Jonathan Lamb, Vanessa Smith, Nicholas Thomas, eds. Exploration and Exchange: A South Seas Anthology, 1680-1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xxv + 359 pp. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-46846-4; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-46845-7.
Reviewed by Barry Reay (Department of History, University of Auckland)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2002)
This exciting anthology consists of extracts from texts generated by contact between Europeans (principally British and Americans) and the indigenous cultures of Oceania during the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Assembled, edited, and interpreted by a formidable trio of academic experts, the enterprise is interdisciplinary (literary studies, anthropology, the visual arts), and clearly intended to present texts that are good to think with rather than attempting any kind of encyclopedia of cultural contact.
The book begins with a short but sophisticated introduction, and is then divided into three sections or parts, reflecting the principal sources of contact: 1) adventurers and explorers (ten extracts); 2) beachcombers and missionaries (twelve extracts); and 3) literary travelers (six extracts). These presenters of the Pacific range then from those who visited briefly as explorers or recreational travelers, to the longer-term inhabitants, the missionaries and beachcombers, the latter inhabiting a hybrid cultural space and often mediating between the indigenous population and the Europeans. The framework of Exploration and Exchange is broadly chronological, moving from fleeting contact to increased colonial dominance, though the editors are at pains to eschew any grand narrative. Usefully, each part begins with an introduction, and every extract is introduced and then concluded with suggestions for further reading. In total, then, the commentary is substantial, although somewhat uneven: Lamb's commentary is elliptical, while Thomas and Smith's analyses are more usefully substantial--especially for students. The extracts themselves have been chosen to reflect some experience of actual contact rather than the kind of encounter occurring purely in the realm of fantasy. The collection also provides ready access to some key texts either long out of print or available, say, only in libraries or archives in London, Hurstmonceux, or Sydney.
The authors are interested in the give and take of cultural encounters, what they term the "risks of encounter"--in other words, the "exchange," referred to in the book's title. They deal with paradoxes, ambiguities, contradictions, the specific circumstances of many and varied contacts. "Like a number of scholars working in diverse postcolonial fields, who have become increasingly attendant to the particular rather than the universal aspects of colonial encounter, we find ourselves suspicious of gross totalities that blur the specificity of each enterprise and the distinctiveness of its outcome" (p. xvi). While this sort of open-ended approach is attractive to the present reviewer, it may not be quite so user-friendly to the average undergraduate, or to academics who prefer to deal in gross totalities. (The reference to Europeans "at sea," mentioned below, may assume unintended significance for some of the more traditional navigators of this anthology!)
The authors are also concerned with encounter as commentary on the country of origin, for Europeans were often thinking or writing Europe when they thought or wrote the Pacific. Hence John Byron's account of the Patagonian giants (1767): "A Patagonian is not fabricated as a man of London or Paris, of five feet high; he does not approach his mistress with corrupted manners, a weakened constitution, and a body hurt by excess and debauchery, but with a virtuous behaviour, a good constitution, and noble sentiments." Patagonians are "not courteous enough to cut each others' throats" (pp. 48, 51). Hence too Abby Jane Morrell's verdict on New Britain (1833): "there is no vulgar wretchedness, as seen in crowded cities--no squalid diseases; there is nothing of aristocratic contumely, and the laws of nature are only slightly regulated by convention or necessity" (pp. 247^Ö8). There are references to gender and class throughout these extracts that are as much comments on gender and class expectations in Europe as they are on the populations of the South Seas.
There are many examples in this collection of what the editors cleverly describe as the Europeans "at sea" in terms of their responses to the forms of sexuality and violence that they encountered: cannibalism and sexual excess are recurring themes; infanticide, widow strangling, and gender indeterminacy are more marginal concerns. There is William Ellis's dramatic representation of Tahitian sexual practices (1829), where their gravity is heightened exponentially by a refusal to describe or name them: "And these were abominable, unutterable....I will not do violence to my own feelings, or offend those of my readers, by details of conduct, which the mind cannot contemplate without pollution and pain" (p. 216). We have the split narrative of the tattooed missionary/beachcomber, George Vason (1840), who instead of converting the Tongans, "entered with the utmost eagerness, into every pleasure and entertainment of the natives, and endeavoured to forget that I was once called a christian, and had left a christian land to evangelize the heathen" (p. 167). Thus a partial insider's account of Tonga is presented within the frame of his fall and repentance. But there are also instances of skepticism and caution. Johann Forster's fascinating discussion of the logic of Maori cannibalism (1778), and William Wales's recorded shift (1773) from doubt to explanation of the same practice, are instructive counterpoints to more predictable stereotypical European reactions. The anthology contains several European reflections about the possibilities of their fellow observers' misinterpretation of Pacific culture and behavior, and their noted analogies about the dangers that would be involved in interpreting English ethnography either through a limited encounter with one of England's dockyard populations or interactions at an English fair!
The impression conveyed, then, is of an incredible richness of description and discourse: from William Dampier's relentlessly negative description of New Holland--no water, no animals, no fish, no houses, no clothing--to Abby Morrell's appreciation of the complexity of Pacific art. This stimulating and elegantly produced anthology deserves the widest possible readership.
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Barry Reay. Review of Lamb, Jonathan; Smith, Vanessa; Thomas, Nicholas, eds., Exploration and Exchange: A South Seas Anthology, 1680-1900.
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