On ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’ in Johann Reinhold Forster’s Observations Made during a Voyage round the World (1778)
Marja van Tilburg
University of Groningen
Johann Reinhold Forster and his son George served as botanists on Captain Cook’s second voyage around the world (1772-1775). The journey took them along the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, to the Pacific – the expedition’s destination. Only after crossing the South Pacific twice, the ships sailed home via Street Magellan. Back in London, Forster sr. wrote a detailed account of the peoples and places visited in order to share his experience with the scientific community and the public at large.1 He tried to report in a systematic way: He described each people following a specific format – to allow for comparisons. He prioritized each people’s abilities to provide for its basic needs as clothing and housing. Besides, he reported its level of organization. He remarked on their general disposition. And last but not least, he graded each people’s level of civilization.2 He situated the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego squarely at the bottom of this scale. The peoples of the western and the southernmost Pacific islands were placed in the bottom half of the scale. Those of the eastern-Pacific islands belonged in the upper half.3 Of course, he would have placed Europeans on top – if only he had drawn them into the analysis.
Obviously, in the eighteenth century it was as difficult to interpret ‘other’ peoples as it would be nowadays – let alone drawing comparisons between South American Indians, Solomon Islanders, and Tahitians. The self-imposed task of grading all peoples on one scale, further complicated matters. In the text several different standards of civilization come to the fore – drawn from various intellectual and cultural sources.4 Some reflect current scientific theory – following Montesquieu’s and Buffon’s theories on climate and cultural diversity.5 Others refer to debates in Enlightenment circles – as women’s place in society. Nevertheless, the author succeeded to present coherent descriptions – mainly by using references to long-standing notions of civilization and its counterpart in European thought, savagery.6 At heart, this long-standing dichotomy centers on living a life of material comfort in a well-ordered society on the one hand, and destitution and autarchy on the other.7
Probably, Forster was aware of the inconsistencies in his evaluations: Besides ordering his “observations” along a scale of civilization he also ordered these by distinguishing three categories of peoples: the civilized, the savage and the barbarous.8 Furthermore, he composed a distinct type of description for the barbarous peoples. Whereas the evaluations of the civilized and the savage follow the above format, those on the barbarous prioritize bodies – suggesting a more ‘naturalist’ approach.9 More importantly, he uses the body in a rather extensive way: Describing bodily appearances he creates connections to specific cultural customs rather than to more abstract notions of civilization – perhaps indicative of racialization.10 And drawing from the physique he develops arguments for cultural change – probably because as a scientist he has authority in the field.11 These diverging presentations of peoples warrant further analysis.12
As a consequence, this analysis parts ways with recent research on Forster’s interpretations of Pacific Islanders. This has prioritized the explorer’s ways of creating difference between eastern- and western-Pacific peoples. The anthropologist Nicholas Thomas has shown Forster’s distinction to provide the basis for the nineteenth-century constructs of ‘Polynesia’ and ‘Melanesia’.13 Several other scholars have focused on his use of gender to distinguish ‘civilized’ Polynesians from ‘savage’ Melanesians.14 According to this research, this distinction carried no racial connotations: He offered descriptions of each Pacific people – as a botanist characterizing each variety of a species.15 His intention was to draw comparisons – in order to assess the influence of the natural environment on peoples, on their cultures.16 Also, establishing essentialist characteristics would have been against his convictions as a monogenist.17 To Forster, the word ‘race’ had no specific meaning: The term remained – to cite the historian Bronwen Douglas – “ill-defined” and elicited “ambiguous practices”. 18
This paper is to point out how Forster composed his pictures of civilized and savage peoples – using respectively the Tahitians and Fuegians as examples. It will compare these descriptions to those of barbarous peoples – in particular those of New Zealand and the New Hebrides. The discussion focuses on the use of bodies: what is the explorer reporting, and to what purpose?19 The analysis includes descriptions of women – to allow for comparisons between the results of this effort and the above research. Hopefully, the paper is to point out different ways of representing ‘other’ peoples. And perhaps also, make apparent why Forster created a distinct category for the barbarous peoples, besides those of the civilized and the savage ones.
