PACIFIC POSSESSIONS: THE PURSUIT OF AUTHENTICITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY OCEANIAN TRAVEL ACCOUNTS by Chris J. Thomas, Reviewed by Lila Marz Harper
 


PACIFIC POSSESSIONS: THE PURSUIT OF AUTHENTICITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY OCEANIAN TRAVEL ACCOUNTS
By Chris J. Thomas
(U of Alabama P, 2021) x + 171 pp.
Reviewed by Lila Marz Harper on 2022-08-19.

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Travel accounts often tell us more about the traveler than the place. This is particularly true for travelers who saw themselves as contributing to colonial empire building. Chris J. Thomas opens his study of nineteenth-century Pacific travel narratives by linking them to modern tourist reviews of Hawaiian luaus on online sites such as TripAdvisor. Such comments, he notes, recall 19th-century travelers' paradoxical desire for both familiar, non-threatening entertainment and the authentically exotic thrill of packaged spectacles. Moving from these modern tourist reviews back into 19th century travel accounts, Thomas shows in four thematic chapters how American and British travelers used cultural signifiers to define Pacific cultures.

Each chapter highlights one writer's evolving experiences with "markers of authenticity" (7) along with the influence of Herman Melville's Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). While treating neither of these directly, Thomas argues that the writers he studies are shadowed by Melville's popular books. Declining to limit himself to such canonical authors as Melville himself, Robert Louis Stevenson, and (later) Jack London, Thomas probes the work of lesser-known authors whose travel writings do not fit neatly into an interpretative paradigm. Pacific Possessions is well titled, for Thomas considers both lands that are colonized and artifacts that are collected. Serving as a synecdoche for Oceanic culture, these artifacts represent "the space [that] travel writing creates between cultural exchange and Western invention, between interchange and imposition" (4).

While the chapters are loosely connected, they are essentially free-standing, ordered in roughly chronological order. Revising a 2015 article published in Studies in Travel Writing, the opening chapter examines George Vason's conversion to Tongan culture in 1797 and the unsettling effect of his tattoos on viewers back in England. By means of an 1854 pseudonymous account, Sandwich Island Notes, chapter 2 explores European reactions to the Hula performance; chapter 3 travels to Fiji and Constance Gordon-Cummings' accounts of cannibals; and the final chapter foregrounds the photographs taken by Joseph Strong and meant for inclusion--though actually not included-- in Stevenson's posthumously published In the South Seas (1896).

In juggling so many themes and approaches, Thomas takes on a difficult task, but he avoids repetition. Comparing George Vason's An Authentic Narrative of Four Years' Residence in Tongataboo (1810) with the 1840 edition, retitled Narrative of the Life of the Late George Vason of Nottingham, chapter 1 shows how the body tattoos of European men were represented in these books, and especially how their tattooed authors were displayed in their frontispieces. Thomas contrasts Vason's response to tattoos with the metaphorical descriptions used in other travel narratives, such as Greg Dening's account of Peter Heywood's letters home in Dening's 1992 history of the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty, James O'Connell's A Residence of Eleven Years... (1836), William Torrey's Torrey's Narrative (1848), and the writings of Stevenson.

But this opening chapter has its flaws. Commendably sensitive to the indigenous cultures of the Pacific, Thomas warns that writing "about Oceanian peoples becomes continually more concerned with writing over rather than with writing alongside," with representing the Oceanian world "in a manner that best conforms" to the expectations of the writer's audience (35). Nevertheless, Thomas hesitates to fully consider how Europeans came to stigmatize tattoos as marks of slavery and criminality. He also muddies the organization of this opening chapter by trying to juggle too many topics: perhaps the result of flawed revising as his material moved from a 2015 journal article through a 2017 dissertation chapter to a book chapter.

Turning from tattoos to the search for the authentic, the fear of belatedness, and the Hawaiian Hula, chapter 2 applies concepts from James Buzard's Beaten Track (1993) to the writing of travelers such as the pseudonymous "Häolé" of Sandwich Island Notes (1854). Citing both Mark Twain and Isabella Bird, this chapter also traces the "de-eroticized" formation of the hula from the 1850s to the 1870s (63). Just as Ali Behdad's Belated Travelers (1994) finds stereotypical repression exemplified by the harem and by women's veils of the Middle East, Thomas probes the conflicted responses of a viewer who wants authenticity in a performance, but only if held at a safe distance--a "staged authenticity" (38).

Taking up a controversial topic previously broached in Patrick Brantlinger's Taming Cannibals (2011), chapter 3 treats cannibalism in Fiji. Though cannibalism may have been simply a figment of Western imagination, Thomas helpfully highlights a specific object: a "Fijian Cannibal Fork," which was collected and exhibited by Constance Gordon-Cummings on the front cover of At Home in Fiji (1881):

Unlike the tattoo and the hula, this artifact is both familiar and tangible, so whatever it may be, it works better at grounding its named theme than do the other two objects. Here again, Thomas carefully examines the cover picture to show how Western travelers "project their own ideas onto the object" (67) and thus titillate themselves over what is essentially a fork. To better explain how this object was originally used, though we can't know for certain, Thomas explores both relevant dictionaries and the collecting of Pacific ethnographic curiosities.

Though this chapter foregrounds the only female writer he considers, Thomas misses the opportunity to analyze the constraints on nineteenth-century women travelers. In particular, writers such as Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley, whom Thomas mentions only in passing, often imposed domestic metaphors on the landscapes they described. Further, though Thomas cites studies of Dorothy Middleton and Claudia Knapman, they date respectively from 1965 and 1986 (the date of Knapman's White Women in Fiji 1835-1930, though it's one of a few sources missing from the Works Cited). Thomas also overlooks the writing networks of women travelers such as Isabella Bird, who edited Gordon-Cummings' work on Scotland.

The final chapter questions Stevenson's use of photography as a "corrective to oppressive colonial narratives" (105) in his posthumously published In the South Seas (1896). Like Behdad's chapter on the photographs that accompanied the 1987 Oxford edition of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, this chapter examines how a modern publisher, Penguin, reframed and cropped a photograph made by Joseph Strong on the cover of their 1998 paperback edition of Stevenson's last work:

Original photo by Joseph Strong: RLS with natives on Butaritari

Cover of Penguin edition of Stevenson's In the South Seas

With the help of Carla Manfredi, Thomas has reproduced archival photographs from the Writers' Museum (now available at robert-louis-stevenson.org). These enhance Thomas's careful examination of Joseph Strong's photography, which originally had been intended to support Stevenson's study.

As a collection, the chapters are interesting, dense, and well researched, but unevenly organized. Thomas's practice of continually outlining and foreshadowing his arguments makes the book read like something not quite beyond the dissertation it once was, and the wealth of research cited in each chapter is not fully mined: it might serve to launch separate monographs that could flesh out these arguments and explore connections. While each material object studied--the tattoo, the hula, the fork--anchors discussion of more abstract concepts, this approach marginalizes important historical contextualization and authorial networking. Nevertheless, copious notes provide useful information and the citations--though some are missing or incomplete--show thorough research.

Lila Marz Harper is Thesis Editor and Senior Lecturer Emeritus of English at Central Washington University.


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