Christina Kullberg

Tropical Engagements: Vernaculars in French Early Modern Travel Writing (Africa and the Caribbean 1645-1728)

"Tropical Engagements" examines how vernacular languages are incorporated into and impact upon early modern French travel writing from Africa and the Caribbean, by means of lexical inclusions of foreign words and of reported dialogues. The purpose is to reconfigure our understanding of intercultural engagements during the beginning of colonization by exploring the vernacular impact on the articulation of knowledge and writing. The project takes as a point of departure the observation that vernacular language appears as a written transposition of the other voices and languages. Vernacular is understood in a broad sense as local languages and includes native tongues as well as learned and mixed languages. The material contains mainly missionary travelogues and will be chosen by the use of contemporary databases and archives along with older travel bibliographies, and consists of print material as well as manuscripts that cover a period from the early French establishments in Africa and the Caribbean to the rise of high-colonialism and slave-trade in the first part of the 18th century. Methodologically it will engage with literary discursive analysis, dialogism and theories of creolization and encounters with alterity. The project is also involved with contemporary questions concerning research on World Literature, postcolonial and transatlantic studies, such as multilingualism, transnationalism and intercultural relations.
Final report
The aim of “Tropical Engagements” (P15-0679: 1) was to analyze how foreign languages and voices are integrated into early modern French travelogues in order to reinterpret the importance of intercultural exchanges during the early colonization. An important change in the project's development was that I realized early on that the original ambition to include travels to the Caribbean and Africa was, as already pointed out by the external reviewers, too ambitious. I chose to focus solely on the Caribbean corpus - it simply became too broad and methodologically difficult to include Africa as well. During the work, the historical Caribbean perspective, as well as the concept of voice, became more central.

• Research has resulted in historical literary survey of texts on the French establishment and early colonization of the Caribbean 1609-1709. This period and the texts written at this time have so far been largely unexplored, especially from a literary perspective. Most research on early modern French Caribbean focus on the 16th century and the first contacts between Europeans and indigenous peoples, or on high colonialism, plantation culture and slavery. My project suggests that the travel literature from this historically and culturally diffuse period between the first encounter and high colonialism can be read in the light of a Baroque aesthetic and epistemology. This concept is new in the context of the French Caribbean, and has opened up for new perspectives on these texts as it has enabled us to read them in the local context rather than as a purely French affair. My research shows that the 17th century Caribbean differs markedly, both politically and aesthetically from the 18th century, which is often used to understand Creole cultures. It also shows that travelers were engaged in the Caribbean world they described and were often influenced by it in a way that undermined authoritarian colonial discourse.

• The project has shed new light on Caribbean literary history. By reading the texts as part of the Baroque, the project has linked the early Caribbean to contemporary literature and theory about creolization, hybridity and archipelagic thinking, thereby offering a critical reading of the longue durée of the history of Caribbean literatures.

• The project has shown the ways in which travelers include other languages and voices vary radically. The conclusion is that voice and language integration must be analyzed in a situation, that is, in the textual and historical context. Another conclusion is that many of the travelers constructed knowledge of the islands in dialogue with indigenous people and enslaved people and that it is possible to trace how the texts ascribe to other voices a certain agent even if they take shape in a situation of unequal power relations.

• The article “La citation de l'autre” published with full Open Access, analyzes how direct discourse was used by travel writers to dramatize certain events in the narrative and transform the historical figures who participated in the early colonization of the French Caribbean into novel characters. Through close readings of certain representative passages, the article concludes that dramatization renegotiated the representation of foreign people and allowed travelers to sometimes attribute agency to the other.

• “Nommer les îles, dire l'archipel” is peer-reviewed and published in the collected volume Îles réelles / îles imaginaires (Presses de l'Université Clermont-Ferrand). Here I analyze toponyms in French early modern travel writing to the Caribbean. The study demonstrates that travelers use both European and vernacular names, suggesting that they perceived the region as early as the 17th century as characterized by cultural, colonial crossings and conflicts. But above all, toponyms show how naming is a political and aesthetic tool; it is evasive and changeable, which echoes in contemporary Caribbean writers’ thoughts on creolization and archipelagic thinking.

• In “Langues étrangères et exotisme dans les récits de voyages aux Antilles au XVIIe siècle”, published Open Access, I question the tendency to read the insertion of foreign languages in travel literature in terms of exotic markers. I show that, contrary to what many travel literature scholars have argued, the vernacular vocabulary that pierce the narratives does not necessarily function as disjecta membra. Instead, travelers tend to weave the foreign language into the French prose. The vernacular thus translates into a style and an exercise in writing.

