Comparing Diderot's Tahitians with Equiano's Africans
Denis Diderot’s account of Tahitians in “Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’” and Olaudah Equiano’s autiobiography’s description of natives in Benin, Africa paint pictures of two distinct nonwestern societies, the former fictional and the latter real. While some small similarities exist between the peoples described in the two texts, for the most part, the Tahitians and Africans contrast starkly.
It is true that the two societies both view women in a somewhat lesser light than men. The clearest example of this in Equiano is when the narrator lists the four ranked divisions of public dancing assemblies on page 12. In times of celebration, the four divisions of society dance in their groups and play musical instruments such as drums and guitars. Equiano writes that married men constitute the first division, married women are the second division, young men take third, and maidens are the fourth division. The fact that Equiano numbers these divisions indicates that there exist four separate groups declining in prestige from first to last. One instance in Diderot’s piece shows that the fictional Tahitians did not value women as much as men: Orou’s act of offering his wife and daughters to satisfy the chaplain’s sexual desires indicates that, at least sometimes, females are viewed not as people but as objects for presentation as gifts.
Besides women’s second-class status in society, however, the Tahitians and Africans have very little in common. Equiano writes on page 10 that in Benin there are chiefs, judges, and senators that hold high ranks in society, and are marked “by cutting the skin across the top of the forehead, and drawing it down to the eyebrows; and applying a warm hand to it, while in this situation, and rubbing it until it shrinks up into a thick wale across the lower part of the forehead.” Thus, several members of African society hold high ranks which are obvious to other people by their altered physical appearance. Conversely, in Tahiti there are no chiefs or strong leaders of any kind. The major force in Tahitian society is public opinion as opposed to centralized leadership.
The two societies view sexual relations quite differently. In Tahiti, the idea of adultery does not exist. Men and women can change sexual partners at will without fear of being punished by a government or being despised by the general public. Yet in Africa the case is the exact opposite. “Adultery,” Equiano writes on page 11, “was sometimes punished by slavery or death.” The marriage bed is held extremely sacred. Men in Africa are jealous and protective of their wives, but the old Tahitian who gives a farewell speech to Bouganville’s crew claims that the island knew no jealousy before the Europeans’ arrival.
In addition, marriage ceremonies in the two societies differ greatly. According to Orou,
Tahitian marriage is no more than an agreement between a man and woman to share a bed until they decide to separate. In Africa, however, there are grand ceremonies arranged by the couple’s parents in which a cotton string is tied around the woman’s waist, thus declaring her a woman open to sexual engagement with no man but her husband. Dowry is given to the newlyweds in the form of “portions of land, slaves and cattle, household goods, and implements of husbandry” (11). It is unlikely that friends and parents would give gifts to married couples in a promiscuous society such as Diderot’s Tahiti since they change partners so frequently.
Slavery, while common in Africa during Equiano’s lifetime, seems nonexistent in Diderot’s conception of Tahiti. Collecting slaves is everyday fare in the Benin of Equiano’s childhood. Slaves are obtained by kidnapping people or enslaving prisoners of war. The idea of slavery emphasizes the desire for material wealth among Africans, a desire that the old native in Diderot’s piece condemns wholeheartedly as a new curse brought to Tahiti by the White man.
Diderot’s Tahitians and Olaudah’s Africans view religion differently as well. Orou tells the chaplain that the Tahitians had no gods, nor any religious beliefs. The idea of religion is completely new to him when the chaplain describes it. Equiano, however, writes that Africans of his province practice a sort of monotheism; they “believe that there is one creator of all things, and that he lives in the sun” (17). Their god is active: he governs events and controls life and death in everyone. They believe that once their relatives die, they become spirits that “always attend [the living], and guard them from the bad spirits, or their foes” (17). Therefore, the Africans believe that people exist more than just as physical presences, but they also have souls that could last even after their earthly deaths. The Tahitians, in contrast, believe in a physical society of hedonism where people believe that self-gratification is their primary goal. They believe that once they are dead they exist no more, and thus might as well enjoy their living years freely.
The Africans described in The Life of Olaudah Equinao and the Tahitians described in “Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’” are, in most ways, opposites of each other. This could be the case because Diderot never really traveled to Tahiti and studied the people— he just assumes from hearsay what those islanders were like. To form an educated guess of what Tahiti in Diderot’s era was really like, one would have to read first-hand accounts instead of fictional supplements. Nevertheless, even primary sources may be suspect since they are largely subjective. Everyone has his or her own unique perspective of any given event, which is why two people who share an experience may still argue over what actually happened. That fact actually casts some doubt on Equiano’s depiction of his own native Africa, since he writes about his early life with distant memories as his only references, and memory is never perfect.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Ed. Joslyn T. Pine. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999.