The ends of the scale
As already conveyed, the Observations offers a tableau of peoples arranged along a scale of civilization.20 The author assesses civilization on material comfort and social organization. The ‘data’ regarding the comfort of life are gathered by looking at bodies: at their proportions, health and up-keep. The eye is to focus on “food, habitation, and dress, as means conducive to its support”; together these constitute “the principles of PHYSICAL HAPPINESS”.21 Often, the information on other topics such as social structure is also inferred from bodies: from the combination of appearance and behaviour. In sum, the systematic description of each people draws to a relatively large extent on bodies.
Assessing the Tahitians the explorer notices well-proportioned, able-bodied men. His presentation stresses the physical strength and athletic disposition of the males. Also, he mentions the pleasing appearance of the women. Here, he creates an analogy to the Venus of Medicis.22 These bodies must obviously be well-kept: Forster points out the abundant fauna, the numerous plantations, the various crops, the variety of textiles, et cetera – all testify to the Tahitians knowledge and ingenuity to make use of their natural resources. These are, of course, sure signs of civilization.
Evaluating Tahitian culture the explorer infers crucial information from the Tahitians’ physique: An example can be found in the introductory section II. Here, he observes the variety of physical appearances among the islanders. Next, he distinguishes between two types of bodies. He assumes these types to indicate distinct social groups:
The common people are most expose to air and sun; they do all kinds of dirty work; they exert their strength in agriculture, fishing, paddling, building of houses and canoes; and lastly, they are stinted in their food.23
In this passage, the author draws from the commoners’ physique: He connects their darker complexion to their function. The paragraph as a whole suggests Forster projects a feudal society with three classes, and each class having its specific function in society. Probably, he has elaborated this facet of Tahitian society in order to further corroborate his assessment of the Tahitians – a feudal order with a clear division of tasks and responsibilities is indicative of civilization.
Discussing the third and last topic – the people’s general disposition –, Forster draws from the natives’ behavior. Only two “observations” are inferred from the physique: the Tahitians’ tendency to indolence and to indulge in sensuous pleasures:
The great plenty of good and nourishing food, together with the fine climate, the beauty and unreserved behaviour of their females, invite them powerfully to the enjoyments and pleasures of love.24
Of course, these characteristics do not recommend the Tahitians to Forster. Given his condemning judgment, however, the description of this behavior is rather factual.
Thus, the “observations” regarding Tahitians’ bodies are ascertaining the level of civilization. Or rather, the comments elicit interpretations with reference to civilization. Of course, the discussion touches upon features which in later times came to be associated with ‘race’: the color of the skin, the quality of the hair, and the features of the face. These comments are made in a relatively factual fashion. Except for one: the depiction of the elite’s color:
The colour of their skin is less tawny than that of a Spaniard, and not so coppery as that of an American; it is of a lighter tint than the fairest complexion of an inhabitant of the East Indian islands; in a word, it is of a white, tinctured with a brownish yellow, however not so strongly mixed, but that on the cheek of the fairest of their women, you may easily distinguish a spreading blush.25
This passage shows references to white skins. In the first half, the elite‘s “tint” is named relatively “light”. In the second half, it is described as “of a white”. Here, the Tahitian elite’s skin is described as ‘almost white’, not once but twice, and in the very same sentence. Furthermore, the last phrase mentions Tahitian women’s capacity to blush – a reference to white people’s skin. Here, the Tahitian elite’s skin is likened to white people’s skin. These stylistic devices create the impression the Tahitians are comparable to Europeans. The comparison centers on white skin, or rather the association of white skin to civilization.
In comparison to the presentation of Tahitians, Forster’s discussion of the savage Fuegians is very short. The writing shows a similar use of bodies: the explorer focuses on bodies and notices signs of destitution. The Fuegians’ bodies are short, meager and hardly covered by clothes. From this appearance is inferred this people can hardly provide for its basic necessities.26
On the whole Forster’s does not like what he sees during his short stay at Tierra del Fuego. This feeling comes to the fore in his assessment of the Fuegians’ disposition:
All have a countenance announcing nothing but their wretchedness. […]
Human nature appears no where in so debased and wretched a condition, as with these miserable, forlorn, and stupid creatures.27
This passage shows rhetorical devices, especially that of exaggeration. It should be noted that Forster refers in particular to the Fuegians’ attitude to ascertain the Fuegians are savages.
