- Beach Crossings: Voyaging Across Times, Cultures, and Self
Historians, anthropologists, and humanists alike, curl into your favorite reading position and pick up this engaging, inspiring book. In Beach Crossings: Voyaging Across Times, Cultures, and Self, ethnographic historian Greg Dening tells elegant tales of adventure, discovery, and belonging that take place in and around Fenua'enata, more commonly known as the Marquesas. More than fifty years of Dening's Pacific research, teachings, travels, and reflections have resulted here in an engaging two-thousand-year history of Fenua'enata and the diverse people, including Dening himself, who have crossed its beaches. Readers will emerge from Beach Crossings with a more sensitive understanding of the challenges of ocean voyaging, a more sophisticated grasp of the complexities of cross-cultural encounters, and a deeper humility about the nature of historical scholarship.
Dening perceives history, "the transformation of a past, no matter how recent a past, into words or paint or dance or play," as "always a performance" (p. 234). Historians, he describes, are storytellers and performers who research, observe, reflect, and write in order to "make theatre about trivial and everyday things, and about awful and cruel realities" (p. 326). Throughout this volume, Dening shares with readers his personal journeys as a Pacific scholar, intermittently incorporating his reflections on the nature of history and the aspirations of historians. Indeed, the insights afforded in Beach Crossings draw heavily on his experiences as a student and teacher, his strategies as a teacher and researcher, and the personal, intellectual, and emotional challenges he has faced over the past five decades. [End Page 491]
In Beach Crossings, Dening skillfully narrates three simultaneous storylines, separated sometimes by thousands of human years and thousands of ocean miles, yet converging seamlessly around the twin themes of beach and of crossings. Readers familiar with Dening's groundbreaking Islands and Beaches (1980) will be familiar with his understanding of the beach as a liminal or transitional space. The crossings highlighted by the author are crossings made over ocean voyages, crossings from the sea to the beach, and crossings from the beach to the land. The three discrete storylines bring to life Te Enata, those indigenous Marquesans who first discovered Fenua'enata, as well as the beachcombers who encountered them and him, the historian, storyteller, and performer. This volume essentially tracks these three sets of actors as they make their voyages and encounter the beaches in their lives.
The first set of histories features the indigenous islanders who discovered Fenua'enata. Some two thousand years ago, these master navigators accomplished "the most remarkable voyage of discovery and settlement in all human history" (p. 1), journeying from the Hava'iki homeland of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji to the islands known today as Tahiti, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas. Beach Crossings tells an eloquent story of the Te Enata crossing vast ocean distances, followed by their equally marvelous crossing of Fenua'enata beaches to inspirit the islands. In these segments of the book, Dening imaginatively brings to life what he describes as "the grammar of a culture, the system that gives all its particularities meaning" (p. 186), vividly recreating Te Enata social relations, religious beliefs and practices, cultural festivities, and more. One densely descriptive section in particular, subtitled, "A Year in the Life of Tainai, Haka'iki of Vaitahu" (pp. 216–223), brings back to life a Marquesan male chief and the Fenua'enata world of political rivalry, human sacrifice, breadfruit harvest, beachcomber arrival, family marriage, and land dispute.
The second set of histories features three beachcombers: an English cook named Edward Robarts, a French whaler named Joseph Kabris, and an American missionary named William Pascoe Crook. Like navigators had done centuries before, these beachcombers left their homes to cross the Pacific Ocean, then crossed Fenua'enata beaches before crossing over into the islands where adventures in cross-cultural understanding abounded. Dening has a particular fondness for beachcombers, viewing them in essence as the ethnographers of their time who not only ventured to unfamiliar, oftentimes uncomfortable places, but who...