Voltaire’s Candide–2003

                                                                                                      Candide’s Travels to the New World



Voltaire’s view of America as expressed in Candide is a pessimistic one, but also one that shows a lot of potential.  The Americas are corrupted at this point by the European powers and their exploitative nature.  Despite this fact, America is shown as a place where there is great opportunity for both good and evil acts.  The descriptions of the various European inhabitants of America are derisive and show how a greedy and self righteous person could profit greatly from exploiting the land and the people who live on it.  The story of what happened to Candide in El Dorado is a comment not only on what the Americas were like before colonialism but what could be accomplished by a society regulated by enlightened thought.  Voltaire’s utopia is not a place that could exist but is the idea that great things could be done with America both for the inhabitants and new settlers if the right approach were made.  El Dorado could also be seen as an endorsement of the merchant system but is actually support for a simple egalitarian system. The other view Voltaire presents on the Americas is concerned with religion and the impact of the Jesuits in particular.  The Jesuits are seen in a terrible light throughout the book and their presence in the Americas is no exception.  He also tries to express the natives might have felt with the scene where the natives are clearly very excited to eat a Jesuit.(Voltaire p.74)  It is clear that the Catholics have done very well in America with regards to conversion and control, something Voltaire is extremely critical of.

            The first person we encounter in Buenos Aires is the pompous Dom Fernando d’Ibarra y Figueora etc. and seems to be an apt representative of the ruling class in the Americas.  His noble distain is even more pronounced than his European counterparts mainly due to his having so many names and is a jab at the nobles who inflate importance by the attachment of titles.  Although the lord is quite a buffoon, he seems to wield some power and is even described by the old woman as the “greatest lord in South America”.(Voltaire p. 66)  This view is the first glimpse of the Americas for Candide and the characteristics of the rulers is consistent with Voltaire’s view of Europeans in power.  This shows the kind of opportunity that any European of noble descent can have in America and the results are not looked upon favorably by Voltaire.

            An important theme in Candide is the general wisdom and loyalty of Cacambo because this is a common position of a “quarter-breed” in the Americas.  In other words, the kinds of opportunities presented to someone of even partial native heritage are very different than those presented to Europeans.  The natives are shown in greater detail later, but with the exception of the people of El Dorado, they are naïve and exploited.

            The power and authority wielded by the Jesuits is massive in America and show the kind of society than can be created by people motivated by conversion and control.  The padres are mocked throughout the book but only in America do they have temporal authority to match their religious authority.  Cacambo’s initial description of the priests in his native lands is somewhat contradictory because while praising them, he acknowledges that “the Padres have everything, the people nothing”. (Voltaire p. 68)  The praise for the catholic missionaries could be construed as extremely sarcastic, however, and their hypocrisy is exposed as well.  Cacambo comments that the priests kill people but send them to heaven so as not to feel bad about it.  The Jesuits take full advantage of every opportunity and their success is great, though a kind of success that Voltaire does not admire.  Voltaire expands on this distain by emphasizing the differences between the social standing of the priesthood and the standing of the native peoples. For example Candide is served from gold vessels while the natives eat “corn out of wooden bowls”. (Voltaire p. 69)  Catholicism is certainly very important and successful both in conversion and power maintained by war, but given Voltaire’s opinion of the Catholics, he is highly critical of those taking advantage of an opportunity to spread their religion.

            As Candide and his valet escape into the American wilderness, they encounter a land that is pure and seemingly untouched by civilized hands, a clean slate to be written on for good or ill.  The natives have some strange customs but are not ill willed unless they encounter a Jesuit.  Voltaire goes even further when Candide remarks that the situation among the natives is the “pure state of nature”. The largest problem these native have is simply that they are a “people who have not been educated”. (Voltaire p. 73)  Since the natives have already been exposed to education by the Jesuits, it follows that the kind of education Voltaire is referring to is an enlightened one.  The priests have had an opportunity to educate and convert these natives but given the response, “lets eat Jesuit”, it is clear that a different kind of instruction is necessary.  It is not directly implied that Voltaire thought the revelations of the enlightenment would be suited to the minds of Native Americans, but the idea of an uneducated people would be very appealing to someone trying to spread their philosophy.  This is also supported by the fact that both Voltaire and the natives are not on the best terms with the Catholic Church.

            The journey to El Dorado is a testament to the diversity of the American landscape and the city itself is an exaggerated version of Voltaire’s utopian vision. What we first encounter in El Dorado is the capitalist utopia because everything is catered to facilitate trade.  There is no mention of what the currency in El Dorado might be, but free food and lodging to help trade and gold being as common as flies would make any merchant salivate.  Points are also made to support the idea of corruption by Europe when the king states that the Incas who tried to fight the Spanish all died and that El Dorado was a city “safe from the greed of European nations”. (Voltaire p. 79)  The Native Americans are clearly in different states of development but worse off than they were before the Europeans came to make money and converts.

