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Lloyd [Osbourne] and [Robert] Louis [Stevenson] planted their camera stand in the centre of the village, and walked about to look for good points of view. While they were away a serious-looking man delivered a lecture upon the apparatus, to the evident edification and wonder of the crowd. During his explanation he mimicked both Louis’s and Lloyd’s walk, showing how Lloyd carried the camera, while Louis walked about looking round him. I sat down on a log to wait, when immediately all the women and girls seated themselves on the ground, making me the centre of a half circle and gazing at me with hard, round eyes.

fanny stevenson, The Cruise of the “Janet Nichol”: Among the South Sea Islands

In the encounter that unfolds in my epigraph, Fanny Stevenson implies that photography is not always a unidirectional process; rather, the photographic act is located at the intersection between colonial and Indigenous subjects. Fanny’s remarkable anecdote describes her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson, and her son, Lloyd Osbourne, strolling among their prospective Islander subjects on 9 May 1890 during a photography session on Penrhyn Atoll (Tuvalu) in the central Pacific Island region.1 Unexpectedly, the photographers find that they have become spectacles for those whom they wish to photograph: the Islanders’ parody of foreign curiosity undermines the photographers’ seeming authority.2 The playful Islander appropriates the device for the “edification and wonder” (98) of his friends and makes the apparatus, which is designed to see and record, the object of ridicule; likewise, the photographers’ idiosyncratic gestures are cause for amusement. Fanny, too, fails to escape this scrutiny: as she sits on a nearby log, Islander women surround and gaze at her with “hard and round” (98) eyes—unflinching and camera-like.

In the following pages, I take Fanny’s account as my starting point to consider how photography might trouble, rather than simply regulate, colonial hierarchies.3 In particular, I examine a selection of photographs taken during the family’s visits to the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia) and [End Page 67] the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati).4 By the time the Stevensons arrived in the Marquesas in August 1888, there was abundant evidence of depopulation from smallpox and measles. The population decline was compounded by the dissolution of Indigenous political institutions. In 1842, France took possession of the Marquesas, only to abandon the settlement in 1857, and then re-establish control in 1870. In 1888, Stevenson observed the remains of what had once been fierce Indigenous resistance to French authority. He photographed the struggle for local control between a French-appointed chief and one who had been deposed by the colonial authorities. Less than a year later, when the family visited Butaritari Atoll, they encountered a very different sociopolitical situation. Unlike the Marquesas, the Gilbert Islands, although well-known to whaler and commercial traders, were sovereign until 1892, when they became a British protectorate. On Butaritari, where the Stevensons photographed a local dance competition, Stevenson believed that he was witnessing the last vestiges of a society that, he predicted, would vanish in a decade. My case studies, therefore, consider how Moipu, a dispossessed Marquesan chief, reasserted his political standing by posing for the Stevensons’ camera, and how a group of dancers on Butaritari inadvertently transformed what otherwise could have been a straightforward act of photography into a complex exchange of gazes and subject positions.

These photographs frame the stakes of my central argument: that the historical and local specificities of colonial impact on Pacific societies unsettle the presumption that “colonial photography” is a consistent and uniform object of study. In fact, specific photographic acts highlight the daily mundane (but no less fraught) negotiations between the individuals who stood before and behind the lens. My goal is not to rehabilitate the racist ideologies that motivated nineteenth-century colonial photography but rather to shed light on those moments during which Islanders influenced the outcome of the photographic event in which they were involved and thus shaped colonial perceptions. This interest in how Islanders participated in photography aligns with critical understandings of the medium’s potential to produce a counter-colonial discourse that challenges the assumed correlation between ideology and image.5 Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson stress that photography’s innate indexicality produces a “subversive code [that is] present in every photographic image that makes it open and available to other readings and uses” (6). In order to access these alternative “readings,” the specific moment of encounter between the photographer and his or her subject must be reconstructed. Elizabeth Edwards emphasizes the importance of reconstructing a photograph’s production context in order to reveal how meanings proliferate from a single picture. The recognition of the instability of photographic meaning leads Edwards to conclude that photographs are “uncontainable,” “incomplete,” and “unknowable” (5). Building upon the notion of photographs as social objects, the meanings of which mutate over time and space, I argue that the Stevensons’ photography [End Page 68] practice was constitutive of the family’s relationships with Islanders; thus I refine the understanding of Stevenson in the broader study of Victorian Pacific encounters.

pacific photography: a family affair

The American publisher S.S. McClure provided the impetus for the Stevensons’ initial voyage to the Pacific. In November 1887, Stevenson had met with McClure in New York and had agreed that in order to finance his trip to the Pacific, he would compose, during the course of his travels, a series of fifty descriptive travel letters for syndication in Great Britain and the United States. McClure was confident that Stevenson’s reading public would hungrily consume the popular author’s “sensational writing” about the Pacific (Hillier 105).