• “Expressions of Emotion: Slaves’ Speech in Early Modern French Travel Writing to the Caribbean” has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. Focusing on dialogues between narrators and slaves, the study shows how the representations of voices of slaves change through time and in relation to increasing slavery, from dominican Du Tertre who missioned to the islands during the early colonization before the plantation economy took off (1640-58), via Le Mongin a Jesuit missionary who only missioned with the enslaved population in the 1680s after the slave trade gained its momentum, to the another dominican, Labat, who owned slaves himself and helped to improve the sugar refinery (1695-1709). I pay particular attention to the representation of emotions, looking at how pathos transforms from expressing compassion to becoming a pro-slavery rhetorical tool.

• The main result of the project is a monograph entitled Entangled Voices in French Early Modern Travel Writing to the Caribbean, peer-reviewed and under contract with (Open Access Gold) with Palgrave Macmillan. The book, which will be published in 2021, will shed new light on the French Caribbean during the 17th century and especially on travel literature. I show how the polyphonic elements can be written into a baroque aesthetic and epistemology that finds echoes in today's theorizing about creolization, hybridity and archipelagic thinking.

In addition to these results are a number of publications related to the project, such as an analysis of the etymology of the term “vernacular” in French from the Renaissance to the 19th century, written within the frames of my participation in the RJ research program “Cosmopolitan and Verncaular Dynamics in World Literatures”. I have also written an article about Swedish travelers to Sápmi during the 16th and 18th centuries, published in French in a collected volume on illustrated voyages to cold regions. Finally, the monograph "Lire l’Histoire générale des Antilles de J-B Du Tertre : exotisme et établissement français aux Îles (1625-1671)", which was under review when I initiated the project “Tropical engagements” has been enriched by the research carried out with RJ’s support, notably around the historical context of the 17th century French Caribbean. This research has used both for this book and for Entangled Voices but with different framings and focus. Lire l’Histoire générale des Antilles de J-B Du Tertre will be published by Brill in 2020. RJ will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

Most research results have been disseminated within the academic world through publications, conference participation, lectures and seminars. One collaborative outcome has been the establishment of a network for researchers in travel literature in Sweden. Together with prof. Paula Henrikson at the Department of Literature at UU, I have developed a multidisciplinary seminar series on travel literature, RELS, with funding from LILAe, a network for literary scholars at the Faculty of Language Sciences UU. The seminar invites both national and international researchers, and has so far been well attended. We have arranged a workshop where we discussed travel literature as a genre from different scientific perspectives. The next workshop is scheduled for September 2020 and will address the issue of borders. Over all, our network brings together 50 researchers from nine different disciplines.
As far as international cooperation is concerned, I would like to highlight my association with the group “Hétérotopos” at the University of Bucharest, the CRLV at Université Blaise Pascal Clermont-Ferrand and last but not least my collaborations with Aix-Marseille Université. In April 2020, I will give a lecture at Aix within the research project “Geographic imaginaires: le voyage-prétexte comme machine à penser”, led by prof. Sylvie Requemora-Gros. The same month, she will visit Uppsala and give a seminar with RELS.

The project has led to a number of exciting new research questions and areas.
The relationship between authentic travel literature and imaginary travel literature is an interesting domain that warrants further investigations. This question can, for example, be written into the larger question of how modern literary history was created on the foundations of a strict, but constructed, separation between literature or fiction, and other genres.
Another area that I have touched upon within the project but without being able to fully explore it, is the writing of grammars of radically foreign oral language in 17th century France. The aesthetics of grammar and its relation to the standardization of European vernaculars at the time, especially French, have so far not been studied and could yield results relevant to 17th century literature and culture but also to theorizing of world literature.
A third area of interest for new projects, is the question of materiality and travel literature. Here, historians and art historians have done much; how could materiality be approached from a literary perspective?
In conclusion, it is the intersections between early modern travels and contemporary theory that have emerged with increasing clarity and urgency during the course of the project. I wish to continue to develop this strand of research in future projects.
Publication list
Docent Christina Kullberg "Tropical Engagements". Publikationer med fri öppen tillgång markeras OA.

