Proto-colonial othering in ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ and ‘The Tempest’

The notion of ‘the self and the other’ leads to many questions about the construction of identity, and the differences amongst individuals, cultures, and nations. When this concept is applied to colonialism, it creates a lens to understand the possible motivations behind colonisation. A close look at medieval and renaissance literature may provide insight into the thought processes which lead  to colonialism. Books such as ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ by John Mandeville,  and ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare offer such insight into the way the European characters think about and behave towards ‘the other.’ Themes of power, wealth, identity, culture, evangelism and civilization show up in both these stories, as characters encounter foreign people and places. This essay will explore these themes as possible motivations for colonialism, with emphasis placed on how the self interacts with the other. 

We can begin by looking at the narrator John Mandeville who regarded himself as a Christian pilgrim, and early explorer of the world. In his book, he claims to have visited parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. As Mandeville journeys over a prolonged period, which spans most of his adult life, he acquires experiences which he tries to eternalise in his so-called travel guide. A close inspection of his book reveals the attitude of a European persona in the medieval period who encountered many foreign cultures. His attitude, as can be deduced from his narrative, seemed to indicate that Mandeville had pure and sincere intentions while travelling, and subsequently writing his book. 

Mandeville deliberately states in his prologue that he wrote from memory in his old age, therefore errors may present themselves in his account. Mandeville concludes his narrative with a prayer for joy and peace for all who read his book. He also specifically says, “We know not whom God loves nor whom He hates.” Judging from these sentiments, one cannot label Mandeville as an aggressive oppressor or proto-colonist. However, from reading his text, one can gain insight into the collective mind of Europeans who colonised large parts of America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. 

A close inspection of the text reveals an attitude of ‘othering.’ Mandeville writes some rather prejudiced details about other cultures. His comments would be considered offensive in the 21st century. He denies some people’s godliness by considering them as heathens, and he describes some as physically ugly. To mention a few, he refers to Egyptians as men with goat legs, Ethiopians as one-legged people who use their one oversized foot as an umbrella, and Indonesians as mouthless dwarves or having elephantine ears. Mandeville also makes mention of the wealth in the Orient, in the royal palaces and kingdoms. He goes on to further explain people’s distance from the one, true God which his Roman Catholic Church believes in. This type of thinking reveals the motives behind colonialism. 

Though othering is not always negative, in Mandeville’s case, his othering characterises people of different cultures, religions and nations in ways that undermine them. He places his beliefs, values and standards at the centre of civilization and divine truth. There are instances when Mandeville writes that other religions are not in relationship with God, though their faith in idols and false gods are admirable. He believes that with the right  guidance from the Roman Catholic Church, they may be able to correct their beliefs, and turn their devotion to the real God. He also writes about Muslims (Saracens) who he believes are similar to Roman Catholics in their beliefs but a little misguided. He believes that it would be fairly easy to convert them to his specific sect of Christianity. The religious motivation for colonisation cannot be ignored in Mandeville’s writing. 

Though Mandeville does not mention the desire to exploit unsuspecting nations of wealth, he does make mention of their wealth, which may have enticed some readers to pursue colonisation as a means to acquire such wealth. Along with this, Mandeville points to the lack of civilization in some countries – this weakness could prove useful to anyone considering the colonisation of another country. 

Considering the time period in which Mandeville wrote his book, his descriptions differ from his peers’ travel guides. Mandeville moves beyond the geographical description of places and travel guidelines, to include details about people, culture, religion, rituals, language and other anthropological aspects. His written work was fascinating to his readers, as can be understood from the popularity of his book,  and the longevity of its success. By incorporating these details into his travel guide, Mandeville creates an interest in Europeans to go out and explore the world further. And with this exploration, comes desires to colonise, as more Europeans witness the riches of other countries, their lack of civilization, and their so-called need for Jesus Christ. 

People who read Mandeville’s book could easily have formed stereotypes about Africans and Asians based on Mandeville’s descriptions. Without direct exposure to these cultures themselves, readers could have possibly shaped their beliefs and perceptions around Mandeville’s descriptions. The lack of similar writing during this time period, would have made Mandeville the authoritative voice on the topic of African and Asian cultures. These stereotypes, which possibly passed on over the centuries in adapted forms, may still underlie Western assumptions about Africa and Asia in modern day. 

From this point we can look further ahead, at a play by William Shakespeare which was written during the Renaissance period in Europe. ‘The Tempest’ is set on an island which is believed to be off the coast of Northern Africa. The European character, Prospero, tries to take ownership of the island by ousting the rightful ruler, Caliban. Prospero initially arrives on the island after being stripped of his position in Milan by his brother Antonio. Prospero finds himself in exile on a foreign island with no power, status or wealth. He possibly feels rejected and vulnerable after his brother betrayed him and took over his position as Duke. 

Feeling powerless and vulnerable, Prospero seeks to set up his own kingdom on the island by making use of the spirits and subjugating the islanders. He goes about this in a manipulative fashion, where he initially befriends the ruler Caliban to learn all the knowledge about the island, and once he has gained a lot of information, tries to strip Caliban of his position as rightful ruler of the island. Prospero was not initially interested in ruling Milan, when he had the chance to, but after he was robbed of his kingdom, he in turns takes on the manipulative nature of his brother, and does the same to Caliban for power, hence showing the abused becoming the abuser. 

In Prospero’s bitter and angry state on the island, he insults Caliban, dehumanises him and considers him inferior. When Stephano and Trinculo arrive on the island, they speak to Caliban in the same way; they call him a monster. Both Stephano and Trinculo had no power in Milan, they were servicemen. By finding Caliban, who they consider beneath them and less civilised, they exert their power over him, and impose their opinions over him. It can thus be seen in these cases, that when powerless Europeans encounter different nations, they try to exert their dominance over it. When Prospero regains his position at the end of the play as Duke of Milan, he loses interest in the island, does not care about his rivalry with Caliban, gives up his magical powers, and returns to Milan a happier person. 

