- Impersonating Islanders:Inauthenticity, Sexuality, and the Making of the Tahitian Speaker in 1770s British Poetry
The first Polynesian to set foot in Britain was a man we now know as Mai. He arrived in 1774 aboard the H. M. S. Adventure, one of the ships from James Cook’s second Pacific expedition, and stayed for two years, during which time he toured London’s drawing rooms, was presented at court, dined with Samuel Johnson, and was painted by Joshua Reynolds.1 His presence—and Oceanic exploration generally—inspired frenzied publication, as authors and printers capitalized on a “craze” for the Pacific.2 In this article I examine a segment of that publishing craze by focusing on two related clusters of approximately a dozen poems from the 1770s that impersonate Tahitians. The first cluster consists of satires in Mai’s voice composed by British authors while he resided in England. The second set was written from the perspective of Purea, a Tahitian noblewoman and contemporary of Mai, addressed to British explorers who had visited Tahiti and had supposedly become her lovers. Nearly all of them were published anonymously. They were humorous and comedic; they trafficked in gossip and innuendo about public figures such as the amateur botanist Joseph Banks, who traveled in Cook’s first Pacific expedition.
Scholars, many of whom I engage with here, have typically seen these poems as mediocre satires of aristocratic excess and libertinism or as vulgarizations of the otherwise more sophisticated debate about Enlightenment, primitivism, sexuality, and exploration. While such critics have usefully integrated these poems into the vast scholarship about eighteenth-century European encounters with the Pacific, they have also overlooked the significance of impersonation and virtualization for these poems. This oversight has meant sacrificing an important archive for understanding the consequences of print’s ability to imitate voices and construct virtual beings. Such an ability is particularly salient for understanding these impersonations because, as Srinivas Aravamudan argues, [End Page 343] print’s projections of speech and bodies allows scholars to link colonialist representations with their postcolonial revisions and uncover retrospectively the machinery of agency.3 Aravamudan defines this as “virtualization,” which apprehends the process of “becoming-other” so central to the recuperation of “retroactive identification and projections of counter-hegemonic tradition.”4 From this vantage, recognizing the importance of virtuality in these impersonations compels new attention to the complex ways that personhood, subject-formation, and sexual agency were implicated in early responses to Pacific exploration. In returning to these poems, I seek to reignite the debate about authenticity and cultural appropriation by considering instances in which exoticism and ventriloquism lead not to the representation of Tahitians as sexual objects, imperial curiosities, or ethnographic specimens, but as subjects.5
During the eighteenth century, Pamela Cheek notes, sex was refashioned into a “mode of global consciousness” that ascertained racial and national identities.6 European authors in this period began to understand the “sexual self as a virtual traveler” who emerges in concert with fantasies about foreigners’ sexual lives.7 Travel, especially to the Pacific, tested conceptions of the coherent self, figured as a struggle for self-preservation, often against the voluptuous temptations of islands like Tahiti.8 These virtual and literal travels, together with experiments in selfhood, intensified the ongoing shift toward privacy and personal autonomy in British erotic life that reorganized sexual practices and regulated intimacies.9 Rapidly changing demographics transformed sexuality as people married earlier and fewer individuals remained unmarried; heterosexual practices were reoriented toward penetration, procreation, and the economy; modern sexual differentiation founded the gender system, a revolution that codified previously inchoate practices as homosexuality.10 Ultimately, the diversification of erotic lives pushed sex acts and dispositions into sociopolitical debates within an increasingly public sexual culture.11 Travel, the interiorized self, and this public sexual culture formed individuals who, Tim Hitchcock claims, “were able to use their imaginations to liberate sexual desire from its immediate social context.”12
Liberating sexual desire from its immediate social context was one goal of these Tahitian poems, which brought readers into contact with exotic beings and unfamiliar sexualities as a form of virtual travel. The sexualized discourse of Pacific exploration, Lee Wallace explains, traces...