Inside Story

Very like, and very unlike

As two Australian books show, the European Enlightenment rested partly on a global traffic of persons between widely separated spaces

Tim Rowse 17 December 2013 3044 words

Immersive, experimental, equivocal: Bennelong, as depicted by James Neagle (1760–1822), c. 1798. State Library of Victoria

The Savage Visit: New World People and Popular Imperial Culture in Britain, 1710–1795
By Kate Fullagar | Berkeley University Press | $61.95

The Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World
By Shino Konishi | Pickering and Chatto | £60

PEOPLE from the New World began to turn up in Europe as early as 1501, when Portuguese fishermen presented three “Beothuks” from Newfoundland to the court of Britain’s King Henry VII. Kate Fullagar asks what sense their English hosts made of these visitors and their successors – including Sydney’s Bennelong – during three centuries; her answer is largely a story about the elite and popular cultures of eighteenth-century Britain. Shino Konishi is interested in another kind of cross-cultural visit: the British, French and Spanish explorers and settlers who arrived on an Australian coastline – mostly the east coast and mostly within the years 1770 and 1803. Her story is about the European Enlightenment: how did its theories about human diversity enable (or disable) their understanding of Aboriginal men?

The documentary traces of visits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are so sparse that Fullagar, a historian at Macquarie University, can only outline the visits (some voluntary, others forced) of a Brazilian king (in 1530–31), four Inuit (in 1576–77), and about a dozen indigenous aides to Walter Raleigh (between 1584 and 1618). She categorises the American native visitors of the seventeenth century as “cultural brokers” (assisting colonial entrepreneurs), “royal emissaries” (Pocahontas, the most famous), “performer” (or “wonder”) and “working plebeians” (little known seahands, soldiers and servants). She can tell us some of these people’s names (they are nearly all men), hosts and temporary abodes, but she has found no general model of English perception. Unlike Spain, with its systematic approach to plundering and enslavement, Britain engaged with the New World in the period 1500–1700 in a discontinuous, ad hoc way that neither required nor encouraged a coherent public framework of interpretation of a “savage visit.” France received many more New World visitors than Britain, Fullagar reports, because the French fur trade in North America occasioned more intimate and territorially extensive contact and because French intellectuals (such as Montaigne) were more interested in the relationship of the “savage” to “civilisation.”

As British commercial interest in the New World grew, however, so Britons began to articulate a framework in which the visit of a New World “savage” could be interesting enough to stimulate published commentary and visual representations. What particularly compelled a growing discourse about the “savage,” Fullagar argues, was Britain’s ongoing debate, during the eighteenth century, about its own formation into a commercial, urban, consumer society. To consider the savage was to enable a reflection on the vices and virtues of one’s own civilisation, she argues. As well, Britons debated the costs and benefits of mercantile imperial expansion with its associated political and military rivalry with France. The visiting savage helped bring that projection into focus, just as it was becoming clear that it paid to know your savages when vying with France and Spain for North America. A delegation of four Iroquois “kings” to London in 1710 attracted official interest and much popular attention. So did a Cherokee delegation in 1730, a Creek delegation in 1734 and another Cherokee delegation in 1762. Fullagar treats each visit in detail, with particular attention to engravings, paintings, press articles and popular appropriations.

The historiography of the eighteenth-century Atlantic has become very rich. As more and more historical actors have come into view, the contingencies of European imperial outreach have been more fully appreciated: the Atlantic was a zone of interacting sovereigns of different kinds. Fullagar makes good use of one of this literature’s themes: a British sensibility that was unsettled and conflicted due of the sheer size of the politico/military and economic projects that Britain was then undertaking, both at home and across the oceans. The greatest skill of the historian is to contextualise – to suggest how a global conjuncture may be read in the detail of a Joshua Reynolds painting. When the documentary material is available to her, Fullagar relishes the opportunity – at once descriptive, narrative and analytic – in alert, uncluttered prose.

