist. Perhaps his finest single poem, the Tale is a delicate—and unjustly neglected—achievement, a text that still moves us today as well as one that brings into unexpectedly sharp focus the tensions and ambiguities that arose as Romantics confronted Britain's expanding imperial role.

In discussing the Tale in this article, I shall focus on three related aspects that, jointly, make it especially significant for critics now, as we begin to assess the ways in which Romanticism, originally radical in politics and often domestic in scope, was reshaped into a discourse that defined and promoted Victorian imperialism. These aspects are the Tale's Christian paternalism (and the contradictions inherent therein), its modifications of characteristically Romantic motifs and genres (principally the Wordsworthian nature lyric and the Byronic romance), and its presentation of South American history and politics (especially the history and politics created by colonial disease).

First, though, some details about the poem. The Tale stems from Southey's reading of Dobrizhoffer's Historia de Aponibus, a book that he had obtained in November 1817, after "ten years vainly in search" (Warter III: 75). Having got hold of it, he had Sara Coleridge, his niece and effective foster-daughter, complete a translation, titled Account of the Abipones, which he contrived to have published and then himself reviewed in the Quarterly. The English Dobrizhoffer, in effect, was a Southey-family effort, a production of his paternal encouragement of his literary offspring. So, indeed, was the Tale itself, for when it appeared in 1825 it was prefaced by two introductory poems, a "Dedication" to Southey's daughter Edith May (written in 1814) and a "Proem" which compared the missionary conquests of Loyola's Jesuits with the military victories of Wellington's "English" armies. These introductory poems effectively contextualised the tale as an examination of female innocence, paternal love and Christian colonisation.

The Tale itself was a formal departure from Southey's previous Oriental epics. It was a short Spenserian romance, an exercise in the genre that first Walter Scott and then Byron had made the most popular of the age. Southey found this genre difficult to master: although he began the tale in December 1819, commenting that the Spenserian stanza-form was "perfectly adapted to the slow movement and thoughtful character of the story" (Warter III: 169-70), he did not finish it until 24 February 1825—delayed perhaps by the intricacy of the rhyme scheme and the problems of achieving the right tone.

Southey's problems stemmed from the extraordinariness of the source narrative and from the gap between Dobrizhoffer, the Catholic narrator, and Southey, the Protestant poet. For the Tale versifies what Dobrizhoffer saw as the most miraculous and providential experience of his entire mission in Paraguay, which lasted for nearly twenty years before he was expelled along with the rest of the Jesuits. Dobrizhoffer had discovered a family of Guarani Indians living in complete isolation in the forest, after war and disease had decimated and dispersed their tribal group. Both the war and the disease were colonial: the Guaranis had fought against the government from 1750 to 1756 after the Spanish had broken a promise by agreeing, in the Treaty of Limits, to hand to Portugal the Reductions (that is, the village-colonies in which Indians lived a Christian life under the paternal authority of the Jesuits). This family were the sole survivors of a group betrayed by the colonial power and then infected with the disease brought by that power—smallpox. They lived, Dobrizhoffer stated, in penury "without discontent, vexation or disease." The son and daughter, fully grown by the time the Jesuits came into contact with them, had never before seen people other than their parents. To the Jesuit they seemed spirits of nature; of the daughter Dobrizhoffer wrote "a poet would have taken her for one of the nymphs or dryads" (Account I: 91, 92). He brought them into the nearby Reduction and then saw them peak and pine:

A few weeks after their arrival they were afflicted with a universal heaviness and rheum, to which succeeded a pain in the eyes and ears, and not long after, deafness. Lowness of spirits, and disgust to food at length wasted their strength to such a degree that an incurable consumption followed. After languishing some months, the old mother, who had been properly instructed in the Christian religion and baptized, delivered up her spirit, with a mind so calm, so acquiescent with the divine will, that I cannot doubt but that she entered into a blessed immortality. The girl, who had entered the town full of health and beauty, soon lost all resemblance to herself. Enfeebled, withering by degrees like a flower, her bones hardly holding together, she at length followed her mother into the grave, and, if I be not much deceived, to Heaven.

Account I: 93

Although the brother is attacked by "the same malady that proved fatal to his sister and mother," he survives. He then lies down, having been called by his dead relatives, seeks and receives baptism, and promptly dies. Dobrizhoffer is grief-stricken but consoles himself that God has taken them to himself. It is this tale of discovery, baptism and early death that Southey narrates in his poem, inspired throughout by the Christian paternalism that he had already examined in his review of Dobrizhoffer and in his History of Brazil.

Christian Paternalism

Southey's Christian paternalism was itself riddled with ambivalence, even before the pressure of versifying Dobrizhoffer further complicated it. In this section, I explore the nature and the causes of that ambivalence as a way of setting the story related in the Tale in the wider context of Southey's influential discussions of the issue.

What Southey admired was rational religion, a proselytism that civilised by force of sincere example. Dobrizhoffer seemed to him an embodiment of this, as he declared in his review of Sara Coleridge's translation.

What is remarkable in this missionary is, that no trace of superstition or enthusiasm appears in the whole account which he has given of himself. The life which he led must have been intolerable, if he had not been supported by a firm belief that it was meritorious; thoroughly sincere he was, and like the rest of his order never doubted that the eternal bliss of a savage, and even of a poor infant, depended upon the chance of their receiving baptism. But he never looked for miracles, he neither fancied nor feigned them.

Review 322

Using Dobrizhoffer as an example, he began to define general grounds for effective proselytism—in his eyes for the civilisation of savages—on the pattern of the South American Jesuits. They eschewed the "falsehood" of pretended or real belief in inspiration and in miracles, in a way Protestant Methodists and Evangelicals did not (Review 278).

