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Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 271-293, 2004
^^ Routledqe
The measure of Egypt
If modem readers know of Claude-Etienne Savary’s account of travel in Egypt,
most likely it is by way of Immanuel Kant’s citation. In his ‘Seventeenth Letter on
Egypt”, Savary writes ofthe difficulty he encountered while viewing the pyramids
in Giza;
Arrived at the foot of the pyramid, we made a tour of il, contemplating it with a
sort of horror. When viewed close, il seems to be made of masses of rocks; but
at a hundred paces distance, the largeness of the stones is lost in the immensity
of the whole, and they appear very small.’
In the Third Critique, Kant refers to Savary’s remarks to illustrate the cognitive
conflict between apprehension and comprehension that occurs in the experience of
the sublime. In Kant’s text, Savary’s text is reduced to a description of how
travellers should position themselves so as to experience the object as a totality,
that is, both in terms ofthe impressions it creates when viewed closely and those
when viewed from a distance:
Hence can be explained what Savary remarks, in his account of Egypt, viz. that
we must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from
going too far from them, in order to get the full emotional effect of their size.
For if we are too far away, the parts to he apprehended (the stones lying one over
the other) are only obscurely represented, and the representation of them
produces no effect upon the aesthetical judgment of the subject. But if we are
very near, the eye requires some time to complete the apprehension of the tiers
from the bottom up to the apex, and then the first tiers are always partly
forgotten before the imagination has taken in the last, and so the comprehension
of them is never complete.”
Following Kant, readers of Savary^^ have tended to confine their observations to
the first section of his description of the pyramids, the section in which he
describes the experience of his joumey from ‘Grand Cairo’: the slow approach
toward the Giza plateau when the masses suddenly loom in the moonlight ‘like
two points of rock crowned by the clouds’; his descent into the suffocating interior
passages of the pyramids; and, finally, from the summit, the prospect of the sun
rising over the eastern bank of the Nile. It is this la.st spectacle, the view from (not
oO the pyramid, that is the climax of Savary’s description of the pyramid and,
arguably, the moment closest to what Kant would later describe as the sublime.
Savary exclaims. ‘There is not in the universe a more varied, a more magnificent,
and more awful spectacle. It elevates the mind, and forces it to contemplation.’
Kant’s citation of Savary has led readers to look for evidence for the way that
aesthetic categories informed travel writing of the period. But the focus on
aesthetics marginalizes the tradition of travel writing on Egypt with which
ISSN 136S-879O print/ISSN 1466-1S88 onlLne/()4/()l()()27!-23 © 2004 The Institute of Poslcotonial Studies
DOI: i0.1080/136fi«79()42000311089
Savary’s text converses. In this tradition there is no object so often described as the
Great Pyramid of Giza. At the same time, there is no object so often described as
indescribable. Just as all travel accounts about Egypt depict the pyramid, most also
discuss the problems the object posed for understanding, experience and writing.
Savary and many of his contemporaries address the historical problems posed by
the pyramid, since it was older than classical antiquity and its origins unknown
until the mid-nineteenth century. Savary and others also discuss the phenomenological problems posed by the pyramid’s massive size: it was difficult to
apprehend, let alone comprehend, in a single experience. But above all, Savary
and others mention the question of representation: how were they to describe the
object, or their experience, in mere words or images? The truthfulness of an
eighteenth-century account like Savary’s was based in the direct experience and
observation. This was a shift from earlier styles of writing in which it was deemed
more authoritative to cite the accounts of classical authorities than to present the
description of one’s own experience. Empirical theory demanded that knowledge
be direct rather than received and that it be presented with us little mediation as
possible. If mediation was the intractable problem for this theory of knowledge,
transparency was the best metaphor for describing tbe ideal form by which an
object should be represented. Beneath the language of eighteenth-century travel
accounts there is a recurring desire to elide the process of writing with that of
experience. Or, to put it differently, to render visible to readers the direct
experience of the traveller. Ideally, nothing would intervene betweeti the objects
originally experienced and the gaze of European audiences who read travel
This model of travel writing was rooted in an essential distinction between
clarity and obscurity, transparency and distortion—a distitiction which fully
permeated the writing but which also proved untenable, at least insofar as writers
recognized mediation to be the condition of all representation. Within travel
writing, the desire for unmediated representation was also tied to the technique of
verifiability. Most travel accounts were voiced in the first-person, with the
authority of the writer serving to ground tbe actuality of the observations
described. The voice of the individual author might lend a sense of immediacy to
the empirical description, but it also had the unfortunate effect of highlighting the
partial and merely relative nature ofthe experience asserted. Another technique of
verification, measurement, had an advantage over this subject-intensive narrative
technique in tbat it seemed to allow the observer to transcend her own partial
experience by rendering descriptions which were as ‘immediately material” as the
objects themselves. Verifiability through measurement promised that the
descriptions of objects could be compared with the objects measured. It also
promised that others could repeat the process and arrive at the same descriptions or
correct them, a ritual in which most travellers participated. However, this
technique did not necessarily transcend the problem of relativity: for measurements to describe in a stable or ‘objective’ way, they needed a standard that was
absolute, or at least one agreed upon by all participants. For Europeans of the
eighteenth century, there was no consensus on such a standard.
The apotheosis of transparent description was to transcend verbal and narrative
forms of representation, to render the lens ofthe traveller invisible, and to transmit
the objects observed in travel to readers so as to make it appear that they were
experiencing them directly. As the metaphors of clarity and transparency tell us,
travel writing’s desire to transcend mediation was figured largely in terms of
visuality. In practice, most of the bent for visual objectivity entailed methods of
observation and an education in drafting techniques. But part of it also entailed the
mechanization of observation, the u.se of the camera obscura and measuring
instruments, which sought to transcend the sources of relativity and distortion in
perception and representation, the organs and the limbs of the body. These
techniques and methods sought to skirt the anxieties raised by the partiality of
corporeal knowledge, and render instead subjectless, “unmediated” representations
of its object.
Seeking to render descriptions of the pyramid that were empirical and
immediate travellers like Savary would ‘draw’ the object in visual image and,
most importantly, in number. Reading Savary’s description ofthe pyramid beyond
the passage cited by Kant, we find that the description of aesthetic experience was
less important compared to its concern with measurement. Rather than elaborating
on the subject of sensory experience, Savary’s text comments upon the
problematic relationship between measure and knowledge more generally. ‘To
determine [the pyramid’s] dimensions is still a problem”, Savary writes. ‘From the
time of Herodotus to our days, it has been measured by a great number of travellers
and learned men. and their different calculations, far from clearing up doubts, have
only increased the uncertainty.’^ Savary’s words are an understatement: measurements of the pyramid, and the frustrations endured in the attempt to measure,
were among the most prominent features of European travel description on Egypt.
In fact, the subsequent pages in Savary’s account, which far outnumber those
containing descriptions of experience, are dedicated to an extensive review of
metrological debates about the pyramid and begin with ‘a table of them, which
will serve at least to prove how difficult it is to come at the truth’ (Figure 1).
Savary’s table considers at great length the measurements made by others.
Savary corrects the measurements of some by reference to others, as for instance
when he notes that Greaves and Nieburh (sic) are “hugely mistaken’. For the most
part his participation in the debate is limited to observation and commentary. Yet
Savary’s intervention goes beyond this. As the form of the table suggests, his
presentation gives order to the problem of measure and organizes the sum of
figures within a single taxonomy.
One category of the table deserves particular attention. The table summarizes
the most authoritative measures in the familiar form of the debate between the
ancients and the moderns {anciens and modemes)^^ It clearly shows that travellers
had long been correcting each other and revising their measurement of the height
{hauteur) downwards. The chart also marks an innovation that had occupied
modern travellers: the measurement ofthe pyramid’s height and width (largeur),
and also its layers of stone (assises de pierre). This innovation is symptomatic of a
development within modern travel writing on Egypt whereby travellers describe
the pyramids at Giza according to empirical observation. As Savary’s table
illustrates, the accuracy of the number was certainly paramount—on this point, the
moderns and the ancients agreed even when their measurements diverged. The
difference was that while the first set of measures (height and width) rendered the
L’ K C
Hauteur du la grande
pyr amide.
Y P T K.
Largeur d’un do
ses cotes.
600 ei^ueJcf. p-700
Le Bruyu
Prosper Alpin. . 620
Thcvcnot. . , , ,
NomLre des assises dc pitMrre qui la formcnf.
Albert Lewenstein.
11 me parott evident que MM, Greaves et
Nieburh ii« sont prodigicusciUKnt trainprs en
la baiitcur perpciidiculaire d’^ la
Figure 1 Page 189 of Savary’s U’ttrcs sur VEgypte: table of comparative mea.surenient
indicuting the height ofthe Great Pyramid and the width of one of its sides according to
various authorities, ancient and modem, with modern counts of the number of layers of
stone (Claude-Etienne Savary. Lettres sur t’Egypte. Paris: Bleuet. an VII [1798])
pyramid as if it were a geometric form, the second, modem set (the layers of stone)
rendered the pyramid more as a jagged, irregular stack of rocks. This increasing
attention to the irregularity and particularity of single objects has been described
Figure 2 Page 100 of Sandys’ Travels: an example of the early modern drawing style
depicling the Giza pyramids as geometrical shapes {George Sandys, Sandys’ Travels,
Containing an History of the Original and Present State of the Turkish Empire: Their
Laws. Government. Policw Military Force, Courts ofjustice. and Commerce. London: R.
Clavel, 1670)
by Barbara Stafford in terms of rendering figures of “substance*.^ Travellers had
long described the pyramid as if it were a smooth, even abstract shape (Figure 2).
Yet by the eighteenth century, travellers increasingly depicted it as a particular
extension in time and space (Figure 3).