Not only do European colonists seek power when vulnerable, but people in general. When Caliban loses power to Prospero, he reacts by attempting to rape Miranda as a means to regain power. The need for the vulnerable to seek power is a natural human quality experienced universally. We must consider that the power differential is not only experienced between the coloniser and the colonised, it also occurs within nations, through hierarchies associated with government and patriarchy. 

The power differential between Prospero and Antonio should not be downplayed. Prospero villainizes Antonio in the same way that he villainizes Sycorax. This leaves the reader questioning whether Prospero is in fact the overall villain in the play. We see him manipulate the relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand for his benefit. He loses his temper and threatens Arial, who is someone that is trying to help him. He only guarantees Ariel’s freedom when Ariel agrees to do his will. He reminds Ariel at every turn that he holds the key to Ariel’s freedom. It would seem that Prospro is antagonistic towards anyone who he considers ‘other.’

In view of this, we can gain some insight into the mind of European colonists who tried to control and change other parts of the world. It would seem that when feeling powerless, vulnerable and threatened, they set out to conquer others. They seek nations that have wealth and “weaker” people. By conquering other nations, they are able to take ownership of that country’s resources, which they use to grow their power and set up their ideals. 

In this conquest for power, Europeans used many justifications for colonisation. As can be understood in Mandeville’s story, religion was used as a reason. Europeans who believed that they were closer to God, felt the need to share the gospel with other nations to bring them closer to God. Consideration for other worldviews was not given – a superficial understanding was gleaned and then overridden. Or as can be seen in ‘The Tempest,’ the other’s beliefs were used and manipulated to serve the objectives of the colonists. 

Besides religion, the other justification which Europeans used was the desire to civilise the world. When Europeans encountered different nations, they immediately began to “other” them. Distinctions were drawn and emphasis placed on the savage, barbaric nature of the other. The natives’ political, social and spiritual practices were disrespected, and attempts were made to obliterate them. Equality and integration were not considered between the self and the other. 

At this juncture, let us return to the concept of the self and other, through the lens of colonisation. It is worth mentioning that the notion of ‘the other’ serves to construct the self. When Mandeville encounters the other, he remains unchanged in his beliefs. He continues to believe what he does about God and Europeans. His identity is not redefined by the influence of his experiences with foreign people. His encounter with the other, works to further confirm to him that his beliefs about spirituality are best and true. As he makes his comparisons, he points out areas in which he admires and respects others, while at the same time, always referring back to how they differ from his beliefs as a Roman Catholic. However, in the case of Caliban, where he views the Europeans as other, it transforms him. His perception of himself changes, he begins to think of himself as a savage slave. He learns the language of the other. He is re-defined by his encounter with the other. 

According to Edward Said, the East is not represented accurately in Western literature. Writers would mix fact and myth in their writings, thus portraying an inaccurate account of the Orient. Western occupation in the East influenced Orientals to believe that the West was at the centre of civilization, thus making Orientals think that they were inferior to Westerners. The West chose to polarise the East and West, instead of blending or finding commonality. The West was considered superior and masculine, while the East was considered inferior and feminine. Furthermore, writings on the East by Western female writers differ from Western male writers. The perception that the West is more superior and masculine than the East, possibly led Westerners to believe that it was their rightful place to dominate and subjugate the East. Westerners possibly believed that the East needed the West to be stronger and complete. This type of justification possibly made colonisation seem fair and just to the colonists. 

In both ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ and ‘The Tempest,’ binaries are portrayed. In Mandeville’s story, the binaries are less obvious, as he does find some similarities between the self and other, however some binaries still present themselves as Christian and heathen, and Occident and Orient. In ‘The Tempest’ the binaries are more pronounced, as represented by innocence and evil, human and monster, human and spirit, father and daughter, male and female, European and non-European. The other is a common theme that runs through both stories, but neither story can be reduced to a single story or a single genre. 

There are ambiguities in the characters, and questions left unanswered in the plots. These stories leave readers with more questions than answers, when analysed on a deeper level. Both books can be analysed from various genres, and cannot be reduced to the colonialist genre alone. Though colonialism is one viewpoint, it is not the only nature of the stories. However, a proto-colonial reading of these texts hold value in understanding the possible motivations behind Europe’s colonisation of parts of Africa, Asia, America and Australasia. 

Fictional literature is often a reflection of real life, and indeed ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,’ and ‘The Tempest’ reflect complex and multi-dimensional European characters, who are reflective of real life. Though their stories contain elements of magic realism and satire, the overall meaning alludes to the realities of society in the medieval and renaissance periods, respectively. 

Works Cited:

Benson, P. The Concept of the Other from Kant to Lacan [Online] Available: [5 April 2022]

Bertens, H. Postcolonial Criticism and Theory [Online] Available: [5 April 2022] 

Fleck, A. Here, There, and In between: Representing Difference in the “Travels” of Sir John Mandeville [Online] Available: [20 April 2022] 

Howard, D. The World of Mandeville’s Travels [Online] Available: [20 April 2022]

Kohanski, T. “What is a ‘Travel Book’ Anyway?”: Generic Criticism and Mandeville’s Travels [Online] Available: [30 April 2022] 

Mandeville, J. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Translated by Moseley, C. W. R. D. Penguin Book Ltd., London, England, 1983.  

Shakespeare, W. The Tempest. Delhi Open Books, Delhi, India, 2020. Willis, D. Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism [Online] Available: [30 April 2022]

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