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Polynesia explorers created worldwide web of scientific knowledge

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Photo of Harry Liebersohn
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
UI historian Harry Liebersohn is the author of "The Travelers' World: Europe to the Pacific" (Harvard University Press). According to Liebersohn, the scientific travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries who led daring expeditions into Polynesia were the producers and mediators of a new "global network of scientific knowledge."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scientific travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries led waves of daring expeditions into Polynesia, netting oceans of discoveries about its geography, flora and fauna and people.

But they were more than simply courageous collectors of artifacts and statistics, says the author of a new book.

These seafaring naturalists were the producers and mediators of a new “global network of scientific knowledge,” argues historian Harry Liebersohn, the author of “The Travelers’ World: Europe to the Pacific” (Harvard University Press).

Liebersohn’s book explains how these men of science worked with their subjects, how they juggled the truth to jive with their sponsors’ instructions, how they influenced discourse at home and fought their fiercest enemy – not mosquitoes, but swarms of missionaries who invaded their turf and challenged their findings.

Liebersohn’s study is the first to put the travelers at the center of the “networks of knowledge” story, to make them “mediators in the global system for the production of knowledge,” he said.

According to Liebersohn, the naturalist-travelers worked back and forth from patrons at home to collaborators – including native informants, traders and beachcombers – abroad. They contended with their patrons on their return and tried “in one form or another” to convey their findings to a fascinated European public.

“Their published travel accounts are the outcome of a system reaching across the globe, squeezing from the travelers information to satisfy state ministers, the scientific community and public opinion,” wrote Liebersohn, a European cultural and intellectual historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Braving extremes of polar cold and equatorial heat, the scientific voyages that sailed around Cape Horn between 1750 and 1850 systematically surveyed and studied the terra incognitas of Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti. Some accounts became bestsellers that “powerfully shaped the era’s debates about the nature of human society.”

Liebersohn’s study focuses on three generations of travelers – none of them household names today. Philibert Commerson was a French naturalist aboard Louis de Bougainville’s world voyage of 1766-1769; Germany’s George Forster accompanied his father on Captain James Cook’s second voyage of 1772-1775; and Adelbert von Chamisso, a native of France, served as a naturalist on the Russian Rurik voyage of 1815-1818.

“Keen for curiosities of every kind, none more than the customs of strange peoples that could turn a travel account into a bestseller,” the travelers steered their courses using Linnaeus as their botanical guide and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their intellectual guide.

The first wave of travelers expected to find the same “natural” societies in Polynesia that had been discovered earlier in the Americas and “became the stuff of European stereotypes,” Liebersohn said. What they encountered, however, “defied their expectations”: sophisticated societies, physical beauty, sexual freedom, tattoos, and ship and nautical skills that were different from anything they had known.

They also encountered negatives: “ferocious island politics, exploitative native elites and disruptive consequences of their own visits that called into question the naive assumption of fraternity with native peoples,” Liebersohn wrote. Despite everything, these three travelers became “influential and insightful ethnographers,” Liebersohn argues.

“Commerson wrote a letter on Tahiti that sealed its status as a Pacific paradise; Forster wrote an epic voyage narrative – with captivating chapters on Tahiti – that made him famous throughout Europe; Chamisso wrote about Hawaii and other islands with a sensitivity and accuracy still admired among anthropologists.”

They had plenty of help – from their captains, officers, voyage artists and physicians, and from Polynesian travelers who came aboard, bringing “their own thirst for knowledge, power, and prestige,” Liebersohn wrote.

In truth, their enterprises engaged a cast of thousands, all of whom interacted in the “multifaceted network”: patrons, collaborators, philosophers back home, missionaries abroad and travel writers such as Charles Darwin and Herman Melville.

During this era, scientific travelers were young, poor and “painfully dependent” on the goodwill and deep pockets of their patrons. They also were ambitious, enduring the “madness of long, lonely voyages” for the fame they might claim upon their return.

Their bosses, the voyage sponsors, tended to be high-ranking naval officers, ministers of state or monarchs – wealthy men who paid them to be reporters, but who also had their own “conceptions of truth.” In such a dynamic, travelers were obliged to write with their “guardians of privilege” uppermost in their minds.

Although traveler-naturalists expected that rigorous empirical work would lead them to the “straightforward truths” about human nature in “natural” societies, they discovered otherwise: “no single pattern of human nature, but rather an irreducible multiplicity of cultures, an ever-greater variety of forms of sex, politics, language and every other human institution,” in short, “a greatly enlarged inventory of human possibilities.”

When missionaries arrived, they shook things up even more.

Most of the era’s proselytizers came out of the ecumenical London Missionary Society, founded in 1795 in response to broad evangelical shock over Polynesian mores, customs and practices, including a few reports of public copulation.

LMS missionaries would construct an independent network of knowledge with its own patrons, informants and audience, and they would bring back “their own ethnographic vision of the island peoples they wished to convert.” Because of their continuous fieldwork, they claimed to be better informed than the scientists.

In their conception of what it meant to know another culture, the missionaries “diminished the aesthetic and racial categories so important to the naturalists” and “supplemented them with ethical and religious canons.”

In sum, they toppled old systems of belief, Liebersohn said, “while working to install colonial rule and capitalist commerce. From the beginning they were controversial.”

By the early 19th century the world of the travelers – “steadily accumulating knowledge for its European public” – looked like a scientific success. But just when it seemed triumphant, it collided with the missionaries’ world, which instead of modernizing Polynesian cultures, as the scientists proposed to do, “sought to eradicate them.”

“The conflict between scientists and missionaries was a critical event in European intellectual history of the first half of the nineteenth century. Parties to both sides were convinced of the truth of their position and the bad faith of their opponents.”