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

these austral seas and lands and coasts and islands with everything annexed to them or which might pertain to them in whatever manner or by whatever reason or title might or could exist, ancient or modern, in times past, present or to come without gainsay whatsoever... These Indies, islands and mainlands, northern and southern, with their seas, in the arctic pole as in the antarctic, on both sides of the equinoctial line, within and without the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn

belonged to the Kings of Castile ‘now and for all time so long as the world shall last until the final universal judgment of all mortals’. Now that’s an idea of the South Seas! It was had on 27 September 1517. Or maybe 25 September. The facts in the travel records don’t match.

Ferdinand Magellan put dimensions to Balboa’s claim five years later. Being a Portuguese in the service of a Spanish king, Magellan had the meridian of hemispheres running through his soul: the Tordesillas line, which divided the world between Spain and Portugal in the West, would divide it again in the East. But Magellan’s idea of a South Sea, which he (probably) called the Pacific, was too small. He would spend the last weeks of his life trying to fetch his geographical facts into political ones so that the territory on the wrong side of the line would nonetheless be Spanish, and Christian.

The thrust of these first inventors of an idea of the South Sea was towards hegemony and ownership, and it did not change greatly over the next 350 years. The rites of possession by empires were repeated over and over. Turning the sod, burying pennies in a bottle, throwing sand into the sea, loyal toasts, crosses and cairns, carvings on a tree, scratchings on a piece of paper, showing the colours, nailing copper and lead plates to a post: ancient ceremonies of ‘turfe and twygge’ the English called them; ‘solemn acts to bring faith and testimony in public forms’ was the Spanish phrase. As often as not these symbolic acts were, like Balboa’s, a sort of ‘lay-by’ plan for empire. The French, however, seemed to believe all their far-fetched facts of empire and with a sort of madcap realism they stayed.

July 1995 was the quatercentenary of one of these rites of possession. It was celebrated on one of the saddest beaches anywhere in the South Seas: Madre de Dios, the Spaniards called it; Resolution Bay, Cook renamed it. Vaitahu is its native name. It is on the island of Tahuata, in the group the Spanish called the Marquesas. In July 1595, four vesssels of Alvaro de Mendana and his pilot, Pedro de Quiros, anchored here. They were in search of the Solomon Islands and a New Jerusalem. By the time they left they had killed by their own count two hundred islanders. ‘We did not understand them,’ Quiros (or maybe his poet secretary) wrote, ‘and to this may be attributed the evil things that happened, which might have been avoided, if there had been someone to make us understand each other.’

Sometimes they killed because to shoot and not kill would be a blot against their reputations as marksmen. It didn’t matter, anyway. ‘These savages only went to the Devil a little sooner than they might have hoped,’ one of the Spaniards said. On the foreshore they sang High Mass and took possession of the islands in the name of His Spanish Majesty. Just before they left, some canoes came out to the ships. The Spaniards did not know why. The people in the canoes were offering coconuts and breadfruit. But the Spaniards feared them, and so killed them. They took the bodies back to the foreshore where they had said Mass. There they set up three stakes and hung the bodies on them. One of the soldiers pierced the central figure through the heart with his lance. One presumes that there was no re-enactment of this Golgothan scene in the quatercentennial celebrations.

The maps on admirals’ and diplomats’ tables, the realpolitik they represented, and the terrible violence islanders suffered because of them do not feature greatly in the idea of the South Seas that Rennie discovers. ‘Literature’ is his concern. This was an anomalous notion for most of those who wrote about their encounters with the immense space of the Pacific, the variety of its peoples and the otherness of its plants and animals. ‘Literature’ was something late 18th-century captains of voyages of discovery and the ‘experimental gentlemen’ who accompanied them consciously avoided. For them it was mere ornament, feminine, dangerous even. Their words, as they said countless times in their prefaces, were dull and ordinary but the more valuable for that. The South Seas were not an ‘idea’ at all, but something they observed and measured.

Being an observer in the Age of Enlightenment was to be both worldly-wise and an idealist. ‘I live in the world rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species,’ wrote Joseph Addison. ‘I have entered all the parts of my life as a Looker-On.’ The enlightened spectator’s irony allowed him to respond to any romantic idea of the South Seas with ribald laughter. Tahiti represented a theatre of the grotesque in which native ‘queens’ with ‘sunburnt bums’ and ‘tattooed breeches’ did not get it quite right in their mimicry of the truly civilised, and the laughter of the audience expressed its relief at the discovery that the natives were not other at all. They were ‘us’, only worse. There was nothing to be learned from them except that there was nothing to be learned.

This theatricality masked real violence. The English encounter with the natives of Tahiti under Samuel Wallis began with a massacre by the Dolphin’s guns. When Joseph Banks later tried to find out how many islanders were killed, the Tahitians would only say ten, twenty, thirty, which they counted on their fingers, followed by some word they used for numbering flocks of birds or shoals of fish. These sorts of far-fetched facts did not enter the satirical ‘literature’.

The 18th century was exhilarated by seeing the world from new perspectives. From a balloon, in a microscope, through a telescope, by the precision of perfectly calibrated machines, the world looked different and inspired description. Above all, it looked different from a ship. ‘Navigation’ was a subject taught in every school, even the most landlocked, as the new measurability of the heavens made the earth measurable as well. The Enlightenment was supremely a moment of voyaging. ‘Voyaging into substance’, Barbara Stafford has called it, as European ships probed anything new – icebergs, water spouts, Banksia trees, cannibals, hula dances. A lifetime would not be enough to read all the far-fetched facts collected from these voyages and stored in libraries, archives, academies and private drawers.

