Where am I?

Greg Dening

  • Far-Fetched Facts: The Literature of Travel and the Idea of the South Seas by Neil Rennie
    Oxford, 330 pp, £35.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 19 811975 5

There has never been a ‘Pacificism’ to go with Orientalism, the South Seas having always seemed more luscious than mysterious. The obligations felt by the ‘civilised’ to turn South Sea islanders into something else was too strong for there to be any thought of learning from them, and scholarly encounters seemed a little too hedonist to be serious. Any politics of palm-trees,grass-huts and ‘cannibal kings’ was seen as more laughable than real. Such Pacificism as there has been was Eurocentric, romantic in its excitement at ‘discoveries’, nationalistic in the competition of one empire against another to appear to be doing good or to show which did the least harm, prurient towards the liberties taken by those who ‘went native’. The ‘idea’ of the South Seas was always theatrical: the sexual titivations of Tahiti, the triumphs of James Cook and then his death, the loss of Jean François de la Pérouse, the mutiny on the Bounty, the debates on the good and evil effects of missions.

The ‘literature’ of this theatre is the preoccupation of Neil Rennie’s Far-Fetched Facts. It takes him down awell-worn and, as he seesit, narrow path. Bernard Smith showed the way in two magnificent books, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768-1850 (1960) and Imagining the Pacific (1992) – from some oversight they do not appear in Rennie’s bibliography. Smith demonstrated that travellers described, painted, drew what they experienced as new out of a sensibility deeply engraved with what was old. An aesthetics of space, mythological perceptions, cosmology, traditional art forms, these shaped the real experience of travel.

Rennie’s twist on this argument lies in the play on words in his title: Far-Fetched Facts. The 1811 Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue, Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence says of the noun-form ‘fetch’: ‘a trick, wheedle, or invention to deceive’. The eternal dilemma of travel literature is to know what is fetched and what found, what is trick and what real. This was true of the stories of Solomon’s gold, of Ulysses, of Marco Polo. It was true of Captain Cook. The debate about what philosophical, scientific and literary skills are needed in order to read far-fetched facts has been a long one. Our culture is deeply sensitive to the wheedling of travellers, so that we have a poetics for travel literature, although ‘poetics’ is not the sort of word that Rennie is inclined to use. The ‘idea of the South Seas’, he argues, is not so much new as refurbished from the literature of real and imaginary travel of long before.

In this, I fear, Rennie is mistaken. The South Seas were never an idea, but many ideas – political, botanical, navigational, anthropological. They were polyglot. Ideas of the South Seas came not from some template imposed by reading travel literature but from interpreting events, sometimes exciting, sometimes terrible; from fear of change; from a sense that the old systems of describing and explaining the world were being enlarged by discovery. Rennie is right to stress that these ideas are filled with double plays and contradictions – in our own time, Bikini has at once the most awful and the most frivolous of associations.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa is reputed to have had the original idea of a South Sea on that famous ‘peak in Darien’, which wasn’t actually a peak and wasn’t actually in Darien. It was an unimpressive hillock, from which – if we can believe a recent traveller – when you look south, you see the unsightly coast of the Gulf of San Miguel. Only when you look north do you see a vast expanse of water. It seems a little farfetched that Balboa should have looked north and seen a South Sea. He wanted, in any case, to own all that he couldn’t see, north, south and west, and his sense of propriety demanded that he should at least stand in the sea he was about to own.

Unfortunately, he found that the 18-foot west-coast tide was out and that all there was to own was a vast plain of stinking mud. He waited therefore till the tide turned. Then, ankle deep in his South Sea, he proclaimed that

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