2019. ”Langues étrangères et exotisme dans les récits de voyages aux Antilles au XVIIe siècle.” Komodo 21 no 11. OA:

2019. ”Nommer les îles, dire l’archipel: Les Antilles au croisement de la colonisation et de la pensée archipélique.” Îles réelles/îles fictionnelles. Ed. Vanezia Pârlea. Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 97-112.

2018. ”La citation de l’autre: Discours direct et altérité dans les relations de voyage des missionnaires aux Antilles au XVIIe siècle.” Revue Loxias ”Figures du récit de voyage” OA:


2021. Entangled Voices in Early Modern French Travel Writing in the Caribbean. Monograph. Contract with Palgrave Macmillan, Early Modern Cultural Studies 1500-1700 series. OA.

2021. ”Expressions of Emotion: Slaves’ Speech in Early Modern French Travel Writing to the Caribbean.” For Comparative Literary Histories of Slavery, vol 1. Eds. Mads Anders Baggesgaard, Madeleine Dobie and Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing.

Publikationer relaterade till projektet:

2019. ”Construire le nord à travers la catabase (Olaus Magnus, Rudbeck le jeune, Linné,” Voyages illustrés aux pays froids (XVIe-XIXe siécle), eds. Gilles Bertrand, Daniel Chartier, Alain Guyot, Marie Mossé, Anne Spica (redaktör), Clermont Ferrand: Presses universitaires Blaise Pascale, 151-165.

2018. ”Le Vernaculaire: A Brief Lexical History in French.” World Literatures: Exploring the Cosmopolitan-Vernacular Exchange. Eds. Stefan Helgesson et ali. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press: 19-30. OA:

Kommande publikationer relaterade till projektet:

2020. Time and Temporalities in European Travel Writing. Eds. Paula Henrikson and Christina Kullberg. London and New York: Routledge.
My contributions to the volume: ”Introduction” (co-written with Henrikson) and Chap. 2. ”Like Moses on the Nile: Competing Temporalities in Seventeenth-Century French Travels to the Caribbean.” In print.

2020. "Lire l'Histoire générale des Antilles de Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre: Exotisme et établissement français aux îles (1625-1671). Amsterdam: Brill. OA.

Medverkan vid internationella konferenser

Mars 2019
Enlightenment, Nation Building, and the Practices of Natural History: The Bartrams and Linné, Uppsala universitet. Presentation: ”Archipelagic Knowledge: French 17th Century Natural Histories from the Caribbean”

April 2018
Our Uncommon Grounds: Modern Languages and Cultures for the 21st Century. Durham University. Presentation: ”The Archipelagic Long durée of Caribbean Literatures”

Januari 2018
MLA. New York. Presentation: ”Making Others Speak: Direct and Indirect Discourse in 17th-Century Travel Writing to the Caribbean”

Augusti 2017
Loose Tongues: World Literature and the Vernacular. Stockholm University. Presentation: ”Speaking Local, Writing Universal Vernaculars in 17th-Century French Travels to the Caribbean”

Juni 2017
Voyages illustrés aux pays froids. Pont-à-Mousson, Université lorraine. Presentation: ”Olaus Magnus, Rudbeck, Linné: Construire le nord à travers la catabase”.

Januari 2017
Emotion and Slavery. Martinique, Columbia University, Aarhus University. Presentation: ”Expressions of Emotions: Slaves’ Speech in Labat’s Nouveaux voyages aux Isles de l’Amérique”

December 2016
Visions du monde, pouvoirs d’évocation: Exotisme et pittoresque en littérature et en anthropologie. Université Paul Valéry Montpellier. Presentation: ”Exotisme antillais au XVIIe siècle? L’exemple de l’Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François”.

November 2016
Topoi, Topographies, and Travellers. Swedish Institute Rome. Presentation: ”Transforming Characters: Languages and Form in Early Modern French Travel Writing to the Caribbean”

April 2016
Îles réelles, îles Fictionelles. Bukacharest University. Presentation: ”Nommer les îles, dire l’archipel: Les Antilles au croisement de la colonisation et de la pensée archipélagique”


Mars 2020 “Med pennan i handen: diplomaten som reseskildrare”. Symposium organiserat av Per-Arne Bodin och Elena Balzamo, Vitterhetsakademien

April 2020 “Le voyage-pré-texte comme machine à penser”. Symposium organiserat av Sylvie Requemora-Gros och forskarprojektet “Géographies imaginaires”, Université Aix-Marseille.
Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
SEK 2,374,000.00
General Literature Studies