             Most of the ideals the people of El Dorado live by are very much in tune with the ideals of the enlightenment.  It could be interpreted that the kingdom of El Dorado is a constitutional monarchy but the word consent could also mean that the king is just honoring the pact between monarch and the subjects, a reciprocal relationship supported by the enlightenment.  This is supported by the fact that Voltaire was a supporter of “enlightened absolutism” (Gordan p.7) as supposed to democracy.  The government of El Dorado is an example, albeit exaggerated for effect, of a society that is free of the conventional European oppression and is ruled according to principles that Voltaire agreed with.  This enlightened society is the only place in the world where everyone is happy all the time, and this is reflective of what could be done if enlightened thinkers took the opportunity the new world presented.  It is really the religion of El Dorado that most impresses Candide and is also the most significantly enlightened.  The idea that everyone is a priest and religion is actually participated in by all is an idea in stark contrast to the religious institutions found in the rest of the book.  This is most clearly seen in the astonished question by Candide, “you have no monks who lecture, debate, govern, conspire, and burn people who don’t believe in them?”, the king replying, “we would be crazy if we did”( Voltaire p. 79).  In this way the possibility of a society free from religious tyranny and hypocrisy is created.

            Throughout the book, we see the role of Europeans in America as exploitative while it is also shown that there are also great possibilities to do good in the new world.  Europeans used the opportunity presented to them by an uncivilized world to increase their own wealth and sense of self righteousness at the expense of the people living there as well as slaves brought for work.  Fortunately for America, there are still parts of the new world that are not corrupted by Europeans and could become influenced by revolutionary thought.  Voltaire presents the new world as a place where opportunities for advancement in most things are possible but up until this point has only been used with selfish motives.

















Works cited

Gordon, Danial ed. Candide by Voltaire. Bedford/ST. Martin’s. Boston, MA. 1999

Effects of colonialism upon Native Americans–1997

Effects of colonialism upon Native Americans


The question of intrusiveness by European powers upon newly “discovered” Native Americans is not a question of which colonial style did or didn’t damage the lands they stumbled upon, but who comparatively was the most harmful.  Focusing on Spain, England, and France will show how deep the impacts of colonialism were.  For example, one of these three countries’ languages is spoken in the majority of North and South America.  Limiting the time frame to the beginning of the colonial period, Spain emerges as the most violent, opportunistic, and ultimately harmful power to colonize the Americas.  They accomplished this feat by utilizing all the assets of found land, particularly free labor.  England used methods that were initially less intrusive on Native American communities and the bulk of genocidal behavior in North America was committed by the United States at a later point.  France was the least intrusive of the three because they sought the consent of natives before declaring them subjects of the French crown.  The free, undeveloped lands of the Americas were ravaged by many nations in the period followed their revelation to Europe, but none was more savage in their domination than the Spaniards.

          England pursued the technique of sending people to settle on new lands and the idea of living in a place as supposed to ruling in a place made English settlers initially the least intrusive. This is not to say that the English had great respect for Native Americans and wanted to live side by side in a diverse community, rather they just didn’t view the indigenous people as conquered.  English settlers established authority the same way their lords had done, by making fences and planting gardens.  This concept is common to all the colonial powers because all “These historic cultural assumptions stemmed from three fundamental things: ‘everyday life’, a common colloquial language, and a shared legal code”.[1]  These three things are important in understanding the way in which different countries behaved in the new world and the subsequent impact on the native population.

          The building of a settlement, starting with a house, was the first and most important thing English settlers did when coming to a new land.  Communication with the natives and acquisition of resources always came second.  Establishing what was meant to be a permanent object, such as a house, showed a clear “intent to remain”[2] that communicated to the natives the intentions of the English.  The Native Americans could have seen these acts as a non-violent encroachment of territory but one that didn’t set off any alarm bells.  With the large amount of uninhabited land in North America, the natives might have foreseen a peaceful cohabitation.  This peaceful cohabitation was not an English aim, but served to pacify the indigenous people and block their knowledge of the inevitable.  The English house in the new world gained both a strong foothold and a delay of real communication with the natives.

          The English system of acquiring ownership of land is the first example of native subjugation and sets a trend whereby a large settlement can be established without force being immediately necessary.  Following the age old laws established in England during enclosure which stated that “when property was not fenced voluntarily, local and even royal officials demanded that English settlers put up fences”[3], and so colonists were quick to demonstrate ownership over specific tracks of land.  The other way English colonists showed ownership was by using the land they claimed for planting a garden or crops.  This was particularly important because becoming self-sufficient by providing their own food relinquished any dependence on native peoples.  It was then very simple to plant settlers and watch them grow over the land.  The garden was therefore a perfect metaphor for the English, not only because they as a people were enamored with it, but also because it reflected their style of conquest perfectly.  Once this “planting” began, the detrimental effects on the native people became more evident.  Indigenous lands became a part of England and because the English did not recognize any Native American claim to land, the natives had to move to accommodate the settlers, or try and fight for their land.  Given the technological advancements of the English over the natives, it was often the former option they pursued.

