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Slippery Word, Ambiguous Praxis: 'Race' and Late-18th-Century Voyagers in Oceania

Bronwen Douglas
The Journal of Pacific History
Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jun., 2006), pp. 1-29
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40347362
Page Count: 29
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Slippery Word, Ambiguous Praxis: 'Race' and Late-18th-Century Voyagers in Oceania
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Abstract

This paper traces the presence, absence, and shifting connotations of the term 'race' and the idea of human classification in representations of indigenous Oceanian people by navigators, naturalists and artists on 18th-century British and French voyages. These ambiguous usages signified hardening European attitudes to human difference, as the holistic, 'environmentalist' explanations of the natural history of man lost ground to the differentiating physicalism of the new sciences of biology and physical anthropology. However, by correlating the generation of ideas with particular embodied encounters, I question the presumption that voyagers' representations of indigenous people were entirely determined by preconceptions derived from received knowledge and prevailing discourses. I suggest instead that indigenous behaviour and demeanour left latent countersigns in the language, tone and content of such travel literature and art — on which the emergent metropolitan science of man drew heavily to justify its deductions.

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