chapter  4
A female “El Dorado”
Pages 15

The narratives discussed in the previous chapter manifest the complex, and often contradictory projection of prescriptions, desires and fears onto the West Indian landscape. In this chapter I consider the female configuration of one such projection: the New World as promised land, as El Dorado. What is interesting about this enduring symbol is its gender associations. A historical illustration: the frontispiece to Peter Hulme’s Colonial Encounters (1986) reproduces an image now almost archetypal of the colonial encounter. The engraving, by Jan van der Straet (Stradanus) is dated around 1600 and entitled “America.” In it, a naked and fleshy Amerindian woman starts up from a hammock, as a clothed and armed European male stands over her. She is surrounded by “American” props (parrots, bows and arrows) and a cannibal feast is in progress in the background. As Hulme observes (1), the sexual nature of the encounter – the male gazes down at the semi-reclining female body – and the manner in which the allegorical woman figures both “native” and “land,” are apparent. Similarly, Columbus’s journal configures the Gulf of Paria as the entrance to “the terrestrial paradise” (another inscription of El Dorado), and fittingly “from his reading of geographers and theologians, he had come to the conclusion that the earth here was shaped like a woman’s breast, with the terrestrial paradise at the top of the nipple” (Naipaul 1962: 38). The tropics as woman’s body, a bountiful source of sustenance and pleasure, and the construction of the encounter between Old World and New in terms of male conquest of seductive “virgin territory,” may have had its origin in Walter Ralegh’s account of his 1595 “Discoveries of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana.”1 Here he described “a country that has yet her maydenhead,” the site of the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold. In any case, it was a familiar trope by 1669 when John Donne’s “Elegie: To His Mistris Going to Bed” compared the exploration of his lover’s female body with that of the Conquistadors’ forays into the new continent:

Oh my America, my new found lande, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, My myne of precious stones, my Empiree, How blest am I in this discovering thee.