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Risky Shores


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Contents and AbstractsIntroduction: The Protean Savage chapter abstract

The killing of Captain James Cook on a Hawaiian beach in 1779 marked the end of a heralded set of voyages and the start of a close association between Oceania and human savagery. "Savagery," in fact, was the idea that connected most forms of spectacular violence. From their strangling of widows to their smothering of babies, from their incessant headhunting to their endemic cannibalism, western Pacific peoples appeared to embody barbarism more completely than any other "race" on earth. What European visitors to Melanesia rarely stopped to consider, though, was that the barbarism on display in these maligned islands often functioned as an expression of indigenous agency. Viewed instrumentally, then, Islander "atrocities" could serve both to warn away white strangers and demonstrate their superiority over rival tribes.

1Island Stories of the Cannibal Kind chapter abstract

Today, most anthropologists, literary critics, and cultural historians agree that "ritual" cannibalism-man-eating for reasons other than survival-was quite rare in the past. This was decidedly not the belief of reading audiences in nineteenth-century Britain and her settler colonies. On the contrary, "cannibal" became a proxy word for "savage," whereas the phrase "cannibal isles" served to locate western Pacific peoples in an undifferentiated sea of depravity. Especially during the Victorian era, a steady stream of missionary reports, naturalists' notes, and travel narratives kept the phenomenon of man-eating constantly before a sensation-hungry public. Indeed, the "cannibal" label was applied indiscriminately to all sorts of offenders, from drunks who bit one another in pub brawls to carnivores who ridiculed vegetarian diets.

2Missionary Martyrs of Melanesia chapter abstract

To Victorian moralists, the deaths of those who obeyed a higher justice were lamentable yet essential. In the missionary field above all, the "martyrdom" of proselytizing Christians helped both to sanctify their work on the edges of empire and to open purses back home. The "cannibal isles" of the western Pacific supplied the nineteenth century's most poignant missionary deaths. The murders there of three Protestant martyrs-John Williams, Thomas Baker, and John Coleridge Patteson-did instantiate the savagery of Melanesian "natives." But to depict these missionaries as agents of the colonial state is to misunderstand how they approached hazardous frontiers.

3Indentured Labor and the White Savage chapter abstract

Although religious propaganda stressed the degraded ignorance of those Pacific Islanders who lashed out against missionaries, traders, and planters, a close examination of these attacks reveals their basic rationality. A full generation after Britain had abolished slavery in her colonies, renegade "white savages" were conducting a brutal trade in the western Pacific that proved very difficult for the Royal Navy to police. This trade, commonly called "blackbirding," repulsed such Victorian luminaries as Gladstone, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Queen herself. But in one trial after another, prosecutors found that meeting the legal standard for "kidnapping" was a daunting task. Not until 1907 did legislation finally close the legal loopholes that had allowed labor-recruiting vessels in Melanesian waters to mock the notion of British colonial benevolence.

4The Twilight of Headhunting chapter abstract

A staple of Victorian adventure stories as well as an arresting subject for the new discipline of anthropology, headhunting was arguably the most exotic of savage customs. But in Melanesia, and especially around the great lagoons that dot the western half of the Solomon archipelago, headhunting possessed few romantic associations. The formidable tomako (an oceangoing war canoe) had long inspired dread among peaceful Islanders. Beginning around 1880, however, European rifles enabled headhunting big-men such as "Soga" and "Ingava" to wipe out entire settlements. The subsequent struggle to pacify the Solomons demanded not only Royal Navy cannons but also strategic bribes from colonial administrators.

5Among "Stone-Age" Savages chapter abstract

The eradication of Solomon Island headhunting and Fijian cannibalism by the start of the twentieth century cut two ways. For even as British traders and colonial officials cheered the end of such savage practices, a eugenic lament about the "loss of nerve" and a vanishing "will to fight" among once-fierce Islanders grew widespread. This dying native discourse gave rise, in turn, to a determined search for the last remaining "true" savages. Among the homes of these reclusive folk, two earned fame during the 1920s and 1930s: Malekula island in the northern New Hebrides, and the vast highland interior of New Guinea. Purportedly survivals of the Stone-Age, these peoples became the focus of Western theorizing about the origins of violence among human groups.

Conclusion: Savage Inversions chapter abstract

Victory in the Pacific theater of World War Two hinged on the control of key islands. Enter what became known as the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels." These were Pacific Islanders whose "bushcraft" skills made them invaluable to the Allied war effort. In the Solomons, for example, these scouts helped hound the Japanese off Guadalcanal. The dramatic story of Jacob Vouza, hero to both British "coastwatchers" and the U.S. Marines, inverted white perceptions of Islander capacity.

About the Author

George K. Behlmer is Professor of History at the University of Washington.


"George Behlmer has produced a formidable work of scholarship, drawing on a daunting array of sources and a career's worth of writing on British social and intellectual history. In sparkling, seamless prose, Risky Shores offers fresh insights into the cultural encounters between the British and the Melanesians, and the layered meanings these encounters accrued in the British, and more broadly Western, imagination." -- Dane Kennedy * George Washington University *
"Risky Shores is a wonderful book: beautifully researched, compellingly written, and vitally important to debates about race relations and agency in the Pacific world. Focusing on southwestern Melanesia, Behlmer analyzes a dazzling array of primary source material, enhancing more conventional explorers' journals and missionary reports with his impressive command of ballads, artwork, films, sideshow acts, and literature. The result is an intellectual feast." -- Jane Samson * University of Alberta *
"George Behlmer's expansive Risky Shores addresses fascinating issues and raises many important questions, both directly and indirectly....For its extraordinary wealth of research, for the deftly chosen examples and the effective interpretation of those within a larger historical framework, this is essential reading for those interested in this part of the world or in the power structures and mechanisms of imperialism." -- Amy Woodson-Boulton * The Pacific Circle *

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