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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 295-297

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Book Review

Bad Colonists: The South Seas Letters of Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke

Bad Colonists: The South Seas Letters of Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke, by Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. ISBN cloth, 0-8223-2257-9; paper, 0-8223-2222-6; xxiii + 163 pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$49.95; paper, US$16.95.

It must be made clear at once that the authors intend their title as telling irony. They do not oppose the figures under consideration to hypothetical good colonists; rather, Thomas and Eves use "bad colonists" to describe complex senses of failure and degeneration as recorded in the letters of two white traders on the "periphery" during the age of high European colonialism (1870-1880s). As they emerge from this volume, Vernon Lee Walker, an obscure trader in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and Louis Becke, later famous for his "South Seas" stories, were bad at being colonists in every sense: they failed to maintain any colonial sense of purpose, they failed in their commercial endeavors, they failed at fashioning coherent senses of selfhood, and they failed as letter writers.

Because Thomas and Eves are primarily interested in expressive failures, Bad Colonists torques the genre of the letter collection. The volume looks traditional--half of it is composed of the letters, accompanied by handsome maps, facsimiles, biographical sketches, and commentary--but it aims at nothing less than "experimental history" (xxi). For Thomas and Eves, colonial letters--in particular the "letter-home-to-mother"--reveal nuances in what [End Page 295] have been called "tensions of empire." The letters embody struggles to manage identity that reproduce "the colonist's kinship and family ties" (4), and are thus indexes of self-fashioning, or double-writing, in which personal trauma and the frame of colonial history intertwine with inadvertent, ironic honesty.

Thomas and Eves approach these lettered failures from a variety of angles. The titles of the introduction, "Letter Writing and Colonial Selfhood," and chapter 5 , "The Apotheosis of Savagery: Louis Becke's Pacific Tales," suggest both the range and implied continuities within a project that not only regards the letter as a specific type of colonial artefact, but also treats fiction and letters as inter-illuminating. Perhaps because the chapters have continuities as well with work the authors have done elsewhere, the preface advises that "readers may find it useful to know" who produced each section. Thomas wrote the introduction, chapter 1 (on Walker and colonial history), chapter 2 (commentary on Walker), and the epilogue, while Eves wrote chapters 3 (on Becke, self-fashioning, and savagery), chapter 4 (commentary on Becke), and chapter 5 .

Nevertheless, the volume, which often uses we, is jointly authored in several senses. Thomas and Eves deploy similar strategies of textual analysis drawn from literary studies, in ways that are something of a departure from works on Pacific colonialism that Thomas has written or been associated with. Both approach individual letters as items within a progressive narrative, and foreground correlations between the faulty lines (psychic fissures) within letters and an emerging portrait of "the incompleteness that is almost intrinsic to settler identity" (5 ). Both seek to pluralize nomenclatures in the anthropology of colonialism, and, to do so, correspond in their methods of filling silences in the letters with the critic's voice. Emphasis shifts from an anthropology of colonialism stressing the otherness of (and violence toward) others, to one emphasizing the othernesses (or estranging, splitting forces) within the colonial self.

By his own admission, the Walker who emerges out the frames set up by Thomas is "a very bad hand" at letter writing. The letters themselves are lack-luster descriptions of Walker's business ventures, comings and goings of ships, accommodations, and activities. As he moves from the edge of genteel society to feeling "fit for nothing at home" (66), he remains lonely and disappointed, stationary in his bigotries and lack of curiosity, and overshadowed by his brother, who...