ETHNOGRAPHIC ORIGINS:

ST VINCENT AND TASMANIA

Paper presented at the Australian Association for Caribbean Studies conference, Canberra, February 2001

© Peter Hulme

 

Since I was an enthusiast for the idea that one strand of this conference should focus on Australian – Caribbean connections, and since I’m a beneficiary of the HRC, whose theme for this year is The Enlightenment, I decided that I just had to talk about Australian – Caribbean connections during the Enlightenment, not exactly one of the most well-trodden paths in modern scholarship. My own journey into this material starts, predictably enough, in the Caribbean. At the end of the eighteenth century Britain was involved in a fierce guerrilla war on the island of St Vincent against a mixed force of indigenous, free coloured, maroon, and French Revolutionary troops. Britain eventually won that war and transported the vast majority of the indigenous Carib population of St Vincent to Central America. That Carib population was itself already transculturated: indeed eighteenth-century British sources call the people the Black Caribs to indicate that they were, in the opinion of the British, largely African in nature; and on the basis of those British sources anthropologists have looked back to this group for a prime example of what they call ethnogenesis – the creation of a ‘new people’, a genuinely ethnic hybrid supposedly resulting from the encounter between two previously quite separate peoples, in this case Native Caribbean and African. I’ve always been suspicious about these sources – most of the British writers were deeply implicated in the campaign to extirpate the indigenous population and are hardly reliable witnesses; so I was interested a few years ago to find a new French source which offered a very different picture of the Caribs at this time. In 1795, at the beginning of the war on St Vincent, the French Commissioner in Guadeloupe sent a young French soldier to liaise with the Vincentian Caribs. This soldier, Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès, lived in a Carib village on St Vincent for about three months. At this time fighting had almost ground to a halt as both British and French armies, with soldiers dying in their thousands from yellow fever, waited for reinforcements. Moreau – just eighteen years old – revelled in what he saw as a tropical paradise, fascinated in equal degree by the social life of the Caribs, by the startling vegetation around him, and by the beauty of the chief’s daughter, Eliama, also eighteen. In his memoirs he says that this Carib village has always stayed in his memory as the place where he spent the happiest moments of his life. Several years later, in 1809, Moreau was captured by the British in Martinique and spent four years in a prison ship in Portsmouth where he completed his education and wrote about his war-time experiences, although these memoirs weren’t published until much later. The kind of new evidence that Moreau’s memoirs provide about the Caribs has to do with indigenous agricultural practices, with social and political organisation (especially the prominent rôle of women in military affairs), with Carib integration into the larger Caribbean economy of the time, and most dramatically with ethnicity – since Moreau saw the island as dominated by Yellow, that is indigenous and non-Africanised Caribs, a group that British sources describe as having virtually disappeared by this time. So my primary interest is in assessing Moreau’s value as a proto-ethnographer, as a traveller who provided unusual and invaluable evidence about a non-European society with which he had intimate contact. Moreau himself is keen to stress that his description of Carib lifeways is based on what he calls "eyewitness observation and evidence". "Fighting with these natives and for them," he writes, "and living in the same carbet, sharing opinions, interest, and affection, I got to know them, and I could determine, through the exploratory procedures of the modern sciences, the curious elements of their social condition and the highly controversial problem of the goodness of their hearts." Very much an Enlightenment project in the footsteps of Rousseau.

Since Moreau is a forgotten figure, even in France, let me just say a few words about his life and career. He left school in Rennes to go to Paris to serve the Revolution. He was actively involved in many of the key political and military events of the next twenty years: he fought against the Breton resistance; he took part in both French invasions of Ireland; and he was a spy at The Nore during the great British naval mutiny, actually witnessing Samuel Parker’s execution. In the Caribbean he served as a gunner and military commander; but he was also forced by circumstance to act as an engineer, a surveyor, a lawyer, and a doctor. He worked under cover on Martinique during the British occupation and took part in the French attack on Dominica in 1805. He crossed the Atlantic on ten occasions during the Anglo-French wars, the last time in 1809 on his way to that prison ship in Portsmouth. He returned to France aged 35, after spending a remarkable 22 years as a soldier. However, during that time he had also taught himself geography, botany and mineralogy. Back in France Moreau wrote extensively about yellow fever and cholera and about deforestation in Europe. He wrote the first statistical study of the slave trade, published statistical analyses of Britain and Spain, and was appointed to head the new French Bureau of Statistics in 1833. He became a member of the French Academy and died as the grand old man of French social science in 1870, at the age of 92.

