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  • Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva: Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific
  • Max Quanchi
Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva: Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific, by Elena Govor. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8248-3368-8, xi +301 pages, bibliography, index, black-and-white illustrations. Cloth, US$49.00.

The history of Russian expeditions in the Pacific has not attracted much attention in the English language, so it is important that an account of the first Russian circumnavigation led by Adam Krusenstern and Urey Lisiansky in the Nedezhda and Neva in 1803-1804 has been given such fine treatment in Elena Govor's Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva. Govor analyzes the naval and intellectual precursors, the naval and scientific personnel, and the meetings on the deck and ashore in Nuku Hiva. In so doing, she traverses a wide range of historical fields including cultural encounters, European fascination with Oceania, the science of collecting and observing, naval protocol, the significance of prior scientific and expedition experience, and the problems caused by personality clashes in shipboard relationships. The word "mutiny" in the title is slightly misleading. The contest over command [End Page 258] while the ships were anchored in Nuku Hiva is a diversion that lasted after the voyage ended, and it is reminiscent of the leadership struggles that troubled other expeditions, right back to Mendaña and Quiros in the seventeenth century. But this fine book is really about relations between Nuku Hivans and the two ships' crews as they went about seeking artifacts, specimens, water and firewood, and companionship, both male and female. The events, and the subsequent logs, journals, and published essays by officers and crew of those twelve days at Nuku Hiva offer a concentrated historical moment, a window into all the European voyages that have long fascinated scholars and are still able to generate heated debate and differing interpretation, seen recently in two more big books on Cook's voyages, by Nicholas Thomas (Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook, 2005) and Anne Salmon (The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, 2003).

Govor begins with the background of the main observers and recorders of what happened during those twelve days: the two captains; the Russian envoy who was en route to Japan; numerous scientists, aristocrats, and several literate crewmen; and a number of artists. These twelve days have a rich archive and Govor expertly weaves citations from most of these accounts into her analysis. This approach is repetitive at times and several versions of the same event seems unnecessary, but the reader is richly rewarded with an intimate and detailed account of events on board as Nuku Hivans followed a daily ritual of swimming out to the ships, or as the Russians ventured ashore to meet the other: the noble savage and the men, women, and children of nature they had read about back in Europe.

Govor divides this material into four sections. The introduction reveals some fascinating detail, common to other voyages but useful here as a reminder that Russian expeditions were more German, English, and French than Russian in language and training, due to the wide trans-Europe education, training, and adventures of the officers and scientists. That many on board could only communicate in German or French is just one example of the detail Govor brings to the reader's attention. Part one is long, and after reviewing voyage literature and the work of several key historians, it covers the purpose of the voyage, the protagonists, and the voyage out to the Pacific. Days one to nine at Nuku Hiva are then covered in part two in great detail—onboard, ashore, and in the minds and writings, and art, of the visitors. A wonderful parallel story is the role and fate of the two, now well known beachcombers on Nuku Hiva at the time, Edward Roberts and Joseph Kabris. The last three days are treated superficially in one chapter. The aftermath of the voyage in scientific outcomes and in terms of empire, and the resolution of the leadership challenge—the so-called mutiny—are covered in part three, followed by...


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