On 28 June 1888, Stevenson departed from San Francisco aboard the schooner Casco. He sailed for three weeks with Fanny, Lloyd, and his mother, Margaret, toward the Marquesas, Tahiti, and the Tuamotus (French Polynesia). From there, the Casco sailed onward to the Hawaiian Islands, where the family spent five months. After this sojourn, Stevenson decided to undertake a second cruise aboard the trading vessel Equator. The travelling party—minus Margaret—left Honolulu on 24 June 1889 and visited the independent kingdoms of the equatorial Gilbert and Marshall Islands before reaching Sāmoa. The Stevensons never returned from their cruising—they settled permanently in October 1890 at the Vailima plantation on Sāmoa’s Upolu Island. After Stevenson’s death, in 1894, Fanny, Osbourne, and her daughter, Isobel Field (née Osbourne), remained at Vailima for a few months (Jolly, Introduction 24–31).6

When they left California, the Stevensons were equipped with a typewriter, a magic lantern, at least two cameras, and roughly twelve hundred plates (Colley, Colonial Imagination 116). The photographic equipment was crucial to the “South Sea” letters that were to be published with illustrations based upon photographs. Travelling conditions were rough, and the family soon developed a healthy apprehension of the ocean. At one of their first landings in the Marquesan Archipelago, for instance, Osbourne accidentally dropped a camera overboard, an incident which Stevenson lamented in a letter to his friend W.E. Henley: “the camera went straight to the bottom of the sea, taking my projected article and instantaneous pictures along with it” (Letters 6: 210).7 Luckily, Osbourne was able to purchase a camera from a local British trader named Keane. On a separate occasion, the author stressed the risk of travel photography when he sent Charles Baxter a sampling of photographs and explained that “we send them, having learned so dread a fear of the sea, that we wish to put our eggs in different baskets” (Letters 6: 211).8 In spite of such precautions, a shipboard fire in 1890 destroyed approximately ninety photographs.9 Neither the weight of the cumbersome apparatus nor the challenges of taking and developing photographs in the tropics deterred [End Page 69] the Stevensons from amassing a collection that depicts an impressive array of European and Pacific subjects, including missionaries and converts in the Marquesas, beachcombers and traders in the Gilbert Islands, German plantations on Sāmoa, and indentured labourers from the Solomon Islands.

When the family began the Equator cruise, Stevenson’s “South Sea” letters were evolving into a larger project, a historical and anthropological study called The South Seas. To lend authority and credence to his text, Stevenson intended that dozens of his family’s photographs would illustrate The South Seas and even stressed to Sidney Colvin, his literary advisor, that “it would be madness to come home now, with an imperfect book, no illustrations to speak of, [and] no diorama” (Letters 6: 275).10 Although he was not a professional photographer, Stevenson was concerned with how his writings were illustrated and sent photographs to his American publisher, Edward Burlingame, as a “foretaste” of his book: “I shall send you some photographs, a portrait of Tembinoka, perhaps a view of the palace or of the ‘matted men’ at their singing” (Letters 6: 365). Despite Stevenson’s ambitions for The South Seas, Colvin objected to what he thought was “mere description and information,” echoing Fanny’s own complaints from nearly a year earlier: “Louis has the most enchanting material that anyone ever had in the world for his book, and I am afraid he is going to spoil it all” (Letters 6: 303). Both Fanny and Colvin agreed that by privileging the geographical, geological, historical, and anthropological minutiae, Stevenson was failing to exploit the Pacific’s literary potential. After two years of unrelenting criticism, Stevenson abandoned The South Seas in the early 1890s.11

The majority of the six hundred photographs that were taken during the cruises were never published but conserved in the family’s four albums. After Stevenson’s death, in 1894, the albums remained with the family until they were bequeathed—at different times—to Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum in the 1930s.12 Even today, certain details about the albums remain unclear, including their relatively unknown origins (i.e., who brought them back from Sāmoa); the individual(s) responsible for constructing and annotating them; and the photographer’s identity, since Stevenson himself is not the attributed author. Despite these lingering questions, I trace the family’s enthusiasm for photography back to Fanny, who, by the 1860s, was already an accomplished amateur: she had “built a studio where she painted, had a dark room where she took photographs—and photography in those days of ‘wet plates’ was a mysterious and unheard-of accomplishment for an amateur” (Sanchez 36–37). Presumably, Osbourne’s own photographic activities stemmed from his mother’s achievements, and together they encouraged Stevenson’s endeavours and experimentation with the medium in the Pacific.13 Most of the time, Osbourne likely worked behind the camera—and developed negatives—under his stepfather’s direction, although there are references to the latter taking photographs as well. During the cruise of [End Page 70] the Janet Nicoll, Fanny was responsible for the upkeep of the equipment; for example, she fixed the camera’s bellows with plaster after they had been eaten through by cockroaches (F. Stevenson 69).

