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Imperial Benevolence

Imperial Benevolence: Making British Authority in the Pacific Islands

Jane Samson
Copyright Date: 1998
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  • Book Info
    Imperial Benevolence
    Book Description:

    This insightful analysis of British imperialism in the south Pacific explores the impulses behind British calls for the protection and "improvement" of islanders. From kingmaking projects in Hawaii, Tonga, and Fiji to the "antislavery" campaign against the labor trade in the Western pacific, the author examines the deeply subjective, cultural roots permeating Britons' attitudes toward Pacific Islanders. By teasing out the connections between those attitudes and the British humanitarian and antislavery movements, Imperial Benevolence reminds us that nineteenth-century Britain was engaged in a global campaign for "Christianization and Civilization."

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6294-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Orthography and Nomenclature
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xv)
  7. About the Author
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Perspective is everything. Pacific Studies, imperial history, maritime history, and anthropology tend to form worlds of their own; sailing among them over the past few years, I have often felt a sense of dislocation. Theoretical and methodological approaches can differ radically between disciplines, and sometimes different academic cultures are in open opposition to one another. Pacific Studies, for example, was spawned amid a general rejection of imperial historiography in the 1960s. Recent British imperial history has tended to neglect the Pacific in its preoccupation with Africa and Asia, and with studies of economic imperialism, racist and gendered discourses of hegemony,...

  9. 1 Measures of Benevolence
    (pp. 7-23)

    Eighteenth-century Europe’s “Pacific craze” populated the Pacific Ocean with beings from the anthropophagi ofGulliver’s Travelsto Rousseau’s noble savages. Dutch and French voyage narratives gave the appearance of realism to various theories about islanders, but erratic publication lessened their impact. Each time Captain Cook returned from the Pacific, however, a veritable publishing industry sprang up to ignite the imaginations of British artists, philosophers, missionaries, and writers of pantomime. Cook’s observations drew new lines across the Pacific: a grid of latitude and longitude that fixed the positions of islands now no longer free to roam with Europe’s imagination. Observations of...

  10. 2 White Savages
    (pp. 24-41)

    Captain Cook first arrived at Tahiti in 1769, after the visits of Wallis and Bougainville, and was interested in the effects of European contact on Tahitians. In 1773, on his second voyage, he was also able to observe the consequences of his own activities. The prognosis was not good: Cook noted evidence of recent warfare and new faces in the highest social ranks. In New Zealand, where Maori men offered their female relatives to the visitors, James King wrote a passionate condemnation of the European visitors who debauched “morals already too prone to vice.”¹ Cook himself admired many aspects of...

  11. 3 Protective Supremacy?
    (pp. 42-62)

    Although Cook’s voyages had opened up the possibility of a British south Pacific, the British government “showed no disposition … to turn this primacy of influence into political ascendancy.”¹ Despite the activities of its missionaries and traders, and the possession of a natural base for expansion in the Australian colonies, Britain acquired south Pacific territory only once before the 1870s, with the Treaty of Waitangi. But the naval captains who patrolled the islands were frustrated by an ambivalent administration that invoked the idea of a British supremacy of influence only to reject definitive measures that might bring unwelcome responsibilities or...

  12. 4 Kingmaking
    (pp. 63-80)

    Attempts to introduce or develop centralized government in the islands became central to the program of “Christianization and Civilization,” especially where a stratified social system already existed, as in the Society Islands or Tonga. In places like New Zealand or Samoa, where sociopolitical units were locally based and less hierarchical, ideas about unified rulership had no indigenous counterpart. The concept of Maori or Samoan “nationhood” arose after European contact, but its problematic relationship with island traditions doomed early attempts at unification to failure.¹ Behind the rhetoric of protection and improvement lay a complicated process of negotiation with island leaders, and...

  13. 5 The Sandalwood Crusade
    (pp. 81-97)

    As late as the mid-nineteenth century, British explorers in Melanesia believed they traveled “untrodden paths where novelty, where ignorance; and a thick veil of obscurity hangs.”¹ The fleeting contacts made by European explorers in the eighteenth century—Carteret, Bougainville, Cook, and d’Entrecasteaux—had revealed a dangerous place for Europeans: treacherous to navigate and inhabited by suspicious, often violent people. When the French explorer La Pérouse disappeared after leaving Sydney for the Solomon Islands in 1788, Melanesia’s grim reputation seemed confirmed. In an episode that became the most famous of its kind in the Pacific, the missionary pioneer John Williams was...

  14. 6 A House Divided
    (pp. 98-114)

    By mid-century, hopes for British “protective supremacy” in the Pacific islands had been quenched by the government’s doubts about territorial expansion, but equally responsible were the contradictions of humanitarian benevolence itself. During the 1850s, especially in Melanesia, it became clear that protective paternalism could not accommodate the realities of trade violence. The behavior of both islanders and traders often failed to conform to the roles assigned to them in mission and naval reports. British law, too, failed the humanitarians who placed such faith in it. These inconsistencies stretched benevolence to the breaking point as humanitarians found themselves unable to provide...

  15. 7 Antislavery Imperatives
    (pp. 115-129)

    By the time the labor trade issue arose in the late 1860s, British humanitarians had already developed a protective approach to Pacific islanders, especially in Melanesia where Christianization was making such slow progress.¹ The crusade against sandalwood traders had created a set of interpretations that helped observers make sense of baffling, alien societies and their sometimes violent interaction with white men. However, sandalwood and other traders resented the Royal Navy’s prejudice against them and were demanding more vigorous support. The Foreign Office and the Admiralty obliged with instructions requiring the navy to protect British traders, but at this point the...

  16. 8 Gunboat Diplomacy?
    (pp. 130-147)

    Although it could maintain a united front against misbehaving white men, humanitarian ambivalence about islander offenses made the issue of naval coercion problematic. Naval bombardments were rare and controversial before the 1870s, reflecting both their inadequacy as deterrents and their questionable morality in the minds of naval officers themselves. Only later do we begin to observe the demographic and social changes that prompted a redefinition of national honor and a new emphasis on demonstrations of vigor. By this time, formalized imperial rule was already under way through protective legislation and the cession of Fiji. Historians have made too many connections...

  17. 9 The Triumph of Tradition
    (pp. 148-170)

    By the time Britain accepted the sovereignty of Fiji in 1874, thirty-four years had passed since the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand. Other cession offers had been made and refused, while France colonized Tahiti, New Caledonia, and the Loyalty Islands with hardly a murmur from London. Colonial officials in New Zealand, and later Australia, joined various mission and humanitarian organizations in appealing for protectorates in the islands, but the British government usually resisted opportunities for territorial expansion. The 1874 Fijian deed of cession might therefore seem a new departure for British policy in the islands, although economic theories of...

  18. Epilogue
    (pp. 171-176)

    Goodenough and Gordon arrived at Fiji in June 1875, and the commodore marveled at how anxious Gordon was to sleep ashore among the mosquitoes. “He must be a romantic sort of fellow,” Goodenough mused, but “no great or permanent harm ever came of over earnestness.”¹ This would be a fitting epitaph for the tragic encounter to come at Santa Cruz, when Goodenough put himself and his crew at needless risk to demonstrate his own earnestness.

    The Santa Cruz people had driven hmsSandflyaway from Carlisle Bay with poisoned arrows in 1874, and the commodore wanted to see if he...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 177-206)
  20. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 207-234)
  21. Index
    (pp. 235-240)