June 6, 2010

Europeans as 'Other,' Redux [February 2011 update]

A post today inspired by last week's post on early modern Japanese and Chinese depictions of Europeans. Thinking about that led me to look more closely at an image I've had filed away for awhile -- a remarkable example of sixteenth century Japanese Nanban ('Southern Barbarian') art depicting a group of Portuguese merchants at a Japanese port, apparently selling a small collection of exotic animals. Here is the image in full (or, at least, the most complete version of it I've found -- this is itself likely a detail from a larger painted screen):
Looking at the image more closely I realized that it could be cropped into detailed individual portraits. The result is a fascinating inversion of the early modern European ethnographic gaze -- one in which the Portuguese, rather than the Japanese, are depicted as exotic-looking foreigners.  The palpable strangeness that Portuguese clothing and physiognomy held for the painter is evident from the remarkable level of detail throughout, and especially the close attention paid to the figures' outlandish apparel.
Could this be an African slave or Afro-Portuguese crioulo?
What I find most interesting about these portraits is the acute attention given to ethnic signifiers, from skin color to clothing, and what they might tell us about the individuals of diverse backgrounds who were lumped into the undifferentiated category of 'Portuguese' in early modern Japan and elsewhere in the Portuguese empire.

(The role of animals -- some of New World origin -- in these images is another fascinating topic, one I plan to return to at a later date).

The Portuguese themselves, being, like other early modern Iberians, obsessed with limpieza de sangre, tended to depict themselves as exclusively Christian, European and, to use an anachronistic term, 'white.' Recent work on the Portuguese empire, however, is beginning to reveal a different picture. I've heard an estimate from one noted historian of slavery in the Lusophone world that up to one tenth of the population of Lisbon in the seventeenth century was of African origin, while another important recent work has revealed the pivotal role played by Portuguese Jews and Marranos in creating the networks of commerce and credit that were, in truth, the real substance of the Portuguese empire. Finally, in areas such as Goa, Sri Lanka, Cape Verde and East Timor, prominent Portuguese creole populations developed.

It is difficult to speculate about the backgrounds of the diverse Portuguese traders pictured in these images, but the potential countries of origins of these figures (from Malaysia and India to Angola and Brazil) is a testament to the truly global character of the Portuguese empire, and to the new perspectives which an outsider's gaze can bring.

A. J. R. Russell-Woods' The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: a World on the Move and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert's A Nation Upon the Ocean Sea are two books I've been reading on this subject, both excellent in different ways. I'm particularly enjoying the Russell-Woods book.

Finally, here's an example of Nanban cuisine -- a Japanese recipe that originated as a Spanish and Portuguese dish called escabeche (I have yet to try it myself, but it looks pretty good). Other culinary cross polinations abound: apparently we even have the Portuguese to thank for tempura.


Felipe said...

Thanks Ben, someone finally looking at the possibility that someone other than Europeans can find something to be "exotic."
I feel like most of what I read completely ignores such possibility

Anonymous said...


Laura said...

I can't find the link to the "two books I've been reading on this subject, both excellent in different ways" Please provide it.

Ben Breen said...

Dear Laura, the books I was speaking of are Russell-Woods' "The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: a World on the Move" and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert's "A Nation Upon the Ocean Sea," which I had linked via the two Amazon boxes above. I've now added text links as well.

Anonymous said...


I remind my students when we study Edward Said that he said that *all* cultures view their others in exotic ways, and not just pre-modern Europeans. Edward Said has often been wrongly been charged with being critical of the West's representation of Islam, of accusing the West alone of being racist. His own position was more nuanced.

Melissa Williams, University of Toronto said...

I found this when looking for representations of Europeans by non-Europeans in early stages of contact. I'm delighted you've started doing this. For another angle, here's a photo of a Nisga'a (Northwest North American Indigenous) carved mask depicting a white man: http://www.pag-ipg.com/fr/conferences/conference2008.pdf

If others know of wider collections of images and/or textual descriptions, please contact me at melissa.williams@utoronto.ca

www.resobscura.blogspot.com.au/2010/06/europeans-as-other-redux.html said...

i like you website it gave me some information for my history assignment

Rogério Maciel said...

«...The Portuguese themselves, being, like other early modern Iberians, obsessed with "limpieza de sangre" , tended to depict themselves as exclusively Christian, European and, to use an anachronistic term, 'white.'...»

That's not right , never was and isn't !
And , what you are doing is (i think , due to Ignorance of History and the "natural" arrogance of the british ...) spreading , once again , fake Knowledge about one Culture , like Portugal , manipulating Historical Truth and Knowledge .
In spite of beeing inhabitants of Hibéria , Portuguese never had that feeling .
That's why WE have Mixed extensively with every race in the Planet, but that comes from far in time , when WE weren't yet known as Portuguese .
In that particular (and others...) realm , do not mix Portuguese with the "spanish" .
WE are not "spanish"!
But that is a very VULGAR concept that the anglo-saxon "world" has about Portugal and the Portuguese , due to Ignorance and Arrogance , or , Arrogance and Ignorance ...whatever maybe the order .
A simple sign of that Ignorance is that you said "limpieza de sangre" , and this isn't PORTUGUESE .That's CASTELHANO , or , Castillian .
Portugal is not Castela/Castille , and vice-versa .
What i find to be REALLY SAID , is that , an inhabitant from Britain , which has the LONGEST ALLIANCE of History , with Portugal , always speak of Portuguese and Portugal as if WE were "spanish" , showing , sadly , once again , Ignorance and Arrogance about the Historical Truth.
WE , Portugal , Portuguese , are already used to it ...

Peter Cane said...

Hi there! Thanks so much for this!! One question... is there any possibility that the date of this painting was earlier? A date of 1543 appears very faintly in various places, almost lost in the background. I have a feeling that if the artist were Japanese, that he or she was able to speak some Portuguese, or possibly even Italian given the presence of so many former Genoese merchants in Portugal following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The closure of the profitable East-West trade route, and the inaccessibility of their former Black Sea colonies greatly stimulated the Genoese urge to explore around the coast of Africa... Anyway, I can pick out here and there both Japanese characters and European - very faint, very ambiguous, but there. So - could the date it was painted really have been 1543? If so, I may know who two of the characters (in tan and green plaid) were.