Moreau is in some obvious ways a figure of the late Enlightenment. However, what’s gradually become apparent to me is that he belongs to a very particular generation, which came of age very rapidly during that tumultuous decade of the 1790s. From the ethnographic perspective, the key member of this generation was Joseph-Marie Degérando who in 1799 wrote a treatise under the auspices of the new Société des Observateurs de l’Homme about how to observe savage peoples, a treatise directed at the scientists on the expedition organised by Nicolas Baudin and just about to sail for New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land. At the last minute that expedition was joined by the self-styled anthropologist, François Péron, who later wrote its official account, ignoring entirely the role of Baudin, who had died during the expedition. In recent years Péron’s stock has fallen as Baudin’s has risen, partly through the publication of Baudin’s journal and some of his letters, and through the interest taken in him by Australian historians. Moreau’s direct links with his contemporaries came later: born in 1778, he was a crucial few years younger than Degérando and Péron, and his military duties kept him away from French intellectual life until after the Restoration. He then certainly got to know Labillardière, who had been in Australia with D’Entrecasteaux; and he also almost certainly encountered Degérando since both became important state functionaries.

So: in this talk I want to raise some general issues about the history of anthropology, in particular the relationship between ethnography and travel writing. I’ll do that against this background of connections between the Caribbean and Australia, with particular reference to these four interrelated figures – Moreau, Degérando, Péron, and Baudin.

 

*

There’s been some interest from historians of anthropology in the papers of that short-lived Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. This Society – which had as its members most of France’s leading scientists – was committed to putting into practice Enlightenment ideals of objective observation of natural and cultural phenomena, including the ‘savage’ peoples of America and the Pacific. It can be seen most concisely as a response to Rousseau’s call, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, for observers of the calibre of Montesquieu, Buffon, and Diderot to travel to the far-flung parts of the earth in order to enrich our knowledge of human societies. Predictably, it was mostly a younger generation that answered this call.

The Société des Observateurs de l’Homme came into existence just at the right moment to support and advise that seventh French expedition to the Pacific. Nicolas Baudin, a self-taught naturalist, member of the Society and proposer of the expedition, had been in Australian waters before, but in the service of Joseph II of Austria. For complicated reasons, Baudin had had to deposit these plants in Trinidad but, by the time he went back for them in 1796, now in the service of France, Trinidad was in the hands of the British who refused him permission to land. Undaunted, Baudin set off up the Caribbean islands and spent three months in Puerto Rico collecting a vast supply of West Indian flora which he took back to France in triumph in July 1798, his collection of banana trees forming a coda to Napoleon’s triumphal display of treasures looted from Rome as it paraded through the streets of Paris.

When the pamphlet that Degérando wrote for Baudin’s expedition, "A Consideration of the Different Methods to be Followed in the Observation of Savage Peoples", was rediscovered in the 1960s, it was hailed as the first modern outline of what came only more than 100 years later to be known as the method of participant observation usually first associated with the practice of Malinowski in the 1920s. Degérando’s call, in line with Rousseau’s, was for a voyageur philosophe. The moment seemed ripe. The terms ‘anthropology’ and ‘ethnography’ were just creeping into use, the new Revolutionary Institut National had replaced the old French academies and was encouraging new interdisciplinary work in what it called the moral and political sciences. With dramatic timing a young student, François Péron, wrote a passionate and successful appeal to join Baudin’s expedition in which he coined the word anthropologiste. In a parallel universe Péron no doubt put Degérando’s principles into practice and anthropology was founded as a discipline in 1803 with a detailed study of aboriginal Tasmanian culture. In our universe it didn’t happen that way, for two main reasons. By the time the expedition returned, the intellectual climate in France had changed dramatically as a result of Napoleon’s coup d’état: the observation of savage peoples was no longer an intellectual priority. But in any case, Péron’s limited scientific accomplishments did not include patient interaction with indigenous people, so his accounts of Tasmanian culture are disappointingly superficial, mostly restricted to proving that savage races are weak and treacherous.