The issues raised by Savary’s table of measures would not be so striking if they
did not mark an end of eighteenth-century travel writing on Egypt, and the
beginning of a new colonial era. It is significant that Bonaparte relied heavily on
Savary’s travel account as he prepared to invade the country in 1798. For
Bonaparte, the measure of the pyramid was not merely an issue of curiosity: to
know the height ofthe object would help deduce the elevation ofthe Red Sea in
relation to the Mediterranean^—-a useful calculation for the canal proposed during
the short-lived French Occupation of Fgypt (1798-1801). Moreover, if measured
correctly, the pyramid could be used to determine the geographic positions of
important places throughout the Egyptian landscape. Spurred on by images and
figures provided by Savary and others, the pyramid became the central landmark
in the French colonial survey of the Egyptian landscape.
Figure 3 Plate 45 of Norden’s Travels in Egypt and Nubia. ‘Colossal head ofthe Sphinx,
with the three pyramids”** (Frederick Lewis Norden, Travels in Egypt and Nubia, London:
Lockyer Davis and Charles Reymers, 1757)
Although the measure of the pyramid remained of paramount significance
during the French occupation, a sign of control over Egypt, the presentation of
measure began to change. Measure in eighteenth-century travel accounts like
Savary’s was a self-consciously relativist practice. That is, it was part of an
accumulating system of descriptions whose truths were judged with regard to one
another. After 1800. a new mode of measure came to dominate in published
accounts of travel in Egypt. This tnode of numerical description presetited claitiis
whose truth lay in their indexical quality, that is, not in relation to previous
measurements but. rather, purely to the physical matter to which they referred. It is
not an exaggeration to say that in reading descriptions of the pyramid from this
time, we observe a subtle, but crucial, epistemic shift in the modem European
tradition of representing Egypt: from descriptions in which measurements are
presetited as relative (as one claim among others), to descriptions in which
measurements are presented as wholly indexical (not claims, but facts, whose truth
is inseparable from their referents). The significance of this transformation in
claims on Egypt is tnultipie.
First, the shift that occuned in tiumerical description, the shift away from a selfreferential tropological system toward a purely indexical language, became the
language of later colonial writing on Egypt. Yet. to trace this emergence is not to
write a history of pure ideas: the new indexical claims about the pyramid, and by
extension on Egypt, were themselves enabled by direct military occupation of the
Second, the question raised by this shift is especially topical to postcolonial
theory since there is some debate (or at least ambiguity) in our field as to whether
the power of colonial discourse lies in its tropological character (how it works as
an imaginative system composed of metaphors), or whether its force derives from
its indexical character (how it lays claim to a world of referents). To take, for the
moment, only one striking (though foundational) example of this ambiguity, an
example to which I will return. Edward Said’s Orientalism presents two
conflicting definitions of colonial discourse: the first is indexical and hi.storical;
the second, a synchronic. closed system of tropes. Others have noted how Said’s
definition is deeply conflicted. What I want to suggest is that this contradiction
between the two definitions (trope versus index) might be resolved by seeing them
as different moments in the development of a history of colonial representations.
Third, the question of epistemic change itself touches on another concern at the
heart of postcolonial theory, namely the term “power/knowledge’. Although our
field is well informed by Foucault. we are often reluctant to disaggregate the terms
‘power’ and “knowledge” from one another. Eor Foucault. the analytic potential of
•power/knowledge’ lay in how it opened onto historical questions about
epistemes. The ‘forward slash’ (the virgule as opposed to hyphen) separates the
term into two distinct fractions, whose relation is neither one of identity nor direct
causality, but rather of dynamic pressures. We will recall that Eoucault never
argued that knowledge is power in the abstract sense; rather, he described how
knowledge can create or sustain relations of domination in specific contexts and
institutions, and how such institutions produced their truths. To enquire into
‘knowledge/power’ is thus to ask: what kind of knowledge? What kinds of
knowledge enable what kinds of power relations? And what kinds of power
relations enable what kinds of knowledge?
In this essay, I will first outline the travel-writing tradition of measure and
numerical description, that is. the broad discursive context in which accounts like
Savary’s appeared. To bring focus to this context, and how it changed. I will
concentrate on how two epistemologically distinguishable authors attempted to
tackle the difficulties that the pyramid posed for empirical experience and textual
representation: one text was published in 1646, the other in 1800. The choice of
the latter text is not accidental, since it coincides with the first European attempt to
colonize Egypt and illustrates the degree to which number and measure were
imbricated in colonization. I will then use the epistemic shift that took place
around 1800 to address questions raised by the ambiguity that the question of
indexicality has often had in po.stcolonial theory. Finally. I will return to another
landmark figure in travel accounts of Egypt, the Mic/yas. or Nilotneter, to show
how these epistemic shifts marked the physical landscape ofthe country.
Measuring the pyramid
But because the judging of magnitude depends, not merely on multiplicity
(number), but also on the magnitude of the unit (the tneasure) and since, to
judge of the magnitude of this latter again requires another as measure with
which it can be compared, we see that the determination of the magnitude of
phenomena can supply no absolute concept whatever of magnitude, but only a
comparative one.’
Lists of measurements, like Savary’s table and subsequent discussion, were
common in travel accounts of the pyramids of Egypt. How much was there to
observe and mea.sure? In the accounts we find an impressive, heterogeneous list:
the age of the structure, the distance between it and other objects, its height, the
length of each side, the length of its base, the angles of the sides to one another and
to the base, the height of each step, the number of steps, the location of its
entrance, the dimensions of the interior cavities, the diversity of flora and fauna
thriving around the objects, the age and compounds of minerals composing the
rock. Once these initial notes had been made, one could calculate: the actual height
of the monument when it was first built as opposed to its present state of partial
deterioration; where it stood with regard to cartographic abstractions such as
latitude (and later, longitude): its elevation above sea level; how much it cost to
build; the wages of the labourers; the average size of its stones; the volume of the
mass; the number of stones that went into its construction; how the stones were
raised: its original architectural u.se; the ratio of averages and sums as compared to
readings of the Nilometer and the significance of any of these numbers with regard
to astronomical observations or astrological systems. Though separated by 150
years, two accounts stand out in modem travel writing for the comprehensiveness
of tbeir treatment of the pyramid: John Greaves’s Pyramidographia (1646), and
Jacques Grobert’s Descripticm des Pyramides de Gbize (1800).
Greaves’s number-intensive account of travel in Egypt is a clear example ofthe
anti-narrative bias in modern travel writing; besides their metrological value, lists
of numbers were important because they interrupted the flow ofthe itinerary plot.
While in many descriptions of the pyramid, estimates on height and width prattle
on for so long that they overwhelm the story around them, Greaves’s account does
mark an extreme. Greaves relegates the narrative of travel experience to the
margins of his text. The main body ofthe text itself consists of an extended debate
on the measurement of the pyramids. Greaves’s account is wholly object-foe used
and in this sense appears highly indexical: it first places the object in a historical
and philosophical narrative by establishing when it was built, why it was built and
the uses to which it was put. But eventually it moves toward tbe detailed
description of the pyramid as an extension in space—establishing where it is
situated and. finally, what its physical dimensions are. Such description rehes
heavily on number.
Greaves proceeds along a track familiar to other travel authors of the period,
negotiating between the received authority of ancient accounts and the new
authority of empirical observation:
But seeing the vicissitudes, and revolutions of times, have deprived us of these
[ancient accountsl. whilst the Pyramids have been too great to be consumed, it
will be no superfluous labour to imitate the examples of the Ancients, and to
supply the losse of them, by giving a distinct narration to severall dimensions,
and proportions of these Pyramids. In which I shall tread in as eeven a path as I
can. between truth, and the traditions of such of the Ancients, as are still extant:
First, putting down those relations, which by them have been transmitted to us:
and next, shewing in what manner, upon examination, I found the Pyramids in
the yeares [1638-39| …. For I twice went to Grand Cairo from Alexandria, and
from thence into the deserts, for the greater certainty to view them: carrying
with me a radius of ten feet most accurately divided, besides some other
instruments, for the fuller discovery of the truth.”
Greaves’s method toward Greek and Roman travel accounts is one of conversation and dialogue. He periodically rejects their accounts in favour of his
own observations, but shows no special favour towards the moderns. A
declarative tone, the voice of unmediated observation, comes to dominate the
The first and fairest of the three greater Pyramids is situated on the top of a
rocky hill, in the sandy desert of Libya, about a quarter of a mile distant to the
West, from the plaines of Aegypt: above which the rocke riseth an hundred feet.
or better, with a gentle and easy ascent. Upon this advantageous rise, and upon
this solid foundation the Pyramid is erected: the height of the situation adding to
the beauty of the work, and the solidity of the rocke giving the superstructure a
permanent, and stable support.'”
The description of substance turns toward measurement, the division ofthe object
into increasingly smaller—more preci.se—units. The description turns toward a
series of debates about the difficulty of creating coherent measurement. Part ofthe
difficulty is arithmetic, a problem of numbers. For instance. Greaves repeatedly
summarizes the measurements of other authors in order to .show the utter lack of
consensus between their calculations:
If we imagine upon the sides of the basis, which is perfectly square, foure
equilaterall triangles mutually propending. and inclining, till they all meet on
high as it were in a point (for so the top seems to them which stand below) then
shall we have a true notion, of the just dimension, and figure ofthis Pyramid: the
perimeter of each triangle comprehending two thousand seventy nine feet
(besides the latitude of a little plain, or flat on the top) and the perimeter of Ihe
basis two thousand seven hundred seventy two feet. Whereby the whole area of
the basis (to proportion it to our measures) confeins foure hundred eighty
thousand, two hundred forty nine square feet, or eleven English acres of ground,
and 1089 or 43560 parts of an acre. A proportion so monstrous, that if the
Ancients did not attest as much, and some of them describe it to be more, this
age would hardly be induced to give credit to it.’^
The debate only intensifies: the measurements of Herodotus, Pliny, Diodoms
Sicilus are all put on display to show contradictions and the impossibility of their
arithmetic. Greaves gives his own figures, though always in conversation with
those of others. What emerges is not a measure of an empirical object, but a
lengthy commentary about numbers, standards, and the disagreements of authors.
Certainly, the empirical measure of the pyramid depicts its object as a patiicular
substance extending in time and space. Yet, the description constantly turns from
its putative object, toward commentary on the problems associated with measure.
Greaves was not interested in measuring the pyramids for the sake of exercise.
