Why did the so-called "Cannibal Isles" of the Western Pacific fascinate Europeans for so long? Spanning three centuries—from Captain James Cook's death on a Hawaiian beach in 1779 to the end of World War II in 1945—this book considers the category of "the savage" in the context of British Empire in the Western Pacific, reassessing the conduct of Islanders and the English-speaking strangers who encountered them. Sensationalized depictions of Melanesian "savages" as cannibals and headhunters created a unifying sense of Britishness during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These exotic people inhabited the edges of empire—and precisely because they did, Britons who never had and never would leave the home islands could imagine their nation's imperial reach.
George Behlmer argues that Britain's early visitors to the Pacific—mainly cartographers and missionaries—wielded the notion of savagery to justify their own interests. But savage talk was not simply a way to objectify and marginalize native populations: it would later serve also to emphasize the fragility of indigenous cultures. Behlmer by turns considers cannibalism, headhunting, missionary activity, the labor trade, and Westerners' preoccupation with the perceived "primitiveness" of indigenous cultures, arguing that British representations of savagery were not merely straightforward expressions of colonial power, but also belied home-grown fears of social disorder.
About the author
George K. Behlmer is Professor of History at the University of Washington.
"George Behlmer has produced a formidable work of scholarship, drawing on a daunting array of sources and a career's worth of writing on British social and intellectual history. In sparkling, seamless prose, Risky Shores offers fresh insights into the cultural encounters between the British and the Melanesians, and the layered meanings these encounters accrued in the British, and more broadly Western, imagination."
—Dane Kennedy, George Washington University
"Risky Shores is a wonderful book: beautifully researched, compellingly written, and vitally important to debates about race relations and agency in the Pacific world. Focusing on southwestern Melanesia, Behlmer analyzes a dazzling array of primary source material, enhancing more conventional explorers' journals and missionary reports with his impressive command of ballads, artwork, films, sideshow acts, and literature. The result is an intellectual feast."
—Jane Samson, University of Alberta