albums from “the south seas”

Although the albums’ fragility prevents them from being displayed in the museum, some thirty reproductions—enlarged and framed behind glass—adorn the walls of the Stevenson gallery. As a result of the albums’ deteriorated condition, their permanent physical conservation began in 2002: they were photographed, digitized, and stored in iBase (a sophisticated image database that permits the viewing and the manipulation of individual photographs at an extremely high resolution). In addition to their preservation and conservation, the photographs were the subjects of the Scottish National Gallery’s 2003–04 display “Navigating Stevenson: Digital Artworks by Sara Gadd.” Duncan Forbes explains that the exhibit showcased nine monochromatic large-scale 3D artworks by Gadd, a British digital photographer, which were displayed alongside the Stevensons’ albums (displayed in glass cases). Gadd’s digital pieces rework the original photographs by removing all people from them, leaving the images empty save for a few objects (Forbes 9–11).14 Most recently, in 2010, a selection of one hundred images became publicly available on Capital Collections (the image library of the City of Edinburgh’s libraries, galleries, and museums).15

Upon close examination, these albums bear testimony to the intimacy between Stevenson’s literary project and photographic endeavours: marginalia—in the form of dozens of arrows, x’s, and references to page numbers—indicate which photographs were being considered as illustrations. In addition to the numerous notes contained within the albums, Stevenson and Fanny began a joint eleven-page notebook (Stevenson, Beinecke MS 6717) in which they listed approximately two hundred photograph captions in alphabetical order.16

Only a handful of scholars (Knight; Colley; Waldroup; Manfredi) have extensively analyzed aspects of the Stevensons’ photographic collection.17 In fact, an authoritative account of this archive, which would reinstate it within the rich and diverse histories of late-Victorian Pacific photography, remains to be written. Instead, biographical readings of the photographs, which uphold the myth of Stevenson as a self-exiled, sickly bohemian traveller and benign champion of the “natives,”18 prevail. Alanna Knight exemplifies this approach when she claims that the photographs “bring vividly to life Stevenson the writer and champion of lost causes” (26). A biographical approach to the photographs risks overlooking the collection’s place in the narratives of nineteenth-century photography. In fact, the Stevensons’ practice contributes to our critical understanding of the distinct and varied cultures of amateur photography in the Pacific region. [End Page 71]

moipou’s cannibal performance

Stevenson devotes the first section of In the South Seas to the Marquesas, where he spent more than a month. In chapter 6, entitled “Chiefs and Tapus,” he remarks that “many chiefs have been deposed, and many so-called chiefs appointed” by the French (36). When the Stevensons reached Hiva Oa on 23 August 1888, they were greeted by one of these “so-called chiefs”: Paaaeua, the haka‘iki (high-ranking male chief), who had been appointed by the French administration. Curious about the Marquesan custom of adopting strangers into “artificial kinship” (97), the Stevenson family arranged to be “adopted” (97) by Paaaeua. According to Stevenson, the “primitively simple” ritual ceremony of o ikoa (name exchange) was motivated by Paaaeua’s “social ambition” (97, 98). Stevenson’s most immediate point of reference for explaining name-exchange is the Catholic rite of communion: following the ritual, the European stranger “passes bodily into the native stock; ceases wholly to be alien; has entered the commune of the blood” (99). The Stevensons’ participation in Paaaeua’s gesture of friendship and alliance, however, raised the ire and jealousy of Moipu, another high-ranking chief and Paaaeua’s rival. After displacing Moipu on moral grounds, the French administration had appointed Paaaeua to the chiefly office. Thus, in response to Paaaeua’s adoption of the Stevensons, Moipu offered to “make brothers” with Mata-Gahali (Glass-Eyes), or Osbourne. Osbourne consented, and the ceremony took place aboard the Casco. The stakes of name exchange were high for Paaaeua and Moipu since “in Marquesan terms, exchanging names notionally created a close identification, the property and interests of one becoming those of the other” (Thomas, Entangled Objects 98).