It was not miracles but systematic myth that Southey endorsed—though for pragmatic rather than doctrinal reasons. He wrote in the History of Brazil that

when man has been degraded to the savage state, it is only by priestcraft that he has ever been reclaimed. When America was discovered, the civilization of its different nations was precisely in proportion to the degree of power and respectability which their priests possessed; and this authority of the priesthood was not the consequence of an improved state of society, but the cause of it. As long as the Priest continues a mere juggler, the people continue Savages; his triumph is but the ascendancy of vulgar cunning over bodily strength, and though he is feared he is not respected. But when a more commanding spirit arises, who, connecting old fables and dimly remembered truths with the devices of his own imagination, lays the foundation of a mythological system, from that moment the improvement of his tribe begins.

History I: 251

It was this kind of attitude that upset orthodox Christians, for it revealed that Southey was less concerned with the revealed truth than with religion's (any religion's) ideological power. Implicit in his statement is the possibility that Christianity was also a mythological system founded by a tribal priest. The practice of baptism which the Jesuits "never doubted" would bring about "the eternal bliss of a savage" thus seemed to be merely a product of such a mythological system, but was justified by its efficacy in converting "natives" to the civilised morality that Christianity inculcated.

That civilised morality was formalised by the Jesuits of Paraguay into the system of Reductions—village-colonies. Southey's History gave a detailed picture of the paternalism of the Reductions into which Dobrizhoffer had brought his Indian family:

when they discovered any misdemeanour, clapt upon the offender a penitential dress, and led him first to the church to make his confession in public, and then into the square to be publicly beaten. It is said that these castigations were always received without a murmur, and even as an act of grace, [. . .] so completely were they taught to lick the hand which chastised and fed them [. . .]. This system succeeded in effectually breaking down the spirit. Adults, who had eluded the constant superintendence of their inspectors, would voluntarily accuse themselves, and ask for the punishment which they had merited.

History II: 353

Here the phrase "lick the hand which chastised" suggests that the constant vigilance by which complicity was produced caused a mental demoralisation powerful enough to dehumanise the Indians: the model of fathers and children is perverted to that of a dog and his master. "Never," Southey concluded, "was there a more absolute despotism": "whatever could make them good servants, and render them happy in servitude, was carefully taught them, but nothing beyond this, [. . .] nothing which could tend to political and intellectual emancipation." The Jesuits themselves argued that "these Indians were only full-grown children" (History II: 361-62). But whilst Southey declared that this argument was "miserably insufficient" because it caused the Indians to be left in servitude, he nevertheless lamented the expulsion of the Jesuits as "an irreparable injury to the tribes of South America" (History III: 614). The paternalist superintendence of the Reductions was better than what ensued:

The arts which the Jesuits had introduced, were neglected and forgotten; their gardens lay waste; their looms fell to pieces; and in these communities, where the inhabitants for many generations had enjoyed a greater exemption from physical and moral evil than any other inhabitants of the globe, the people were now made vicious and miserable. Their only alternative was to remain, and be treated like slaves, or fly to the woods, and take their chance as savages.

History III: 616

The History was deeply ambivalent about the Jesuit mission because Southey both admired the Fathers' protective care of the Indians and disapproved of the moral servitude that it brought. He was prepared to "hold the Jesuits justified" for a paternalist system which saved Indians from the "savagery" of tribal customs and the brutality of the secular Spanish colonists. And he was inclined to idealize the "arts" taught in the Reductions even as he deprecated the disciplinary methods by which the Indians were rendered receptive to those arts.

Romantic Motifs and Genres

By 1825 Southey had already pronounced at length upon the Christian colonisation with which his Tale of Paraguay is concerned. In revisiting in verse issues with which he had dealt in prose, he further complicated his position. At the same time he placed in a colonialist context a number of the motifs that were characteristic of his own Romanticism and of Romanticism more generally, not least Wordsworth's and Coleridge's.

It was the greater Romantic lyric, with its exaltation of feminine and childlike innocence, which Southey transplanted to a colonial setting. The Dedication poem with which he prefaced the Tale proper recalls "Tintern Abbey," the Lucy poems, and "Kubla Khan" as it turns a female loved-one into an inspring nature-spirit. It is a poem of fatherly protectiveness, addressed to Southey's daughter Edith May, named "May" because she was born on the first of that month, and ten years old when the poem was written. Edith is associated with new life in spring, because Southey views her as nature's recompense for an older sister who died in infancy. Edith's birth in "joyous May" is epitomised by "the birds' loud love-songs," which her mother heard in childbed. Like the thrush whose song reminds Southey of her, Edith is shown to embody an innocent, pastoral and "blithe" nature. Thus she is idealised but simultaneously deprived of her human individuality, in a manner that is also true of Mooma, the Guarani girl in the Tale proper. [1]

A father's recompense for her lost sister, Edith's natural innocence is the more precious to Southey because he knows that it is menaced by death:

How I have doted on thine infant smiles
At morning when thine eyes unclosed on mine;
How, as the months in swift succession roll'd,
I mark'd thy human faculties unfold,
And watch'd the dawning of the light divine;
And with what artifice of playful guiles
Won from thy lips with still repeated wiles
Kiss after kiss, a reckoning often told, . . .
Something I ween thou know'st; for thou hast seen
Thy sisters in their turn such fondness prove,
And felt how childhood in its winning years
The attemper'd soul to tenderness can move.
This thou canst tell; but not the hopes and fears
With which a parent's heart doth overflow, . . .
The thoughts and cares inwoven with that love, . . .
Its nature and its depth, thou dost not, canst not know.

