Human rights in the eighteenth-century travelogues of François Le Vaillant

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Peer-Reviewed Research
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  • Abstract:

    In seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, the Age of Enlightenment, eminent political and legal thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau defended the emancipation of the individual and the inalienable, natural rights of man such as the right to life, freedom and equality. They argued that every man is born free and inherently good but that he becomes corrupted by the constraints of society and civilisation. A certain harmony can be found again through a social contract with the state, the ultimate protector of man’s inalienable rights. Within this philosophy, education is crucial to develop young people naturally without the negative impact of society. Only nature can elevate man. Enlightenment opened European minds to the exotic and the unknown and, as a consequence, broke with the prejudice of previous centuries against cultural difference. Enlightenment influenced many free-spirits of the day. One such free-spirit was the Frenchman François Le Vaillant who travelled through southern Africa between 1781 and 1784. He was not only influenced by the ideas of Rousseau but he was, because of his unusual and liberal education, the very incarnation of Rousseau’s philosophy. As he travelled through Southern Africa, Le Vaillant became mesmerised with its indigenous peoples, especially the roaming Koina communities and the Xhosa, who, at that time, still lived a traditional and natural life. Even though he set off on his journeys as an ornithologist and a collector of specimens, Le Vaillant became, as he encountered the Koina and the Xhosa, a defender of the inalienable rights of the natural man. He became an emotional critic of encroachment by colonial settlers upon indigenous lands, forcing the Koina and the Xhosa into poverty, economic dependency, cultural alienation and loss of natural life. Le Vaillant published two travel journals; he introduced a new style of travel writing and made the European reader familiar with southern Africa. In doing so, he played a significant role in the defense of human rights through his criticism of the effects of colonial rule on indigenous peoples, not from an academic point of view but from the heart, based on first-hand experience in the field.