Histories of the Pacific Term Paper

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Histories of the Pacific

The real Pacific is not a static place as the Pacifics of the mind tend to be; and nor are the peoples who have acted upon it and within it the simple ciphers of exploiter and victim, powerless and powerful that some depictions would suggest. Nor can straightforward interpretations of linear progress towards "civilization" suffice, with their emphasis on great events as stepping-stones in the march towards modernity -- what one historian of Hawaii has called "narratives that chronicle Hawaiian history after Western great men reached Hawai'i's shores, foregrounding events and actors that, to Western observers, marked the evolution of Hawaii from primitiveness to progressing civilization" (Buck, 13). The key to avoiding such caricatures is in understanding the significance of the act of representation: "Native and stranger each possessed the other in their interpretations of the other" (Dening, 281). The events and encounters that have played so important a role in Pacific historiography (as that historiography has been shaped by Euroamerican culture) have been conveyed to their audiences as multifaceted, multilayered and contested, representing the meeting and mutual reshaping of different societies according to prevailing power relationships and ideologies. As Nicholas Thomas has observed, "An essentialism of cultural identity that speaks of undivided 'natives' or 'colonizers' is no more plausible or helpful analytically than one based on sex, which pretends that women or men globally have shared interests, oppressions, or psychologies" (Thomas, 42).

Herman Melville, in Typee, reacts against the oversimplification of the experience of encounter. The judgements formed by his character Tommo of the Typee among whom he lives develop and change over time; confronted with the apparent tendency of the Typee to cannibalism, he reflects that neither dismissal of the reality of the practice nor unreasoning horror at its existence is the right response:

Truth, who loves to be centrally located, is again found between the two extremes; for cannibalism to a certain moderate extent is practised among several of the primitive tribes in the Pacific, but it is upon the bodies of slain enemies alone; and horrible and fearful as the custom is, immeasurably as it is to be abhorred and condemned, still I assert that those who indulge in it are in other respects humane and virtuous. (Melville, 206)

In this case, as a recent scholar has argued, an essential part of the writer's project is to confront the reader with his/her preconceptions by asserting them in order to undermine them: "the only reason Melville identifies himself with the Orientalist desire of his readers is so that he can bring them to see, in the failure of his voyeuristic desire, the failure of theirs" Sanborn, 79). The process at work in Typee and elsewhere can be summarized as a movement of ideas and language through a triangle of interdependent tropes: expectation, encounter, representation. All those engaged in an encounter or event participate in this triangular process. In this paper two such encounters, the mutiny on the Bounty and the death of Captain James Cook, are examined in the context of this overall interpretation. In particular, two visual representations of these events will be examined in detail.

It is often forgotten that the voyage of the Bounty was a global rather than a specifically Pacific event. The voyage was literally global: a circumnavigation of the world intended to take breadfruit trees from the South Pacific to the Caribbean, where they were intended to be grown as a cheap and plentiful food for the West Indies slave population (Bligh, 3). The voyage was predicated on the assumption that the resources of the world, wherever they were located, were available to Europeans for their exploitation. The occurrence that has become the central "event" of the Bounty story, the mutiny of 1788, could not have occurred without this wider context of global imperial reach, legitimated (in the eyes of the Europeans) by a global imperial ideology (Campbell, 136). The Bounty, that fragile 90-foot construction of wood, sailcloth and rope, was an expression and an embodiment of global empire.

Perhaps the most celebrated visual depiction of the Bounty saga is the aquatint from 1790 by Robert Dodd, entitled "The Mutineers Casting Bligh Adrift in the Launch" (figure 1). The stern of the Bounty dominates the left side of the picture, her name clearly visible below the curved windows of the great cabin; on the right is the launch in which Bligh and his companions are being abandoned by the mutineers. The moment depicted is the instant of separation: a line still attaches the launch to the ship. From one of the windows of the great cabin, cutlasses are being thrown, at another stands a figure with clothing, also to be thrown into the boat, according to Bligh's own account: "four cutlasses ... were thrown into the boat after we were veered astern ... And some clothes" (Bligh, 113). Figures crowd the boat and the stern of the Bounty; Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers, is prominent in the center of the stern, while others stand about him with cutlasses drawn, some raising their hats in the air, others gesturing and shouting, which is also in accordance with Bligh's description of the castaways undergoing "a great deal of ridicule ... [making] sport for these unfeeling wretches" (Bligh, 113). The scene is framed by the flat, empty sea, apart from a land mass on the extreme right of the picture, presumably the island of Tofoa in Tahiti. The island is bare, rocky and uninviting -- and indeed, when Bligh seeks supplies there he finds little welcome.

The only greenery in the picture is, paradoxically, on the ship, not the land. Two breadfruit trees are visible, in pots lashed to the sternrails of the ship. The Bounty herself is a moving island with fresh water and trees, and a community of inhabitants who are divided against themselves. The inhabitants of Tahiti, too, were divided; as Bligh recorded of the people of the island of Matavai, they "very earnestly desired I would not think of leaving Matavai. 'Here ... you shall be supplied plentifully with everything you want. All here are your friends and friends of King George; if you go to the other islands you will have everything stolen from you'" (Bligh, 52). Yet for the mutineers the life of the islands' peoples was an ideal one, and their reluctance to return from it to the demands of their "European" lives was the root of the mutiny: "the mutineers had flattered themselves with the hopes of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans than they could possibly enjoy in England; and this, joined to some female connections, most probably occasioned the whole transaction" (Bligh, 116). The mutiny could be seen, therefore, as a result of the "corruption" occasioned by the culture of the South Pacific islanders; the converse is the view that the corruption came from outside, from the European incursion. This is, fundamentally, the view of Greg Dening in his Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, but is as partial and misleading as any other over-simplification. For Dening the violence of Tahitian society can always be understood in terms of culture and social norms, it is European violence that is corrupt. When captains maintain order in eighteenth-century naval vessels, it is in order to "sustain privilege, comfort and wealth" (Dening, 156); a caricatured view that disregards the parallels between the societies of native and stranger that encountered on another in the event of the Bounty mutiny. Dodd's picture shows Bligh in the bows of the launch, his hands open to receive the cutlass being thrown to him; he is visually the link between the ship and the launch, just as that link is broken.

The second visual depiction of a troubled Pacific encounter is an engraving (figure 2), one of many, depicting the death of Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in 1779. This engraving, by J. Webber and F. Bartolozzi, reflected the "official" version of this fatal encounter as depicted by Thomas Martyn in his Views of the South Seas of 1788 -- a view that has recently been challenged by the discovery of other, non-canonical, representations of the same event (Bennett). Cook is standing on the beach in a heroic but non-martial pose; he is signalling to his men to cease fire, but as he does so he is stabbed in the back by a native, one of a vast horde surrounding him and his men, who fight desperately against overwhelming odds. This moment of violence is the end of one story -- that of Cook, the great navigator and explorer, and his Pacific voyages -- and the beginning of another, that of the glorification of Cook, the British maritime hero. It is also the paradoxical climax of another story, that of the encounter between the semi-legendary, semi-historical world of Hawaiian mystical tradition and the scientific and military world of expansionist Europe; and it is this encounter that the image both dramatizes and renders invisible, by obliterating the complex…[continue]

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