- Pursuing Respect in the Cannibal Isles: Americans in Nineteenth-Century Fiji by Nancy Shoemaker
Nancy Shoemaker's book is a well-written, refreshing contribution to the study of Americans in early nineteenth century Fiji. Throughout, she maintains a strong sense of place and the role of the Indigenous [End Page 817] people in the cross-cultural engagements, an achievement not always evident in studies of Americans in the Pacific (e.g., Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon, Hollywood's South Seas and the Pacific War: Searching for Dorothy Lamour. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). An initial chapter sets the scene, buttressed by a typology of colonialisms and the extraterritoriality of U.S. commerce that earned its treasury millions in customs duties, to consolidate narratives of three Americans who sought to win wealth and respect in Fiji. The second chapter probes their Massachusetts connections that sent ships around the world in search of business. By the early nineteenth century, traders headed to Fiji for sandalwood and soon bêche-de-mer, both commodities that appealed to the Chinese, the source of tea, silk, and porcelain for Americans. Each of the three—Whippy, Wallis, and Williams—merits two chapters, followed by a short epilogue.
The binding glue of this analysis is the search for respect by the major players. While their personalities are very different, their goal is the same. David Whippy, after working on a whaling ship, came in 1824 to assist another itinerant trader, but stayed. While the archival record is sparse for Whippy's early life, the author winkles considerable detail from surviving accounts. Whippy, as a beachcomber and factotum to Fijian chiefs dealing with traders, learned much about their culture. He, by temperament careful and helpful, adopted some Fijian customs including polygamy but deplored cannibalism and widow strangulation. Because of this connection to the chiefs, he was shown respect by the common people. By the 1830s, he headed the small community of foreign traders in Levuka, Ovalau island, under the protection of the chief. His status rose with the three-year visit of Charles Wilkes, commander of U.S. exploring expedition from 1838. He toured with them and advised; likewise, he helped the first Wesleyan missionaries. By the 1850s, Whippy had gained even more respect among the Levuka foreigners, was a wealthy landowner, operating as a trusted agent, independent of the chiefs.
Mary Wallis was remarkable on two counts. First, it was a rare woman who accompanied a husband to Fiji in the 1840s and no other wife went with a trader in bêche-de-mer; second, she kept a journal, the basis for her book about her experiences there. To rise above her working-class origins in New England, she not only needed a successful husband but respectability, the path to respect for a woman. Yet Wallis lived close to "savages," documenting their wars and customs, so putting that respectability to question. That faded with her modest literary success. Her book, Life in Feejee, reveals her courage in chiding [End Page 818] chiefs about their ways and cloaked her with moral superiority in the eyes of her readers, even though she was the beneficiary of coerced Fijian labor. In the United States, she earned a modicum of contemporary respect as an authority on Fiji, a respect that has grown because her book is consulted by scholars of early Fiji.
The last of this trio is perhaps the least appealing, but an embodiment of the search for wealth and respect in the mode of the Salem merchants. John B. Williams' life is a litany of opportunism in commercial deals. Rarely successful in business ventures, his role as U.S. consul gave Williams a living, U.S. support, and bolstered his reputation at home and, to some extent, in the Pacific. Williams' main quality was persistence, a persistence that saw him pursue the "American debt" which bedeviled Fijian politics into the 1870s. In 1849, an employee accidentally burned down Williams' house. Subjects of his...