Péron did in two senses triumph, by being one of only five of the thirty-two strong scientific party to return to France with the expedition, and through his actual interests being in tune with the form of anthropological science which did go on to dominate the nineteenth century. In fact, although less well-known than Degérando’s treatise, a second pamphlet had been produced to advise Baudin’s expedition, this one by Georges Cuvier, who was actually Péron’s teacher and chief supporter. Cuvier’s advice was geared towards how to get hold of skeletal material by visiting burial grounds or taking part in military campaigns, and how to preserve it on the voyage home.

 

Only in very recent years have historians had access to Baudin’s journal and letters which, despite – or perhaps because of – his absence of anthropological or philosophical claim, actually provide some valuable descriptions of his encounters with native Tasmanians. Just one example: Degérando had faulted earlier travellers for having "inferred too lightly from the circumstances of their reception, conclusions about the absolute and ordinary character of the men among whom they have penetrated. They have failed to consider sufficiently that their presence was bound to be a natural source of fear, defiance, and reserve." Noting the Tasmanians’ "restless" glance, Baudin writes that it was "perhaps the result of the distrust that men so different from themselves must have aroused in them". "Perhaps", along with "appeared", "possibly", and "seemed" are words that Baudin makes frequent use of, all the while deferring to the ‘expert’ knowledge of the scientists like Péron, whom he clearly distrusted.

French contacts with Australian aborigines were not always without violence. But there was perhaps something special about this post-Revolutionary moment. Degérando wrote in idealistic terms of "our brothers at the extremities of the earth", and actually discussed how violence might be avoided. Baudin describes amicable picnics in Tasmania, and keeps reminding his crew and passengers that they are forbidden from committing any act of hostility towards the natives. Almost uniquely in the history of early Australian exploration, no native was injured or killed by any member of Baudin’s expedition.

*

The relationship between participation and observation has always, explicitly or implicitly, been both central to anthropology’s self-definition and a problematic aspect of the discipline’s unique methodology. Degérando’s key recommendation goes to the heart of this matter: "The first means to the proper knowledge of the Savages," he wrote, "is to become after a fashion like one of them; and it is by learning their language that we shall become their fellow citizens". "Fellow citizen" strikes a robustly republican note: ethnographer fully adopted as savage brother. But his sentence also steps back from that view of the relationship: the ethnographer is to become "like one of them", and even "after a fashion like one of them": there is one step towards full participation and two steps back. As indeed there must be if the ethnographer is to retain the distance necessary to observe and eventually to leave. Within that notion of the fellow citizen lurk the twin dangers of going native and of deceiving one’s hosts as to one’s ultimate intentions: Typee is the classic Pacific account of both these dangers.

There are many ways of discussing the relationship between participation and observation, some of them deeply philosophical; but the question can also be approached in physical terms – where is the ethnographer positioned? Malinowski famously encouraged a move from verandah to village precisely to allow more participation, although he often ended up in a tent – in the village but not of it. On a voyage of exploration such as Baudin’s, participation couldn’t even be attempted, as Péron points out: they were never in one place long enough to learn even the rudiments of the native language. Moreau, the soldier in St Vincent, did spend three months with the Caribs, lodged in the house of the chief’s daughter with whom he may have had a romantic interlude – possibly arranged by the Caribs to ensure his loyalty to the cause, but also a firm basis for at least certain kinds of participation.

