- The Little Ship of Horrors:Reenacting Extreme History
On taking up the position of president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities some years ago, I found myself—as a type of official agent for the humanities field—the target of a barrage of derision from politicians, journalists, businessmen, and even my scientific counterparts. Their common refrain might seem sadly hackneyed, but it was nonetheless difficult to counter. The academic humanities, they would tell me at every opportunity, had not adapted to the changed social and economic realities of the modern world. Unlike our scientific and technological counterparts, we were still stuck in our pleasure domes, stewing nostalgically about a bygone golden age when governments, universities, and entrepreneurs had cherished the humane and civilizing values of liberal education. My own discipline of history was, they said, a case in point. While history has never been in greater demand among the reading and viewing public, it was no thanks to professional scholars like myself. The passions and imaginations of the present-day young were gripped by the products of television pundits, not by scribblers of arcane tomes that were read only by other professional historians.
Trite and anti-intellectual as this last criticism seemed, it contained a kernel of truth in my own case. Hitherto my only engagement with the popular media had been to appear on a local history program some ten years earlier when I was teaching in a provincial town on the border of New South Wales. It was a talk show on local history. My failure to answer the first phone inquiry—as to when a Vietnamese grapefruit known as a "shaddock" had first made a lodgement in the nineteenth-century goldfields—had instantly obliterated my credibility. The one and only fan letter, from a gentleman residing in nearby Wagga Wagga, pointed out none too gently that I was a "pop-eyed overexcited migrant who should go back to Africa where I came from." He further suggested that I should leave the practice of history to locals who knew what they were talking about. My media career had stalled after that.
I was therefore in a state of unusual susceptibility when visited early in 2001 by a team of television producers from Britain urging me to join an exciting [End Page 477] television history project to be undertaken in August that year by BBC Two in cooperation with the U.S. History Channel. The ostensible aim of the series was to retrace a significant leg of Captain James Cook's voyage when he had in 1770 sailed along the east coast of Australia from just outside Cairns in modern-day Queensland to Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia.1 The deeper purpose, the BBC director, Christopher Terrill, told us, was to pioneer a new mode of "extreme history" in which twenty-first-century volunteers would model and explore physical and intellectual challenges of the past. We would sail in an exact replica of James Cook's original Endeavour as near as possible under eighteenth-century conditions, but with the clear understanding that we were twenty-first-century travelers. Ours would be a hybrid genre, balancing serious historical inquiry with the contingent psychological and social dramas of an experiential retracing. As participants in one of the most expensive BBC historical productions of recent times, we would, the director assured me, have an opportunity to revolutionize the practice and pedagogy of history. The words "reality TV" were noticeably absent from his enthusiastic blueprint.
I have to confess that my motives for joining the ship weren't altogether altruistic or pedagogic. Along with the pipe dream of television celebrity, I was immediately enticed by two powerful fantasies. The first, though a product of the 1960s Hollywood movie Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando, had its historical roots in James Cook's own day. This was the libertine paradise of the South Seas in which Polynesian beauties practiced what my shipmate-to-be Jonathan Lamb calls "the guiltless erotic pleasures" associated with the Island of Venus, or Cythera, on soft, palm-fringed beaches.2 Though our ship wasn't to visit the voluptuous isle of Otaheite made so famous...