Unca Eliza Winkfield wrote The Female American in 1767 as a religious memoir modelled after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Just like Robinson Crusoe, despite being a work of fiction, there is a series of references to factual historical events meant to create an illusion of reality. From a non-critical perspective, a reader might interpret the text as clever and even convincing case in support of religious imperialism. However, when one takes time to reflect on the sociological and philosophical implications, questions arise on the morality of the antagonist’s actions. A close reading compels the reader to wonder exactly what makes Unca and other characters in similar literature assume their religion is superior and that they must civilise “indigenous” populations. Under scrutiny, the underlying implications in the relationship between missionaries and converts are found to be grounded on the belief that one is superior to the other.
Although she was not originally a Christian, her uncle from her father’s side converted her and as a result, she feels obligated to share the new religion with the supposedly pagan and Godless Indians. It is indeed ironic that in her conversion of the Indians, she hoodwinks them by making it appear her religion is sanctioned by their idol, who they respect and obey without question. Before she comes across the inhabitants of the island, she discovers and marvels at their artistry and the singular talent expressed in their idols. However, like most imperialists, she refuses to use the achievements of the natives to humanise them but rather looks upon their talent with condensation, that such people could do such great work. This is often the reaction of many westerners when they bump into excellence and endowment from sources they consider culturally and intellectually inferior. However, when they witness the same in their equals, they critic it on its merits rather than their diminutive expectations of the possessor. When critics, for instance, admire the workmanship in the Sistine chapel, they do not marvel that Michelangelo could have created such works. Instead, they focus their admiration on the fact that he did it and was, therefore, an artistic genius. However, Mayan and African architecture and technology are often lauded with a mixture of surprise and admiration
While she may think herself a benevolent saviour, she is no different from the violent crusaders and in some cases religious extremists, who force others to accept their faith or face death. She intimidates the Indians and causes them to fear her by telling them not to give her cause to, “destroy you before you reach can reach your shore” (Winkfield 96). In addition to manipulating them by taking the form of their god, she also threatens them with destruction. If a more liberal writer had authored the work, the notion of her using the idol to convert the Indians might be seen as a satirical commentary on religion. After all, Christianity is categorical in its opposition of worshipping idols and anyone else but God. However, she not only facilitates idol worship but also personifies it by entering the idol. Also, the fact that people listened to her because their god had sent her negates any purity in their new faith since they only agreed to join after instructions from their idol. Unless she reveals to them that she hoodwinked them, their conversion and worship of the Christian god is fundamentally flawed since it was endorsed by an idol.
The writer wishes to create the impression that she acted in the islander’s best interests by converting them to Christianity by any means necessary but in truth, she bullied them out of their traditional way of life. She does not stop to consider that their religion, just like hers, maybe important and worthy of respect. Simply because she believes the Indians are primitive and she is civilised, she assumes superiority and acts as their leader.
Her inability to appreciate the irony in her situation is noted when she wears the jewels that she gathers in the temple and uses them to gain legitimacy over the natives. If her religion were by default superior, then she would not need to use trickery and indeed the very techniques that western preachers used to condemn in the religions of their subjects. For example, Christian missionaries in Africa would critic traditional medicine men and witch doctors claiming they were charlatans who lied to and manipulated their people. However, in this case, the missionary is doing the same thing but does not see the moral contradiction since she represents the “true” god.
From the story, one is forced to wonder, to what extent is trickery an acceptable tool for spreading any religion. Furthermore, is there such a thing as a superior religion or is it just a matter of a peoples’ self-perception and their ability to influence and manipulate others? While this questions cannot be objectively answered since they are inherently subjective, a critical reading on the book shows that although it is designed to justify religious imperialism, it proves that religion is a tool that some individuals and communities use to force others to submit to their will.
Winkfield, Unca Eliza. The Female American: Or, The Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield. Broadview Press, 2014. Print.