Evoking British uncertainty (or diversity in certainties), she is able to show that while the category “savage” was constantly available, its eighteenth-century meanings could be complex and unstable. Contemporary visual and anecdotal representations of the four Iroquois kings admired them variously – as warrior allies of mercantile ambition, as loyal monarchists indifferent to crass Whiggery, as embodiments of spirituality and stasis, as visitors appalled (or awestruck) by British sophistication, as objects of shallow, unruly popular spectatorship. The Iroquois and other “savages” were the diverse mirrors of whatever the writer/painter or reader/viewer thought virtuous or wicked in his/her times. The savage could also be an object of fear – warriors to be sure, but on whose side? What was a respectful and prudent way for hosts to behave when such visitors came?

Eventually, Fullagar claims, the idea “savage” became useless as a way to think about native visitors from North America: these people were better understood as agents relevant to British projects such as Christian evangelism and political diplomacy. Fullagar refers to this as “the full historicisation of America”; it severed the region “from useful fantasy” in the British imagination, after 1763. That is, the “savage” visitor became less the antonymic projection of qualities Britons saw in their own “civilization” and more a real historical agent, of relevance to particular institutions and policies.

By the end of the eighteenth century, visitors from the Pacific had displaced the North Americans as the feted, fascinating and increasingly eroticised savage visitor. By then, social theory had been born in the form of “universal (or conjectural) history” that understood human diversity as the result of the different speeds at which all peoples were moving from savage to polite society. Enlightened thinkers (Scots and others) were eager to find empirical examples of the slowest/earliest peoples and the Pacific seemed to have them in abundance.

Arriving in London in 1774 as the guest of Sir Joseph Banks, Mai (or Omai) from Tahiti embodied Britain’s late eighteenth century “Oceanic idealization.” He was soon given an audience with King George III and Queen Charlotte and inoculated against smallpox. By that time, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (1755) had begun to influence British perceptions of the savage. Rousseau’s speculative history of humankind as the steady corruption of natural virtues reinforced the school of thought that criticised contemporary commercial, credit-dependent, urban and governed civilisation from the standpoint of England’s landed tradition. Many – both intellectuals and hacks – were thus well primed to see gracious, primitive Mai in terms of the virtues of “natural man.” The contrary point of view was exemplified by Samuel Johnson, who thought Rousseau “a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society” and ascribed Mai’s grace and good manners not to his Pacific origins but to his rapid habituation to his hosts’ standards.

Unfortunately for those who idealised Pacific peoples such as Mai, the Hawaiians murdered Captain James Cook in 1777. Perhaps “natural man” was a bit of a beast to be tamed after all. Fullagar argues that the heroisation of Cook – exacerbated by his martyrdom – strengthened British sentiment in favour of imperial expansion.

Other Pacific visitors arrived after Mai. One, Lebuu disembarking from Palau in 1784, became interesting by dying of smallpox while in England, an opportunity for “sentimental discourses about the self.” Another, Kualelo from Hawaii in 1789, illustrated the gloomy possibility that savages were ineducable. A third, the Tahitian Maititi, arrived in 1793 so sick from his smallpox vaccination that he lasted only a few months. After Mai, Fullagar says, the British public lost interest in savage visitors: they seemed minor details of a confidently expansionist Empire.

The Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World, by ANU’s Shino Konishi, now with the University of Western Australia, is about the visitations that such expansion propelled. More than twenty British, French and Spanish expeditions visited Australia between 1770 and 1803. They wrote about the Aboriginal people they met, and about the Aboriginal men in particular. One important difference between cross-cultural encounters in England and those in Australia was that whereas English conventions demanded that the savage body be dressed, in Australia the savage was likely to be naked. This occasioned a kind of “degree zero” of mutual observation. “The natural body,” writes Konishi, “when considered in its essential state, stripped of its cultural and material embellishments, and reduced to its needs and drives, was all that natives and newcomers held in common.”

Emphasising the centrality of the body is the organisation of Konishi’s book, in which the explorers’ comments about men are organised under a series of headings: the skin, the hair, the face, sexuality, the propensity to fight and methods of fighting, the communicative sounds that they made (however poorly understood), their labour processes and tools, and their physical capabilities. Each heading gets a chapter, and each chapter begins with Konishi’s summary of the ideas about skin, hair, the face and so on with which “the Enlightenment” had equipped (or ill-equipped) these curious and thoughtful explorers and early colonists.

