Strangers in the South Seas: The Idea of the Pacific in Western Thought

Paperback: $29.00
ISBN-13: 9780824830427
Published: April 2006

Additional Information

448 pages | 32 illus.
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  • About the Book
  • Long before Magellan entered the Pacific in 1521 Westerners entertained ideas of undiscovered oceans, mighty continents, and paradisal islands at the far ends of the earth. First set down by Egyptian storytellers, Greek philosophers, and Latin poets, such ideas would have a long life and a deep impact in both the Pacific and the West. With the discovery of Tahiti in 1767 another powerful myth was added to this collection: the noble savage. For the first time Westerners were confronted by a people who seemed happier than themselves. This revolution in the human sciences was accompanied by one in the natural sciences as the region revealed gaps and anomalies in the “great chain of being” that Charles Darwin would begin to address after his momentous visit to the Galapagos Islands.

    The Pacific produced similar challenges for nineteenth-century researchers on race and culture, and for those intent on exporting their religions to this immense quarter of the globe. Although most missionary efforts ultimately met with success, others ended in ignominious retreat. As the century wore on, the region presented opportunities and dilemmas for the imperial powers, leading to a guilty desire on the part of some to pull out, along with an equally guilty desire on the part of others to stay and help. This process was accelerated by the Pacific War between 1941 and 1945. After more than two millennia of fantasies, the story of the West’s fascination with the insular Pacific graduated to a marked sense of disillusion that is equally visible in the paintings of Gauguin and the journalism of the nuclear Pacific.

    Strangers in the South Seas recounts and illustrates this story using a wealth of primary texts. It includes generous excerpts from the work of explorers, soldiers, naturalists, anthropologists, artists, and writers–some famous, some obscure. It begins in 1521 with an account of Guam by Antonio Pigafetta (one of the few men to survive Magellan's circumnavigation voyage), and ends in the late 1980s with the writing of an American woman, Joana McIntyre Varawa, as she faces the personal and cultural insecurities of marriage and settlement in Fiji. It shows how “the Great South Sea” has been an irreplaceable “distant mirror” of the West and its intellectual obsessions since the Renaissance. Comprehensively illustrated and annotated, this anthology will introduce readers to a region central to the development of modern Western ideas.

    “This is a carefully conceived anthology covering an excellent range of subjects. The selections are well chosen and interesting, and the introductory materials are both scholarly and accessible. It should be widely used in university courses dealing with almost any aspect of the Pacific.” —Rod Edmond, University of Kent at Canterbury

  • About the Author(s)
    • Richard Lansdown, Editor