Of course, he touches upon bodily features which are relevant to the concept of ‘race’:
We found them to be a short, squat race, with large heads; their colour yellowish brown; the features harsh, the face broad, the cheek-bones high and prominent, the nose flat, the nostrils and mouth large, and the whole countenance without meaning.28
This picture is not flattering. But the phrasing is relatively factual – in particular in comparison with the depiction of the peoples of the New Hebrides.
From the above discussion may be inferred that Forster offers many “observations” regarding these peoples’ physique. He discusses these in order to ascertain his assessments. In the evaluations he establishes connections between bodies and cultural characteristics. He interprets both bodies and cultural characteristics with reference to either ‘civilization’ or ‘savagery’ – as in his discussion of the Tahitians’ comparable white skins. This facet makes Forster stop short of composing connections between physical features and specific peoples or groups of peoples. Perhaps it may be said that these two long-established concepts ‘prevent’ Forster from establishing these connections between bodies and specific peoples or cultures. Forster proceeds in a different fashion in his discussion of barbarous peoples – as we shall see.
Forster offers “observations” on “the Condition of Women” among civilized or savage peoples to further ascertain his assessments.29 He limits the reporting to marriage and women’s “rank” – the relative status in marriage and society at large.30 He addresses the issue in the last section but one – among many other relevant topics. At that stage of the argument he tends to discuss ‘civilization’ and ‘savagery’ in general rather than with reference to specific peoples. As a consequence, the phrasing shows generalizations rather than factual accounts.
His sketch of matrimony among the civilized Tahitians has an implicit likeness to the European institution:
The husband and the wife of his bosom, whom love unites by the silken ties of matrimony, form the first society. The union is, in these happy regions, first founded on the call of nature, in mutual assistance, and the sweet hopes of seeing themselves reproduced in a numerous offspring.31
These two sentences cover the European perception of the institution: these present marriage as the basic unit of society – in the phrase “the husband and the wife […] form the first society”. Furthermore, they list the institution’s traditional functions – gratifying sexual desire, offering mutual assistance and taking care of off-spring. More importantly, the above passage goes beyond the traditional perception: by remarking that Tahitian marriage is “founded on the call of nature” the author refers to an Enlightenment perspective on matrimony. In this view a relationship between a man and a woman is brought about by sexual attraction – a natural law embedded in sexuality. Besides, the above passage touches upon another typical Enlightenment concern: marriage was to be a true partnership. This implied a more egalitarian rapport between the spouses. The traditional, patriarchal attitude was dismissed as tyrannical.32 Thus, Forster’s description presents Tahitian marriage as meeting traditional European standards as well as more contemporary standards.
Of course, with regard to matrimony among savage nations Forster paints a different picture:
In more degenerated nations, matrimonial union takes place from brutal appetite, is grounded upon the satisfaction of sensuality, the expectation of assistance from persons, whom oppression and custom has condemned to become drudges, and lastly the idea of gaining more strength and power from a numerous family of children.33
This passage presents the inversion of the European view of marriage: it does not gratify desire, offer mutual assistance, and look after progeny. More importantly, even this inversion centers on the rapport between the sexes: first, matrimony “takes place from brutal appetite” – a far cry from the Enlightenment’s perception of sublimated desire. Next, the mutual assistance between the spouses is lacking – there is no trace of the Enlightenment’s partnership within marriage. And last but not least: progeny is described with reference to assets – children are pawns in the competition for wealth and power rather than dependent individuals in need of parental care. Of course, this passage refers to the traditional perception of the savage as a loner. At the same time, it focuses on early-Enlightenment concerns regarding the marital relationship.
Discussing the second issue Foster proceeds in the same fashion. Reporting women’s “rank” among the Tahitians, Forster creates another analogy to European culture:
We find the women esteemed at O-Taheitee’ […]; they mix in all societies, and are allowed to converse freely with every body without restriction, which enables them to cultivate their minds, and acquire that polish, which afterwards contributes to improve the manners of young men;34
These lines picture women as participating in different social settings – as European women mingle in all sorts of companies. They converse with others and learn in the process – as European women use public gatherings.35 In sum, Tahitian women mingle in what can be called Tahitian ‘polite society’.