Dedication 5; st. 5

Here the poem fixes Edith in time, leaving her forever young, forever ignorant of the anxieties which parents bear on her behalf. But Southey ends by imagining a future time when Edith will know grief and when he himself will be dead:

Thus wilt thou feel in thy maturer mind;
When grief shall be thy portion, thou wilt find
Safe consolation in such thoughts as these, . . .
A present refuge in affliction's hour.
And if indulgent Heaven thy lot should bless
With all imaginable happiness,
Here shalt thou have, my child, beyond all power
Of chance, thy holiest, surest, best delight.
Take therefore now thy Father's latest lay, . . .
Perhaps his last; . . . and treasure in thine heart
The feelings that its musing strains convey.
A song it is of life's declining day,
Yet meet for youth. Vain passions to excite,
No strains of morbid sentiment I sing,
Nor tell of idle loves with ill-spent breath;
A reverent offering to the Grave I bring,
And twine a garland for the brow of Death.

Dedication 6-7; st. 8

Thus he concludes the Dedication by portraying his own verse as a gift from a mortal father that will survive the grave and allow the poet to solace the now-innocent child when she comes to know grief. Both the Dedication and the Tale it introduces are offered, on the one hand, as reminders of the mortality that destroys innocence and youth and, on the other, as testaments allowing the triumph of paternal love beyond the grave. They also allow the continuance of paternal authority after death since they position Edith now and in the future as a daughter, defined by love for a wiser and more knowing father. Edith is restricted, as well as protected, by the power of her father's word. In this respect she resembles Dora Wordsworth as depicted in her father's poetry at this time. [2] Both poetic daughters are configured by the transformation of the motif that Wordsworth had first established with regard to his sister Dorothy and his beloved "Lucy."

If fatherhood reshaped Southey's idealisation of women, the colonial context of the Tale altered it further. As narrator of the tale of the Indian family isolated in the forest, Southey adopts a paternal voice for which the Dedication prepares. He describes the birth and upbringing of Yeruti and Mooma, son and daughter of Quiara and Monnema.

Nor then alone, but alway did the Eye
Of Mercy look upon that lonely bower.
Days past, and weeks; and months and years went by,
And never evil thing the while had power
To enter there. The boy in sun and shower
Rejoicing in his strength to youthhed grew;
And Mooma, that beloved girl, a dower
Of gentleness from bounteous nature drew,
With all that should the heart of womankind imbue. [3]

II, 8

Protected by the forest, they are children of nature and, as the allusion to Wordsworth's Lucy poem "Three years she grew in sun and shower" suggests, "less a child of earth than like a poet's dream" (III, 43).

The poet's dream which Mooma most brings to mind is "Kubla Khan" since, like Coleridge's Abyssinian maid, she enchants through her ability, lost to kings and priests, to embody nature as she voices it in song. Mooma charms the Jesuits when first they find her in the forest:

Them thus pursuing where the track may lead,
A human voice arrests upon their way;
They stop, and thither whence the sounds proceed,
All eyes are turn'd in wonder, . . . not dismay,
For sure such sounds might charm all fear away;
No nightingale whose brooding mate is nigh,
From some sequester'd bower at close of day,
No lark rejoicing in the orient sky,
Ever pour'd forth so wild a strain of melody.

III, 35

In the Dedication poem Edith had been symbolised by the thrush that sang at her birth; Mooma, more natural still than she, seems to be a bird, a "songstress wild" who "in her joy was carolling" (III, 38). As an uncivilised and therefore unspoilt forest-child, she embodies the fantasy of the noble savage, of the gentle innocent whose closeness to nature is able to restore jaded European men, with their sad knowledge of evil as well as good. It is, of course, a fantasy that depends on the power of definition remaining with the European Fathers, in this case the Jesuits and Southey their narrator. Southey, in other words, had adapted to the colonial context a poetic strategy that Wordsworth and Coleridge had previously elaborated in order to grant themselves authority and independence—he had empowered himself and other men by reducing the world that they encounter to the status of dependent femininity. The Indians, and the very nature they embody, are vulnerable and innocent daughters. By defining Mooma as a bird rather than as a woman, Southey and Dobrizhoffer dehumanise her, rendering her subsequent removal to the Reduction seem less morally dubious. In the Jesuit village she will sing (and die) like a bird in a cage. Thus Southey's Romantic idealisation of the Indian girl as a child of nature is put into the service of a paternalism that is aligned with the Christian colonisation of the missionaries.

It was not just Wordsworth, but Byron whom Southey modified in the Tale of Paraguay. Indeed, his tale of Amerindians had been bound up with the poets' public dispute since Southey had first called for the imprisonment of the "Satanic school" of which, he implied, Byron was leader (Preface 206). Byron had replied by attacking, in his Vision of Judgment, Southey's politics—including Southey's advocacy of colonial conquest in the Pacific. He had also, as if in public scorn of Southey, published The Island, a South Sea romance that opposed British colonialism in Tahiti and sympathised with the Satanic mutineer Fletcher Christian, who had famously exclaimed "I am in hell". [4] Unable to let matters rest, Southey continued public assaults on Byron even as he drafted the Tale. In January 1822, for example, he was simultaneously reviewing Dobrizhoffer and attacking Byron in The Courier (Warter III: 293).

Emerging from this dispute, the Tale can be seen as Southey's attempt to correct the "degenerate" colonial romance as practised by Byron. Like The Island and like Byron's earlier Oriental romances, the Tale idealises the contact between "civilised" Europeans and indigenous peoples. Like Byron, Southey endorses love and innocence and portrays women as nature-spirits. Nevertheless, he effectively redefines these motifs in opposition to Byronic Romanticism.

