Fine Women

Neil Rennie

  • The Pacific since Magellan. Vol. III: Paradise Found and Lost by O.H.K. Spate
    Routledge, 410 pp, £40.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 415 02565 6
  • Captain Bligh: The Man and his Mutinies by Gavin Kennedy
    Duckworth, 321 pp, £14.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2231 5
  • The Sublime Savage: James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian by Fiona Stafford
    Edinburgh, 208 pp, £22.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 85224 569 6

In the 1760s the greatest gap in Western knowledge of the world – the Pacific – was plugged, in theory, by the great southern continent of Terra Australis, awaiting its Columbus. Within a few decades this continent had been exploded, mostly by its anti-Columbus, James Cook, and crumbled into a multitude of islands in a vast ocean, mapped, measured and ready for invasion by beachcombers, traders, whalers, missionaries, colonial administrators and, in their wake, historians. The voyagers, equipped with scientists and artists, had replaced a fictional continent with factual islands – a triumph of empiricism in preparation for a triumph of empire, apparently, but then the voyagers who had demolished Terra Australis had discovered Tahiti, an idea as well as an island, a ‘paradise’ found and then lost.

Such, in outline, is the story implicit in the third and final volume of O.H.K. Spate’s voyage through the history of The Pacific since Magellan. The narrative closes at the end of the 18th century, although his account of economic activity runs into the first quarter of the 19th. The book opens with an assessment of the controversial theories about the origins of the indigenous Pacific peoples, whose own prehistorical voyages and settlements recent archaeology has plunged deeper into a past now to be measured in millennia, not centuries, and to be studied with the aid of radiocarbon dating, genetic analysis and computer simulations of drift. This chapter is followed by a survey of the islands and peoples as they were on the eve of the regular and prolonged contacts of the latter half of the 18th century. Here are the islands – from coral reefs (‘classified, rather roughly, into three main types’) to breadfruit tree, so symbolic to Joseph Banks of paradise found (almost): ‘In the article of food these happy people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefather; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow when their chiefest substance Bread fruit is procured with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down.’ Here are the coconuts that floated or were carried across the ocean (studies are in print) to grow on sandy, salty atolls and feed the edible dogs, thatch the vegetable houses, bend in the inevitable cyclones, and grow, above all, into the symbol of ‘paradise’ sold. Here, too, are the islanders – classified, rather roughly, into three main types: Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians – with their economic, religious, social and political systems and concepts, tabu, mana, et al, and here are their arts and artefacts – hula, tapa, canoes, tattoos – and, lest we think the Pacific islanders pacific, their wars, sacrifices and cannibalism. Here, then, are the Pacific islands peopled, palm-treed and awaiting discovery, while underneath this reliable island of information – the compact ecology, anthropology and ethnography of ‘paradise’ – the notes tell another story, of the curse of our forefather visited upon the conscientious scholar. References to more than eighty articles and books support Spate’s comprehensive vision of island life.

The technology of the discoverers’ ships is thoroughly checked – sails, charts, quadrants, chronometers – and the utopists and the theorists of Terra Australis are explored, men like Campbell, de Brosses and Callander, reminding one of Swift’s ‘project which will tend to the great benefit of all Mankind’: ‘to print by subscription in 96 large volumes in folio, an exact Description of Terra Australis incognita, collected with great care & pains from 999 learned & pious Authors of undoubted veracity’.

The scientific findings of the voyagers are catalogued and considered, and these findings are not just islands and coastlines located and mapped. Cook’s first trip to Tahiti entailed the observation of the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun, an observation that Spate argues was ‘very significant, if not crucial, in the evaluation of the world-wide corpus of observations which determined the Sun’s distance from the Earth to within 1 per cent’. Meanwhile Banks observed the Tahitians, his detailed notes on their ‘Manners & Customs’ marking the beginnings of scientific ethnography, and returned home from his global grand tour with 1000 species of plants, 500 birds and 500 fish, as well as news of the almost paradisal breadfruit. Boswell enthused provocatively and Johnson responded in character: ‘No, Sir (holding up a slice of a good loaf), this is better than the bread tree.’ The voyagers ‘have found very little, only one new animal, I think’. Boswell: ‘But many insects, Sir.’

The matter of the Pacific has narrative as well as scientific value. The best of South Sea tales are fact, not fiction, and Spate tells them deftly as well as briefly, knowing the lengths of speculation and faction some of them have run to. The drama of Cook’s death is told and analysed, with various explanations considered, the cause of his violent end being sought medically, in his intestines, which may have been infested with ‘a heavy ascaris (round-worm)’, and also tragi-anthropologically, in ‘hubris’ resulting from his identification by the Hawaiians with their god Lono. The Tahitians’ own discovery during Bougainville’s visit is not forgotten: Jean Baret, botanical assistant, was Jeanne Baret. Nor the sad tale of La Pérouse, the French answer to Cook, who set sail with ships that were ‘almost floating laboratories’ and vanished after leaving the newly arrived British colonists at Botany Bay. ‘Is there any news of La Pérouse?’ asked Louis XVI on the eve of his execution. The mystery was solved in 1827 and as a boy at Vanikoro I chipped a rusty piece off an old French anchor and put it in my pocket.

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