In ‘Discourse on the Roman Eoot”. a text appended to Pyramidographia in its
eighteenth-century editions. Greaves takes up the issue of unit of measure again,
asking about how one was to measure things by English feet: “Who shall be that
perfect and square man from whom we may take the pattem of these measures? Or
if there be any such, how shall we know him? Or how shall we be certain the
ancients ever made choice of any such?’ ”^ Such questions were of direct relevance
to descriptions of Egypt. Travellers often expressed an awareness that the units
(inches, feet, miles, degrees, minutes) by which they measured Egypt were neither
universally accepted nor internally stable. While travelling in Egypt, authors had
to contend with the problem of correspondence between Egyptian scales of
measure, systems for measuring distance, heat, calendrical time, weight, economic
value and so on, and those used in England, France, and elsewhere in Europe. To
travel in Egypt, to communicate with or represent it, the European traveller had to
convert between foreign cunencies, exchanging, finding equivalences. Only by
such comparisons could one make the phenomena of Egypt significant for
audiences at home, or for later travellers. While travelling, not only did Europeans
encounter foreign systems, but the traditions of measure and classification among
Europeans often varied according to the national origin, institutional location, and
even the temperament of individual travellers. Moreover, standards were
themselves in fiux. as rationalists created new metrological orders that competed
with one another. A list ofthe innovations in units of measure from the eighteenth
century would have to include: new calendars; the metric system; new measures
for temperature and heat; new geographies and cartographies; new theories and
practices of economic value and exchange.”’
As systems for representing the world, the new metrological systems of the
eighteenth century acknowledged the threat of incoherence, which would make
descriptions of the world appear relative, provincial or merely self-referential.
Anxieties about relativity and communicability were built into the new. rational
orders: the old system of measuring by feet (or digits, palms or cubits) varied
notoriously by region and historical period; moreover, it had no necessary
correlation to any transcendent value, nor to the things measured or the corporeal
referents from which they (at least conceptually) derived. The new metrological
systems attempted to solve this problem by fixing a ‘natural’ identity between
certain units of measure and the material quantities they measured: the
temperature or weight of water in various states at sea level as in centigrade
and metric weight; or, in the case of the metric system of lengths, the fixing of a
unit’s value as a rationally derived fraction of an unchanging whole, the globe’s
circumference. Eor the purpose of standardizing and manipulating units of
measure the new systems were an improvement over pre-existing systems,
although that improvement was probably the result of a rationalized internal
coherence of the measuring system. As far as grounding their representational
coherence in a world of empirical objects, the new systems of measure tried to find
universally recognizable material elements—such as water—which could stand as
empirical markers of value.
These questions, raised in Greaves’s treatise on the foot and elsewhere,
constantly recur in eighteenth-century travel accounts of Egypt: how was one best
to measure the pyramid? What systems, standards and methods were most
adequate to the task? How does one legitimate using one particular system of
measure as opposed to others? How would one establish correspondences to
alternative systems of measure? Could one ground the authority of measure in the
empirical world? Were there empirical objects that could guarantee the
referentiality and coherence of measure?
Read in light of his reflection on units of measure, we see thai Greaves’s
measurement ol’ the pyramid sought to produce more than a declarative statement
about an empirical thing. The significance of measuring the Great Pyramid for his
account lay precisely in how it would serve as a particular object set in time and
space, and also a fixed point of reference. By portraying the pyramid as sign and
physical referent, he sought to bridge the gap between its existence in language
and its existence outside of it. By means of this, one could begin to make
equivalences among various systems of measure, modern and ancient. Greaves’s
description of the pyramid Is also an historical enquiry into the value of various
systems and units of measure. The empirical object serves as a standard by which
he can begin to compare the Roman foot to the English foot. More than that.
Greaves asserts that he means to measure the object in order to use it as a ‘lasting
monument’ by which to ‘transmit to posterity” the “measures of all nations’, and
finally: ‘Had this been formerly done by mathematicians, choosing for the purpose
some proper places not exposed to the injury of time, we should not at present be
so uncertain in the search after the measures ofthe ancients.’ Greaves’s goal is
thus not merely to ‘transmit to posterity’ equivalences between all systems of
measure; he also seeks to establish coherent, standard equivalences for units
within the contemporary English system of feet as well. Far from pinning Egypt
down as the object of a unified European gaze, accounts like Greaves’s tell the
story of trial and error, of metrological experiments conducted in the laboratory of
Egypt. Such accounts sought to establish coherent metrological systems far more
than they tried to lay claim to Egypt itself.
These issues are developed in the work of Michel Foucault who linked measure
to extended processes of comparison. In his account of Cartesian suspicion toward
classical notions of resemblance, Foucault observes the cenirality of comparison
to modern modes of understanding. Citing Descartes, Foucault writes, “all
knowledge “is obtained by the comparison of two or more things with each
other”‘.’ Reproducing a division made by Descartes. Eoucault asserts that
comparison consists of two parts, ‘measurement’ and “order’. The knowledge
produced by ‘measurement’ works by disaggregating the object into units:
One can measure sizes or multiplicities, in other words continuous sizes or
discontinuous sizes: but in both cases the use of measurement presupposes that
… one considers the wholefirstand then divides it up into parts. This division
results in a number of units, of which some are merely conventional or
‘borrowed’ (in the case of continuous size) and others (in the case of
multiplicities or discontinuous sizes) are the units of arithmetic. The comparison of two sizes or two multiplicities requires, in any case, that they both be
analyzed according to a common unit; so that comparison effected according to
measurement is reducible, in every case, to the arithmetical relations of equality
aiid inequality. Measurement enables us to analyze like things according to the
calculable form of identity and difference.”^
The process of ‘measurement’ assumes the whole of the object, then performs a
division into ever smaller units: if single objects, then the division enumerates
‘conventional” units of measure; if a series of objects, then the division marks out
units of arithmetic, numbers. In Foucault’s account, the coherence of ‘measurement’ does not derive from the figurative quality ofthe number, but from the ‘unit’
by which the measurement is made. In other words, the coherence and power of
such numerical descriptions stems not from the mere use of numbers, but from the
system of units to which numbers are attached as adjectives. The unit is what
allows for different objects of different size to be compared to one another in a
system of social meanings, and it is also an actual thing. The unit of measure is
thus a special type of signifier, whose signified is supposed to be identical to its
referent. In contrast to ‘measure’, Foucault describes ‘order’ thus, once more
relying upon formulations from Descartes:
Order, on the other hand, is established without reference to an exterior unit: ‘I
can recognize, in effect, what the order is that exists between A and B without
considering anything apart from those two outer terms’: one cannot know the
order of things ‘in their isolated nature’, but by discovering that which is the
simplest, then that which is the next simplest, one can progress inevitably to the
most complex things of all. Whereas comparison by measurement requires a
division to begin from, then the application of a common unit, here, comparison
and order are one and the same thing: comparison by means of order is a simple
act which enables us to pass from one term to another, then to a third, etc.. by
means of an ‘absolutely uninterrupted’ movement. In this way we establish
series in which the first term is a nature that we may intuit independently of any
other nature; and in which the other terms are established according to
increasing differences.””
Unlike measure, what Foucault calls ‘order’ takes the empirical object itself—
not its equivalence in unit—as the term on which comparisons are made. The thing
is not represented by units, nor translated into exchangeable signs, but rather
stands on its own as a unique sign. Order generates a kind of figurative system
where things, being also signs, converse in the intelligible language of
comparison. But unlike the system of measure, whose figure—the unit—generates
comparisons based on the principle of likeness (and interchangeability), the
rhetorical system of order generates comparisons based on difference (and
As Greaves’s texts indicate, the coherence of the foot system could not be
accomplished solely through what Foucault calls measure. On the contrary, all that
measure could do was to divide the object according to units of exchange, units
whose values were by no means always stable, intelligible, or even exchangeable.
Indeed, the resemblances (such as that between the Roman and English ‘foot’) that
permeated through the units of measure were the site of ongoing slippages,
exchanges that produced intemal inconsistencies and also worked against
authoritative claims about external reference. Greaves’s account takes this into
consideration by appending a claim about the unique iconic status of the pyramid,
thus linking it to Foucault’s other mode of comparison, order. In one place.
Greaves describes the measurement he makes upon a small part ofthe rock ofthe
pyramid—marking the thing itself so that its particularity would become an
empirical standard for measure. Elsewhere, he describes setting up a series of
Mediterranean landmarks, by cotnparing portions of the pyramid to other unique
monuments and ‘permanent’ markers: part of Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, ‘the
rock at Terracina on the Via Appia’, ‘the Gate at the Pantheon”, and ‘the Porta
Sancta of St. Peter’s Church’.”‘ Greaves’s method for dealing with the figurative
instability of the unit of tneasure—its unlimited exchangeability, its inability to
refer consistently to a single object, and its inability to cohere within a system of
convention—is to tie it to a single object, such as the pyramid, whose figurative
difference would be the ground of its referential capacities—to other texts, to his
text, to other objects. By repre.senting the pyramid as both empirical thing and
iconic sign, Greaves’s discourse suggests that the categories of measure and order
might be put to use together so as to guarantee the grounds of indexical
representation. By describing the pyramid in terms that invoke the comparison of
measure and also that of order. Greaves strives to create an absolute, rather than
comparative, system of representation. Each extra-textual indexical gesture is
secured by a complementary nod toward the interior of textual representation. In
this sense, this form of indexicality does not point merely outward from the text to
a world of things, but also back to the discursive foundations which make
representation possible. It is not that Greaves’s text is merely self-referential, but
rather that it conveys an understanding that indexical gestures to extra-textual
referents happen within the rhetoric of accounts and within a growing tradition of
representations of the same objects.
In contrast, Jacques Grobert’s De.scription des Pyramides de Ghize (1800) is far
more confident about the ability of his figures to cling to the things he describes.
