The Eye of Flesh and the Problem of Truth in Early Seventeenth-Century Ethnography: The Case of Edward Terry's Voyage to East-India

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Mississippi Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Richard Raiswell, University of Prince Edward Island
Early seventeenth-century ethnography was run through by a profound tension. On the one hand, Francis Bacon and the prophets of the new empiricism championed data derived from the testimony of the eye as the surest way of cleansing the mind of the false idols that had so deceived earlier generations in their consideration of the natural world. Yet at the same time, as the poet Richard Braithwaite complained, the value of any such data was wholly contingent upon the character of the observer and his place in the social geography of the day. “Travellers, Poets and Lyers,” Braithwaite quipped, “are three words all of one signification.”

To the cleric Edward Terry who travelled in India between 1617 and 1619 the epistemological status of empirical data was acute. Of course, by 1655 when his Voyage to East-India was printed, he was well aware that much of what he had described no longer had any utility: Jahangir and his court were temporally contingent details. But for Terry there were other problems associated with the testimony of the fleshly eye, not the least of which was the fact that, following Corinthians, everything he thought he saw could be a demonic illusion.

Yet Terry did not discard empiricism. Instead, in his 1655 work he ordered his particular experiences into two overlapping ethnographies—ethnographies that were premised upon different assumptions and written towards markedly different final causes. As this paper will argue, for Terry empiricism does not begin with the suspension of belief. Rather, it provides particular data to be subsumed into a received and venerable imaginative geography that accounts for the nature and operation of things as they are distributed heterogeneously through space. Although the result is two different ethnographies of India in the same text, in seventeenth-century terms Terry’s Voyage is epistemologically more secure.