Southey's difference from Byron's colonialist fantasy is evident not only in his exclusion of sexuality from his exotic scenes but in his attacks on tribal life. Whereas The Island romanticised Polynesian customs, omitting discussion of prostitution and infanticide, Southey's Tale explicitly condemned these tribal practices. His Indian family were noble because their isolation had let them escape the traditions of the Guarani tribe: "they had gain'd a happiness above/The state which in their native horde was known:/No outward causes were there here to move/Discord and alien thoughts; being thus alone/From all mankind, their hearts and their desires were one" (I, 35). Living free from hierarchy, property and vice in unspoilt nature, Southey's Indians fulfil many of the ideals that, in 1794, the radical colony of Pantisocracy had been designed to realise. Thus Paraguay provided an imaginary stage on which could be enacted a social radicalism that Southey was no longer prepared to endorse at home. However, social equality was not accompanied by the sexual liberty that the Pantisocrats had briefly considered adopting. The last line of this stanza answers Byron's charge that the Pantisocrats had intended to practice a kind of Godwinian free love, getting children in common like "savages." Southey had been annoyed enough by that charge to write to The Courier refuting it a few months before the Tale was published. [5] And the Tale went on to define the state of Paraguayan nature in accordance with conservative Christian ethics:

Far other tie this solitary pair
Indissolubly bound; true helpmates they,
In joy or grief, in weal or woe to share,
In sickness or in health, thro' life's long day;
And reassuming in their hearts her sway
Benignant Nature made the burthern light.
It was the Woman's pleasure to obey,
The Man's to ease her toil in all he might,
So each in serving each obtain'd the best delight.

And as connubial, so parental love
Obey'd unerring Nature's order here,
For now no force of impious custom strove
Against her law; . . .

I, 37-38

Where Byron idealised tribal life, Southey deplored it. Yet Southey's Tale, markedly different in form, style and subject from his earlier Orientalist epics, shows Byron's influence throughout. Byron's private verdict on those epics had been echoed by many reviewers, who also found that Southey had clotted his narratives with the mythology of the East, overwhelming his readers with details of incredible and alien stories. [6] In the Tale Southey confined his comparative religion to the notes. He eschewed the pompous diction and epic scale of his former works too, and dealt, as Byron's Oriental poems did, with the familiar subject of love. And he wrote in the Spenserian stanza, recently popularised by Byron's massively successful Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. To publish a poem in Spenserian stanzas about exotic regions in 1825 was to invite comparison with Byron's poem. If Southey was rejecting Byronism as a corrupting influence, nevertheless his own poem followed the form that Byronic Orientalism had popularised. But he did so only to differ: Childe Harold is a traveller to distant lands because he is self-exiled, being disenchanted with the world and too proud to submit to the authority of men and creeds in which he does not believe. His lonely communion with nature emerges from a rejection of family ties and social conventions. Southey's heroes, by contrast, may be foreign but resemble respectable English Christians in their domestic habits. Even their relationship with nature leads them towards a faith reminiscent of eighteenth-century Christianity—they are "tutor'd by instinctive sense [. . .]/To place a child-like trust in Providence" (I, 17). The paternalism that pervades the poem is, it appears, founded on God the Father, who will repay the Indians' child-like trust with redemption by love (II, 15-17).

Southey's depiction of the Indians' natural religion creates a major unresolved contradiction in his Tale, one which runs deep in his (and much other) colonialist thought. The Indians' state of nature is so joyful, innocent, virtuous and instinctively religious that it is difficult to see why they need to be "rescued" from the forest by the Jesuits and brought into the strict regime of the Reduction. Yet Southey explicitly supports the removal, although his language betrays the unease he had expressed openly in his History of Brazil:

They on the Jesuit, who was nothing loth,
Reposed alike their conscience and their cares;
And he, with equal faith, the trust of both
Accepted and discharged. The bliss is theirs
Of that entire dependence that prepares
Entire submission, let what may befall;
And his whole careful course of life declares
That for their good he holds them thus in thrall,
Their Father and their Friend, Priest, Ruler, all in all.

IV, 7

His justification of this thralldom simply dodges the question of whether it would have been better to have left the family in its forest bower:

Thou who despisest so debased a fate,
As in the pride of wisdom thou may'st call
These meek submissive Indians low estate,
Look round the world, and see where over all
Injurious passions hold mankind in thrall,
How barbarous Force asserts a ruthless reign,
Or Mammon, o'er his portion of the ball,
Hath learned a baser empire to maintain,
Mammon, the god of all who give their souls to gain.

IV, 12

The colonial situation has forced two Romantic ideals into conflict: the Christian paternalism that Southey explicitly endorses comes, in the missionary context, to be undercut by the text's lyrical affiliation to the natural joy and innocence that the Indians embody. Southey's savages are too noble, too good, for him not to regret their "reduction" to a filial servitude that, in other circumstances (as in his daughter's case), he finds attractive. And as he laments their transplantation from free forest to ordered colony, he resembles Byron lamenting the disruption of a Tahitian paradise by the troops who represent civilisation. Southey writes

Day comes, and now a first and last farewell
To that fair bower within their native wood,
Their quiet nest till now. The bird may dwell
Henceforth in safety there, and rear her brood,
And beasts and reptiles undisturb'd intrude;
Reckless of this, the simple tenants go,
Emerging from their peaceful solitude,
To mingle with the world, . . . but not to know
Its crimes, nor to partake its cares, nor feel its woe.

