Peter's Railway


Published in History Today

Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century
Kim Sloan
British Museum Press  304 pp   £29.95
ISBN  0714127655

Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook
Nicholas Thomas
Penguin  468 pp  £25 
ISBN 0713995572

The Enlightenment is back. Post-structuralism taught us to regard the eighteenth-century values of progress and rationalism with suspicion, warning us that slavery, Eurocentric thinking and sexual oppression lay just round the corner from the apparently ‘enlightened’ ideals of Hulme and Voltaire. In England, though, the belief that the early eighteenth century wasn’t such a bad time has been hard to jettison, partly because it was a time when England really had never had it so good as a commercially successful and politically progressive state.

The rehabilitation reaches its zenith with the British Museum’s decision to celebrate its 250th anniversary with a permanent exhibition built around the King’s Library and recreating the Museum as it was in 1753. Published to coincide with the exhibition, Kim Sloan’s edited collection, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century concentrates on scholarly reflection. Sloan sets the tone, claiming, ‘the foundation of the British Museum was one of the most potent acts of the Enlightenment’. Her team of curators surveys the creation of the Museum’s collections of objects, from books, paintings, sculpture and maps to vases, fossils, gems, porcelain and a variety of exotic artefacts.

The range is at times overwhelming, because of the omnivorous nature of the collectors under analysis, many of whom made little or no distinction between the intellectual boundaries that this book places upon the Museum’s collection. Sloan breaks the book into five sections – the first dealing with the Enlightenment concept of the ‘universal museum’, followed by the natural world, the artificial world, ancient civilisations, and voyages of discovery. It’s an embarrassment of riches and all the contributors are acknowledged experts in their field, although the chapters on the lesser-known areas prove particularly fascinating. These include Jill Cook on fossils and the development of palaeontology, and Judy Rodoe’s spirited recuperation of the Museum’s sadly neglected collection of engraved gems (many of which were thought expendable and put on display in 1941, only to be destroyed during an air-raid).

Some of the most original arguments deal with the African, Oriental and Pacific collections. Jennifer Newell provides a striking account of two-way exchange and collecting in the Pacific during the reign of George III, including Joseph Banks’ brass replica Maori hand clubs, made for export in London in 1772. Luke Syson offers a reflection on the theory of Enlightenment collecting, classification and progress.

This book might not resolve the Museum’s difficulties regarding the return of objects to their host cultures (despite extensive discussion of the Rosetta Stone), but it will satisfy academic and general readers alike in providing a vivid insight into the appearance of the British Museum in 1753, and the mentality of the extraordinary collectors that made it what it is.

Do we really need another account of James Cook? Nicholas Thomas’ Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook suggests we do. Historians of every hue have pored over Cook’s three epic voyages, but this is the first sustained account from an anthropological perspective.

Thomas provides an absorbing account of the voyages as what post-colonial critics call ‘cross-cultural encounter’ – the clash between European beliefs and the dizzying mixture of Pacific cultures, languages and customs that Cook encountered over a decade of voyaging from the Bering Strait to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic circle, via Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. What makes this book so vivid is Thomas’ own personal relationship with Cook. His starting point is not Cook’s birth, but his own experiences of the captain’s bicentenary as a schoolboy in Sydney in the 1970s. What follows is itself a voyage of discovery as Thomas weaves between past and present to reflect on the ambivalent legacy of Cook’s voyages and his own twenty-year pursuit of Cook across the Pacific.

Thomas sees Cook as the classic Enlightenment voyager, veering between the ruthless pursuit of scientific rationalism and the imposition of ‘civilising’ European values, and a bemused (and often amusing) attempt to understand and accommodate the cultures he encountered. For Thomas, Cook ‘saw himself as making history through geography’, even though ‘the coasts and contours of his familial life are not so much smudges as blanks on the maps in the archive’. Thomas has mastered every aspect of the voyages, from Cook’s grasp of hydrography via the linguistic confusion of his encounters with the Pacific islanders, to the editorial manipulation of the captain’s words and the confusion that surrounds his sudden death. Every nuance of Cook’s encounters is teased out by the trained ear of the anthropologist, from tattoos and kangaroos to the sexual exchanges between Europeans and islanders (some of which were imitated in the brothels of London). Ironically, the more violent moments of the voyages appear to have occurred not because the people were poor and ignorant, but because they were wealthy and secure in their own customs and belief systems. As a result, it is often Cook and his bedraggled, diseased crew that look uncivilised.

Thomas refuses to pass judgement, and the captain emerges as neither a rapacious coloniser nor a figure for revisionist recovery. Instead, Thomas offers Cook as a complex, contradictory figure responding to situations as they occurred. While its scholarship is impeccable, Discoveries is also a beautifully written book that evokes the sights, smells and exchanges that took place across the Pacific and gives equal weight to European and ‘native’ voices. It is a wonderful achievement, and deserves a wide and appreciative audience.

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