Women’s contributions are presented as crucial to the functioning of Tahitian society:
… for, as it is one of the chief points of female education […] to learn the great art to please, they are instructed in all the means of gaining the affection of the males […]. Their frequent songs, their dances, their incent laughter, and humorous mirth, all conspire to make the most lasting impressions upon the youth of the other sex, and to cement a union which is dissolves only by death.36
Of course, this can only improve women’s position within society, resulting in:
…a just and moderate influence on domestic and even public affairs.37
Forster reports women’s contributions to society. These are not merely appreciated by men. They are valued in important way – resulting in respect for women and influence of women.
Of course, Forster pictures the situation of women among savages as the opposite:
They treat their women in the most oppressive manner, like the most abject drudges, or slaves, and the parents and relations frequently sold to the strangers the favours of the females, even against their will; which circumstances certainly proceed from the injurious and overbearing notions entertained in regard to their women, whom de they do not think to be helpmates, but creatures intended for the satisfaction of brutish desires only, and destined to confirm them in ideleness and indolence.38
Clearly, savage men have no consideration with their wives and children. Moreover, the passage indicates the savage male’s thinks highly of himself – suggesting the male’s disregard for his wife resulting from a false sense of supremacy – a reference to the Enlightenment engagement with the hierarchal relations between the sexes.
In sum, reporting on “the Condition of Women” among the civilized and the savage peoples, Forster focuses very much on the rapport between the sexes. His discussion shows his concern with men’s treatment of women.
The middle ranks
As already indicated, the reports regarding the barbarous peoples elaborate the physique. The explorer makes use of bodies to ascertain his claim that barbarous peoples can be distinguished from civilized and savage ones. Depicting the New Hebrides’ peoples, he creates connections between bodies and specific customs. These passages suggest a process of racialization. Discussing the bodies of all barbarous peoples, he points out cultural change. These discussions seemingly offer scientific explanations for either decay or progress. To complicate matters further, with each people he points out different problems. As a consequence he proposes different solutions following various lines-of-reasoning. In all instances, however, his argumentation draws from the physical.
Presenting the peoples of New Zealand the explorer does not stray much from the beaten track. Describing these, he distinguishes between the people living at the southernmost part of the South Island, those inhabiting the northern part of the same island, and the ones on the North Island. The first group fares only slightly better than the savage Fuegians – as the explorer infers from their relatively low numbers, their meager food, scanty clothing and poor habitats. The second performs better: they are more numerous and their habitations are more solid. The people of the Northern Isle do the best of all: they “had better boats, and were clad in finer garments”.39 He explains these differences with reference to the early-modern approach to cultural diversity: This supposes difference to be brought about by migration and the consequent adaptation to new environments. Following this train-of-thought, Forster concludes the southernmost peoples are the most “debased” because they have migrated the longest distance.40
At first glance, Forster assesses the natives of New Zealand drawing on the same criteria of “physical happiness” as applied with regard to the Tahitians and the Fuegians. At closer inspection, the discussion offers more: the explorer elaborates the physique – allowing for speculative thoughts regarding cultural decay:
It seems therefore probable that savage nations in cold climates, contract a harshness or rigidity in their fibres and frame of body, which causes sluggishness, indolence and stupidity of mind; their hearts grow insensible to the dictates if virtue, honor and conscience, and they become incapable of any attachment, affection or endearment.41
In this passage Forster seemingly tries to improve upon the early-modern theory regarding cultural diversity: He explains the South Islanders’ process of degeneration by drawing on physiology. Decay is considered inevitable in the above-mentioned explanation of cultural diversity because adaptation to a new environment implies straying from ancestral ways. Here, the explorer offers a precise explanation of this process – more detailed as would have been possible within the early-modern approach to diversity.
Furthermore, he presents a similar connection between cultural decay and physiological change at the end of the same section:
…the rigours of the extremities of our globe, renders the fibres and whole frame of our bodies more harsh, rigid, and insensible, which undoubtedly operates upon the mind, and the heart, and almost totally destroys all social feelings;42
Once again, Forster connects cultural diversity among New Zealanders to physiological changes. Clearly, Forster elaborates the physique to develop a more precise explanation of the process of degeneration.