Sometime during their stay, likely after this ceremony, Osbourne desired to photograph a Marquesan in his “war costume” and persuaded Moipu to “dress up and stand for his portrait” (M. Stevenson 135); however, in the late 1880s, Osbourne would have been at pains to find a Marquesan dressed as a toa (warrior or chief warrior), since a significant number of Marquesans, who had been converted by French missionaries, were now wearing Western clothing (fig. 1). To what extent Osbourne was aware of this is unclear; in any case, his wish to photograph a warrior in his traditional accoutrements amounted to a form of historical reconstruction rather than a depiction of an Islander as he would usually have been encountered. Margaret Stevenson claims that Moipu “consented” to being photographed in his traditional dress after much “persuasion,” though this differs from Osbourne’s account that Moipu “offered to go back to his house and change his clothes for his war dresses” (qtd. in Colley, Colonial Imagination 123). In In the South Seas, Stevenson also describes Moipu’s attempts to get in front of the camera. Like Osbourne, Stevenson remarks that Moipu “gracefully consented” to appear in his war costume. Upon his return in “that strange, inappropriate, and ill-omened array,” Moipu has no difficulty in becoming the “centre of photography” (101–02). The ambiguity surrounding Moipu’s participation [End Page 72] in the act of photography raises the question of agency: was he an agent or an object in the act? Some insight into this question may be gleaned from a broader understanding of European perception of Marquesans as well as the ongoing systemic political crises in the archipelago.19

Fig. 1. Detail from Moipu and Paaaeua, as the Past and Present in Atuona.
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Fig. 1.

Detail from Moipu and Paaaeua, as the Past and Present in Atuona.

By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

The Stevensons’ interest in Moipu was tied to the man’s reputation as one of the last Marquesan cannibals from the island of Hiva Oa, which had been plagued by the “inveterate cannibalism of the natives.” Indeed, disturbed by the revelations of Moipu’s supposed predilection for human flesh, Stevenson remarked that “I . . . detested [Moipu] on sight; when man-eating was referred to, and he laughed a low, cruel laugh, part bashful, like one reminded of some dashing peccadillo, my repugnance was mingled with nausea” (In the South Seas 102). Stevenson’s “repugnance” was undoubtedly encouraged by the account of a fellow Scot and plantation owner, Robert Stewart, who resided in the Marquesas. According to Stevenson, Stewart had found on the beach the “remains of a man and woman partly eaten” and witnessed “one of Moipu’s young men” pick up the human foot, and “provocatively staring at [Stewart], grinned and nibbled at the heel” (79). With this anecdote in mind, Stevenson can barely restrain himself when [End Page 73] Moipu takes hold of his wife’s hand—“his favorite [human] morsel”—to say goodbye (103).

Stewart’s and Stevenson’s descriptions of cannibalism are inherited from the European discourse concerning cannibalistic savages. Peter Hulme, among others such as Greg Dening (2004) and Gannath Obeyesekere (2005), argues that the colonial topos emerged from Christopher Columbus’s encounter with the Caribs and is divorced from actual instances of ritual anthropophagy (86). In the Pacific context, Nicholas Thomas echoes Hulme and stresses that there may well have been cases of ritual anthropophagy prior to European encounter, but that Islanders “were not cannibals” (“Inversion” 219).20

In fact, Stevenson’s interpretation of Moipu parading his savage predilections can be productively understood within a particular mid-century “revival of cannibalism in the Marquesas” (Thomas, “Inversion” 219). During the eighteenth century, Marquesans, like many other Islanders, reappropriated the European trope as a method of “empowered savagery” (219); in fact, as Dening explains, Marquesans responded to cultural dissolution by “flaunt[ing] their flesh-eating reputation, to titillate outsiders, thus mocking the outsiders and putting a protective boundary around themselves” (Beach Crossings 277). During the 1860s, Marquesans—such as Moipu, perhaps—who performed cannibalism were exhibiting “gestural protest[s] at a moment of despair in one of the most destructive of Pacific colonial experiences” (219). This analysis certainly aligns with Stewart’s impression that the grinning Islander was “provocatively staring” at him as he “nibbled” (79) at the foot, and Stevenson’s impression that Moipu taunted the visitors by telling them that “his favourite morsel was the human hand” (103).21 Within this context of protest, Moipu’s agreement to wear his outmoded outfit becomes a means to evoke his newfound—quasi-resurrected—identity as a Marquesan “cannibal,” exactly the identity to which the French were reacting when they established Paaaeua as their appointed chief. Paradoxically, dressing up—and maybe acting—as a “cannibal” had political potency for Moipu on several levels: to shock European visitors, but also to advertise a certain Marquesan identity—and resistance—to French collaborators like Paaaeua, “the reputable substitute” (99).

osbourne’s cannibal re-performance

In two striking self-portraits, Osbourne wears the dress of a toa that closely resembles the one worn by Moipu.22 While the photographs of Osbourne appear to be portraits, perhaps taken by an unknown photographer, under high resolution we can see a piece of string tied to a ring that Osbourne holds in his left hand. In all likelihood, this string led to the camera’s shutter, which allowed Osbourne to photograph himself; these are actually self-portraits.23

