- Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans, and Ecological Exchange
Jennifer Newell's engaging, nuanced, and highly readable book charts and analyzes the ecological exchange between the Maohi people [End Page 863] of Tahiti and (primarily) the British and French of Europe, from the early years of cross-cultural contact in the 1760s to the diminution of ecological exchange involving Tahiti in the 1820s. In so doing her work fits into three recent strands of Pacific history: the move away from "imperial" and/or "fatal impact" narratives, the role of exchange as a "social operation" that facilitates and maintains intercultural relationships, and the rise of "non-human" history, which seeks both to create "nuanced, dynamic understandings of how humans have shaped and have been shaped by their natural world" (p. 3) and to recognize that "plants, animals, and other aspects of a natural environment do not only have a presence in the perceptions, decisions, and actions of society—plants and animals are themselves historical agents" (p. 2). The two latter historiographies in particular are united in Newell's concept of "ecological exchange": "an exchange of species—living or once living—which has the capacity to impact, however slightly, the ecosystems those species were entering or leaving" (p. 8).
Part 1, "New Shores," introduces the historical and conceptual context of the book. Early encounters between Europeans and Tahitians (mediated by ecological exchange through the provisioning of ships) were fraught and tense arrangements: the European crews were vastly outnumbered and in desperate need of fresh provisions; the Tahitians were in a strong position of power, undermined only by advanced European weaponry; and between them both lay a "thick pall of incomprehension" (p. 30) itself configured not only around linguistic and cultural differences, but also "conflicting beliefs about what was most important about the natural world" (p. 57). According to Newell, "the varying perceptions of the landscape held by Tahitians and Europeans formed a fundamental part of their cultural divide" (p. 87), and moral landscapes were configured around European perceptions of the Tahitians' relationship with their natural environment. Contrary to the "imperial" school of thought, however, it was the Tahitians who determined the terms of exchange. Complex negotiations between European crews and local ari'i (chiefs) resulted in a "climate for commerce" managed by the Tahitians as much as the Europeans, if not more so.
Parts 2 and 3 form the main narrative of the book, exploring the manner and impact of introducing animals and plants into the Tahitian environment (part 2, "Into Tahiti"), and of exporting indigenous plants and animals into European colonial environments (part 3, "Out of Tahiti"). The introduction of European ecology (animals and plants) to the Pacific served two purposes: first, to provide stock for provisioning ships and, second, to further indigenous "improvement." While writers such as Obeyesekere (The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, 1992) [End Page 864] have seen this transplantation as a symbolic act rooted in colonial superiority, Newell argues that such actions not only implicated Europeans in "unavoidably intimate engagements with Polynesian peoples" (p. 93) but reflected a heartfelt belief in the civilizing mission: "there is room for a complexity of motivations, and while it can be tempting to assume that one must read between the lines, there is value in reading the lines themselves" (p. 94). Newell's analysis thus evens out the locus of activity to fully recognize the role (and power) of the Tahitians, brings complexity to understandings of European (and colonial) culture, and serves to move beyond the "fatal impact" paradigm to inject a profound sense of "indigenous agency" into this complex cultural, ecological, and economic encounter.
Of course such an analysis has the potential to be highly controversial. In seeking to find indigenous agency in global cultural encounters there can be a tendency to downplay complex power systems that had a profound impact on all such culture contact. At the same time, while this book is a powerful tale of mutual imbrications, I would have liked to see more on the impact of ecological exchange on European culture...