On Pocahontas and “nation”as a concept

It’s curious how one idea leads to another, like a chain reaction. Because to reflect upon immigration, exile and belonging is also to reflect upon the importance of the word of “nation”. “Nation”, as we know it, is a recent concept, historically speaking. It is an invention of the 19th century, even though its seeds can be found in the Age of Enlightenment. The feeling of nationalism emerges in full steam in Postindustrial 19th century. After all, the eighteen hundreds were an auspicious era for a nationalist fervor to grow and proliferate: feudalistic societies had disintegrated and bourgeoisie was thriving. The new bourgeois society represented a revolution with no precedents – it tried to organize a new order and unfold another social reality. This was indeed a period of so much effervescence in all social segments. More particularly, this was when history, geography, anthropology an other academic disciplines became a profession. It was also when cartography reached a political importance never known before. Territorial demarcations needed to be exact, specific and, above all, “named” (to name is to possess). This was when Europe needed to gather systematic information and knowledge about “Other” civilizations so that it could establish a marked difference between what was “normal”, “civilized”, “European” and what was “strange”, “barbarian”, “exotic”, “non-European”. This binarist thought is part and parcel of European imperialism and its discourses. If you add to the the cauldron the literature written by novelists, poets, translator and travelers, you end up with an impressive corpus of material that will imagine and describe the “Other” in order to affirm the “Us”. In addition to supplying vital information for the colonizer, the systematic study and knowledge about the “Other” helps in forging the idea of “Us”. We define the other comparatively and in the process we affirm our identity and superiority.

In this very dynamic – and indeed conflicting – relationship between the “Us” x the “Other”, nationalism is constructed as a “natural” consequence. It is no wonder, thus, that most national anthems are composed in the 19th century, with the exception of “God Save the Queen” (1745), “La Marsellaise” (1775) and “Marcha Real” (1770). It is also in the same historical wake that nationalistic symbols such as flags and others “appear” and images of the Other as barbarians or exotic proliferate in literature and painting. All of this serves a very specific purpose: to affirm a national identiy. Nationalism thus appears in modern age as a configuration of power and not as a simple and by no means harmless historical necessity.

This is when the image of woman as an allegory of nation emerges in literature recurrently. It suffices to remember the Native American princess Pocahontas who was “saved” by John Smith and duly converted to Christianity. Images of women will serve the nationalistic enterprise in various ways: to reinforce the values of the nation like in French Revolution and establish the difference between civilization and barbarism.

The European reading of Pocahontas in the portrait above is explicit. Pocahontas looks like a typical Victorian girl – angel-like eyes and white complexion. Her identity as a Native American is only manifest in signifiers such as the feathers that adorn her arm.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s