In the first photograph, captioned “Lloyd Osbourne in Marquesan Chief ’s full dress,” he wears a headdress, which compares well with the uhikana [End Page 74] (distinguished by its “turtle-shell overlay” [Kjellgren and Ivory 65]), and a cape and anklets made of human hair (fig. 2). In the second, Osbourne, in the same outfit, leans away from the camera and brandishes a ‘u‘u (war club) over his left shoulder (fig. 3). In the photographs depicting Moipu as a toa, he wears an outfit that is different from that worn by Osbourne: Moipu’s headdress is likely of the pa‘ekaha kind, in which “fiber bands have alternating panels of dark brown turtle-shell and white shell attached to them” (Kjellegren and Ivory 66); he also dons a hami (loincloth) in contrast to Osbourne’s longer tunic.

Fig. 2. Lloyd Osbourne in Marquesan Chief’s Full Dress.
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Fig. 2.

Lloyd Osbourne in Marquesan Chief’s Full Dress.

By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

In her discussion of early-European reactions to Islanders’ customs of initiating friendship, Vanessa Smith identifies the first European account of the ceremony of name-exchange as Captain Cook’s description of his initial meeting with the Marquesan chief Ori in 1769; from this point onwards, Europeans understood ceremonial name-exchange as a “highly particularized gifting” that “invite[d] a trade of identities” (Intimate Strangers 100). I explore the implications of a literal change of identities “with a completely foreign other” (102). In what follows, I take as a given that Osbourne’s self-portraits are “parodies” of “ethnographic engravings” (Colley, Colonial Imagination 64) and rethink their significance as a staging of a cross-cultural friendship based on the ritual of name-exchange. As one of the first cross-cultural friendship [End Page 75] bonds experienced by Osbourne during the Stevensons’ Pacific travels, the name-exchange ceremony resulted in a meaningful yet ambiguous act of self-portraiture.

Fig. 3. Untitled.
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Fig. 3.


By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

Cultural cross-dressing was practised routinely by British colonial subjects across their empire.24 This act of cultural appropriation was not, however, uniform across time and space: “placed within its particular historical context, the meanings that are attached to [cultural cross-dressing] are very different depending on the location in which they occur” (Tobin 7). Although Osbourne’s act was meaningful, it should not be forced into a homogenizing model of cultural appropriation, nor should it become a model for understanding all representations of cross-cultural encounter and cross-dressing. Photography, after all, creates hyper-local interactions and mediations that offer the possibility of agency and anticolonial positions that, nevertheless, do not cohere as a set of anti-colonial practices that can travel elsewhere.

For Moipu, in all likelihood, exchanging names with Osbourne was motivated by his recognition that Osbourne was a privileged traveller, whose ritually sanctioned friendship would help him to subvert his rival Paaaeua’s claim to authority. Therefore, Moipu’s exchange with Osbourne was part of the sociopolitical circumstances of the Marquesas in the 1880s. In Osbourne’s [End Page 76] case, however, the exchange was less a matter of public perception—he was hardly in the position of needing to “acquire” potentially beneficial identities—but instead belonged to the realm of the personal. After the ceremony, Osbourne had the chance to proudly display his new Marquesan souvenirs—as well as his new Marquesan identity.

While Osbourne’s participation in the friendship ceremony may well have been genuine, it also served another purpose: to adorn himself as Moipu, the inveterate man-eater. Osbourne’s posturing recalls Tobin’s suggestion that cultural cross-dressing was “some form of cannibalism” (7). Might Osbourne have appropriated Moipu in order to deflate or undermine the aura of fear and “repugnance” that he cast on travellers? The photograph might have been less a generic parody and more an unflattering, albeit specific and local, caricature. At first glance, Osbourne’s self-portrait, with its exaggerated mannerisms, appears to replicate several of the conventions of a genre of portraiture that featured British colonials in Indigenous clothing. The specificity of the figure that he impersonates—a Marquesan warrior—forces us, however, to look beyond mere artistic conventions. While he may be replicating a well-known genre, Osbourne also imitates an individual with whom he shared a ritually significant relationship. Osbourne embodies Moipu, the person with whom he has exchanged names; identities (Moipu’s name and persona) are passed back and forth and produce photographs that do not satisfy the assumptions of a unidirectional photographic exchange. In fact, both Moipu and Osbourne are “dressing up;” their trade is one of European identities, not Pacific ones, since Moipu has appropriated a European fantasy in order, perhaps, to wield the stereotype for his own advantage—shock and maybe even political resistance. In the meantime, Osbourne supposes he has dressed up as the last cannibal. Thus, there is no real “Pacific” or Marquesan identity here, but simply an exchange of European colonial stereotypes. We may ask ourselves, who is the butt of this joke? We can imagine Moipu laughing at Osbourne’s (and Stevenson’s) naïveté, or at least at their ignorance of the intricacies of Marquesan politics.