For Greaves, measuring the pyramid would pin together two forms of metrology,
Foucault’s ‘measure’ and ‘order’, so as to render both coherent and stable. In
Grobert there is little, if any, anxiety about the coherence of measure. Indeed, as
we shall see, what he calls ‘difficulty’ is not a sign of anxiety so much as its
As Chef de Brigade d’artellerie, Jacques Grobert’s talents for measure and
calculation were put to use often during the three-year French occupation. During
a 1799 state function in Cairo, he was in charge of the fireworks spectacle that
terrified the city’s inhabitants.”” Most likely, he also played a key role in the
violent suppression of the Cairo uprisings, in which the superior firepower of
French artillery proved decisive against the Egyptian barricades, and which
resulted in the destruction of large parts of old Cairo and the looting of al-Azhar.”
Grobert’s Description was one of the first works from the French occupation to be
published, appearing before the French army itself was evacuated. It remained the
authoritative account of the pyramids until the appearance of the encyclopedic
work, La Description de VEgypte. There are good reasons to link these two texts,
mostly because the style of Grobert’s text prefigures that ofthe later work. In many
ways. Grobert’s text is the first of a new style of travel writing which, after its
systematic codification in Let Description de VEgypte, comes to dominate
nineteenth-century ‘scientific’ travel writing on Egypt.
‘Difficulty’ is a key word in Grobert’s text, and appears often in his description
ofthe method, instruments and circumstances of measure. He fiaunts the difficuUy
of the task of measuring the pyramids as confirmation of his text’s veracity.
Grobert de.scribes at great length the special difficulties he had as a member of an
occupying army fighting the resistance of Egyptians:
It is useful to inform readers that the desert approach [to the pyramid! is never
free from danger, especially that part where the Bahariyya Bedouins make their
frequent incursions. They are the most numerous, and the most intractable
enemies of Christians, the most obstinate foes ofthe other tribes who run along
the Nile from Saqqara to Beni Soiieif. They frequently fire upon river boats on
the Nile. I was attacked by them twice while going to Rosetta. On our lirst
march, they kidnapped a young and worthy officer, the aide-de-camp of the
Chief General. They killed General Donmartin. It is they who ravage the fertile
fields which surround Giza, who carry off farm animals and spare not even the
native inhabitants themselves. This is what motivated the precautions, which
were more or less at all times necessary, for visiting the pyramids and for
staying in that spot.””*
Despite troop shortages due to ongoing clashes, Grobert’s survey of the pyramid
was taken seriously enough to warrant military escorts. Grobert’s account is
noteworthy for the way in which Egyptians appear in the representation of the
pyramid. Or rather, for the way they appear as obstructions to European
representation. This theme becomes central in later European travel accounts of
the pyramids. Alongside the difficulty of these conditions, Grobert discusses
difficulties associated with instruments and methods of measure. For instance, the
method of employing a length of cord is dismissed by the sceptical Grobert:
It is as important and difficult to measure the base of the pyramids as it is the
height, becau.se every geometric method becomes impossible without their
measure. If one were to measure [the pyramid] in its actual condition, one
would come up with false results: first, becau.se a rope, or similar means, when
stretched, breaks and bows in the angles ofthe layers ….”^
Throughout these passages, Grobert describes a growing conundrum: he can either
measure the pyramid as an actually existing substance (whose size is too large to
measure by conventional means) or he can measure the pyramid as a pure form
(whose existing shape is not a geometiical abstraction) by trigonometry. The
empirical method is as impo.ssible as the trigonometrical method is false.
Furthermore, the instruments of measure he would like to have used are also
rendered useless by the difficulties posed by the object’s size and its environment:
Without attaining the base, the gramometre will not render a precise measure.
The frequent and exaggerated movements of the sun make necessary other
precautions, precautions which are possible, but far-fetched and thus very
difficult in this place. Finally, the use of a barometer or any other such
instrument, is very unreliable in Isuch] a climate where the heat fluctuates so
noticeably and [with it] the metals and glass tubes.”^
Grobert’s solution to this difficulty was an ingenious one: ‘These reasons
coinpelled me to employ a slow, heavy but reliable method carrying out, as much
as I could, a measure ofthe surfaces.'”^ Rather than measuring the entirety ofthe
object at one time, a labour he admits to be beyond his instruments and ability.
Grobert first measures the size of each step. He does this quite precisely, compiling
a table recording the vertical dimension of the steps (hauteurs des assises) in feet,
inches and fractions (Figure 4).
These figures, computed for each ofthe monument’s steps (counted to be 205),
N U M Ji K t
1) i S

A S S I ^ >: S.

.i 1


.- .-
Figure 4 Page 49 of Grobert’s Description des Pyramides: tirst page of table of noncomparative style of measurement, indicating the various layers of the pyramid, with the
height of each measured in feet, inches and lignes (Jacques Grobert, Description des
Pyramides de Ghize de ta Vilte du Kaire et de .ses Environs, Paris: Logerot-Petiet, 1800)
could then be added to one another, or manipulated to calculate other data about
the object.^ Thus, not only did Grobert deduce the total height of the monument
with exceeding accuracy, but he arrived at the average and mean height of each
Step, the pyramid’s middle point, its original height (calculated to be 208 steps)
and so on.
Measure in Grobert ha.s a different status than it has in Greaves, Savary or others
before him. Most importantly, it has moved away from the dialogic model:
measure is not an asserted point so much as a logical statement. The description of
Egypt is no longer a matter of rhetoric, but of science. Throughout Grobert’s
account, the debate with the ancients (and even with contemporary moderns) is
made irrelevant: while Grobert does criticize Maillet*^^ and Volney^*^ for the
incorrectness of their measures, Grobert’s numbers are not meant to be compared
to the numbers compiled by others, but rather only to the thing to which they point.
While comparison has remained the method of Grobert’s measure, it is a
comparison of numerical figures not to others within a tradition of travel writing,
but solely to their referents. In this sense, the representation of number and that of
measure cease to appear tropological, but are offered as purely indexical signs.
This turning outwards is what sets apart the writing of Grobert from those who
came before.
Insofar as it incorporates the complaint about difficulty as part of its new truth,
Grobert’s discourse continues to rest on one of the key rhetorical features of the
older tradition of measure. Difficulty remains a key signal of the new procedure of
measure, and thus needs to be developed with regard to conditions in which
measure takes place, the instruments by which it is attained, and the method
employed. Difficulty appears as an indicator of the new measure’s accuracy. Yet,
whereas trigonometry was the basis for most eighteenth-century measure, by the
time of Grobert, the ground of measure was pure empiricism. No longer was the
pyramid to be measured (or even depicted) as a geometric form, but rather as an
irregular particularity. To accomplish this, the object was not measured as a
totality, but rather according to a process of increasingly smaller division. In
Grobert, as in most subsequent travel accounts, the table and the illustration are the
privileged representational form where these issues find expression, where this
division is retotalized. As such, what is articulated in the measure ofthe pyramid is
not just a repre.sentation of the object, but also the grid under which this
representation finds coherence and substance. Such grids had appeared before, but
in Grobert’s account, the grid has become naturalized as substance itself. The table
is where the text’s indexical capacity is organized and guaranteed, seemingly
without narrative, without metaphors. It does not converse with the long tradition
and debate about measure that came before: it now points directly toward its
Number, measure, and postcolonial theory
In the critical analysis of colonial discourse, numbers bave often been singled out
as especially pernicious devices. As rhetorical figures, we often eonsider them
suspicious because they turn human life into abstractions and render concrete
situations into mystified concepts. The power, so the implicit theory goes, is that
the numerical figure, per se, is what reifies complex forms of social life into
homogenous equations. Yet, what the above accounts suggest is that it is wrong to
think of the use of numbers in colonial discourse in the abstract, since their
significance is anything but uniform or universal. Moreover, if we seek to identify
what is suspicious about the use of numerical description in types of colonial
discourse, we need to recognize that such effects obtain only in specific historical
To give a foundational example, in Orientalism, Edward Said describes the link
between number and totalizing forms of knowledge in terms of pathology. He
writes, “Rhetorically speaking. Orientalism is absolutely anatomical and
enumerative: to use its vocabulary is to engage in the particularizing and dividing
of things Oriental into manageable parts. Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of
paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge.’
More recently, Arjun Appadurai has expanded on Said by focusing on how a
discourse of numbers in nineteenth-century censuses shaped caste and land
politics in colonial India. According to Appadurai, the rhetorical success of
number derived from its ability to domesticate heterogeneous arrays of alien
objects and bodies encountered in colonial settings: illustrating literally the
power of the textual “supplement” (in the deconstructionist usage), numerical
tables, figures, and charts allowed the contingency—the sheer narrative clutter of
prose descriptions of the colonial landscape^—^to be domesticated into the abstract,
preeise, complete, and cool idiom of number.’ ” As for the ability of numbers to
act upon tbe things and human bodies to which they refer, Appadurai writes,
[Colonial 1 body counts create not only types and classes … but also
homogenous bodies (within categories) because number, by its nature, flattens
idiosyncrasies and creates boundaries around these homogenous bodies as it
performatively limits their extent. In this latter regard, statistics are to bodies
and social types what maps are to territories: they flatten and enclose. The link
between colonialism and orientalism, iherefore, is most strongly reinforced not
at the loci of classification and typification … but at the loci of enumeration,
where bodies are counted, homogenized and bounded in their extent. Thus the
unruly body ofthe colonial subject (fasting, feasting, hook swinging, abluting,
burning, and bleeding) is recuperated through the language of numbers that
allows these very bodies to be brought back, now counted and accounted, for the
humdrum projects of taxation, sanitation, education, warfare, and loyalty.””*
As Appadurai suggests, the census text gestures towards its referents in a
performative way: the numerical language of statistics can be said to produce the
very objeets it claims merely to describe. But the language suggests two separate
operations at work: on the one hand, the census creates ideational or textual effects
(“types and classes’), while on the other, it “flattens and encloses’ the things to
which it refers. There is an ambiguity, to which his earlier remark on the
supplement is perhaps directed, about whether the number’s authority stems from
being one figure producing an imperial imagination, or whether its authority stems
from its capacity to act upon an extra-textual world of empirical objects. This
distinction is sharpened elsewhere in Appadurai’s argument:
Numbers regarding castes, villages, religious groups, yields, distances, and
wells were part of a language of policy debate, in which their referential status
quickly became far less important than their discursive importance in
supporting or subverting various classificatory moves and the policy arguments
based on them …. It is not so much that numbers did not serve a straightforward
referential purpose in colonial pragmatics, serving to indicate features of the
Indian social worlds to bureaucrats and politicians, but that this referential
purpose was often not as important as the rhetorical purpose.”^’*
The essay argues that the power of numbers lies in how they circulate as
representations among other representations, not in their relation to things: “There
is ample evidence that the significance of these numbers was often either
nonexistent or self-fulfilling, rather than principally referential to a complex
reality external to the colonial state.’^^’^
This model of a bifurcation between a closed figurative system and an extratextual realm of referents is one that runs through many descriptions of the
representational business of colonial states. Said’s account of Orientalist di.scourse
begins with a list of definitions that develop a problematic relationship between
signs and substances:
[1 ] TTic most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one.