III, 51

The crucial word in this stanza is "reckless": it is poignant because it shows that the Indians are careless because they have been without cares. Their lack of knowledge of evil renders them unable to judge the value of what they are leaving. We, the readers, know what they do not, that the birds, beasts and reptiles inherit a peace that they will not again share. This Adam and Eve are leaving Eden without having fallen into knowledge, an exile in its way sadder, because less merited, than that on which Southey's verse is based in Paradise Lost. And we are inclined to blame the Jesuits who cause them to leave more than we do Milton's Satan—despite Southey's attempt to reassure us in the last lines that they will remain innocent. In the Reduction, as the last Canto acknowledges, innocence is only maintained by submission to the Fathers' prohibitive law and, finally, by early death.

Under the pressure of this conflict Southey's portrait of the Jesuits becomes more ambivalent than his praise of them initially suggests. Although Dobrizhoffer is established as a "Father good" (III, 47), his paternalism—and therefore the alignment of the Tale as a whole towards paternalism—is undermined. The Reduction is a "happy Fold" (III, 47), where the Indians are "like children under [the] wise parental sway" (IV, 8) of an "empire" of "benevolence" (IV, 10) that contrasts with the "baser empire" of commercial colonisation. But the Jesuits' paternal authority is absolute, military in its discipline. The Proem had compared them with the Duke of Wellington, whose destruction by cannon and bayonet is said almost to have converted the atheist French. And Southey's bellicose religious nationalism spills over into hero-worship of Loyola, "before whom Kings and Nations bow'd the knee" (Proem 12). The vocabulary of military conquest is then extended to the Jesuits in Paraguay:

. . . where the happier sons of Paraguay,
By gentleness and pious art subdued,
Bow'd their meek heads beneath the Jesuits' sway,
And lived and died in filial servitude.

Proem 13

Southey seems unaware that comparisons with the Iron Duke will threaten the gentleness of the Jesuits' paternalism. Here the grim basis of colonial paternalism briefly appears in Southey's text, its "benevolent empire" seen to depend on military ascendancy—on the power to kill. The Wellington analogy suggests that the Indians who live and die in filial servitude simply accept what colonialism could do to them by force.

Colonial Disease

The Tale justifies filial servitude by contrast with the forcible enslavement of Indians that occurred outside the Reductions. Here Southey attempts to organise his readers' responses by relating his poem to two related public debates in which he had long been a participant—one concerning slavery and another concerning colonial diseases and their eradication.

The Tale indicts slavery as the product of Spain's "fatal thirst of gold!" (III, 3). Whereas the Indians relied on the natural fertility of the forest, the Spaniards exploited it for profit, enslaving the Indians to harvest it:

For this, in fact though not in name a slave,
The Indian from his family was torn;
And droves on droves were sent to find a grave
In woods and swamps, by toil severe outworn,
No friend at hand to succour or to mourn,
In death unpitied, as in life unblest.
O miserable race, to slavery born!
Yet when we look beyond this world's unrest,
More miserable then the oppressors than the opprest.

III, 7

Southey takes the opportunity to remind England of its share in the guilt of "commercial slavery" (III, 9) which, he declares, resembles an epidemic disease:

Uncheck'd in Paraguay it ran its course,
Till all the gentler children of the land
Well nigh had been consumed without remorse.

III, 10

In depicting slavery as a disease Southey draws on an abolitionist topos he had used as early as 1797. In the first of his "Sonnet on the Slave Trade", he wrote

For the pale fiend, cold-hearted Commerce there
Breathes his gold-gender'd pestilence afar,
And calls to share the prey his kindred Daemon War


In "To the Genius of Africa" he called upon its climate to avenge the continent for the enslavement of its peoples by infecting the slavers with tropical diseases: "And o'er the unholy host with baneful breath/There Genius thou hast breath'd the gales of Death." In this abolitionist poetic-justice, disease is both a metaphor for slavery and, ironically, the means by which the poet vicariously punishes those who profit from slavery. In his History of Brazil Southey had deployed this disease motif when condemning the sexual enslavement of Amerindian and African women by the colonists:

Wholesome as the air of Brazil is, it proved hurtful to many persons whose habits both of life and living had been formed in a different temperature; even, says Piso, as plants will frequently die in transplantation [. . .]. This very able man observes, that the mixture and intermixture of three different races, the European, American and African, had produced new diseases, or at least new constitutions, by which old diseases were so modified, that the skilfullest physicians were puzzled by new symptoms.

History I: 327

If the climate punished miscegenation by rendering mixed-race people vulnerable to diseases beyond the aid of medical science, it was nevertheless the pure bred natives who suffered most as victims of the disease of colonialism—smallpox. Southey knew from his sources how devastating smallpox had become in South America after its introduction by the colonists. Dobrizhoffer discussed early eighteenth-century epidemics: "the small-pox breaking out soon after, cut off thirty thousand of them. Some time after it returned again, but in a milder form, and eleven thousand only were its victims" (I, 16).

Southey began the Tale by identifying smallpox as a disease of colonial guilt and native revenge. The first stanza describes "One dire disease, [. . .] the lamentable pest/Which Africa sent forth to scourge the West,/As if in vengeance for her sable brood/So many an age remorselessly opprest." Smallpox, the argument ran, had spread from Africa to America via the European colonists and the African slaves they imported. The American natives were, in Southey's poetic logic, not only suffering the disease of slavery but the infection by which Africa took vengeance on the colonists for its enslavement.

