John Donne’s Colonial Innocence

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Studies in Philology





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From his verse epistles and libertine poems to his religious polemic and ser-mons, John Donne routinely invokes the Native peoples of the Americas as exemplars of innocence. Donne’s understanding of Native peoples’ innocence was influenced by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas’s treatise Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, widely read in its English translation, The Spanish Colonie. Las Casas characterizes the Native peoples of the Americas as innately weak, docile, and obedient to argue that they are innocents and that Spanish colonial policy is unlawful; meanwhile, he depicts Spaniards as exceptionally cruel and prone to commit acts of arbitrary violence. Las Casas’s depiction of Spain as malicious and the Spaniard as intemperate underwrote English views that Spain’s military and colonial dominance was illegitimate. Many scholars cite Donne’s refer-ences to Amerindians as vulnerable and innocent as evidence that he read Las Casas and shared the friar’s compassion for the Amerindians. Donne makes further use of Native innocence, however, as he figuratively identifies his various literary personae as themselves the victims of Spanish violence and the objects of sympathy by comparing them to the Amerindians. Donne holds up Native peoples’ perceived qualities of innocence—freedom from sin, criminal blamelessness, childlike ignorance, and sexual (in)experience—as desirable qualities that the English should cultivate to remain spiritually and criminally blameless, unlike Spaniards, as they undertake colonial adven-tures. Donne’s literary invocation of innocence is invariably bound up with the English colonial project. His works encouraged their various audiences, including members of the Virginia Company, to consider Amerindians’ perceived embodied innocence in relation to their own pursuit of innocence as a behavioral and spiritual virtue that could advance their colonial objectives.


English and Comparative Literature