The influence of Rousseau looms large in her account, as in Fullagar’s. From 1770, his description of humanity’s earliest condition could be verified or refuted by observing those who we now call the First Australians. Many occasions of European curiosity, however, seem to have been no more recherché than such simple (and to me, compelling) questions as: In what respects are They like Us? Are all humans warlike, users of language, makers of music?

The detail of these observations, from the scores of interactions recounted by Konishi, is both fascinating to read – she quotes liberally – and impossible to condense into a neat compendium of acquired knowledge. Here are some piquant vignettes. Joseph Banks used his own spittle to rub clean a patch of Aboriginal skin, to ascertain its true colour. The British puzzled much over the scarification of skin. Hairstyles attracted European attention, but “Indigenous pomades and powders were often perceived as mere dirt,” and Baudin’s artists were instructed to standardise the rendering of hair so that variations in the object of greater interest, the skull, could be recorded. To grasp the significance of tooth extraction among the Eora required better understanding of language than the British first possessed, but at least they figured out that it was a ritual practice, just as they noticed that nasal piercing was a mark of distinction.

Were Aborigines musical? La Marseillaise, sung by Baudin’s men in 1803, had “the picanninnies jumping for joy”; but an earlier expedition’s violin performance had met first with indifference and then rejection (the listeners put their fingers in their ears). The explorers were often disappointed by Aborigines’ failure to “admire and covet” their “ostentatiously displayed… weapons, musical instruments, bottles, clothes and trifles…” Aborigines were impressed by mirrors, however, and the Europeans’ weapons and animal skins engaged them even more. Body parts figure prominently when the visitors compiled Aboriginal word lists, but the editor of the second edition of Péron’s journal thought his readers were better off not knowing how the men of Oyster Bay referred to their erections.

A recurring theme of Konishi’s study is that to observe Aboriginal men was to interact with them, usually without the mediation of language, which gave rise to many moments of mutual opacity, curiosity, apprehension, relief and amusement. When Konishi invites us to imagine ourselves in these interactions, we cannot help knowing their sequels: the intervening years of displacement, dispossession and violence. Posterior awareness endows with innocence these scenes of inarticulate reciprocal wonder and blunder.

Nonetheless, our knowledge of the catastrophe to come cannot be denied, and it shadows Konishi’s treatment of some European perceptions. Accounts of “Aboriginal warriors and warfare” were “the predominant focus of European depictions of the Aboriginal male body,” and she suggests that explorers’ depictions of “the aboriginal martial body and indigenous warfare… were biased by their failure to comprehend indigenous hostility as a form of organized resistance.” Observations made through the voyages of Cook, La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux, Baudin and Flinders, do not, it seems to me, give us grounds for chiding these explorers for not discerning “organised resistance” or law-governed process in Aborigines’ occasionally violent behaviour. Indeed, as Konishi points out, D’Entrecasteaux 1793 and Péron in 1803 didn’t see any warrior contests among Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land, and so they found a real life example of humans in Rousseau’s peaceful state of nature.

The observations occasioned by establishing a penal settlement, from 1788, at Port Jackson were a different matter. These British observers were occupiers, not visitors, and it should have occurred to them that this fact was increasingly evident to the Eora and was becoming the basis of their behaviour towards them. Konishi quotes Captain John Hunter’s dismay at Eora “treachery”; she writes that the First Fleet, unlike preceding “explorers,” found occasion to resort to terror and collective punishment. When the visitors and occupiers observed vengeful clashes among Aborigines, they saw confirmation of the “Hobbesian thesis” that humans were naturally in a state of war. Konishi suggests that they might have discerned such tit for tat as legal process, and they might also have construed Aboriginal attacks on British “as a martial response to the loss of their sovereignty.” That they did not is what she means by “biased.”

Konishi’s knowledge that these early relatively symmetrical encounters were soon to be succeeded by structural domination encourages her not only to report but also to assess the truth of what the explorers wrote. Were they, in their “bias,” laying the ideological ground – however unintentionally – for the grossly unequal relationship of coloniser to colonised? Noting the prevailing opinion that “Aboriginal men were lazy and exploitative of their women,” her critical response is to quote passages in which explorers described Aboriginal men’s activity. While this textual evidence undermines the stereotype, it doesn’t address the question of whether the Aboriginal male exploited the hardworking womenfolk.