Smallpox plays a vital role in the Tale because it is both a metaphor for the guilt of colonial slavery and a figure allowing the abolitionist poet to align himself with a naturalised revenge against that slavery. [7] The figure, that is, allows Southey to be both revengeful and self-righteous because it lets him seem to be invoking a natural retribution rather than directly justifying human acts of vengeance. He is freed from the more politically dangerous course of justifying native rebellions. Freed though he may be, the smallpox-figure nevertheless threatens to infect areas of his Tale whose immunity he would preserve. For if smallpox configures the retribution of an enslaved land, then the question arises of whether it is a just punishment for the "benevolent" Jesuits as well as for the commercial slavers. After all, as Southey noted in his review of Dobrizhoffer, it was in the Jesuit Reductions that "visitations of smallpox were frequent and most destructive" (Review 286). And the transplantation of Indians from forest to Reduction often resulted in their deaths from disease, as is the case with the Guarani family who are the heroes of the Tale.

Southey works hard in the Tale to prevent his disease-figure infecting his endorsement of the Jesuits' colonialism. He does so by aligning them with a paternalist more benevolent than Wellington, one whose success is proven. That paternalist is Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination, and he is addressed in the first lines of the Tale:

Jenner! for ever shall thy honour'd name
Among the children of mankind be blest,
Who by thy skill hast taught us how to tame
One dire disease

I, 1

Southey offers Jenner "a father's gratitude"—an important offer since it links the fatherly love Southey sends his daughter in the Dedication poem to the gratitude that fathers all over the world, and especially in the South American colonies, owe the Doctor. Jenner is the ultimate paternal authority on earth, the guarantor of paternal love, because he offers immunity against children's death from the disease of colonialism, something the Jesuits had not previously been able to achieve. As a figure in Southey's Tale, then, Jenner is a Father of Science who saves paternalism from the limitations of the Fathers of Catholicism. He assuages the guilt of colonialism by giving immunity to its disease. Through Jenner, Europe gives recompense for the infection its colonialism introduced. [8]

The hideous malady which lost its power
When Jenner's art the dire contagion stay'd,
Among Columbia's sons, in fatal hour
Across the wide Atlantic wave convey'd,
Its fiercest form of pestilence display'd:
Where'er its deadly course the plague began
Vainly the wretched sufferer look'd for aid;
Parent from child, and child from parent ran,
For tyrannous fear dissolved all natural bonds of man.

I, 3

Jenner saves parental and familial bonds from destruction, thus effecting a moral as well as physical cure, as the Jesuits had tried to do when "saving" Indian families from dispersal and enslavement by secular colonists.

Southey had portrayed Jenner as the saviour of families as early as 1802, in a letter that anticipates the Dedication poem to the Tale in its concern for his daughter:

My little girl has taught me some new feelings: I have learnt to see beauty in that total absence of all thought and all feeling in an infant's face. As soon as there is good matter in town, she is to be inoculated for the cow-pox. I begin to think Dr. Jenner has not been rewarded as he deserves—that the sum was not enough for such a discovery—nor for a great nation to bestow.

Warter I: 208

And Southey reflected British opinion as he celebrated the success in fighting the disease across the empire. Richard Wellesley, the Governor General of India, supported the introduction of vaccination there. Thomas Christie, medical officer of the government of Ceylon, eradicated smallpox by a vaccination campaign begun in 1802. And by the time Southey was writing the Tale of Paraguay what he called the "great and happy discovery" was being used to "deliver the Brazilians from this evil" (History III: 857). Yet, as Southey noted, vaccination had nevertheless come too late to save the Indians of his Tale and, indeed, the Jesuit Reductions, which remained vulnerable to smallpox until their gradual destruction after the expulsion of the Order. Jenner, then, is summoned in the poem to show that paternalist colonisation need no longer be implicated in colonial guilt, to reassure readers that the "art" of Europe can now prevent the infection that Europeans spread.

For Southey, disease was racially determined. Different peoples got different sicknesses, proving that the different races of humankind were constitutionally different from each other:

I have a sort of theory about such diseases, which I do not understand myself,—but somebody or other will one of these days. They are so far analogous to vegetables, as that they take root, grow, ripen, and decay. Those which are eruptive blossom and seed; for the pustules of the smallpox is, to all intents and purposes, the flower of the disease, or the fructification by which it is perpetuated. Now these diseases, like vegetables, choose their own soil; as some plants like clay, others sand, others chalk, so the yellow fever will not take root in a negro, nor the yaws in a white man. Here is a noble hint for a theory; you will see the truth of the analogy at once [. . .].

Warter I: 317

In his History of Brazil Southey noted that the possession of "Indian blood" seemed to account for an especial vulnerability to smallpox. Vaccination, then, was the white man's, "blessing" to the Indian. Yet it was a remedy that was liable to be misinterpreted as its opposite, since it worked by deliberate infection of the person to be protected. It was by giving people a dose of cowpox that Jenner stopped them getting smallpox.

In Southey's Tale the portrait of vaccination opens the text to questions about infection and remedy. Its role as a remedy for the disease of colonialism creates tensions that Southey does not resolve. These become apparent as Southey discusses the Jesuits' practice of baptising Indians who were near death (a practice they adopted because it gave the newly confirmed converts no time to relapse to their former beliefs). We are asked to understand baptism, by analogy with vaccination, as a recompense for ills, since it is followed by death and the reward of heaven:

It might be deem'd some dim presage possess'd
The virgin's soul; that some mysterious sense
Of change to come, upon her mind impress'd,
Had then call'd forth, ere she departed thence,
A requiem to their days of innocence.
For what thou losest in thy native shade
There is one change alone that may compense,
O Mooma, innocent and simple maid,
Only one change, and it will not be long delay'd!

III, 41

When the family reach the Reduction "these poor children of the solitude/Began ere long to pay the bitter pain/That their new way of life brought with it in its train" (IV, 28). With vaccination unavailable, baptism is offered as a spiritual remedy, a blessing by which the Jesuits can justify their Christian colonisation even if Indians die in the process.

