When reading and studying the multitude of travel accounts that have been written throughout history, context plays an extremely important role in guiding how one reads and interprets the content. The time period in which an individual account is written, as well as the ideologies that were prevalent during that period, influence the way the traveler’s experiences, as well as the experiences of the natives they encountered, are portrayed. In turn, the accuracy of these accounts is challenged, and one is left to question whether a truly objective account can exist. Thus, it is important to compare accounts from different contexts to truly grasp an understanding of the attitudes and beliefs of the time. During the time of European exploration and expansion into the Pacific, there were two cultural movements, the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, that played a role in the way explorers perceived and engaged with foreign cultures. One can come to understand the attitudes towards Tahitian society, towards European society, and towards the cross-cultural encounters between them by comparing the contexts in which Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s A Voyage Round the World and Denis Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville were written. Enlightenment thinkers lived during a time of new and exciting scientific exploration and discovery. The rise of these new discoveries allowed people to question their previous, religiously based explanations for how the world ought to be. Thus, rather than using tradition and faith to answer all of life’s questions, there was an emphasis on the greater use of reason through empiricism and reduction (Enlightenment, Ch. 17).
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s travel accounts display a great use of reason, the major theme of the Enlightenment, otherwise known as the “Age of Reason”. He consistently portrayed the natives incorrectly due to the limits of his own perspective. For example, in trying to make sense of the Tahitians lifestyle, he mistakenly interprets the statues in the chief’s home as idols. Bougainville took the figures to be idols, a hypothesis influenced by the way that European culture viewed savage religion. However, we know from Forster’s footnote, that the Tahitians do not worship idols, providing a clear example of how the use of reason could result in a skewed perception of Tahitian culture (Diderot, 224).
Another major theme of the Enlightenment expressed in Bougainville’s account is that of universalism, which is routed in the belief that primitive cultures will ultimately develop a system of laws similar to that of Western culture (O’Neill). The influence of universalism on the way Bougainville interacts with the Tahitians may be interpreted as an attitude of assumed superiority to the natives. Consequently, this assumed superiority, or notion of universalism, did not allow for a mutually beneficial exchange between cultures because Bougainville had a preconceived notion that the Europeans were the ones with superior knowledge, having nothing to gain from the Tahitians.
One instance in which this attitude of superiority is expressed is in the manner in which Bougainville went by asking permission from the chief and his elders to stay on shore and build a camp. Upon being confronted by the chief and his companions, who expressed their displeasure of the French staying on shore, Bougainville states that he “insisted upon establishing the camp, making him comprehend that it was necessary to us, in order to get wood and water, and to facilitate the exchanges between nations” (Diderot, 226). Not only does Bougainville deny their request to sleep on their ship at night, but also he goes on to assert his Enlightenment influenced ideology on the natives by explaining to them how this would be most beneficial for both parties. However, he does not seem to take into account the desires of the Tahitians, automatically