Rousseau had contrasted his ideal of the voyageur philosophe with earlier kinds of unsatisfactory travellers – sailors, merchants, soldiers, and missionaries – who have remained the ‘others’ for many modern anthropologists. Rousseau’s points are that you can’t expect mere soldiers and sailors to be good observers, and that these earlier travellers had other purposes in mind, so that any observations they might make would only be secondary. However sound these points might be as generalisations about ethnographic observation, counter-arguments are available. Because they weren’t trained observers, these travellers were always likely to disappoint those European scientists and philosophers who at least since the foundation of the Royal Society had been framing questionnaires and instructions for travellers. But at least some soldiers and sailors have been skilled observers of various phenomena, not least because their lives often depend on accurate observation, and their two great advantages over natural scientists when it came to observing human behaviour might be that they would be less surprised that the objects of their observation might respond to being observed, and that they would be more interested in description than speculation.

Both Moreau and Baudin belong to the empirical and practical wing of European natural history. Baudin in particular constantly stresses his practical skills over and against the impractical theorising of those around him, especially Péron; and Baudin’s closest allies on the Australian expedition, who had also been with him in the Caribbean, were a gardener and a taxidermist. There’s a class dimension to this too: Baudin thought that the scientists looked down on those who did the hard work. There would be appropriate comparisons to be made between Baudin and Cook in a number of these areas.

I want to end with two paradoxes, which favour the (amateur) traveller over not just the natural scientist as human observer but even the later (professional) ethnographer. In response to Rousseau’s second point about travellers’ descriptions being secondary to their main purpose, it could be suggested that, paradoxically, it’s often possible to observe more if one’s primary purpose is not to observe. Participant-observation as an anthropological ideal reifies the notion of participation, but leaves unclear the nature of the actual participation unless the participant’s rôle is precisely as an observer – a rôle which tends to call forth a particular set of responses from those being observed. I wouldn’t want to erect a general principle here, but it’s striking that some of the most valuably detailed accounts of non-European societies come from what might be called ‘accidental’ observers, those present in a particular place because of the contingencies of war or shipwreck or mutiny: Cabeza de Vaca in North America, Hans Staden in Brazil, Robert Byron in Patagonia, James Morrisson in Tahiti, to which I’d want to add Moreau de Jonnès in St Vincent. As a trusted military ally, Moreau was, after all, much more likely to be allowed to observe what was concealed from other visitors.

There are national dimensions to what I’ve been discussing. The evidence of French travellers to what became the British Caribbean and to Australia have generally been neglected. But national difference is significant in another way too. In the Caribbean the French have equally as lamentable a record as the British: they brutally massacred many thousands of Caribs especially during the seventeenth century. But at the same time the French developed the commercial tradition of the coureurs des îles, which brought some of them into closer contact with the Caribs: the coureurs would often dress as Carib, have Carib wives, speak Carib. As a result French contact with Caribs tended to be more prolonged and intimate than British contact, and even led to the creation of transculturated families who could pass as French or Carib as occasion demanded.

The notion of transculturation leads me to the second paradox. Moreau joined a community on a war footing which had had 300 years of contact with Europeans. He offers a snapshot of a community which was, at it turned out, about to become completely transformed. What he describes cannot be extrapolated towards any general truths about the Vincentian Caribs during the course of the eighteenth century. For a long time this implicit nominalism was seen from an anthropological perspective as a sign of a traveller’s weakness – the deeper, more structural aspects of a society were inevitably overlooked in such a snapshot: even Degérando’s impressive ethnographic handbook tended to assume that there was a single savage nature to be observed with care. Transculturation may have been fairly obvious in St Vincent by the 1790s, but Baudin was alert to its presence even in Tasmania in 1802, where sealers and kangaroo hunters had already visited and had already therefore begun to alter the dynamics of intercultural relationships. Now that those forces of transculturation, powered by historical change, have been given greater recognition in ethnohistorical work, it’s time for the stock of the snapshot to rise: what might once have been seen as Moreau’s and Baudin’s limitations as non-specialist describers of indigenous communities at crucial moments of their contact with Europe can be recognised as their particular strengths, strengths that are deeply rooted in the turbulent revolutionary years of late Enlightenment thought.

Back to Research Interests or to Peter Hulme's home page