Oceanic Encounters: Exchange, Desire, Violence.
Edited by Margaret Jolly, Serge Tcherkezoff and Darrell Tryon.
Canberra, ACT.: ANU E Press 2009.
Pp. xix, 344 + illus.
Price: A$39.95 pb.
In 2001, a collaborative programme 'Early Encounters in the Pacific' was established between the French Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l'Oceanie (CREDO, a research centre within the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) of the Australian National University. This beautifully produced volume is the first outcome of this Franco-Australian collaboration. It contains 10 chapters by 5 French (4 anthropologists, 1 historian) and 5 Australian scholars (3 anthropologists, 1 linguist, 1 historian). The introductory chapter (Ch 1) by Jolly and Tcherkezoff
charts out the parameters of the volume indexed by the notion of 'encounter' rather than 'first contact'. In their outline of the thematic contents of the volume, the two editors evoke a range of themes (indicated by the subtitle) which define the first encounters between the indigenous Pacific life-worlds and European explorers. This is a well established academic field of inquiry (see, for example, Spate's classic trilogy) but it was the works of Bernard Smith, Greg Denning, and Marshall Sahlins which have shaped the characteristic historical anthropological approaches to the topic, that, following a series of Sahlins" publications, became an academic industry. All contributions in the present volume are plugged into this academic discourse and some of them have already contributed a string of publications (especially Ballard, Douglas, and Jolly in English, and Tcherkezoff in French and English). In this regard, conceptually there is nothing new in this volume but the historical linguistic (Tryon's Ch 2) and ethnohistorical information contained in all the other chapters is of intrinsic interest and value. Regarding the latter, however, a serious scholar of the encounters in Oceania would still have to do his/her spadework on diverse primary sources in order to secure a more autonomous perspective on particular historical situations and assess critically their framing and interpretations by this (or any other) group of academicians.
The ordering of the chapters follows a chronological sequence. Tryon (Ch 2) gives a succinct outline of the linguistic picture of the region and the lingual effects of both the pre-historic (involving Austronesian and Papuan speakers) and the more recent encounters with European seafarers who, beginning in the 17th century, brought about the incorporation of Oceania into the present day global capitalist world-system. This process has been reflected in the development of a number of pidgin languages and the establishment of English and French as the dominant world languages in the Pacific. Jolly (Ch 3) explores the documents of Quiros' (1606), Bougainville's (1768) and Cook's (1774) sojourns in Vanuatu with a focus on Johannes Fabian's view that in the period demarcated by these encounters, coinciding with the emergence of the Enlightenment, there occurred a cosmological shift in the 'European constructions of the "other'" (p. 67). She 'considers the traces of these journeys through the lens of this vaunted transformation and in relation to local sedimentations (and vaporisations) of memory' (ibid). Tcherkezoff's contribution (Ch 4) on the 'role of Polynesian women in early encounters with Europeans' is really a supplement to his 2005 English-language monograph 'First Contacts' in Polynesia: The Samoan Case (1722-1848). This should be read in conjunction with the present chapter; only on that basis can one fully appreciate the ethnographic and comparative ethnohistorical value of his explorations which challenge much about the Western received views concerning Polynesian notions about and practices pertaining to sexuality and divinity. These views originated with the early European seamen, who misconstrued them, but they also persist among those recent anthropologists who, a la Obeyesekere, criticised Sahlins on the pretext that he did the same. Douaire-Marsauden's chapter (Ch 5) deals with Tonga where the 'history of the first contacts (...) lasted more than two centuries' (p. 161)--from Schouten's visit in 1616 to the establishment of the first Christian mission in 1826. She focuses on European beachcombers and early missionaries and highlights the importance of writing which, with healing, 'must be considered as having played a role at least as important in the process of Christianisation' (p. 169). Bronwen Douglas' contribution (Ch 6) in the main reiterates some of her recent work on the representation of race in the 18th and 19th century European accounts of the native inhabitants of Australia and the South Seas. Here she is principally focussed on d'Entrecasteaux's voyage (1791-94). In particular, she endeavours to detect 'the presence and agency of indigenous people', intimated as the 'indigenous countersigns' (p. 175) amidst 'voyagers' representations'. The latter are coated with 'the ignorance, prejudices and ethnocentric perceptual processes of European observers'. She deems these 'countersigns of indigenous agency' to be 'a key resource for ethnohistorians' (ibid). Thus, for instance, where the 18th century French navigator's (a man of the Enlightenment) representations of Tasmanians both idealise and infantilise them, the 21 st century post-modern academic historian detects in the same texts the following 'countersigns': 'I argue (...) that indigenous demeanours toward newcomers, however they were experienced, were always strategic--even if I cannot begin to fathom the reason--and that their textual inscription is yet another enigmatic countersign of indigenous agency' (p. 184). I find this unconvincing, to say the least. What I see in this exercise of 'post-empirical' historialization is that every ego primarily casts another ego in terms of projection of a differentially charged spectrum of his/her own self-and-other-images. For a post-modern homo academicus, the Tasmanians (and other inhabitants of Oceania) described by d'Entrecasteaux are an instance of the kind of being who is a strategist endowed with agency. This homo strategicus agentivus, wholly consonant with the neo-liberal rhetoric of the free acting individual, is currently a popular self-image in circulation especially in Anglophone academic discourses. By the same token, every European seafarer can also be countersigned as an instance of this generic human type.
