Harriet Guest. Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation: James Cook, William Hodges, and the Return to the Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Plates. xx + 249 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88194-4.
Reviewed by Kate Teltscher (Roehampton University)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by David S. Karr (Columbia College)
The Knights of Otaheite
In his memoirs of James Cook’s second circumnavigation of 1772-75, the midshipman John Elliott recalled the time that he spent in the South Seas. So impressed were Elliott and his fellow shipmates by the tattoos of the warriors of Tahiti that they determined to adopt the local custom. Dubbing themselves the "Knights of Otaheite," the messmates had a commemorative star tattooed on the left breast. Grafting a Tahitian practice onto a chivalric model, the sailors fashioned a distinctive identity for themselves. The act of exotic self-ennoblement at once suggests parallels between European and Tahitian cultures and parodies the domestic system of honors.
Such subversive moments are at the heart of the British encounter with the South Pacific, Harriet Guest argues in her splendid new book, Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation. Cultural encounter, Guest maintains, tends to erode distinctions between the domestic and exotic, to unsettle fixed notions of national and cultural identity. Taking Cook’s second voyage as the frame of her study, Guest offers a series of fascinating and carefully nuanced readings of textual and visual representations of the South Pacific.
The second voyage is of particular interest, Guest argues, because it offered the accompanying writers and artists the opportunity for philosophical reflection on various South Pacific cultures. No longer dazzled by the thrill of initial encounter, the natural scientist, Johann Forster, and the painter, William Hodges, could view the voyage as a practical exercise in Enlightenment ethnography, philosophy, and natural history. Armed with the theories of the Scottish Enlightenment, the voyagers could rank the island cultures according to European notions of civilization. But for Guest, the most significant moments occur when the island cultures fail to fit the Enlightenment models, when they expose the fragility of European ideas of progress, and when they question the European sense of modernity.
The book is occupied as much with the interrogation of European culture as that of the South Seas, and moves fluidly between geographical locations, discussions of Scottish Enlightenment thought, theories of art, and analyses of paintings and travel texts. Rather than offering a strict narrative of the second voyage or unifying argument, Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation moves backwards and forwards between the first and third voyages, and the reception of the voyagers in London. This gives the book the form of a series of linked essays, which may frustrate the reader who seeks a clear central thesis, but does enact the complex process of cross-cultural representation itself, insistently crossing cultures and disciplines. Guest is as acute and informed an art historian as she is a literary critic, and the interdisciplinary approach is one of the book’s great strengths.
Individual chapters are loosely structured around the South Pacific landfalls of Cook’s second voyage, focusing on the representation of the landscape; peoples; and social organization and cultural practices of Tahiti, Tonga, and New Zealand. Guest takes as her central texts the accounts produced by the father-and-son team of Johann and George Forster: Johann Forster’s Observations Made during a Voyage round the World (1778) and George Forster’s A Voyage round the World (1777), works that set the standard for philosophical and scientific travel well into the nineteenth century. The writings of Captain Cook, and textual and visual representations of the Raiatean islander Mai (more commonly known as Omai), are also discussed at length. But dominating all are Hodges’s luminous oils, his South Pacific seascapes, valleys, and bays, handsomely reproduced in both color and black and white in this lavishly illustrated volume.
Running throughout the discussion is a concern with issues of gender. For Guest, gendered discourses are endlessly adaptable and multifaceted, perfectly suited to represent commercial and imperial desire. The condition of women was, for many Enlightenment thinkers, one of the key indicators of a society’s level of civilization. But, as Guest points out, Johann Forster upended these conventions by seeing a civilizing influence in Tahitian women. By practicing serial monogamy, Tahitian women strengthened their authority in both private and public affairs. Far from condemning the sexual conduct of Tahitian women, Forster praised their natural modesty and capacity for love. Discovering a cultivated feminine sensibility in a pre-commercial society, Forster challenged the Enlightenment conception of social hierarchy that linked civility and commerce. In this instance, as elsewhere, Guest uncovers a troubling instability at the heart of Enlightenment discourse.
In her focus on cultural difference, Guest reveals the challenges that South Seas cultures posed to European theories of civilization. Like many practitioners of what Kathleen Wilson has termed a new imperial history, Guest complicates our understanding of eighteenth-century notions of British identity and modernity. A truly interdisciplinary study, Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation should find its way onto the bookshelves and into the bibliographies of historians, art historians, and literary critics of the eighteenth century.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Kate Teltscher. Review of Guest, Harriet, Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation: James Cook, William Hodges, and the Return to the Pacific.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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