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  • A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786–89
  • Bill Moreau (bio)
Robert M. Galois , editor. A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89University of British Columbia Press. xiv, 442. $95.00

In 1786, James Colnett was hired by the London firm of Richard Cadman Etches to captain the Prince of Wales to the northwest coast of North America. There Colnett was to trade with the Natives for sea otter pelts, before proceeding to dispose of these furs on the Chinese market. The commercial success of Colnett's voyage was limited, and his travels culminated ignominiously in his being taken prisoner by the Spanish, in the Nootka crisis of 1789.

The current edition presents Colnett's personal journal from September 1786 to August 1788, during which time he traded with Natives at Nootka Sound, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Banks Island, and Prince William Sound, and wintered in the Hawaiian Islands. The text is supplemented by passages from a contemporary account kept by Andrew Bracey Taylor, the Prince of Wales's third mate, and by extracts from the ship's log. As such, the edition provides insight into an episode in European-Native contact on the northwest coast that falls between the more celebrated expeditions of James Cook and George Vancouver.

Colnett consciously writes in the shadow of Cook, on whose second voyage he served as midshipman, and who makes a kind of posthumous appearance when the inhabitants of Kauai taunt Colnett and his men with the gory shirt in which the navigator was murdered. But while the voyages of Cook (and that of Vancouver) were largely scientific enterprises, Colnett's has a mercantile cast, and decisions are determined purely by the likelihood of obtaining furs.

Colnett's prose is rather plodding, though there are occasional flashes of humour, as when a rooster falls overboard into the North Pacific: 'we now had an English forlorn hen.' Thus, the extracts from Taylor, possessed of superior narrative gifts and clarity of expression, not only allow for a double perspective on the voyage, but also provide some relief for the reader. Taylor offers deeper insights into the motives and actions of both crew members and Native peoples, and writes with greater frankness, for [End Page 280] example, about sexual relationships between members of the crew and the women of Hawaii.

When discussing Tsimshian narratives in his editor's introduction, Robert M. Galois notes that audience and politics determine how (and whether) stories are told. He extends the point to include British imperial narratives such as Colnett's, and the same point could be made of Galois's own edition, which is largely concerned with contemporary themes of cultural encounter and appropriation, and modes of discourse. While many of Colnett's comments about Natives are condescending - he compares the Tsimshian with whom he trades to 'Children at a fair,' capriciously wanting to change their purchases - Galois provides a nuanced and sensitive reading of European and Native attitudes and actions, which probes beyond such stereotypical expressions. Only occasionally does he overreach himself, as when he makes an unsupported assumption that sexual mores at Tolaga Bay in New Zealand are comparable to those on the northwest coast.

The breadth and reach of Galois's editorial work is impressive, and is obviously the fruit of years of painstaking research. Galois's description of the source manuscripts, and of the editorial principles employed in their presentation, is welcome, as is the selection of maps and plates. The annotations ably serve the primary texts, even if there are a few areas in which one would wish for more explication (for example, a note that a promyshlennik is a Russian fur trader would be helpful).

Galois's edition is a significant contribution to our understanding of the encounter between Natives and Europeans on the northwest coast, during a time in which contact between the two groups was becoming more regular and sustained. [End Page 281]

Bill Moreau

Bill Moreau, University of Toronto

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 280-281
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-10
Open Access
No
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