Rennie, a literary man reading ‘literature’, has no great interest in the mountains of non-literature. But the far-fetched facts percolated into everyday language. The Bounty was sent out to collect breadfruit as a subsistence food for West Indies slaves; Norfolk pines and New Zealand flax as supplies for the Royal Navy were among the reasons for establishing Botany Bay. Ordinary seamen dreamed of the fortunes they would make by selling their collections of native artefacts, or ‘artificial curiosities’, as they called them. And strangely, these facts, once recorded, never went away. Linguists, botanists, meteorologists, Biblical scholars rooted among them over and over again, in order to explain the world and themselves.

Rennie’s deepest pessimism is about the possibility of discovering what ideas the peoples of the South Seas had of themselves. ‘Savages speak to us, if at all, ventriloquially – in our own words,’ he writes in his brief Preface. This is not an expression of post-colonial angst, nor is it coyness in the face of the debate over who has the right to speak to whom. Rennie baulks at translation, but that only makes the silence of native peoples more profound. The fact is that Rennie’s ventriloquists saw more than their own reflections in the otherness they described.

There was, and still is, much to learn: of how these islanders peopled their ‘Ocean of Islands’ three thousand years, and in some parts of the South Seas 40,000 years, before they were ‘discovered’; of how they knew and named their natural environment on different systems of thinking; of all the ways they made sense of their existence. Two hundred years spent translating what these islanders said of themselves in somebody else’s transcription of their language is too rich an idea to be thrown away.

The last word in Rennie’s Preface goes to ‘King Finow of Tonga’. Finau’s words were spoken to a beachcomber, William Mariner, who had written his name down on a piece of paper as ‘Feenow’. Another beachcomber read it out loud. Finau snatched the paper, looking for himself. ‘This is neither like myself nor anybody else. Where are my eyes, where is my head? Where are my legs? How can you possibly know it to be I?’ ‘Savages’, of course, were subjected to all sorts of tricks by the ‘civilised’ in order to illustrate their ignorance. There are hundreds of examples of this sort in the ‘literature of travel’. But ‘Where am I?’ is not such a bad question to ask in a foreign place or when confronted by a foreign experience. If there is a template for an idea of the South Seas it probably lies here.

‘Where am I?’ was the question James Cook liked most of all. When he stood for the first time on the black sand beach of Matavai in Tahiti, he calculated he was 17°29'15"S and 149°30'38"W. It would have given him great satisfaction to have known that he was out in longitude by only 24 seconds by modern satellite navigation. On this first voyage he did not have the advantages of an accurate chronometer, but was dependent on the Astronomer Royal, Dr Nevil Maskelyne’s brand-new Nautical Almanac, with its 90,000 observations of Moon and stars. Over the years, Maskelyne went through 25 assistants, demanding perfect accuracy for his far-fetched facts. Cook’s Endeavour was packed with the finest instruments of the day, made by Jesse Ramsden, Thomas Earnshaw, John Bird, John Dollund and John Shelton. Cook would have shared the satisfaction of these artisans that their hands could make instruments calibrated to one four-thousandth of an inch.

Cook was asking deeper questions about where he was than mere calculations of latitude and longitude could answer. He was in Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, in an experiment to do with the size of the universe and the Earth’ s place in it. Other observers were in Siberia, South Africa and Mexico at the same time doing the same thing. It was original science on a global scale, conducted by professionals,sponsored by scientific societies and supported by government funds. In deserts, on mountains, in jungles, on Pacific islands, juggling a concern for their own survival and an interest in the stars, they were trying to observe the unobservable: the extent of the universe. What they observed, in fact, was the ever more refined calibration of their instruments.

‘Seeing,’ wrote William Herschel, the maker of many of the telescopes they were using, ‘is in some respect an art which must be learnt.’ John Reinhold Forster, who with his son Georg accompanied Cook on his second voyage, made an art of seeing. His Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World, on Physical Geography, Natural History and Ethnic Philosophy. Especially on 1. the Earth and its Strata, 2. Water and the Ocean, 3. the Atmosphere, 4. the Changes of the Globe, 5. Organic Bodies and 6. the Human Species (1778) was the most creative book of all in these early years. It was a striking performance, but it does not feature in Rennie’s estimate of what the ‘literature of travel’ might be. That is a pity because Forster is remarkably sensitive to the ways far-fetched facts are sharpened into a science by criticism, reflection and dialogue, conscious as he was that an ‘idea of the South Seas’ is created in conversation and exchange.

Another large issue was raised by Cook’s ‘Where am I?’ He was in a foreign place and got into a lot of trouble for admitting it. One of the things that made Tahiti foreign was an experience he could not explain, when he witnessed a public copulation between a young man and girl orchestrated by the social élite of the island. Cook admitted to thinking that it was done not out of ‘lewdness’ but out of ‘custom’. That was dangerous. He was admitting that something was different, not necessarily evil, and there was a suspicion of cultural relativism in that.

Francis Bacon looked to the prophet Daniel for support in arguing that navigation and science were ‘coeval’ in an Age of Discovery. ‘Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.’ Or in a more modern translation of Daniel: ‘Many will wander this way and that, and wickedness will go on increasing.’ Wickedness and knowledge have a long association, of course, in Judeo-Christian traditions, and there is a special form of wickedness that comes from travelling. It is the wickedness of knowing that things can be otherwise.