Encountering agency: Islanders, European voyagers, and the production of race in Oceania

Bronwen Douglas*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)


    This chapter combines an ethnohistory of encounters between Pacific Islanders and European voyagers with the history of the unstable idea of "race" by correlating voyagers' racial terminology with their experience of particular indigenous people. I take seriously local initiatives, actions, and demeanors - condensed as agency-as refracted through varied genres, modes, or media of travelers' representations. I interpret encounters situationally, not as a general clash of reified cultures but as ambiguous intersections of multiple indigenous and foreign agencies that were usually at cross-purposes but not necessarily opposed. Theoretically, this approach postulates an oblique liaison between indigenous actions and their representation by foreign observers - between referents and signifiers.1 Such representations should be read not merely as involuntary expressions of dominant metropolitan discourses and conventions but also as personal productions generated in the flux, excitement, stress, and ambiguity of encounters. The demeanor or lifestyle of particular indigenous people attracted, intimidated, or repelled observers, affected their perceptions, challenged or confirmed their predispositions, and left distorted countersigns in what they wrote and drew.2 Indigenous countersigns often permeate voyagers' representations but are never transparent, given European ignorance and ethnocentric processes of perception and enunciation. They can be identified through systematic critical comparison of different media, genres, and modes of representation and the language and tone of their utterance.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationChanging Contexts, Shifting Meanings
    Subtitle of host publicationTransformations of Cultural Traditions in Oceania
    PublisherUniversity of Hawai’i Press
    Number of pages19
    ISBN (Print)9780824833664
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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