Monday, September 28, 2009

Bonanza for Pacific history buffs

Gordon McLauchlan salutes two new books exploring the dreams and reality of what happens when explorers probed beyond the fringes of the known world.


by Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press $35)

I HAVE seldom finished a book and felt I had read the last word on a large subject, but I was that replete at the end of Anne Salmond's Aphrodite's Island. Silly, of course, because scholarship is a continuing activity and I have no doubt more will be written about the mysterious attraction of the habitat and lives of Tahitians during the first decades of contact with Europeans.

In a bonanza month for South Pacific history buffs, Martin Edmond's Zone of the Marvellous is also published. Salmond's story is about navigators from three European nations for whom the Polynesian islands were a wondrous sideshow in a campaign to discover and claim an Antipodean continent whose existence had been imagined by Northern Hemisphere geographers for centuries.She writes: ``From the time of the ancient Greeks, the South Sea (like outer space in the 20th century) had provided Europeans with a blank slate for thought experiments about social life, including differing approaches to sexuality ...'' She cites Plato's account of Atlantis (400BC) and others.Edmond's book is a wide-ranging inquiry into who wrote on that blank slate, and what mythic guesses they made, starting with the saga of Gilgamesh; working through the amazingly prescient Greek Claudius Ptolemy; and examining the travels, real and imagined, of Dante, Marco Polo, William Dampier, Jonathan Swift and others.

I have read most of the popular books about the rediscovery of Tahiti: Mutiny on the Bounty by Nordoff and Hall, George Robertson's readable journal of the first Europeans' visit by the HMS Dolphin under Captain Samuel Wallis, and others. And I have seen most of the movies, from Charles Laughton's brilliant, malevolent version of William Bligh, and Clark Gable's urbane Fletcher Christian to Trevor Howard's competent Bligh and Marlon Brando's overdone Christian. After all that, old Tahiti and pristine Tahitians persisted in my mind as Arcadians.

I knew I was nodding off over paradisal dreams when I read and thought about Tahiti but now believe I have a balanced picture in my head of a remarkable but seriously blemished Arcadia, somewhere real and not simply a romantic idea. Yet something of those dreams must linger, because everyone clings to their ideals.As Edmond puts it: ``Human memory is not sequential but accumulative. It collects but doesn't necessarily discard.''
The extraordinary achievement of Anne Salmond is that she has documented each of the English, French and Spanish (from Peru) Tahiti visits over the decade from 1767, often on a day-by-day basis, and has recounted them with a range of gifts as a story-teller.She writes of a prophecy by a Tahitian, before the Dolphin's arrival, about the coming of a vessel without an outrigger and crewed by gods. She dispels the popular conception that Noble Savage Polynesians welcomed the early visitors with love and largesse. Samuel Wallis had to make them submit to his big guns before any rapport developed.
The hierarchical society was riven by occasional brief, but ferocious wars, and driven by the same dreary motives that tend to despoil human communities everywhere: lust for power. Their god, Oro, demanded frequent human sacrifices, being as politically manipulated as any god of any mass religion.
Yet it is no wonder that sailors from the relative gloom of 18th century Europe, sick and physically disgusting from scurvy, were wooed and won by the cornucopia of the islands: salubrious weather, abundant food and beautiful, erotic and freely available women _ even if much of the sex was transactional.History, like all good stories, is about people and Salmond's triumph in Aphrodite's Island is her steady delineation of so many of the characters involved. Some of them: James Cook, Joseph Banks and the charismatic Tahitian priest, Tupaia, who later accompanied Cook to New Zealand aboard the Endeavour; Captain Louis de Bougainville and associate Philibert Commerson, whose valet was a covert woman and his lover; Purea, the durable Tahitian queen; paramount chief Tu Ma'i, who famously accompanied Cook to England; and the timorous Franciscan friars from Peru with their ebullient companion, Maximo.What Salmond gives us in detail is the structure of a society with similar political corruptions and distortions inherent in other human communities, and how it coped during a head-on collision with people from a very different, technologically (but not socially) advanced people. And she does it with comprehensive scholarship carried on a compelling narrative.

If Edmond has ever written a dull book, I've not come across it. In Zone of the Marvellous, he takes us to heterotopias _ not here, somewhere else, actual places or those inhabited by the imagination. It is a mind-bending journey as we are borne on the wings of his unleashed imagination. The very earliest days of human exploration were out of Africa, a long time before there was any way of indelibly recording anything from an expanding consciousness; but human beings have always probed beyond the fringes of the known world or universe either in reality or imagination.Edmond offers a mass of detail, the product of long, intensive research and enlivens his text with throwaway comments like: ``[Abel Tasman] seems a typically pious Calvinist with no great passion for anything except the sea.

It is strange how his obdurate, recessive, occasionally violent, always puritanical character seems somehow to be mirrored in aspects of the New Zealand psyche.''The last chapter, After Erewhon, is riveting, a journey through the heterotopias of the modern imagination, ending, upbeat, with: ``Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century all times are contemporaneous in a way that was impossible when there were still undiscovered lands beyond the horizon ... The Land of Gold, the Great South Land ... was a mythical construct that can still be made real ... Because we are now living in a place that was imagined before it was real, that is also the way we may be able to realise a future: It too can be a zone of the marvellous.''

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.

The above article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 26 September 2009 and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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