Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2009
Harriet Guest Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation: Captain Cook, William Hodges, and the Return to the Pacific New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 270 pp.; 50 color ills.; 32 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9780521881944)

In July of 1774, Captain James Cook arrived back in London from his second voyage. With him was a man named Mai, a native of an island called Raiatea in the South Pacific. Cook’s intention was to showcase a human souvenir—a live specimen—who would help the British understand the exotic nature of his circumnavigation. Mai remained in England for two years and returned to the South Pacific in 1776. While in England, he sat for portraits and became a national curiosity. Harriet Guest, in her book about the visual culture that attended Cook’s voyages, quotes Westminster Magazine, which claimed that “‘all the world are running to see this exotic Black [Mai]. The King is to see him—the Queen is to see him, and his velvet skin is to be touched by the Maids of Honour; and all this is the wondrous production of a voyage of two years to the South Seas!’” (150; emphasis in original) After the royal court had a chance to experience Mai (first-hand!), he spent time in England and collected gifts that he took back to Raiatea. These items included a diverse range of objects, from guns to miniature toy soldiers to armor. Loaded with cross-cultural and symbolic import, this material culture became a sensation in the South Pacific and even caused an outbreak of conflict after Mai’s death.

Guest offers a number of interpretations of the Western objects that Mai transported to Raiatea. She notes the connection between Mai’s Western possessions and the commercialization of the British imperial enterprise. She further claims that these objects could be understood within the context of technological advancement and Western notions of civilization. Or, perhaps, she speculates, Mai’s souvenirs can be linked to the actual utility and functionality that Mai “associated with Cook’s role as the emissary of imperial expansion” (158). These diverse interpretations reveal Guest’s ability to address the complicated experience that the British had in the South Pacific during the eighteenth century, a moment when the lofty conceit of British Empire was hotly contested.

Guest’s book focuses on the knotty realm of empire and representation. She follows the lead of a number of other art-historical discussions about empire and visuality, such as Frederick Bohrer’s Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Zeynep Çelik’s Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Todd Porterfield’s The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798–1836 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); and Beth Fowkes Tobin’s Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999). Through six interconnected chapters and a well-thought-out epilogue, Guest contends that British representations of the South Pacific, especially those connected to Cook’s voyages, reveal the complexity and nuances that attended British exploration during the 1700s.

Instead of simply considering these travelogues as a monolithic form of racism, she claims that Cook and those who accompanied him on his three trips were very aware of how their narratives created a public face for both their own experiences and those of British Empire. Indeed, part of Cook and his entourage’s intent was to weave a travel narrative that would compliment British imaginings about expansion. Guest notes that she is “interested primarily in what the various texts and images produced as a result of the voyages tell us about the apprehension of cultural difference in the process of imperial expansion in the South Seas—in the uncertainties and hesitations produced in the discourses of Cook and his companions by the different civilizations they encountered (however misunderstood) and the problems they posed to the voyagers’ preconceptions of the islanders and of themselves” (25).

The first two chapters of Guest’s book focus on paintings by William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific. Hodges had ambitions to create canvases that would be deemed acceptable by the artistic establishment in England. In fact, Guest mentions several works that Hodges exhibited at the Royal Academy. In her first chapter, we read about Hodges’s canvas from 1775–76 titled A View Taken in the Bay of Otaheite Peha. Guest looks at the representation of gender and exoticism, and how these tropes relay the cultural curiosity that the British had about the cultural Other. To further explicate Hodges’s painting, she provides a close reading of Johann Forster’s 1778 book, Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World. Comparing Hodges’s visual text with Forster’s written text produces a better sense of how Britain perceived the South Pacific. At the end of this chapter, Guest concludes that Hodges’s painting creates a play between “detail and abstraction” that seems to imitate the complicated idea of British Empire through its desire to be simultaneously close-up and distant; for Guest, this back and forth emulates the tentative and “troubled” nature of empire building (48). The second chapter also explores Hodges’s work, but here Guest centers her attention on gender, a theme that she returns to in other chapters. She notes that gender was understood as an index of civilization, and that the British often construed these “exotic” locations in the South Pacific through a putative sense of local gender dynamics. She reads a painting by Hodges of Matavani Bay as including representations of women that “domesticate the picture space” and thus “suggest that the fertile richness of the island and its culture can readily afford whatever trade the Europeans may desire” (52).

