Reconstructing History: Literature, History, and Anthropology in the Pacific

Article excerpt


In the history of cultural anthropology, the dying James Cook staggering into the surf on a beach in Hawaii has exerted an almost totemic fascination. As Greg Dening has suggested, we cannot really claim in the early twenty-first century that "the history of the death of Cook has ended" because this encounter has become the site of continuing controversies about "how 'natives' think" and about how Euro-Americans think about the problematic issues raised by all three terms: "natives," "think" and the epistemological "how."1 In an unrivalled body of work on Euro-American / Pacific encounters in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, Dening has taught us that the complex performances of history - the retelling of the past to serve the contingencies of the present - still define the practice of contemporary historiography.

As Robert Markley noted in his plenary address for the 2004 David Nichol Smith Conference in honor of Dening, history demands a narrative structure that makes sense of episodes like Cook's death. Historians, Dening writes, "always make a drama out of what the participants experienced as one damn thing after another," precisely because "good" history defines itself by tracing out logical sequences that make aesthetic as well as historiographic sense, and that consequently turn the exasperation of "one damn thing after another" into convincing - that is, narratively coherent - portraits of the actors recruited to play in these dramatic restagings.2

In different ways, the essays in this issue - delivered in July of 2004 at the "XIIth David Nichol Smith Conference in Eighteenth-Century Studies, New Voyagings on Old Seas: Performances in Honour of Professor Greg Dening" - call attention to the complex problems inherent in staging and restaging voyages of discovery, whether real or imagined; in discussing contact narratives between indigenous peoples and the British, whether in the Pacific or England; and in imagining sympathetically the lives of participants caught up in "one damn thing after another," whether in the eighteenth century or the twenty-first. Paul Arthur's "Fictions of Encounter: Eighteenth-Century Imaginary Voyages to the Antipodes" looks closely at the marginalized genre of the "imaginary voyage" and the ways these texts contributed to both "literary history and . . . the history of colonization itself" (p. 197). A significant form in Britain from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, imaginary voyages "helped embed social acceptance of colonial expansion by modeling cultural domination as natural, beneficial, and welcomed" (p. 197). Through an examination of the colonialist themes and textual strategies of these texts and the social and literary contexts in which they were written and published, Arthur demonstrates that the very qualities that perpetuated the marginalization of imaginary voyages in literary and historical studies are those that enabled them to participate in eighteenth-century Britain's creation of a colonial imagination.

As Arthur demonstrates, imaginary voyages fell between genres: they represented neither true history nor romance, but rather intersected with a number of genres, including actual documentaries of travels to the antipodes, as well as the literary romance and the realist novel, and served as precursor to science fiction and fantasy. The blurring of genres - the quintessentially eighteenth-century mode of combining fact and fiction - fed fantasies of colonial conquest and invited readers to participate in the process of discovery. Simultaneously, the imaginary voyage invoked truth and realism to "trap its readers into acquiescence with its colonialist values" (p.203). Therefore, the imaginary voyage, through a complicated denial of traditional categorization, embodied the complexity of the colonial experience itself: "European nations needed constantly to reinvent themselves in relation to the unknown they were gradually coming to know, and the writing of imaginary voyage fiction made a significant contribution to this process" (p. …


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