and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone
who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient—and this applies whether
the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist—either in
its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is
Orientalism …. [2| Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes,
transmigrations, specializations, and transmissions are in part the subject of
this study, is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of
thought based upon the ontological and epistemological distinction made
between “the Orient” and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’…. | 3 | Here I come to
the third meaning of Orientalism, which is something more historically and
materially defined than either of the other two. Taking the late eighteenth
century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed
and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing
with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it. describing it, by
teaching it. settling it. ruling over it: in short. Orientalism as a Western style for
dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.””^
As James Clifford has noted, the three definitions offered by Said diverge in
suggestive ways: “One notices that in the first and third of Said’s “”meanings”
Orientalism is concerned with something called the Orient, while in the second the
Orient exists merely as the construct of a questionable mental operation.'”
Clifford’s observations underscore this opposition between rhetoric and reference.
For instance, what is at issue in Said’s second definition is not the relationship
between “the Orient’ and some empirical place to which it refers, but rather how it
works as a coherent system of binarized signs that speak only to each other: here.
Orientalist discourse is a system of tropes. In contrast, the first and third definitions
suggest that part ofthe issue is the Orientalist text’s relationship to the things to
which it points, that is, its indexical quality. For example, though Said strongly
asserts that his argument is not about a mimetic relationship between signs and
their referents, “he is led to argue that a text or tradition distorts, dominates, or
ignores some real or authentic feature of the Orient’.’ Moreover, he quite
forcefully argues that the representations he describes, imbricated as they are in
di.scursive institutions, come to have empirical effects not only on “the Orient’ (in
scare quotes) but also on the etnpirical place it names. In Said, the questions raised
around the distinction between trope and indexicality remain largely utiresoived:
the discourse of Orientalism is both a largely self-referential system of tropes and a
systetii of indexieal signs exerting force by pointing toward things and absorbing
The question of indexicality remains especially crucial for the reading of many
kinds of colonial texts, particularly those texts whose authority rests on numerical
figures. To return to the example of eighteenth-century accounts of Egypt: whether
or not they could render an adequate representation of the pyramids at Giza, they
did make compelling claims about referents. However, the rhetoric of number and
measure in these earlier travel accounts shows a difference in how the relation
between representations and things was understood. Namely, it .suggests that the
categories of trope and index were not opposed but deeply imbricated in one
another in the eighteenth-century travel text. Part ofthe travel description included
an examination of the discursive traditions by which earlier and contemporary
measures were made. The indexicality they offered was one that referred as much
to the larger tradition of representation as it did to empirical objects. In contrast,
the nineteenth-century rhetoric of indexicality, of which Grobert’s is an example,
is a kind that disavows its figurative status, and claims to present purely extratextual things. Each description offers itself as pure discovery, unmediated by the
experience of others. The apparent certainty of these later, more “factual” or
‘scientific’, accounts is rooted in a confidence about the naturalness and
transpareney of the taxonomic grids and categories guiding number and
measure—a confidence that simply was not assumed by earlier writers.
al-Miqyas: measure and control
1 have been arguing that this confidence is manifest in the new mode of travel
description whose understanding of indexicality diverged from earlier ones. In that
this new confident tone emerged to dominate inuch nineteenth-century travel
discourse on Egypt. Grobert’s text was a harbinger of colonial things to come. But
still, where does such confidence come from? What gave Grobert the assuredness
to measure the objects and to publish his numbers without regard for the debates
that had consumed Greaves, Savary and dozens of others? It is tempting to ascribe
Grobert’s confidence to technological progress and military dominance. Unlike
previous travellers, authors like Denon, Grobert and others who were working for
the French occupation enjoyed unprecedented benefits of infrastructural support
for their calculations. This included institutions like the Republican army and the
newly established Institta de I’Egypte, which authorized and supported exploration and experimentation. In short, while European travellers had long enjoyed
fairly generous access to the countryside of Egypt, the new generation of observer,
active during the Erench occupation, maintained (however tenuous) control over
it, and over tbe objects that were being described. Thus it is crucial to recognize
that the shifting attitude toward the practice of measure, and its representation in
travel literature, was made possible by direct colonial intervention.
No site of colonial intervention relates more to the question of measure and
number in Egypt than the Nilometer. or al-Mic/yas {literally, ‘measure’). If the
pyramid was the central focus of European effoits to measure Egypt, the Miqyas
.served this function for Egypt’s Muslim rulers. The Miqyas, built during the first
century of Arab rule, was a prominent feature in eighteenth-century descriptions of
Egypt, and thus was a critical discursive locus for questions about the coherence of
measure. All the most cited travel accounts of the eighteenth century—Shaw,”
Pococke,’*” Maillet and Perry'”—^debated at length the significance of the
Nilometer, a building and instrument used to measure the height of the Nile by
allowing water into a chamber along which there was a series of calibrated
marks.’^~ The traveller James Bruce, who explored the Nile and its sources during
the 1770s, devotes a long essay to the Miqyas, and gives tables which chart his
predecessors’ arguments about the Nile’s height at different times, and the long
history of the structure in Egyptian society.”*”^ For Bruce, and others, the Miqyas
was an instrument by which one could measure all of Egypt, and for this reason its
description was crucial for the description ofthe country. Bruce’s essay begins by
contesting the well-known claitn. tnade by Herodotus, that Egypt is “the gift of the
Nile’. Reading Herodotus literally, Bruce asserts that the land mass of Egypt is the
accumulated result of silt carried by the Nile. The connection between the Nile and
Egypt could never be underestimated: the river was the blood of agricultural life;
its rising and falling determined when and how much to plant; its fiooding
determined how much arable land there would be each year. These unavoidable
features of the Egyptian geography, cliches of travel writing, provide some
explanation for the interest that travellers had in the Nilometer. Bruce noted that
the Nilometer was not established to measure the accumulation of sediment, but
rather to determine the basis for taxation in Egypt.”*^ The yearly flooding brought
rich sediment and temporarily decreased the amount of arable land. This in tum
brought greater or lesser yields of produce. A detailed calculation of these rates
was possible through the measure of the rise and fall, and hence these measures
served to legitimate the grounds for greater or lower taxation of farmers.
Because of its central importance, the Miqyas served as another important
landmark for articulating more general concerns about representation. Eor
instance, in the midst of his account. Bruce pauses to criticize the tyrannical
uses to which this measure had been put by Arab rulers. According to Bruce,
‘Umar ibn al-‘As (the first governor after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641
CE) would proclaim measurements, but would not allow others, especially
Christians, to inspect the Miqyas. Nor would he give the standard from which the
measurement was taken;
[H]e ordered the daily increase to be proclaimed, but in a manner so
unintelligible, that the Egyptians in general no longer understood it. nor do they
understand it now; for, beginning at a given point, which was not the bottom of
the Nilometer. he went on. telling the increase by subtracting from the upper
division; so that as nobody knew the lower point from which he began, although
they might comprehend how much it had risen since the crier proclaimed its
increase, yet they never could know the height of the water that was in the
Nilometer when the proclamation began, nor what the division was to which it
had ascended on the pillar.’*”
When contextualized within the larger European interest in detennining the
measure of the Nile and quantifying the world of Egypt, Bruce’s remarks show the
larger anxieties about representation most clearly: when the standard unit of a
scale appears unfixed, the resulting measures cease to eohere. In such a case, the
system of measure appears despotic and its representation arbitrary. It is
significant that Bruce links the topic of Oriental despotism to questions of
measure: in doing so, he equates universally recognizable scales with the political
liberties of enlightened Europe. Thus, problems raised by measure were not
merely limited to representational and epistemological concems, but were also
assoeiated with the wider political and ethical concems informing Orientalist and
the emerging colonial discourse on Egypt.
As a recurring trope in travel accounts, the Miqyas served to articulate essential
colonial distinctions between East and West, rationality and irrationality and so
on. Yet, the Miqyas was more than just a figure appearing in Orientalist claims
about the difference between ‘Eastem’ and ‘Western’ systems of measure. It was
also a physical landmark, a machine by which Egypt was measured, and an
instrument of government, an explicit instance of Foucault’s relation of
‘knowledge/power’. This aspect was not lost on the managers of the French
occupation. Whereas earlier travellers had merely visited and described the
Miqyas. the French were interested in using it ‘to augment the advantages of
possessing Egypt’.’*^ In one of the first meetings of the Institta de VEgypte,
Bonaparte proposed a number of tasks aimed at increasing the productivity of
Egypt’s land and water resources. Not surprisingly, the Miqyas appears
prominently on the list of development projects. Proposing a research commission,
Bonaparte wanted a precise description of the site in order to see if sloughing
machines {machines mues) might be employed there.”^^ Work was begun to
transform the Miqyas, though it is unclear what results, if any, were ever
obtained.”^*^ What did it mean to try to change the physical structure ofthe Miqyasl
Among other things, it meant to transform the means by which Egypt was
measured, an unambiguously colonial reconfiguration of an already potent device
of ‘knowledge/power’, a deliberate retooling of an instrument of the Foucauldian
relation. This point, though obvious, should not be forgotten, since more than
anything else, it explains one source of Grobert’s confidence.
