I had another reason which made me less forward to enlarge his majesties dominions by my discoveries: to say the truth, I had conceived a few scruples with relation to the distributive justice of princes upon those occasions.
–Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (292)
So Swift sums his travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s attack on Colonialism is a succinct raillery against the English government and the proliferation of British colonies in the western Pacific. I love the way he opens the book with a ship’s mutiny against her Captain. Swift is setting the stage for the reader to show he was not a part of the approbation of his country’s practices of Colonialism and he stood apart from his fellow countrymen.
I find it interesting to note that he made the Houyhnhnms a horse. Most accounts of conquered peoples, especially those of the West Indies and America’s, saw the horse as a royal and heavenly creature. The horse and his Conquistador in Mayan accounts were considered sent from a god.
Moreover, an interesting distinction of fascination was while Swift was satirizing the practice of colonizing the western Pacific the British Navy was nearing its peak prosperity and Captains Cook and Bligh were mapping and conquering the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and the Hawaiian Island exchanges. These early conquered lands of the British colonizers are arguably Edens on earth. Eden as we know represent the Utopias of perfection of Sir Thomas More’s literature which find godlike, or perfect creatures in idyllic environmental, political, and social conditions. The godlike perfection of reason and the world of the Houyhnhnms is a paradisiacal garden until the arrival of the Yahoos. Gulliver’s master relates to him that one day two Yahoos appeared on the mountain and then ran rampant over the continent; imagine the reactions and feelings evoked in a native being over ran by a conquering army of ‘animals’ unlike them.
At this moment in the writing, Swift creates a technical split here in the narrative. Swift gives Gulliver the statement that he was merely watching the Houyhnhnms as a social experiment by noting their ways and community. However, while he was studying the ways of the Houyhnhnms, he was critiquing the constructs of Colonialism and placed the onus of wrongfully directed morality upon the Houyhnhnms that represented the reasoned man of the Enlightenment. But his subtle narrative switch finds Gulliver witnessing the Houyhnhnms as beast through the prism of his European eye and specism through the ethnocentricity of his race as being superior over that of the horse creatures that inhabit the island-this is the beginning of the satire narrative; the reasoned man’s sense of morality and what Conrad termed the “white man’s burden” to educate and civilize foreign ‘beasts.’ He in essence is trying to switch the reader’s opinion of the Houyhnhnms to that of his fellow country men. Readers will agree and see the significance of the horse as a beast of burden and a more lowly construct of social morality and Swift uses this reference to conjure up the attitudes of those that support Colonialism as beastly and condescending.
Swift now turns his didactic eye and shows the fallacy of the assumed superiority of the Yahoo’s race, read human in Gulliver’s, and critiques, or better, satirizes, the innate beastly nature of humans. To expound upon the brutal natures of Man, Swift even goes on to say, “a Yahoo is a soldier hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species; who have never offended him, as possibly he can.” (247) It is an interesting line Swift toes between outright attack and a subtle subterfuge. Did the common, everyday 18th Century reader grasp the satire Swift employed?
The most interesting part of Gulliver’s and the subsequent money shot if you will occurs in the closing of Book IV. I am sure readers of the 18th Century would obviously grasp his meaning of satire after the diatribe on pages 292 to 293 when he attacks the British nation and the barbarous practices of those sent to do the King’s bidding on foreign shores outright. He attacks the humanity of the thieves and beggars that man the Royal Navy and “commences a new dominion acquired by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the natives driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold, a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize a n idolatrous and barbarous people.” (292)
Swift, Jonathan, Michael Seidel, and Michael Seidel. Gulliver’s Travels (Barnes and Noble Classics Series). Danbury: Barnes & Noble, Incorporated, 2008.