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  • Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters by Vanessa Smith
  • Stephanie Downes
Smith, Vanessa, Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters (Critical Perspectives on Empire), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010; paperback; pp. 336; 18 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £20.99; ISBN 9780521728782.

‘Friendship’, as Vanessa Smith’s Intimate Strangers shows, is a term of almost infinite layers. It is ‘overladen’, the author insists, ‘made to carry the burden of European good intentions for the benefit, ultimately, of European conscience rather than putative native subjects’ (p. 5). Suspicion has long attached to so-called ‘performances’ of friendliness, but there is increasing attention to friendship in contemporary theory, as Smith is well aware. In her reading of both failed and successful efforts to foster genuine friendship in cross-cultural contexts, Smith offers an astute and elegantly argued alternative to postcolonial readings of European–Pacific encounters in the eighteenth century.

The book is an exploration of the ‘codes and practices of friendship’ evident in contact between islanders and European voyagers (p. 269). Cleaving consistently to its theme, Smith attempts to untangle the relationship between friendship and the transmission and understanding of cultural and local knowledge. She begins with a detailed study and theorization of ‘tayo’ or ‘taio’, a word of ambiguous origins, which the author understands from her sources as an expression of a friendship bond. Her interpretation [End Page 278] responds to scholarship that has questioned this meaning of the word. Smith demonstrates, though a close reading of contemporary Western accounts and Oceanic practices, that it was specifically constructed to signify the cross-cultural bond across a range of encounters. She pays minute attention to the ways in which ‘taio’ is repeated by both sides, across a broad range of contemporary written accounts and exchanges, in what may constitute a mutual attempt at something like empathy. These are especially English ones, but there is some mention of French and Spanish sources too. Smith reads these, often problematic, sources with a great deal of sensitivity, as one half of a dialogue that went beyond words, to gesture, countenance, and gift exchange.

The book includes reference to material exchange and the ways in which objects could be used to develop or represent a friendship bond. Smith is careful, however, to distinguish her project from readings of cross-cultural exchange according to economics or power, focusing instead on intimacy and feeling. In this way, she makes a number of important contributions to current research into the history of emotions more generally, and work on emotional expression and intimacy in the eighteenth century and cross-cultural encounter more specifically.

There is, in particular, her reading of eighteenth-century acting theory in Chapter 4, ‘Performance Anxieties’, used to interpret the behaviour and interaction of both Europeans and Pacific islanders; and her section on tears, their presence, and their absence in the courtroom trials of the mutineers back in England, read with Adam Smith’s writings on physical and literal expression of emotion in mind (p. 252). Smith’s findings have a significant bearing on research into philosophical and literary discourses on emotion in their attention to historical practices. As Smith herself observes, ‘[c]ross-cultural contact complicates late eighteenth-century sympathy by testing the limits of identification between subjects who are not universal, but insistently culturally specific’ (p. 145). An example might be the islander women, observed by Europeans cutting themselves with a shark’s tooth to express grief in mourning, who later re-emerge ‘as Cheerfull as any of the Company’ (quoting Cook, p. 169).

This disjunction in Smith’s sources – the ways published accounts, letters, and diaries of Europeans represent both the islanders they come into contact with and the relationships they have with them – remains a central concern of the book, of which Smith is constantly conscious. She asks, in her Introduction: ‘how is it possible to flesh out the other side of friendships reified in one-sided descriptions?’ (p. 14). Her response acknowledges the impossibility of retrieving both sides of the account. It is, however, precisely [End Page 279] her emphasis on friendship and intimacy over other forms of exchange that moves toward a fuller picture of colonial encounters...


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pp. 278-280
Launched on MUSE
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