All thoughts and occupations to commute,
To change their air, their water, and their food,
And those old habits suddenly uproot
Conform'd to which the vital powers pursued
Their functions, such mutation is too rude
For man's fine frame unshaken to sustain.
And these poor children of the solitude
Began ere long to pay the bitter pain
That their new way of life brought with it in its train.

IV, 29

Baptism allows the "savage" woman new life, a life beyond the grave where she may be restored in body as well as spirit:

                   That call
Shall one day make the sentient dust rejoice;
These bodies then shall rise and cast off all
Corruption, with whate'er of earthly thrall
Had clogg'd the heavenly image, then set free.

IV, 32

Here the image of throwing off corruption makes of baptism a kind of spiritual vaccination, allowing the possibility of redemption on Judgement Day.

After Monnema's death her daughter Mooma dies, not "under sharp disease" but like a transplanted flower wasting away. At this point Southey has Dobrizhoffer question his own paternalism, only to reassure himself that his actions execute God's will, a reassurance Southey promptly endorses in order to reassure readers who might also be inclined to question:

At such an hour when Dobrizhoffer stood
Beside her bed, oh! how unlike, he thought,
This voice to that which ringing through the wood
Had led him to the secret bower he sought!
And was it then for this that he had brought
That harmless household from their native shade?
Death had already been the mother's lot;
And this fair Mooma, was she form'd to fade
So soon, . . . so soon must she in earth's cold lap be laid?

Yet he had no misgiving at the sight;
And wherefore should he? he had acted well,
And deeming of the ways of God aright,
Knew that to such as these, whate'er befell
Must needs for them be best.

IV, 45-46

Southey follows this with a stanza that suggests that death is best for an innocent such as Mooma

Mourn not for her! for what hath life to give
That should detain her ready spirit here?
Thinkest thou that it were worth a wish to live,
Could wishes hold her from her proper sphere?
That simple heart, that innocence sincere
The world would stain. Fitter she ne'er could be
For the great change; and now that change is near,
Oh who would keep her soul from being free?
Maiden beloved of Heaven, to die is best for thee!

IV, 48

As in the Dedication to his daughter, Southey palliates death by identifying female innocence with heavenly spirit. Mooma, like Southey's dead infant, functions in the poem only to inspire the Father (Dobrizhoffer, Southey, and he hopes, the reader) with an ideal of otherworldly purity and virtue. The innocence of daughters is insisted upon because it salves the conscience of their fathers—the guilt in this case arising from the fact that the missionary colonialism which Southey supported is seen, like commercial slavery, to bring about the Indians' deaths.

After his mother's and sister's deaths, Yeruti wills himself to die. But he insists on being baptised: "And he must be baptised, and then he too might go" (IV, 65). Here the meaning of baptism within the poem shifts slightly. Dobrizhoffer is portrayed administering "in all solemnity the rite" but disturbed by the spirit in which Yeruti accepts it:

His feeling was that hour with fear allied,
Yeruti's was a sense of pure delight,
And while he knelt his eyes seem'd larger and more bright.

IV, 68

Yeruti, it appears, has colonised Christianity with his own "natural" beliefs. He embraces baptism not as a spiritual vaccination against the posthumous consequences of sin, but as means of bringng about his own death: "Yeruti cried;/'Yes, I am ready now!' and instantly he died" (IV, 69). Baptism is (to borrow Homi K. Bhabha's phrase) "hybridised" as it is interpreted by the Indians in accordance with their own traditions. [9] Thus Yeruti, at the poem's end, seems to slip free of the Christian paternalism that has caused and would now supply the ritual meaning of his death. He uses baptism to formalise his own act of willing himself to death, an act that leaves Dobrizhoffer not in power over but in awe of him. Yeruti's determination to be baptised appears like a customary need, common amongst tribal peoples, to obtain priestly sanction to die to join his dead relatives. Southey's text thus makes possible a reading of baptism that conflicts with his explicit Christian endorsement, one in which the ceremony is merely a sanction for a spiritual act which Indians make of their own accord—an act born of natural religion and tribal custom. Baptism is no longer, like vaccination, a colonial remedy for the ills of colonisation, offering the reward of a Christian heaven. Instead it becomes a means by which the colonised escape from the colony, a blessed bane, an aid to suicide—an antidote not to evil but to life itself.

Southey's highly ambivalent portrayal of baptism reveals his persistent anxieties about the costs of the missionary colonialism he advocated. The metaphors of disease and vaccination do not succeed in allaying those anxieties, and become unstable, when the Tale reveals his knowledge of Indian beliefs. In his review of Dobrizhoffer's Account he noted that "the unconverted Indians supposed baptism to be a ceremony which produced death, because whenever opportunity offered, the Jesuits administered it to dying infants, and adults in the last stage of disease" (318). And in his History of Brazil he suggested that this Indian interpretation of the ceremony reflected the superstitious faith that the Jesuits themselves placed in it:

If the Missionaries, overcoming all difficulties, succeeded in converting a clan at last, that conversion was so little the effect of reason or feeling, that any slight circumstance would induce the proselytes to relapse into their old paganism. An epidemic disorder appeared among them; they said it was occasioned by the water of baptism, and all the converts whom Nobrega and his fellow labourers had with such difficulty collected, would have deserted them and fled into the woods, if he had not pledged his word that the malady should cease. Luckily for him it was effectually cured by bleeding, a remedy to which they were unaccustomed. Some time afterwards a cough and catarrh cut off many of them: this also was attributed to baptism. The Jesuits themselves did not ascribe greater powers to this ceremony than they did; whatever calamity befel was readily accounted for by these drops of mysterious water. Many tribes have supposed it fatal to children, [. . .] the eagerness with which the Missionaries baptize the dying, and especially the new-born infants who are not likely to live, has occasioned this notion. The neighbouring hordes now began to regard the Jesuits with horror, as men who carried pestilence with them: if one was seen approaching, the whole clan assembled, and burnt pepper and salt in his way; [. . .] a fumigation which they believed good against plagues and evil spirits, and to keep death from entering among them.