We may have to accommodate, within our post-colonial sensibility, the thought that Aboriginal society really was unequal in ways described in the late eighteenth century. Could that gender inequality have been evident in Aboriginal sexuality itself? The chapter “Carnal Bodies” considers whether Aboriginal men enforced females’ sexual submission – whether they practised “courtship with a club,” as attested by Watkin Tench, David Collins and Francois Péron. To cast doubt, Konishi cites Tench’s description of a dance performed by Boorong and Nanbaree, glossing it as “a ritual of desire and love.” Tench interpreted as “courtship” other Eora dances that he recorded. Her conclusion is that male courtship included “a range of techniques, motives and expectations in courting women” – some brutish, by our standards, others not.

BENNELONG was the eighteenth century’s most prolifically described Aborigine, and he mercurially graces both Fullagar’s and Konishi’s books. Though initially Captain Arthur Phillip’s captive, he appears to have been as curious about Europeans as any European could be about him, and his resulting susceptibility continues to puzzle us. Is such openness best understood as pliancy? When clothes are “civilisation,” what do we make of a man who dons as easily as he divests? His mode of inquiry into eighteenth century Britain was immersive, experimental, equivocal, both linguistically penetrating and delighted by society’s surface. Few agents are more suited than Bennelong to a historiography that renders agency as “performativity” – and (without dulling the theoretical point) he seems to have been something of a show-off. (In 2014, Jack Charles – actor, reformed thief and elder – is his nearest avatar.) He challenges our essentialisms as much as he did those of the late eighteenth century. Adroit mobility across the civilised/savage boundary eludes characterisation – and discourages trust? When the British apprehended the possibility of starvation, Fullagar tells us, they fed Bennelong well lest he tumble to their predicament and report it widely.

Konishi tells the story of how Bennelong pleased Arthur Phillip by promising not to beat a young woman (Boorong) whom he had said he would beat and whom Arthur had sought to protect. Later, she quotes characterisations of him as “pliant” and “good-natured.” In her puzzling over this, the words “seemed” and “appeared” are prominent; then she refers to “his metaphorical submission to the British” and goes on to characterise him as a strategist, a man who “took advantage of his unique position in the colony.” This leaves us with the question of what he wanted, what he would use “advantage” to get. Food was one thing, but perhaps we can infer that, as keenly as any navigator or naturalist, he desired knowledge itself. To be confronted with strangers was to become possessed by a question about how different or similar human beings might be. Why else would Bennelong, in December 1792, board a ship to England?

Only one newspaper (the Dublin Chronicle) reported his twenty-one-month visit, and Fullagar concludes that, by 1793, Britons had lost interest in visiting savages (and were more excited about the kangaroos that arrived with Bennelong.) But a bill of Bennelong’s expenses, kept by his host Arthur Phillip, gives some clues to what Bennelong experienced. Having kept from Bennelong the knowledge that the British might starve to death at Port Jackson, Phillip could now, in his London itinerary, solicit Bennelong’s awe and improve his English. After a year (and the death of his companion Yemmerawanne), Bennelong wanted to go home; he had to wait months till a berth was available. Subsequent British press accounts of Bennelong – the Times in 1805, Sydney Gazette in 1813 – deployed the cliché appropriate to a time of colonial hostilities: immoveable Bennelong, a parable of savage indifference to civilisation’s generous opportunity.

Like Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific, each of these books reminds us that the European Enlightenment rested partly on a global traffic of persons between widely separated spaces. The transactions between visitors and hosts rendered by Fullagar and Konishi are surely among the most appealing moments in the history of the Enlightenment. Taken in their own terms, they portend not conquest but the adventure of getting beyond puzzlement, the savoured prospect of knowing humans very like and very unlike oneself. Thus Fullagar and Konishi make London and Sydney Cove into scenes crucial to a global history of knowledge. The intellectual and geopolitical structures of late eighteenth century are vividly present in these stories of folk finding one another compellingly queer. •