Then follows Isabelle Merle's appraisal of the famous Watkin Tench as a first 'ethnographer' of the newly established penal colony in Port Jackson (Ch 7). The author is a historian who in 2006 'introduced and published in French the two volumes of Watkin Tench's' book (p. xv). This contribution clearly follows on from that undertaking. Merle also assesses in some detail Clendinnen's Dancing with Strangers (pp 200-1, 206, 211-14). Accordingly, a more interested reader may consider consulting Tench's accounts (Flannery's edition will do) in conjunction with Clendinnen's text. This will provide a better perspective on how these two 21st century historians evaluate Tench and descry 'Aboriginal agency' in his and related documents of the time detailing the British engagements with the Aboriginal inhabitants at the inception of the colonisation of Australia.
The remaining three chapters deal with the first encounters on the main island of New Guinea. The last two bring the chronological trajectory of the book into the 20th century. Ballard (Ch 8) deals with a selection of fictional works about the exploration of the New Guinea interior. Among these, Captain John Lawson's Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea (1875) is the most notorious. Ballard covers the period between 1726 and 1876 during which, through fictional and factual literary productions by travellers, scientists, administrators, and popular writers there emerged 'a diffuse but all-pervasive colonial imaginary' (p. 244). The author assumes that such fictional narratives, in so far as they purport to conjure a quality of verisimilitude, will draw on representational conventions that inform the texts written by those who intended them in all seriousness as the "true accounts' of their explorations and inquiries. The case of Lawson and his critics, specifically Captain Moresby, the author of the factually true Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and the D'Entrecasteaux Islands (pp 234-43), neatly illustrates 'the mutual implication of fictional and factual accounts (and) the manner in which this collective literature draws upon and further nourished a common imaginary' (p. 245).
Extending on his earlier work, Mosko's piece (Ch 9) focuses on the Mekeo and Rora people's 'endogenous perceptions' of Europeans and their guns against the background of the transformations in the system of 'chiefly and sorcery power and authority' (p. 262). The two principal European accounts examined here are by the in/famous Italian explorer Luigi d'Alhertis and the Assistant Resident Magistrate C. A. W. Monckton. His Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate (1920) is supposedly 'the most read book ever written on New Guinea' (p. 271). Mosko frames these through the lens of intercultural mythopraxis (in Sahlins' sense) developing simultaneously a critical re-evaluation of two contradictory views of the process of pacification espoused by two other Mekeo ethnographers, Michelle Stephen and Steen Bergendorff. In order to do justice to Mosko's use of Sahlins and gain a better ethnographic hold on the Mekeo/Rora life-worlds as pertinent to the present contribution, the reader may do well to consult his 'Peace, war, sex and sorcery: nonlinear analogical transformation in the early escalation of North Mekeo sorcery and chiefly practice' (2005).
Finally, the anthropologists Bonnemere and Lemonnier present a synoptic view of 'the series of first contacts' (p. 298) with the Ankave-Angans in the deep interior of the Gulf Province. The period of these contacts spans well over forty years and the last two government patrols from Menyamya (Morobe Province), were carried out as late as 1977 and 1979. The ethnographic details assembled here will be of great interest especially to other Angan ethnographers. Of more general interest is the authors' discussion of the intergenerational transmission of the Ankave contact experiences and the selective filtering they have undergone in this process.
As with all publications in this genre (e.g., Salmond, Thomas, Colder, Lamb, and Orr, Schwartz) and anthropological writings in general, one has to scrutinise critically the ideological values that permeate epistemological, aesthetic and moralistic frameworks informing the contributions in this volume. My brief remarks on Douglas indicate the problem. Each in his/her particular way, all the authors reproduce a stronger or weaker hue of the ideological sensibilities and idealisations presently dominating post-modern academia and as such generate various distortions through the rhetoric of critical reflectivity and moral mindfulness in the service of the 'other'. It will suffice to say that in this discursive field the problematic of any 'other', as of the 'self', is occluded by the egoity of the practitioners whose centricity is caught in the institutional collective mirroring which determines their 'inscriptive strategies' and motivates their 'agency'. On balance, however, the empirical ethnographic contents of the contributions outweigh this self-alienation in the domestic milieu of academic otherness which has eroded critical anthropological thought. Hence the intrinsic value of the whole volume.
University of Sydney
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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