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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 78-97

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"Distance Getting Close":
Gesture, Language, and Space in the Pacific

David Paxman
Brigham Young University

Eighteenth-century voyagers showed such keen interest in Pacific islands and islanders that today's historians have remarked upon the "minute particulars" of their accounts. 1 The Pacific setting explains some of the heightened interest. After weeks on blank, rolling seas, men such as Captain Cook and Joseph Banks wanted to observe, record, and reflect on every feature of onshore life. Also, the fact that explorers had already discovered the outlines of the continents and most islands intensified their desire to put new islands on the map. In this essay I shall focus on one aspect of island life that particularly attracted their attention, the gestures and physical actions used in communication. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts of journeys of exploration and encounters with non-European peoples challenged existing views about language and spatial orientation. I shall argue that developments in the language theories of John Bulwer, Bernard Mandeville, and the Abbé de Condillac had created high expectations of gesture, such that gesture was viewed as a natural, as opposed to arbitrary and conventional, language. In a more tentative move, I shall suggest that these developments in language theory had informing parallels in theories of the experience of space. I shall draw upon the work of John Locke and others to explain in what way they are linked and illustrate, with passages from the accounts of Cook's voyages, my argument [End Page 78] that just as language theory differentiated two principal means for expressing meaning and determining that of others, so speculations on space differentiated two versions of knowing one's location. I shall show how eighteenth-century thought links language and spatial experience and in turn show that the links provide an eighteenth-century context in which to understand the response to the activities of islanders. The links also help us understand the current debates over who has access to, and authority over, Polynesian cultures of the eighteenth century and events such as the death of Cook.

Linguistic Paradise

In April 1769, while Captain Cook's crew erected Fort Venus, where Cook planned to observe that planet's transit across the sun, a tearful woman approached, faced Joseph Banks, and while delivering a woeful speech, took a shark's tooth from her robes and punctured her scalp six or seven times till her face ran with blood. She continued to talk in a sorrowful tone for several minutes, then gathered up the scraps of cloth she had dropped to collect the blood and carried them to the beach and threw them in the water, taking care to disperse them, "as if desirous that no one should be reminded of her action by the sight of them; she then went into the river and after washing her whole body returned to the tents as lively and chearfull as any one in them." 2 The woman used much more than words to convey her message. Indeed, her control over gestures, facial expressions, and even the tooth she used to cut the surface of her skin functioned as a metonymy for her control over the meaning she strove to convey. Her composure after the incident reveals her confidence that she had so accomplished her purpose that further attention to it would be indecorous.

If the woman's intentions could not yet be confidently inferred—modern scholars think she enacted a mourning ceremony, but why she addressed Banks remains a mystery—Banks could still record the singular event with a degree of detail that, if not exhaustive, promised to capture those features that he felt would eventually prove meaningful when a proper context led to an interpretation. In so doing, Banks transformed a transitory event into a preserved memory and translated a living, embodied event of speech and action into writing, the most conventional form of language. Banks hinted at the difficulties posed by such translation eleven days earlier, when he complained that although he desperately wanted...


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