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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 225-245

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French Encounters with Material Culture of the South Pacific

John Patrick Greene
University of Louisville


In July of 1768, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and a landing party from his expedition put ashore on the Melanesian island of New Ireland in order to search for wood and fresh water. Upon reaching new and uncharted territory, Bougainville traditionally left markers and a claim of that territory for the king of France. When on the island, one can only imagine the French party's surprise and disappointment when a sailor came across a lead plaque with the remnants of an inscription in English, indicating that the British had been there first. Bougainville assumed that the sorry state of the plaque recording the landing of Philip Carteret from the Swallow —and thereby claiming the land for Britain—was a result of natives' smashing it to pieces. Bougainville's understanding of the incident colored his judgment of it, predisposing his readers to conjecture that Pacific peoples rejected European territorial claims. It is, of course, impossible to recover the truth underlying the destruction of the plaque, and there are no records for constructing eighteenth-century Pacific peoples' understanding of this episode. What can be stated with confidence is that Bougainville's party assumed that the significance of objects from their culture would be universally recognized; that is, they assumed that the natives destroyed the plaque because they knew it signified ownership. And where Pacific peoples seemed to reject or subvert the meaning of items offered (or imposed) [End Page 225] by the French, French narratives had to wrestle with unexpected challenges to a supposed Western cultural hegemony.

Nearly sixty years later an Irish sea captain, Peter Dillon, landed on Tikopia and spotted a Lascar named Joe wearing what appeared to be the hilt of a European officer's sword around his neck. 1 This incident turned out to be the first trace of the fate of the Count Lapérouse expedition that had been lost some thirty-eight years earlier. 2 The way that South Pacific peoples used European objects would not necessarily conform to European usage, but their appropriation (as opposed to destruction) indicates that the islanders attached some kind of value—whether aesthetic or economic, we cannot tell—to these foreign objects. In questioning the stability of the nature and function of an object, the Dillon episode underlines Nicholas Thomas' thesis that "objects are not what they were made to be but what they have become." 3 While it is not possible to define these differences in any precise manner, the continuous conflicts over material objects in early encounters with indigenous peoples has to be understood as part of a larger conflict over the role of exchange value in the social relationships across different cultures.

This paper explores the role material objects played in two French narratives of encounters with Pacific Islanders: Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde par la frégate la Boudeuse et la flûte l'Etoile (1771-72) and Lapérouse's Voyage autour du monde sur l'Astrolabe et la Boussole (1797). 4 These accounts detail an interaction between European and Pacific societies that frequently depended on mutual recognition and acceptance of the significance attached to objects of a different culture, even if that significance were unknowable. To facilitate comparison of the explorers' texts, discussion is centered on one of the most significant landings each made: Bougainville's brief but formative eight-day stay on Tahiti and Lapérouse's day-long stay on Easter Island. The two landings share many common components: both were short stays, involving peaceful and friendly interactions, at least at the start; both began with the free exchange of goods, including the offer of sexual relations between islanders and Europeans; both ended amid recriminations, often violent, over the theft of items that had not been offered for trade. In examining Bougainville's and Lapérouse's accounts I shall focus on French responses to native populations' customs and cultural products as well as the...


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