          The French took possession of unencountered land with the aid of an alliance with indigenous people, whether the natives were aware of it or not.  French colonists decided that it would be good for the crown, Christendom, and the natives themselves if the natives would respond favorably to a French declaration of dominion.  To this end “French speeches persuaded the natives whose emotional responses clearly registered approval”[4].  This “approval” could really have been any numbers of emotions on the part of the natives.  The French came in with lots of pomp and gifts, threw a party, and then proclaimed that the general good mood existed because French rule had begun.  All this was simply a way to legitimize colonialism because of course there was no way for the natives to understand any of the French speeches.  The assumption of an alliance with the natives was very harmful to the natives simply because they had no idea they were now subjects to a new king and also a new religion.  The only thing natives knew was that there were new and silly looking people in town, creating a dangerous atmosphere as the French started to rule their new “subjects”.  Seeking “at least the appearance of approval for their political authority in the new world”[5] was an act staged for the benefit of rulers in France as supposed to one for the benefit of Native Americans.

          The intricate processions and ceremonies the French undertook in a new land were necessary for the French to be legitimate, but did nothing for the indigenous people, save putting on a good show.  The ceremonies were put on for the same reason the English made fences, because that is what everyone did in France.  Processions of prestigious people in France were important in “creating and cementing the political power of French monarchs (among others)”[6].  This carried over to the mentality of colonists who had to first show their authority before exercising it.  The problem again was the language barrier between colonists and natives, making the French ceremonies useless as a declaration of power and dominion, except in their own minds.  In fact the ceremonies could only have added to confusion and misinterpretations, however impressive.

          Spain was the most destructive influence on the natives they encountered because they “created a fully ritualized protocol for declaring war against indigenous peoples”[7].  Instead of a slow encroachment on native territory or a formalized agreement with them, the Spanish stated bluntly that the land and the people themselves were subject to the rule of the Spanish crown and of the pope.  It was also made quite clear that failure to acknowledge Spanish authority would result in death and warfare.  Spain also had different aims than the French or English in that they wanted the native people to work for an increase in Spanish wealth. They were therefore more directly involved in changing the formerly peaceful lives of the people they encountered in the new world.

          The Requirement was a speech read to the indigenous population upon the arrival of Spanish explorers in unknown lands, expecting and enforcing a submission to Catholicism and the crown of Spain.  In this statement, it is expressed that the lands found were actually given to Spain by the pope and so the occupation and use of these lands was perfectly legitimate as long as the requirement was read to the people.[8]  The Requirement was most likely as confusing to the natives as the French speeches and processions were, but the consequences were much more severe for non-obedience.  An important idea in the requirement was that Catholicism was to be spread as well as the knowledge that the natives were now subjects of Spain.  This means that not just the way of living for the Native Americans had to be changed upon punishment of death, but also their way of thinking about the world.  Though the killing of Native Americans was no doubt harmful to their society, the change in ideals is even more harmful to a culture in the long run.  The Spanish did not force all natives to convert because this would hurt tribute incomes, as Catholics did not have to pay tribute.

          This tribute system was not only a strong incentive to conversion but was also “the economic basis of Spanish colonial rule over indigenous peoples of the new world”.[9]  Spain was the only colonial power to impose such a tax, as well as later requiring the natives to work for the conquistadores.  This shows a unique approach to the goal of all colonies; the greater acquisition of wealth for the home country.  This particular technique of immediate and forceful subservience to a new religion and country, taxes, and forced labor was almost as harmful as simply making everyone into Catholic slaves.  Thus Spain set out to make a fortune and if the people of the new world had a problem, they would simply be executed.

          The destructive impact of colonialism on Native Americans in North and South America was evident with all European incursions, none being more detrimental than the rule of the Spanish.  The misleadingly benign settlements of the English and the confusing ceremonies of the French certainly led to many native deaths and displacements, but the greatest change in indigenous culture as a whole came from the actions of Spain.  It is really the intent to change the natives’ way of thinking that was most harmful because even the initial deaths and servitude could be overcome and freedom could be returned, but the destruction of native beliefs and language is something that can not be fixed. 


[1] Seed p.4

[2] Seed p.18

[3] Seed p.21

[4] Seed p.43

[5] Seed p.62

[6] Seed p.50

[7] Seed p.70

[8] Seed p.69

[9] Seed p.82