Presenting the peoples of the New Hebrides, Forster cuts out a different path: He elaborates these peoples’ appearances. Furthermore, he does not try to establish “physical happiness”; he eyes their ‘looks’. After mentioning the basic aspects – color, hair, length –, he continues with the bodily embellishments. Here, he makes notice of pierced earlobes, perforated noses, scarred skins, and bracelets which are put on “when young, and which therefore, can never after be removed in grown persons”.43 He points mentions the belly “constricted by a string to such a degree as no European could bear without the greatest inconvenience”.44 His depictions focus the attention of the readership on adornments indicating ‘other’ customs.
Moreover, the explorer uses stylistic devices in order to stress difference. He creates, for instance, analogies to animals: In the introduction of the Tannese their elaborate hairdo is likened to a “porcupine covered with prickly quills”.45 In a later passage this hairdo is compared to a “crows-quill”.46 In the introduction of the Mallicollese their sculls are described as “depressed backward”.47 In a later passage these are likened to those “of monkies”.48 Besides, he offers similes to raw materials: the tortoise-shells worn in pierced ear-lobes and the stone stick carried at the base of the pierced nose. It should be pointed out that this type of reference only shows in these descriptions. Furthermore, they are applied twice: they appear in the introductory sections as well as in the evaluative ones. This repetitive use underlines these peoples being different.
These passages offer one analogy to Europeans – comparable to the analogy between the Tahitian’ and the European’s skin color. This appears in a rather playful, rather long description of nihums. First, the author creates an analogy to humanity at large:
…in the western islands of the Pacific Ocean, where the climate makes dress not absolutely necessary, the nations covered only those parts of their body, which, by an almost general agreement, every nation on earth wishes to screen.49
After having put the peoples of the New Hebrides on a par with any other “nation”, Forster continues stressing difference:
…this part of their dress served only to make more conspicuous what it intended to hide;50
Here, Forster contrasts the appearance of most nations and that of the peoples of the western Pacific. Clearly, the contrast centers on motive. Instead of saying that western-Pacific peoples seek to draw the attention to their penises, however, he offers a second comparison:
…and this device seems to be invented with as little delicacy and judgment as the famous cod-piece, which a few centuries ago mad part of a man’s dress in Europe;51
Once again Forster suggests similarity – this time to Renaissance Europeans. Also, he continues stressing difference – this time from contemporary Europeans. More importantly: the comparison centers on a strange custom. Or rather on a custom which sets a specific people apart from “any other nation” as well as from contemporary Europeans.
In sum, composing the above presentations Forster goes beyond using bodies in order to establish civilization or savagery. The peoples of New Zealand offer an opportunity to improve upon existing explanations of cultural decay. Those of the New Hebrides incite the explorer to focus on bodily appearances and strange customs of specific peoples. At this point, the depiction of the western-Pacific Islanders may show congruity with nineteenth-century, essentialist description of ‘other’ races.52
In the discussion of barbarous peoples Forster offers “observations” regarding gender. These stand out because they go beyond the customary theme – the rapport between the sexes. Furthermore they elaborate on women’s and men’s physique – developing arguments regarding cultural change. This paragraph offers two examples: one with regard to women, the other to men.
The first example can be found in Forster’s discussion of the rapport between the sexes among the barbarous peoples, in section VI. Of course, this passage paints a gloomy picture of these women’s lives.53 At the same time, the text stresses women’s capabilities:
…this very oppression, and the more delicate frame of their bodies, together with the finer and more irritable texture of their nerves, have contributed more towards the improvement and perfection of their intellectual faculties than those of the males.54
In this passage Forster elaborates on women’s bodies to argue that the western-Pacific women are more sensitive and more intelligent than the western-Pacific men. Given time, this advantage may be of crucial importance:
This facilitates to them the various operations of their toilsome, laborious life, and often leads them to towards new improvements. […] cooler reflexion, gentleness, and every method for obtaining the approbation, and for winning the good-will of others […] must in time naturally contribute to soften that harshness of manners, which is become habitual in the barbarous race of men; all this may perhaps in time prepare them for the first dawning of civilization.55
This train-of-thought reflects Enlightenment thinking on women: it assumes specifically feminine capabilities.56 These enable women to make specific contributions to society. These achievements may in turn further a certain appreciation of women’s talents. More importantly, this line-of-reasoning goes beyond the concern with the rapport between the sexes: It centers on the occurrence of a specific feminine identity.