The seizure of the Miqyas might serve as a metaphor for considering the shift in
indexical rhetoric and its signifieance for colonial discourse more widely. The
military occupation of Egypt produced a degree of control over the means of
measuring Egypt, which in tum produced new knowledge of the country. It is
crucial to note the formal shift that occurred in the process: it was not just that
Europeans were able to describe more of Egypt or in greater detail, but rather that
the discursive quality of their descriptions changed. Previous generations of
travellers had used the experience of travel in Egypt to experiment with the
systems of ‘measurement’ and “order’ described in Foucault. Grobert’s account,
like the Description de VEgypte and other subsequent texts, offered knowledge
that was not relative and measurements that were not based on comparisons.
A consideration of these examples suggests that the shift in the understanding of
indexicality in travel writing was part of a larger shift in European claims on
Egypt, from those of observant visitation to those of high-impact colonialism. If
this is true, we need to recognize that the new indexical discourse did not emerge
sui generis but was a subtle transformation of the older mode of description
exemplified in the work of Savary and others. Indeed, the French occupation of
Egypt was motivated and informed by the textual tradition exemplified by
Savary’s account. Still, the shift marked by Grobert’s text is indelible, since it
announees a form of description aimed at the production of knowledge that would
enable European domination and even direct rule over Egypt. What distinguished
the new kincl of writing from what came before was that it presented Egypt as the
object of a European knowledge that was not merely superior, but absolute.
‘ Claude-Etienne Savary. Letters on Egypt, with u Piiratlel l^etween the manners of its ancieni and modern
Inhabitants, the present State, Ibe Commerce, the Agriculture, and Government of ihat Country, London: GG J
and J Robinson, 1786. vol. I, pp 222-223,
Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment. New York: Hafner Press. I95L p 90.
^ See for example Paul De Man’s rich reading of the passage: ‘Kanl’s Malerialism’, in Aesthetic Ideology,
Minneapolis: tjniversity of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp 119-128.
•* Savary, Letters on Egypt, p Til.
^ Savary. Letters on Egypt, p 223.
^ See Jean-Marie Carre. Voyageurs et ecrivains frani;ais en Egypte. tome I: du debut a fin de la domination
tttrque.Cmm: IFAO. 1956.
‘ See Barbara Maria Stafford. Voyage into Substance: Art, Science. Nature and the tthi.strated Travel Accouni.
1760-1840. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1984. In heruccount of scientific and travel writing during the eighteenth
century. Stafford Iraces the emergence of a new style, informed by “a willed nonmetaphorlc scrutiny of (he
paniculars of ihis world” (p 1). This new style, designed to convey a sense ol” substance—the objects of
discovery as they presented themselves tii travellers—was characterized by an attention to detail rather than
abstraction, specificity rather than generalizalion. See Figure 3. and note 8. beiow.
** Eighteenlh-century depiciions of the pyramids appear as particular and jagged objects, rather than smooth.
ideai tbrms. This is a clear example of rendering the image iif what Stafford describes as ‘substance’.
^ Mary Poovey,/I History ofthe Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1998.
‘” Kant, Critique of Judgment, p 86.
” Greaves. Pyramidographia: or a Description ofthe Pyramids in Aegypt. London: George Badger. 1646. from
the Preface, no pag,
‘~ Greaves, Pyramidographia. pp 67-68.
‘ ‘ Greaves. Pyramidographia. p 70.
‘”* Greaves, ‘Di.scourse on ihc Roman Fool’, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels. London: Churchill. 1752.
vol, II, pp 653-698, p 657.
‘•^ On the metric system, geodesy and cartography, see A W’olfM History of Science Technology and Philosophy
in the Eighteenth Century. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952. pp 416-425. On earlier metrological
syslems. see Alfred W Crosby. Ttie Mea.wrc of Reality: Quumification and Western Society. 1250-1600.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997. and Steven Shapin. The Scientific Revohuion, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1994,
‘*• Greaves, “Pyramidographia: or, a Description of the Pyramids in Egypt”, in A Collection nf Voyages and
Travels, London: Churchill, 1752, vol. II, p 607.
‘^ Michel Foucdult, The Order of Things: An Archaeology ofthe Human Sciences, New York: Vintage. 1970, p
‘** Foucault, The Order of Things, p 53.
” Foucault. The Order of Things, p 53.
•” Foucault, The Order of Things, p 53.
-‘ Greaves, ‘Discourse on ihe Roman Foot”, p 69;^.
•- Courier |sic] de I’Egypte 39. 10 vendemiaire. Year 8 [October I. 1799|, p 3.
‘•* On the revolts and their suppression, see: Andre Raymond, Egvptiens et Eran^-ais au Catre 1798-ISOI.Ca.ro:
IFAO. 1998,
•” Grobert. Description des Pyramides de Ghize de la Ville du Kaire et de ses Environs, Paris: Logerol-Pctiet.
1800. pp 62-63, All translalions from this work are mine.
*• Groben, Description des Pyramides. p 61,
^^ Grobert, Description de.s Pyramides, pp 61-62.
• Grobert, Description des Pyramides, p 62.
• Grobert. De.scription des Pyramides. pp 49-,^6.
• Benoil de Maillet was the author of the first Description de I’Egypte: see Description de I’Egypte contenant
plusiers renuirquescurieuses.’iur la geographieamienneet motleme de cepat’s, Paris: Louis Genneau, 1735.
• Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf Comle dc Volncy, Travels Through Sria and Egypt in the Years 1783.
1784. and 1785. London: G G J and i Robinson. 1787.
•” Edward Said, Orientalism. New York: Vinlage Books, 1979, p 72. emphasis added.
“” Arjun Appadurai, ‘Number in the Colonial Imagination”, in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of
Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp 114-135. p 123.
• Appadurai. “Number in the Colonial Imagination’, p 133.
“‘”‘ Appadurai, “Number in ihe Colonial Imagination’, p 120, emphasis added.
Appadurai. “Number in the Colonial Imagination”, p 117.
Said. Orientalism, pp 2-3,
” Jaiiies Clifford. “Review of Orientalism”. H’tstory and Theory 19(2), Febmaiy 1980, pp 204-223, p 208.
•’^ Clifford, “Review of Orientalism”, p 208.
Thomas Shaw, ‘Shaw’s Travels in Barheo”, in Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World, vol. 75. ed. John
Pinkertnn, London: Longm;in, Hurst. Rees. Onne and Brown, 1811,
Richard Pococke, A De.scripiion ofthe East, and Some Other Countries. London: W Bowyer. 1743.
Chartes Perry, A View of the Levant: Particularly of Con.stant’inople. Syria. Egypt and Greece. London: T
Woodward and J Shukburgh, 1743.
“‘” The front cover of the present issue of PostcoUm’ial Studies offers a figure of the Miqyas: “Cross-section of
Nilometer’. The diagram depicts Cairo”s Nilometer, which consists of an omate, domed ground-level room
under which sits a chamber connected to the Nile via the two underground channels to ihe left. During flood
seasons (summers), the river”s walers might completely (ill the chamber. In ihe centre ofthis chamber stands a
stone column, engraved with measurements, on which the rise and fall of water was measured, crop successes
predicted, and taxes calculated. It was seized by the French during Ihe Occupation of Egypt, 1798-1801.
(Description de I’Egypte. ou recueil des ohserxritions et des recherches qui ont etefaites en Egypte pendant
I’e.Kpedition de I’anneefrani^aise, Paris: L’Imprimerie Imperiale, 1809, Etat modeme. Vol. I: Villes et sites de
Haute et Basse Egypte, planche 23.)
“‘^ yAmesQmce.’Travels to tiiscover the Source of the N’tle. m the Years 1768, 1769. 1770. 1771. 1772. and 1773:
in Five Volumes. Edinburgh: J. Ruthven. 1790, p 698.
“”^ Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source ofthe Nile, p 678,
” Bruce, Travels to Discover the .Source ofthe Nile, p 691,
•”• Lci Dc’cade Egyptienne. journal litteraire et d’economie poUtii/ite 1. 1798, p 117.
” La t^ecade Egptieune I. p 1 IS.
“”** Ul Decade Egyptienne 2. 1799, p 127.
Colonial Latin American Review
Vol. 19, No. 2, August 2010, pp. 301 322
The Staff of Life: Wheat and ‘Indian
Bread’ in the New World
Luis Millones Figueroa
Colby College
Beginning with Columbus, the image of the Americas as a paradise became
commonplace in European narratives. A key feature of this perception was the
image of a natural world filled with countless exotic species of plants and animals.
Plants in particular excited the imagination of European commentators because of
their potential as sources of medicine and food. Yet, amidst this celebration of
abundance, Europeans also noticed striking absences in the natural world of the
Americas. A crucial staple of the European diet was missing: wheat. Francisco López
de Gómara, one of the most widely read chroniclers, wrote in 1553: ‘they did not have
wheat in all the Indies, which are another world, a huge lack given what we are used
to here’ ([1553] 1946, 289).1 As much as the ‘nakedness’ of the natives, the lack of
wheat signaled a crucial difference between cultures. Wheat was not just a plant; it
was a defining element of European cultural identity. In the absence of this key
European staple, historians and naturalists paid close attention to those plants they
believed played the role of wheat in native societies. By looking at European’s
perceptions and discussions of the lack of wheat in the Americas as well as their
observations regarding ‘Indian breads’ and how they used them, we can learn much
about the challenges of transplanting, preserving, and adapting the early modern
European identity in the New World.
Comments on the lack of wheat, the need to export it to the Americas, and
evaluations of native plants that were used for ‘Indian breads’ are ubiquitous in the
literature of the conquest and colonization. These documents provide evidence of the
processes by which Europeans interpreted and came to terms with the New World.