crowded photography on butaritari

During their stay on Butaritari, the Stevensons photographed a dance competition given in honour of the visitors from Little Makin, an islet located northeast of Butaritari.25 In the first photograph in a series of eight, captioned “Attempting to start a dance in open air,” a man dressed in white stands with his back to the camera as he gesticulates to a group of male dancers (fig. 4).26 The men wear a long mat around their waist that is held in place by a tenuota, a belt made from the hair of a female relative; the women wear heavy skirts made from coconut fronds.27 In his unpublished Pacific diary, Stevenson notes that “outside [the dance-house] we photographed” the dancers, “youngsters and women” who move with little “spirit” (Journal of Two Visits). While the photography session did not, according to Stevenson, [End Page 77] feature the “best dancers,” it nevertheless attracted a generous crowd of bystanders—Islanders who protrude from the margins of the photographs. Several of these marginal figures watch the dancers’ performance attentively while, significantly, many smiling faces peer receptively toward the camera. The series ostensibly records a particular occurrence during the Stevensons’ visit to Butaritari, but the resulting pictures’ sociable edges compete with the centrality of the dancers and urge the viewer to consider what is at stake in this confluence of gazes.

Fig. 4. Attempt to Start a Dance in Open Air.
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Fig. 4.

Attempt to Start a Dance in Open Air.

By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

Gazes are dynamically exchanged between the central and marginal figures (and the unseen photographer) in two photographs from the series: “Two dancing girls from Little Makin-Gilbert Islands. Belonging to dancers brought by Chief Karaiti to Butaritari to compete with local dancers” (fig. 5) and “Butaritari:-Native dance” (fig. 6). Both pictures feature an overlapping display of performances: as the crowd watches both the dancers and the photographer, and the photographer observes the dancers and the crowd, the dancers perform for both the camera and the crowd. Colley provides the only other critical examination of these photographs and argues that the images are evidence of the camera’s domineering and objectifying potential. The inevitable implication of her reading is that the Stevensons used the medium in order to possess or discipline their Pacific subjects; thus, the Little Makin [End Page 78] dancers are “clearly [the camera’s] subjects and vassals to its lens” (Colonial Imagination 124). Colley’s argument relies on the familiar association between photography and colonial disciplinary force; indeed, she claims that the camera’s flash “had the capability to mimic the search lights from the colonial gunships which would suddenly illuminate an unsuspecting Pacific village” (Colonial Imagination 125). In contrast to Colley, who removes agency from the dancers, I place the participants in this photographic session—the dancers, the crowd, the photographer—at the heart of my analysis.

Fig. 5. Two Dancing Girls from Little Makin—Gilbert Islands. Belong to Dancers Brought by Chief Karaiti to Butaritari to Compete with Local Dancers.
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Fig. 5.

Two Dancing Girls from Little Makin—Gilbert Islands. Belong to Dancers Brought by Chief Karaiti to Butaritari to Compete with Local Dancers.

By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

My emphasis on the role of the crowd builds upon Vanessa Smith’s theorizing of how accounts of crowding function in Pacific travel writing as a means to “constitute and authorize (and indeed recognize) their experience” (“Crowd” 7). Similarly, the Stevensons’ photographs bear witness to the (literally) visible curiosity of the Islanders about the photographic session and in doing so authenticate the travelling photographers in a long tradition of Pacific exploration and encounter. Although Smith’s identification of the “dynamics of authority and voyeurism” that are at work during “cross-cultural observation” (7) partially echoes my understanding of the Stevensons’ encounter with the dancers from Little Makin and the crowd’s [End Page 79] eager treatment of the photographer as a spectacle, I suggest that crowds reveal more than the “dialectic of scopophilia” (8) since they also hint at a non-hierarchical conception of photography, in which the photographer is not the ultimate arbiter of what fits into a given photograph.

Fig. 6. Untitled.
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Fig. 6.


By permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum.