The second example can be found in the discussion of cannibalism, in section V. Firstly, Forster establishes this custom in the islands of New Zealand and the New Hebrides. 57 Next, he connects the habit to the ferocity of the indigenous men: In his train-of-thought it results from the aggressive attitude of the males. These are inclined to pick a fight and to let conflicts escalate:
…and the corses of the slain immediately serve to glut the inhuman appetites of the conquerors.58
Next, he identifies the cause of this behavior:
…inflamed by passion, they are impatient wreak their vengeance: wild fancy paints the injury so atrocious, that it must be washed in blood;59
Here, he identifies the male’s aggression as a “passion” – i.e. in early-modern as well as eighteen-century perceptions, as ‘innate’. In these perceptions, passions incite people to certain behavior. The passions have, therefore, a prominent place in natural law-thinking. More importantly, he interprets this type of masculine as a sign of these peoples’ level of civilization: whereas savages have no “other impulse for action, than want”, better-off people have passions and act upon them.60 Thus, the custom of cannibalism is proof of these peoples’ relative advanced stage. This conclusion leads Forster to suppose further advancement is possible, that “from the violent state of cannibalism, the New- Zealanders will soon arrive […] to a more settled and a more happy state”.61
Both examples testify to Forster’s engagement with progress. Both show arguments drawn from physiology, from science.
Forster writes his account of his voyage with Captain Cook in order to further knowledge regarding ‘other’ peoples. He presents his material in a rather systematic way: he organizes his “observations” following a certain format, discussing each people’s natural resources, its agriculture, material culture and social organization. Also, he grades each people’s level of civilization, using standards drawn from the contemporary sciences, current (Enlightenment) debates, or from long-standing notions regarding civilization or savagery. Even though his standards are diverse, he manages to arrange all peoples according to a scale of civilization. In the process he comes to distinguish three basic categories: the civilized, the barbarous and the savage.
Overall, Forster has no problem distinguishing the civilized or the savage: He looks first and foremost for the ways in which peoples provide for their basic human needs. He infers relevant information from the people’s physique: He ‘reads’ a well-fed and well-clothed body as a sign of civilization, and a destitute one as a sign of savagery. Throughout his account he shows appreciation for ingenuous use of natural resources: Obviously, both knowledge of natural recourses and technological skills to process these spell civilization.
The explorer shows concern with women’s situation in society: are women’s contributions to society appreciated? Are women allowed some influence within the family and within society at large? He considers the Tahitians’ égards for women on a par with European standards. He notices both the savage and the barbarous peoples abusing their womenfolk. In sum, his standard centers on the rapport between the sexes.
However, Forster shows less sense of direction in his reporting on the barbarous New Zealanders and the equally barbarous New Hebrides’ peoples. Here, he focuses even more closely on the physique. He paints especially the New Hebrides’ peoples as bodies: he presents their embellished bodies and suggests their ‘other’ customs. This connection of bodies and customs may be congruous with nineteenth-century, essentialist description of ‘other’ races.
Besides, he elaborates bodies to point out physiological process or natural laws:
In the case of New Zealand, he connects the cold climate of the South Island to harsh fibres of the southernmost natives. The harsh tissues are to explain these people’s lesser intelligence and sensitivity. Discussing the New Hebrides’ peoples, he creates a connection between women’s sorry state and their heightened awareness. He considers women’s heightened consciousness crucial to cultural advancement. Here, he suggests the possibility of material improvements or social progress.
From the above may be inferred that the explorer discusses the barbarous peoples differently. Furthermore, his attention goes to themes which may have been important to contemporary scientists and to Enlightenment philosophes. He prioritizes arguments drawn from his profession as a scientist. On the whole, he is never more creative than in his writings on the peoples of the middle ranks.
Probably, Forster had good reason to create three categories of peoples rather than two: Discussing the barbarous peoples he could elaborate arguments regarding cultural advancement. Arguing for a better future he could develop an optimist approach to this group of Pacific peoples.