In this article I examine the Europeans’ surprise, their reactions, evaluations, and
adjustments to the absence of wheat, and their concurrent discovery of native
American staple foods. I start by identifying wheat/bread as a central material and
symbolic aspect of European life from its origins to the Early Modern period. This
background is necessary to understand the importance accorded to the lack of wheat
in the chronicles and to understand the underlying suspicion of, and lasting general
ISSN 1060-9164 (print)/ISSN 1466-1802 (online) # 2010 Taylor & Francis on behalf of CLAR
DOI: 10.1080/10609164.2010.493688
302 L. Millones Figueroa
contempt for, the American staple foods. I then proceed to present European
responses to the absence of wheat, focusing on their efforts to reproduce a culture of
wheat in the new lands. Through examples from a variety of sources (mainly Spanish,
but also English and French) I show that the fortunes of wheat in the Americas were
seen as a way to assess the possibility of success or failure of the entire European way
of life and religion in the New World. Next, I present varied and ambivalent Spanish
reactions to the plants used to make the foods they termed ‘Indian breads’ (manioc,
maize, and potatoes), including the controversy over the nutritional value of Indian
breads, given the widely held assumption that wheat was ‘the best food.’ A final
section briefly brings up questions of diet, identity, and religion by both looking at
wheat as an agent of Christianization and identifying ambiguous situations derived
from the appropriation of Old and New World staple foods by Europeans,
Amerindians and the emerging societies.
Bread Eaters
The intimate connection between Europeans and bread may date as far back as the
successful domestication of barley, oats, and wheat, and to bread’s contribution to the
development of agricultural societies.2 Ancient Greek literature includes references to
humans as sitophagos (bread eaters).3 In Works and Days, Hesiod says that Zeus
created a third generation of people (after the gold and silver races) made of bronze,
who ‘did not eat bread at all’ (1996, 69), distinguishing the bronze race from his own
generation of people, the bread eaters.4 Another clear reference comes from the
Odyssey, when Odysseus speaks about the Cyclops Polyphemos: ‘Inside/there lodged a
monster of a man, who now was herding/the flocks at a distance away, alone, for he
did not range with/others, but stayed away by himself; his mind was lawless/and in
truth he was a monstrous wonder made to behold, not/like a man, an eater of bread,
but more like a wooded/peak of the high mountains seen standing away from the
others’ (1967, 142).5 Humans are the superior generation of races, according to
Hesiod, and are not monsters, according to Odysseus, because they are bread eaters.
Bread defines both the highest degree of civilization and true human nature.
The myth of the harvest festivals at Eleusis and the myth of Demeter link wheat to
the origins of humans and civilization. The Eleusinian Games were established to
celebrate the Rharian Plain as the ‘original field’ of grains, the place where the hero
Triptolemos, under Demeter’s guidance, took the seeds from the first grain to sow
them all over the world. Before they had grain/bread to eat, humans were weak and
had to walk on four legs like animals. As Baudy explains, ‘according to the myth, the
Eleusinian Games were a commemoration not only of the first harvest, but also of the
humanization of mankind: only by eating the hitherto unknown cereals could
primeval men have become strong enough to lift the upper part of their bodies from
the ground’ (1995, 179). The myth of the goddess Demeter, who taught men to
gather, use, store and sow wild wheat, likewise reinforced this critical cultural
breakthrough for mankind. Only after Demeter shared her knowledge of cultivation
Colonial Latin American Review
and initiated the agrarian cycle did men turn away from their lives as hunters and
gatherers to embrace civilization.6
In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder describes the cultivation, varieties, and
properties of wheat. According to the Roman naturalist, wheat had a special place in
the natural world because nothing was ‘more prolific than wheat,’ a quality bestowed
by nature because it was ‘her principal means of nourishing man’ (1938, 249). Pliny
continues his assessment of wheat with a long description of the varieties of wheat
and other grains used to make bread in many cultures. He concludes that the first
place ‘for whiteness and for weight’ among all varieties of wheat belonged to the
wheat of his own land. Foreign wheat could come close only to Italian wheat of lesser
quality cultivated in the mountains. When Pliny declares that wheat was the principal
nutriment of man, he places wheat ahead of all other plants in the order of nature. In
addition, by designating Italian wheat as the best kind, Pliny gives wheat a role in
determining cultural identity. Furthermore, the best wheat flour, according to him,
made ‘bread of the highest quality and the most famous pastry,’ a statement that
implies its worth and role as an indicator of social status (1938, 231, 245). Already in
Pliny’s time, cultural and social identities were shaped by the kind of bread one could
bring to the table.
Early Modern Europeans were familiar with ancient perspectives on the natural
world and they also drew on Christian ideology, in which the symbolism of bread
made from wheat had a prominent place. The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ refers to (our daily)
bread as the necessary nourishment of the body, and indeed according to the gospel
of John, Jesus declared himself to be bread: ‘I am the living bread which came down
from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever’ (John 6:51). In the
Christian tradition, bread sustains both the material and the spiritual life. Catholics
were reminded often of this connection because of the Eucharist, and the metaphor of
the Lord as bread inspired many. In Hugo van der Goes’s celebrated Portinari
altarpiece (ca. 1476), the Nativity scene in Bethlehem (which in Hebrew means
‘House of Bread’) includes a sheaf of wheat in the foreground of the central panel
alongside the nude Baby Jesus as a way of illustrating the Christ/bread connection.
In a sermon of Saint Peter Chrysologus (406 450), Christ was described as ‘planted in
the Virgin, fermented in the flesh, kneaded in the Passion, baked in the oven of the
sepulcher, and seasoned in the churches where every day the holy Host is served to
the faithful’ (Montanari 1994, 17).
The interplay between the holy and earthly aspects of this sacrament was further
established in medieval times by the authoritative words of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Of all
kinds of bread, men most commonly use wheaten bread; other breads seem to be only
a substitute for it. Hence we believe that Christ used this bread when he instituted
this sacrament. This bread is also the more strengthening, and for this reason it more
suitably signifies the effect of this sacrament. Therefore, its proper matter is wheaten
bread’ (1964, 33).7
Our contemporary diet no longer depends on a single staple, unlike the European
diets of the sixteenth century. From the eleventh century on, bread came to symbolize
304 L. Millones Figueroa
food itself and became prevalent on the tables of all social classes; it became, in fact, a
defining feature of European identity. Arable plots came to be referred to as ‘bread
lands,’ agricultural production became known as ‘bread harvest,’ and a household
which ate and slept under the same roof was described as one whose members lived
ad unum pane, that is from the same bread (Montanari 1994, 48).
Wheat in the New World
The absence of wheat in the Americas was duly noticed by most chroniclers because it
was the epitome of the biological divide between Europe and the New World. If bread
eaters were to settle in the Americas, wheat had to accompany them. Seeds of wheat
arrived in the New World as early as 1493 with Columbus’s second voyage, and,
according to Super, from then on ‘[w]here wheat was planted and survived, Spanish
society took root and grew’ (1988, 32). But early trials were disappointing. Despite
much effort, the attempts to produce wheat locally in the hot and humid
environment of the Caribbean were not successful. But its importance was such
that even though wheat had already failed miserably when first introduced, the
Spanish Crown ordered Columbus to renew attempts to grow it, and sent 6,000
fanegas of grain on his third voyage. Wheat still did not flourish. Not even the knowhow of farmers brought expressly from Spain could help the crop. The wheat either
did not generate grain or the grain was of poor and uneven quality (Acosta [1590]
2002, 201; Cobo [1653] 1964, 160).
The Spanish were not alone in this struggle. In 1607, The Virginia Company
instructed the first group of settlers to cultivate English plants. The first crop of wheat
was successful and the following spring the colonists proceeded to clear forest to sow
more. Lord Delaware and Thomas Dale, who succeeded John Smith as the men in
charge of the colony, also promoted the cultivation of wheat. Dale even offered some
men cleared fields in exchange for part of their crop. Even though the cultivation of
wheat in the Chesapeake was not as easy as promotional literature announced, the
Virginia Company regularly sent seeds, and both the Company in London and
colonists in America tried to establish wheat in the region throughout the proprietary
period (Eden 1999, 137 40).8 English colonists in Carolina’s subtropical climate
experienced a more difficult situation. Even though promotional literature from
colonial officials such as Joseph Dalton stated that the new land was ‘excellent for
English grain, and will afford us the convenient husbandry of wheat,’ the reality was
failed crops. Much to colonist John Steward’s despair, bread had to be made instead
from ‘that savage graine maize’ (Edelson 2006, 69).
In New France the Jesuits expressed their Christian determination by maintaining
the Huron mission for sixteen years, despite the mission’s extreme isolation, and their
being deprived of the wheat needed to support their material and spiritual life. The
missionary Francesco Bressani wrote: ‘[W]e have passed whole years without
receiving so much as one letter, either from Europe or from Kebek, and in total
deprivation of every human assistance, even that most necessary for our mysteries
Colonial Latin American Review
and sacraments themselves, the country having neither wheat nor wine, which are
absolutely indispensable for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass’ (Thwaites 1896 1901,
When conquering and evangelizing the wheat-less lands of the New World,
Catholics brought not only their weapons and crosses, but also wheat. During
Hernando De Soto’s expedition into Florida*as recounted by El Inca Garcilaso de la
Vega*Spanish conquistadors lost the wheat flour and wine they had brought along
for mass, even though these precious items had been carried with the Governor’s
provisions, and every precaution had been taken for their safety. The wheat and wine
that burned during battle, along with the chalices and vestments, were considered a
‘loss’ that was ‘even more serious than that of the destruction of their companions
and horses whom the Indians had killed.’ Faced with the impossibility of conducting
their religious services, the clergy and laymen had disputes ‘as to whether or not they
would be able to consecrate bread made of corn.’ The consensus was that ‘the most
certain thing that the Holy Roman Church, Our Mother and Lady, commands and
teaches us in her sacred decrees and canons is that bread must be of wheat and the
wine of grapes’ ([1605] 1951, 382).
Bread was well established as the ‘staff of life,’ and neither expense nor any other
obstacle prevented Europeans from planting wheat in the new lands.9 In a letter
written in 1612 at Port Royal, New France, the Jesuit missionary Pierre Biard made a
point of remembering the occasion when ‘having had very successful crops from the
little that was tilled, we made from the harvest some hosts and offered them to God.
These are, as we believe, the first hosts which have been made from the wheat of these
lands’ (Thwaites 1896 1901, 2:24 25). El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega carefully records
the name of the person responsible for the arrival of wheat (as well as those who
brought the grapevine and the olive) to Peru in the sixteenth century, and recalls that
‘the anxiety of the Spaniards to have the things of their own country transplanted to
the Indies was so strong that no danger or trouble seemed great enough to prevent
them from trying to realize their desires’ ([1609] 1966, 595).