In this formulation, the boundary between inside and outside is not circumscribed solely by the photographer; people on the margins determine it as well. Jacques Derrida questions the notion of a separation between a frame (parergon) and the work of art (ergon) that it surrounds and asks: “Where does a parergon begin and end?” (57).28 For Derrida, parerga signify a lack within the work of art itself, which thus requires support from “outside.” The frame is “essentially constructed and therefore fragile” (73); thus “inside” and “outside” are fundamentally flexible concepts, since what is outside always forces its way inside and thus destabilizes any hierarchical and essential understanding of the two. The false dichotomy of inside/outside highlights the artificiality of the Stevensons’ view finder in the Butaritari series. Although seemingly naturalized, photographic frames are constructed and flexible; indeed, it is the presence of marginalized bodies that draws the viewer’s attention to the frame of the photograph. Confronted with a mass of overlapping bodies, limbs, and partially hidden faces, the camera struggles to impose rational organization onto a random accumulation of [End Page 80] humanity; the crowd simply does not fit into the rectangular view finder. The rough, inelegant, crowded frames suggest a practice that works against the notion of framing and that asks the viewer to reflect upon the act of inclusion and exclusion. In the disappearance of constraining frames, and the revelation of the impossibility of “fitting” Islanders into a rectangular view-finder, Stevensons’ crowded margins record a barely visible dissolution of subject and object, colonizer and colonized.

the vagaries of colonial photography

I close with two final examples from Stevenson’s unpublished Pacific diary (Journal of Two Visits to the South Seas) that foreground the impact and influence of Islanders on the Stevensons’ photography practice. In each case, the encounter is predicated on the camera’s presence and motivated by agents on both sides of the lens. On two separate occasions, a group of Butaritari Islanders interrupt Stevenson’s and Osbourne’s photographic activities; according to Stevenson, as soon as the camera is set down, a crowd begins to form: “No sooner than the camera appears than we found the crowds begin to surround us, there was no lack of giggling to enliven the foreground” (Journal of Two Visits). One Islander is so eager to be included in the portrait that he offers Stevenson “a dollar for a ‘photograph.’” On the following day, Stevenson complains that another session is sabotaged by gregarious Islanders: “Whenever the camera was set down, a native accidentally appeared and was ready to be photographed in the foreground; from which I concluded we were stealthily followed” (Journal of Two Visits). These scenes—in addition to my earlier case studies—suggest that during moments of cross-cultural interaction, photography stages a series of reciprocal performances: Moipu’s response to the camera initiates a ritual exchange with Osbourne, who, in turn, performs a new identity in his self-portraits; the Butaritari dancers agree to an impromptu performance which effectively blurs the line between performers and spectators.

Inspired by Pacific historian and anthropologist Greg Dening’s recognition of the theatrical and performative aspects of early contact between foreigners and Islanders, I continue to wonder about the dramatic tensions occasioned by the presence of an intruding camera: what charades were enacted and what roles were played out, and by whom? The Stevenson archive reminds us that although photography was indelibly linked to imperial agendas, mutual curiosity and puzzlement were also the stuff of colonial relations and are necessarily present in the remains of empire.

Carla Manfredi

carla manfredi held a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa (2015–16). She has recently published articles and book chapters on Robert Louis Stevenson, photography, and colonialism in Oceania and is currently at work on the first monograph devoted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s photography.


All images have been reproduced with the permission of the City of Edinburgh Council Museums & Galleries: The Writers’ Museum. I am grateful to Denise Brace and Nicolas Tyack for granting me generous access to the [End Page 81] Robert Louis Stevenson collection. A preliminary account of the photographs depicting the dancers on Butaritari was presented at Photolittérature, littératie visuelle et nouvelles textualités, NYU Paris (2012).

1. In this essay, I use the terms “Pacific Island region” and “Pacific Islands” to refer to the geographic and cultural areas commonly known as Polynesia (the collection of islands within the “triangle” made up of the Hawaiian Archipelago to the north, Aotearoa/New Zealand to the southwest, and Rapa Nui to the east), Micronesia (islands east of the Philippines, from Palau, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands through the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands to Kiribati), and Melanesia (islands northeast of Australia, including New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji).

2. For a discussion of Pacific Islanders’ contestation of nineteenth-century European colonialism through mockery and satire, see Hereniko. For a recent overview of postcolonial approaches to the colonial histories of the Pacific Islands, see Hanlon; Keown; Keown and Murray; Hereniko and Wilson; Calder, Lamb, and Orr.

3. Stevenson’s Pacific travels came in the wake of over a century of British contact in and artistic engagement with the region. For influential histories of British contact with Islanders, see Dening (1980; 1992; 2004); B. Smith (1985).

4. Today, the Marquesas are an overseas territory of France, and the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) are an independent republic located in Micronesia.

6. For detailed examinations of Stevenson’s Pacific travels and work, see Hillier; Day; Edmond; V. Smith (1998); Ambrosini and Dury; Colley (2004); Buckton; Reid; Jolly; Largeaud-Ortéga; and Phillips.

