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  • An Ocean of Leisure:Early cruise tours of the Pacific in an age of empire
  • Frances Steel

In the late nineteenth century, the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (USSCo.) offered a series of cruise tours from the ports of Sydney and Auckland through the islands of the South Pacific. The cruises complemented excursions to the Mediterranean, the "old country" and other "worn lines of pleasure," remarked the Sydney Morning Herald in 1898. They even offered a novel contrast to "doing Japan."1 Australian settlers had largely ignored their island neighbours, the newspaper continued, yet the cruise program indicated the range of "splendid holiday resorts" that lay on their doorstep. Although regular trading steamers made the Pacific increasingly accessible, it had been difficult until this point in time to take a "comprehensive trip in the South Seas under the conditions desired by exacting tourists."2

These first Pacific cruises were introduced as the region was being remade by the plantation economy, the growth of port towns and the formalisation and contestation of imperial power. Britain, France, Germany and the United States were asserting claims to different island groups. The British colonies of White settlement in Australia and New Zealand, from where the majority of cruise tourists hailed, were thinking more intently about their interests in the Pacific, a region in which they regarded themselves as uniquely positioned to influence. Partaking of a mobile practice that traded on images of luxury, exclusivity and novelty, tourists might have understood themselves as skirting around the edges of the colonial project, focused solely on fleeting pleasure rather than shore-based interventions in island life. Yet in its assumption of easy access to islands both within and outside of Britain's sphere of political influence, cruise tourism both naturalised and popularised fantasies of colonial domination.

Studies of tourism history in the Pacific have generally favoured images and representations of travel promotion, notably the escapist power of the "tropical island paradise" and the allure of Indigenous exoticism—from sexualised "dusky maiden s" to the thrill of the "cannibal isles." Existing histories have also focused largely on individual islands, notably iconic destinations such as Hawai'i, or, conversely, the more generic and abstract depictions of the "South Seas."3 In this article, by contrast, I bring together questions of tourism promotion and consumption, following tourists along more wide-ranging cruise itineraries that linked diverse islands, and engaging with the impressions and ideas generated by them in the course of their travels.

Tourists' observations allow historians previously ungarnered insights not only into the beginnings of an influential mobile industry in the Pacific world, but also into different imperial imaginings—of "exotic natives," but also of a range of imperial actors who had ventured into the Pacific by the end of the nineteenth century from various metropolitan centres. An island cruise offered Australasian settlers new avenues for pleasure and relaxation, but also an opportunity to directly encounter the colonial transformations gathering pace in this period, to compare and assess the fortunes of different island communities and to record their impressions for a wider reading public. As sociologist Judith Adler remarks, travel movements, in their border crossings, intrusions, comparisons and appropriations, "give a vivid, experiential dimension to political ideas."4 It is the relationship between the rise of cruising and the shifting, heterogenous political "landscape" of the Pacific in an age of globalising empire—both in dialogue and in tension with more romanticised investments in "the South Seas" or "the Coral Islands"—that principally concerns me here.

"Steam Yachting" and "Exacting Tourists"

To embark on a sea voyage expressly for pleasure was "quite unthinkable" before the late nineteenth century, as maritime historian David Williams points out.5 Sea travel was traditionally undertaken out of necessity, and had long associations with discomfort, boredom and danger. From the mid-nineteenth century cruising on private yachts was a popular elite form of recreation. With advances in ship-building, new forms of ship ownership in the large-scale, bureaucratic operational structures of shipping companies, the emergence and popularisation of the package tour, growing economic prosperity and middle-class access to leisure time, cruising developed on a commercial scale. Just as cruises from New...

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