Guest’s third chapter explores the representation of tattoos in images of Mai. Mai sat for several artists; Joshua Reynolds showed Mai’s tattoos and William Parry did not, revealing cultural anxiety about what tattooing signified on this “native” body. Guest reads this display and non-display of tattoos in relation to Reynolds’s commentary on costume and ornament. The issue of tattoos became even more pronounced when sailors who accompanied Cook dubbed themselves the Knights of Otaheite, after a location in Tahiti, and tattooed themselves as a way to create a mark of chivalry on their bodies through a kind of cross-cultural identification.

The fourth and fifth chapters further Guest’s argument about the contested representations of Cook’s journeys. Chapter 4 specifically notes how the British wrote about and visualized what they understood as the disparities found on different South Pacific islands. For instance, the Society Islands were often feminized, while the people of Vanuatu were seen as having an “impoverished masculinity,” consequently possessing an animal-like nature that Cook perceived as “isolated from the feminine softness of civilised sociability” (103). This fantastical notion of difference becomes even more overt in chapter 5 where Guest claims that representations of the deaths of crew members on one of Cook’s ships stirred larger debates about the pros and cons of establishing a British colonial outpost in New Zealand. This chapter works within the structure of Guest’s book, in that she raises issues related to representation and gender, but her use of Mary Louise Pratt’s theory about “colonial romance” detracts from her observations. It is also curious that Guest deploys post-colonial theory in this chapter, yet barely mentions theory at other moments when it could have supported her thesis. For instance, Guest does not look at authors, such as Ali Behdad or James Clifford, who have written about how Western travel narratives construct the Other (Ali Behdad, Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution, Durham: Duke University Press, 1994; James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

The highlight of Guest’s book comes at the end when she takes the reader into a more detailed account of how the British received Cook’s travels. The final chapter compares Cook’s aggrandizement in Britain with the conflicted narratives about Mai that continued to emerge as a result of his controversial visit. Mai was often held up as a curiosity devoid of content, whereas Cook became the subject of artistic heroization, as seen in objects, such as Wedgwood plaques, that began to surface in Britain. The epilogue then turns back to Hodges who tried to capitalize on his artistic ambitions, born out of his trip to the Pacific, by renting space in London to display two paintings, The Effects of Peace and The Consequences of War, in 1794–95. Some viewers, most notably the Duke of York, saw these images as politically radical because of their supposed disloyal content that disparaged the horrors of war in relation to the ongoing English conflict with Revolutionary France. This rebuke hindered Hodges’s career.

What makes Guest’s book a valuable addition to the growing body of work that investigates the relationship between visual culture and empire is her attention to the subtleties and historical context accompanying these representations by Hodges and others. She questions the racist intent behind many of these works of art, but she also helps illuminate the myriad cultural concerns that are integral to these paintings, drawings, and prints. By comparing the art that came out of Cook’s journeys with philosophical writings with which many of these artists would have been familiar, Guest historically recreates the culture of empire—and its attendant controversies—in Britain. Indeed, some of the best moments in her book discuss Hodges’s paintings in terms of the great thinkers who were part of the Scottish Enlightenment. These writers shaped the intellectual landscape of this epoch, and Guest convincingly argues that their ideas played a central role in the artwork she analyzes.

There have been numerous books that contend with visual culture and empire, but Guest’s perspective, which gives equal weight to visuality and written discourse, should be lauded. Visual culture raises queries that written discourse could never broach. Guest agrees with this premise, yet her careful investigation of written and visual texts offers a well-rounded approach that asks her reader to consider a range of available material. In a world where empire, and ideas about civilization, continue to be relevant, more studies are needed that probe the interstices of how different cultures engage in the messy business of representation.

David Brody
Assistant Professor of Design Studies, Parsons The New School for Design, The New School