7. Margaret Stevenson records Osbourne’s “great misfortune” and the family’s “serious loss” (92, 93).

8. That same day, Stevenson writes to Anne Jenkin, asking her to keep the vulnerable photographs safe (Letters 6: 212).

9. Roslyn Jolly notes Fanny’s repeated misspelling of Janet Nicoll as Janet Nichol (Introduction 28).

10. The exact circumstances surrounding the diorama project remain obscure; however, prior to the Equator’s departure, a diorama tour was being planned (Letters 6: 315).

11. Stevenson eventually abandoned The South Seas project in 1891. After a three year hiatus, Sidney Colvin, who was preparing the first Edinburgh edition of Stevenson’s collected works, asked the author to select passages from The South Seas. After Stevenson’s death in 1894, however, Colvin published large portions of The South Seas under the new titled of In the South Seas (1896).

12. These albums are designated as LSH 149/91, LSH 150/91, LSH 151/91, and LSH 153/91. The accession numbers for entire album pages are formatted in the following manner: LSH 15091p01, where “15091” refers to LSH 15/91 and “p01” refers to the page number. Accession numbers for individual photographs are formatted in the following manner: LSH 15091pr01a, where “a” refers to the position of the picture on the page.

13. Joseph Dwight Strong, Stevenson’s stepson-in-law, was a professional painter and photographer in Honolulu. He accompanied his in-laws on the Equator cruise and also participated in their photographic activities; see Manfredi (2015). [End Page 82]

14. Gadd’s images can be viewed at

15. There is an ongoing project to make the albums publicly available online.

16. In this notebook, Fanny’s writing appears on the left side, Stevenson’s on the right. Fanny listed the captions while Stevenson’s notes suggest on which pages, in an unknown manuscript, these photographs should appear. Fanny also assigned each photograph a letter—either “A,” “B,” or “C”—and a number. I have cross-referenced this MS. with the albums and found that “A” corresponds with LSH 149/91, “B” with LSH 151/91, and “C” with LSH 153/91. LSH 149/91 includes two hundred and forty-eight photographs taken during the Equator cruise. Album LSH 150/91 includes eighty-two photographs taken during the cruise of the Casco. LSH 151/91 contains ninety-three photographs depicting Sāmoa. Finally, LSH 153/91 includes eighty-one photographs taken during the cruise of the Janet Nicoll. The annotations in LSH 149 and LSH 153 have been identified as being in Stevenson’s hand, while those in LSH 150 and 151 are either in Fanny’s or her daughter Isobel’s hand.

17. Rennie, Buckton, and Jolly (2004, 2009) also recognize the role of photography in the Stevensons’ travels.

18. For a discussion of Stevenson’s plantation activities in Sāmoa that challenges the canonical and romantic perspective, see Manfredi (2016).

19. For an account of the development of Marquesan society during the first half of the nineteenth century, see Thomas (1990).

21. Thomas’s analysis and the case of Stevenson and Stewart—as well as the scene described in my epigraph—complement Hereniko’s account of the many historical accounts of islanders taunting, ridiculing, and subverting European cultural practices and behaviours as a way to resist their “loss of dignity” and in order to “suit their social and political needs” (411).

22. In all likelihood, Osbourne is wearing the same outfit that was auctioned after the death of Fanny Stevenson in November 1914. No. 545 in the Anderson Auction Co. catalogue reads: “Marquesan wardress. Consisting of a petticoat, shoulder cape, two armlets, and an anklet made of a mass of fine human hair woven on fibre bands” (86).

23. For Colley, these photographs of Osbourne are not self-portraits; rather, she claims that the “pieces of string” that appear to be tied to Osbourne’s finger are there to “hold him still” (Colonial Imagination 64).

24. I borrow the term “cultural cross-dressing” from Tobin’s chapter on eighteenth-century portraits of British officers in Indigenous clothing (81).

25. Eight photographs attest to this encounter: LSH14991pr04b; LSH14991pr04c; LSH14991pr04d; LSH14991pr15a; LSH14991pr15a; LSH14991pr16a; LSH14991pr16b, and LSH14991pr16c.

26. Based on his build, I speculate that the man in the image is either Osbourne or Strong.

27. For a more in-depth discussion of Kiribati dance traditions, see Tony and Joan Whincup. For a history of Kiribati, see Macdonald.

28. Derrida engages with Kant’s notion of parergon. For Kant, parergon does not belong to the work of art proper but complements it like the frame of a painting. In contrast to Kant, Derrida “cannot determine precisely what a work is, or what to include and what to exclude in our judgment of a work, if we cannot determine exactly where the work ends and where parerga begin, and where parerga end and where extraneous background begins” (Taylor 274). [End Page 83]

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