By 1590, Father José de Acosta, author of the most influential natural history of the
early colonial period, reports that wheat came to the Caribbean from New Spain or
was shipped from Spain or the Canary Islands. He also explains that it was so humid
in the Caribbean that bread produced with local or imported wheat had hardly any
taste and little or no nutritional value. Even worse, the poor quality of the wheat was
creating obstacles for the Christian faith. Acosta writes that due to the faulty
consistency of wheat, ‘communion wafers, when we said mass, would bend as if made
of wet paper’ ([1590] 2002, 201). Acosta wondered whether the Caribbean was a place
suited for Spaniards to live and concluded that it was a hostile environment for both
wheat and Christianity. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a friar of the Dominican order best
known for denouncing the abuses of the Spanish conquistadors, earnestly reported
the opposite experience. Wheat was flourishing in Hispaniola, and Las Casas
considered the Caribbean a favorable place for Christianity ([ca. 1559] 1992, 293, 296,
336). The success or failure of wheat in Hispaniola became a metaphor for the
306 L. Millones Figueroa
viability of Christian life in the Americas. These contradictory appraisals of the
chances of producing the European staple food in the island illustrate how crucial
wheat was to the Spaniards’ assessments of the new lands.
New World Breads
The same reasoning that led Europeans to plant wheat everywhere it would grow
made them curious about all aspects of wheat’s American equivalents. Comparisons
between the European and New World staple foods were impossible to avoid. In the
words of Father Acosta, ‘And because plants were grown chiefly to sustain man’s life,
and the chief food that sustains him is bread, we need to show what sort of bread
there is in the Indies and what they use in place of bread. . . . But the quality and
substance of the bread that the Indians possess and use is very different from ours, for
it has not been discovered that they had any sort of wheat or barley or millet or any of
the other grains used for bread in Europe. Instead of this they used other grains and
roots’ ([1590] 2002, 197).
Of all the new plants observed by the Europeans, three*maize, potatoes, and
manioc*were clearly identified as playing the maintenance food role that wheat and
other cereals played in the Old World. Of the three, maize was the most widespread in
the New World and, despite the obvious differences, it was the plant that most
reminded Europeans of wheat because it resembled a grain-producing grass.10 This
explains why maize was often called ‘Indian Wheat.’ Because it seemed somewhat
familiar to Europeans, and because it flourished in a variety of climates and gave a
tremendous yield, maize became well known in the Old World from an early date.11
Potatoes and manioc were less widespread, although they were heavily utilized in the
regions where they grew well. The potato was the last staple to be encountered
because it was a product of the Andean region, reached by Europeans only after 1530.
Manioc, in contrast, was the first staple identified in the New World because of its
importance in the Caribbean where the Europeans first landed.12
Fray Ramón Pané, who arrived in Hispaniola in 1494, was the author of the first
European-language account of the Americas written in the New World, and the first
European to describe the manioc in detail and establish its cultural significance. Pané
thought the manioc’s root (yuca) was similar to the radish, but conceded that he had
‘not seen anything like it in Spain or any other country.’ It certainly did not escape his
notice that manioc and cazabe were mentioned in the Indian myths he recorded.
Pané’s narrative started the metaphorical language of designating certain New World
plants as ‘breads,’ when he referred to cazabe as ‘the kind of bread they eat’ ([ca. 1498]
1999, 26 27, 15).
Knowledge of manioc had increased by the 1520s, when Gonzalo Fernández de
Oviedo confidently named both maize and manioc as the basis of ‘breads’ for the
Indians of the Caribbean. Writing about manioc, he explained to his European
readers that it was not a grain, a remark that made sense since no root crops played a
similar role in Old World diets. Fernández de Oviedo then provided a detailed
Colonial Latin American Review
account of how manioc was planted and how cazabe was made. In fact, the ‘Pliny of
the New World’ ends his description of manioc by listing all of the benefits that can
be obtained from the plant: bread for the sustenance of life, sweet and sour syrups for
honey and vinegar, stew for nourishment, firewood when all other types of fuel were
missing, poison, and wine ([1535] 1959, 230 33). Appreciation for the uses of the
vegetable did not mean Spaniards liked to eat it. Although the quality of cazabe, like
that of wheat bread, could vary, Father Acosta said that even if offered the best kind of
cazabe (called jaujau) he ‘would much prefer a piece of bread no matter how hard or
black it was’ ([1590] 2002, 200).13
As it turned out, it was not the uses listed by Fernández de Oviedo (nor its
deterrence of gluttony because of its lack of taste, according to Acosta) that made
cazabe important; rather, it was its capacity*once baked and dried*to last for
months and even years in perfectly edible condition. Fernández de Oviedo took
advantage of this quality to take cazabe back to Spain and to share this American food
with family and friends. He also wanted to prove what a good food it was to take
along during long ocean voyages. Dried cazabe simply had to be soaked in any kind of
liquid or sauce to became soft and palatable again.14 Spaniards soon realized that
cazabe was the perfect food to take along both on journeys of exploration and during
military actions in the New World. Not only was manioc easy to grow, but cazabe was
also easy to prepare in large quantities, and it was less of a burden to transport than
other provisions. This ‘Indian bread’ became instrumental to the success of the
Spaniards in conquering many regions, particularly in the Tropics, during the early
period of colonization.15
According to Bartolomé de Las Casas, there was another practical reason why the
Spaniards who conquered Hispaniola kept planting manioc and producing cazabe.
This bread sustained the Indian laborers who were forced to mine gold and perform
other difficult jobs that generated quick profits. The Dominican priest thought that
the island was well suited to produce more and better wheat than anywhere else, but
in Hispaniola the economy of exploitation favored the easy planting of manioc and
the tremendous yield of cazabe ([ca. 1559] 1992, 336 37).16 If manioc contributed to
the exploitation of the Amerindians, it also may have provided them a means of
resistance to the Spaniards, if only as a measure of last resort. Fernández de Oviedo
reports*although it may be an apocryphal statement*that masses of Native people
who did not want ‘to work or to serve’ committed suicide by drinking poisonous
juice made from manioc ([1535] 1959, 233).17
Among the grains and roots of the New World, ‘the chief place . . . is rightly held by
maize,’ wrote Acosta. He followed with the unavoidable comparison: ‘Just as wheat
has been the ordinary grain in the ancient parts of the globe, which are Europe, Asia,
and Africa, so in the regions of the New World it has been, and is, maize, which has
been found in almost all the realms of the West Indies, in Peru, New Spain, the New
Kingdom of Granada, Guatemala, Chile, and everywhere on the continent’ ([1590]
2002, 197). This division of the world into territories of wheat and territories of maize
308 L. Millones Figueroa
underlines the importance Europeans attached to wheat. It also explains the careful
observations recorded about all things related to maize.
Maize was a crucial crop throughout the Americas and in particular among the
Maya, the Nahua, the Inca, and the people of the Southwest and the Eastern
Woodlands of North America.18 And, just as manioc played an important role in
many local myths in the Caribbean, so maize had a prominent place in the historical
and religious traditions of many Amerindian peoples, as shown in the presence in
these cultures of maize-gods, maize-rituals, maize-iconography, and maize-stories.
The Maya oral tradition compiled in the Popol Vuh tells of gods experimenting with
different materials to create human beings, until they finally created people out of
maize dough, leaving no doubt about the central place of maize in Maya culture.
Nahua babies were not given a name until they had eaten their first maize-based food,
thereby receiving an individual and cultural identity. Inca people saw a direct
relationship between maize and their life-giving god, the Sun. The Incas served maize
and maize beer to the Sun, and the Coricancha (the most sacred building complex in
Cuzco) included a cornfield made of gold.19 Maize is also the key element in several
origin myth and folk tales among Native Americans*for instance, the Pueblo
Indians in the Southwest (Gutiérrez 1991, 3 36).
Early modern literature of the conquest and colonization includes countless
comparisons between maize and wheat precisely because these two plants played vital
roles in their respective cultures.20 When it became known that both maize and wheat
grew well in the same agricultural space, the battle for one plant’s dominance over the
other mirrored the political wars between the Europeans and the Amerindians.21
Once the Spanish colonization process moved from the Caribbean to the mainland,
and particularly to Central Mexico, the possibility of growing wheat in large
quantities, and indeed of reproducing the agricultural economy of the Iberian
Peninsula, made the imposition of European foodstuffs more viable. In fact, one way
of replacing maize with wheat production was to require the natives to grow and pay
tribute in wheat (as well as in other European products). Already in the 1530s, New
Spain was exporting wheat to the Caribbean and Central America. Within a few years
of their arrival, Spaniards were producing wheat nearly everywhere in their American
possessions. By 1553, Pedro de Cieza de León was reporting from the plains and
valleys of Peru that wheat was growing beautifully and producing large yields ([1553]
1986, 297). Later, wheat was grown extensively in places such as Chile and Rı́o de la
Plata. English colonists also cultivated wheat as soon as possible everywhere they
landed. The presence of wheat fields comforted Europeans across the Americas.
Even as they took over Amerindian land for their own wheat production,
Europeans recognized the many interesting features and advantages of ‘Indian
Wheat.’ Fernández de Oviedo described in detail how maize was planted and grown,
as well as the different shapes and colors of its varieties. He was proud both of his
extensive knowledge of this native plant and of his own maize crop ([1535] 1959,
226 29). Father Bernabé Cobo, a Jesuit who spent most of his life in the New World,
wrote around 1650 about the many forms in which maize was prepared and eaten (as
Colonial Latin American Review
grain or flour, toasted, baked, or boiled), pointing out the differences between its use
in Peru and in New Spain as well as giving his opinion about the respective qualities
of their breads ([1653] 1964, 160 61). Doctor Juan de Cárdenas, whose comments on
maize represent the most positive known assessment of maize in the period, said:
‘maize alone has all the qualities one can wish for in a staple’ ([1591] 1988, 172).22
Virtually every account that discussed maize praised the plant, particularly for its
capacity to grow in many climates, its wonderful yield, and its ability to feed people
and animals a…
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