I: 255

Here Catholicism is another colonial disease, baptism a means of contamination not a cure. The Jesuits' rituals have their Christian meaning inverted by the Indians in an interpretation based (soundly enough) on their association of colonial ideology with colonial infection. And the Tale hints that Yeruti, Mooma and Monnema made an interpretation of this kind. The culture of the Reduction affects them like a disease: "strange sights and sounds and thoughts well nigh opprest/Their sense, and raised a turmoil in the breast" (IV, 23).


Southey's interpretation of Dobrizhoffer's story needs to be read against his reaction to contemporary events in South America. By 1814 a rebellion against Spanish government had taken place in Paraguay. But despite Southey's disapproval of Spain's treatment of its colony he did not endorse the revolution:

They have a Republic of Paraguay under two consuls. What will be the end of these things? Ferdinand will send troops, and may very probably get easy possession of B. Ayres; but the revolutionary Government will remove to some town in the interior, and the extent of the country renders it absolutely impossible to conquer it, if the people choose to continue their present course. But if our own Americans were unfit for independence, how much more unfit are these! There is something radically wrong in the constitutions of all modern colonies. The Greeks seem to have understood these things better.

Warter II: 361

Earlier he had attributed this unfitness to "the practice of slavery" and the "Roman Catholic religion [which] demoralises every people among whom it takes root" (Warter II: 41). Ironically enough, the condition of servitude to which the native population had been reduced necessitated continuing colonial government, since it deprived them of the independence of character necessary for self-rule. For Southey, despite his doubts and anxieties, paternalist colonialism had become a self-perpetuating system. Revolutionary defiance of that system, in turn, became an infectious disease (caught from France), of the kind which vaccination with paternalism was designed to prevent. The Brazilians, had "taken the disease" of "endemic revolutionary fever" and "are now, it is to be feared, to learn by miserable experience, that a bad government is infinitely better than none" (Review 323). Here was a European disease that neither Jenner nor the Jesuits could stop the colonised catching.

It was exactly paternalism's capacity to create the conditions that seemed to justify its continuance that most annoyed Byron about the Old Regimes of which Southey was a defender. His own view of the exchange between the old world and the new reflects this anger, and turns Southey's depictions of slavery and disease against the colonial powers:

All the discoveries which have yet been made multiplies little but existence. An extirpated disease is succeeded by some new pestilence; and a discovered world has brought little to the old one, except the p[ox]—first and freedom afterwards—the latter a fine thing, particularly as they gave it to Europe in exchange for slavery. But it is doubtful whether "the Sovereigns" would not think the first the best present of the two to their subjects.

Byron VIII: 20

Here the "Sovereigns" are the restored monarchs of post-Waterloo Europe. They are symbols of imperial oppression who hold their thrones by virtue of the military success of the hero Southey praised in the Proem to his Tale—Wellington. Byron has no place for benevolent paternalism of the kind Southey tried to idealise in Paraguay. Freedom or slavery and disease are the only options. In The Island, he saluted South American revolution as an example to Polynesia and to Greece.

Although Southey does find a place for paternalism, it is a vexed one disturbed by his anxieties and omissions and by the conflict between his idealisation of the state of nature and his endorsement of Christian colonialism. His Tale occupies Byron's exotic ground in a way none of his earlier colonial poems did, and succeeds in realising there a pastoral of familial love and innocence. But it accepts that this pastoral, derived from the Pantisocratic ideal, does not survive. Unable—or unwilling—to imagine larger forms of social organisation in the shape of the Guarani family's natural liberty, Southey replaces the Godwinian radicalism of his twenties with an elegy. He accepts as inevitable not only the loss of innocence but also the loss of natural liberty, consoling himself and the reader with lament. Thus he naturalises what is in fact a socially and politically conservative view. His Tale is opposed to Byron's visions of sexual passion uniting West and East, North and South in an exotic nature that stands for escape from social convention and political hierarchy. Shaped by the poets' dispute about the politics and morality of poetry, not least Orientalist poetry, the Tale is both the most Byronic and the most anti-Byronic of Southey's colonial poems. Like Byron's Tales, a fantasy about less civilised, more "natural" cultures, it differs from them in the degree to which it differs from itself. It is deeply divided by Southey's conflicting attitudes to the Jesuits and missionaries, to baptism and disease, to the Indians, whose natural innocence is idealised only for its effective destruction to be sanctioned.

Yet it is because it is plagued by anxiety and guilt that the Tale is successful as a reinforcement of the growing ideology of nineteenth-century imperialism. Or, rather, it is successful because that anxiety and guilt is encoded in a simple and sentimental narrative where it seems to be assuaged, if not resolved. Southey's poem, like vaccination, remedies colonial guilt by injecting just enough into the reader for him to be resistant in future. It does so by assuring him that heaven will be the reward of the humble, whether they are the agents or the subjects of Christian colonialism. Sanctimony allays guilt in the Tale, and Southey had found the conscience-salving formula that subsequently allowed missionary societies to expand as Britain's commercial and military empire did, civilising, Christianising and soothing the pain and guilt of capitalist exploitation of people and nature.

Parties annexes