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Introduction From the Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World

Introduction From the Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Apr 04, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 When I began researching this book I believed that rst contacts between Euro- pean explorers and Aboriginal people were momentous encounters, unutterablychanging the lives o those involved. I agreed then with Henry Reynolds who hasrecently exclaimed o the ‘extraordinary encounters’ in asmania that ‘Nothing  would ever be the same again.
My initial intention was to expound the politicalramications o rst contact, and suggest how these encounters could illuminatecomplex discourses on race relations, imperialism and colonization. I plannedto explain how these encounters ofered insights into the historical trajectorythat ollowed. In my desire to construct a vivid history I was mindul o contactnarratives which relate dramatic scenes o mayhem and bloodshed or else depictthe diplomacy o two cultures coming together. Over the course o my research,however, my thinking changed. What crystallized the thinking behind this project was a particular inci-dent concerning James Cook. Cook has been both idealized and vilied or hisimpact on Antipodean history, be it through his incredible navigational discov-eries or as a rapacious harbinger o colonization.
But I had a diferent Cook inmind. Upon his very rst opportunity to make landall in New Holland andmeet the Aboriginal people o Botany Bay, hitherto unseen by European eyes, hedecided to deer this epochal moment in Australian history, preerring insteadto wait until ‘[a]er dinner’. Perhaps, his nonchalance emulated the indiferencethat Aboriginal people had displayed at the Europeans’ arrival in the bay, orthey ‘scarce[ly] lied their eyes rom their employment’ as the
Neither the Europeans’ nor Aboriginal people’s actions suggest that theybelieved their worlds would never be the same again.In act, many o the European explorers’ exchanges with Aboriginal peoplecould be construed as mundane, concerning practical matters such as the searchor a sae landing spot and water, or else eliciting seemingly trivial ethnographicinormation such as the Aboriginal word or ‘breaking wind’.
Tis is not to saythat there were no dramatic encounters between explorers and Aboriginal peo- ple, or there were certainly meetings which led to violence and tragic deaths,or provided new insights into the nature o indigenous lie. Such encounters
Te Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World 
contributed to Enlightenment theories about mankind, human variation andthe nature o so-called savage society. Tere were also undoubtedly momentso mutual understanding and comprehension between Aboriginal people andEuropean explorers, as well as moments where they expressed eelings o wonder,bemusement and scorn towards one another. Yet, the vast majority o the explor-ers’ accounts o Aboriginal people prosaically describe what they looked like andhow they lived. Europeans documented what Aboriginal people ate, where theyslept, what kinds o manuactures they made and even, as the curious-minded William Anderson and Jacques-Felix-Emmanuel Hamelin both documented,how indigenous men stood while relieving themselves.
Tese descriptions o ordinary activities tend to be le out o the histories, inavour o accounts which reect broader political concerns, such as Aboriginalland tenure, diplomatic protocols and rituals, and gender relations.
But suchaccounts are pregnant with signicance and reward detailed study. Exploreraccounts o the mundane and quotidian challenge teleological histories becausethey illustrate that rst encounters were not between imperial invaders andindigenous victims in waiting, with both enacting preordained roles. Instead,these meetings, oen tense, sometimes perplexing, and occasionally convivial, were between men, with their vulnerabilities, egotism and aggressive propensi-ties. Tis is because during the eighteenth century women were usually le athome, be that a European dwelling or an Aboriginal shelter out o the explor-ers’ sight. Moreover, they were meetings between men with more immediateconcerns than empire, such as the need or sustenance, and anxieties over howto saeguard themselves rom harm. Neither the European nor Aboriginal menconsistently held the upper hand in these exchanges, as both were ultimatelyheld hostage to the needs o their bodies and their ailure to ully comprehendthe motives and intentions o the other. At the same time, it was the mutuallyrecognized railties and pleasures o the body, and the curiosity kindled by theirencounters, which enabled European and Aboriginal men brie moments o connection. Tese included miming acts o bodily elimination, laughing at theother’s lack o body hair, physical strength, agility, or apparent sexual vigour, andtouching, scrutinizing, grooming and adorning one another’s bodies.Hence, rst contacts can be read as embodied encounters, as the body wascrucial in acilitating rst exchanges between Aboriginal and European people.Indeed the term contact means ‘to touch’, and it was through using their bodiesas a medium o communication that the Europeans engaged with Aboriginal people and attempted to learn more o their physiology and mores. Further, todifering degrees, the explorers were also inuenced by various aspects o Enlight-enment thought, including the prolieration o scientic and anthropologicaldiscourses on the body.
New empirical sciences such as anatomy enabled closerand seemingly more sophisticated scrutiny o the human body, and recent tax-
onomies created ostensibly objective ways o cataloguing and ordering bodies.
 Further, new institutions and media were also developed to regulate and dis-seminate how corporeal appetites should be controlled and disciplined.
Finally,and most signicantly, Enlightenment ideas about the state o nature provokedintense speculation on the corporeal superiority o the savage man compared tothe civilized man, as well as sympathetic and relativist deences o indigenous peoples in the wake o European imperialism and slavery.
Te Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World
Tis book also investigates how Australian Aboriginal men, through theirencounters with eighteenth-century explorers, were brought within the ambito the Enlightenment world. My ocus on European representations o theAboriginal male is not only a consequence o most eighteenth-century cross-cultural encounters being between men. It is also because European perceptionsand representations o Aboriginal people were mediated by the explorers’ mas-culine preoccupations. Te explorers’ accounts are imbued with competitivedistinctions between the Aboriginal men and their ideal selves, that is, civi-lized, chivalrous and physically superior. In the evaluations o Aboriginal men’s physical appearance, capabilities and comportment there is an unspoken, andat times overt, comparison with the Europeans’ own looks, intelligence, civilityand talents. Even the explorers’ brie interactions with Aboriginal women werereracted through the presumptions o the brutal gender inequalities o ‘savagesocieties’ and their own superior sense o chivalry, sexual allure, and sel-control.However, in an era still inuenced by Rousseau’s idealization o natural manand Diderot’s critique o sexual repression and social inequality, not all accounts portrayed Aboriginal men as inerior. Antoine-Raymond-Joseph Brunyd’Entrecasteaux, or example, observed Aboriginal athers in Van Diemen’sLand gently chastise their children, and declared that ‘primordial natural afec-tion [was] alive in them in all its purity and intensity’; he exclaimed ‘how much… civilized people’ could ‘learn rom this school o nature!’
Tus the explor-ers’ accounts o Aboriginal men were not uniormly critical or derogatory, andeven sentimentalized Aboriginal men as superior to distant European athers. Inact many o the explorers’ accounts o Aboriginal men were more contradictoryand unstable than most histories suggest. European descriptions o their more praiseworthy attributes were, however, oen eeting or embedded within morecritical evaluations. In contrast to much o the scholarly literature which readsthe sources as preguring colonialist and racist ideology, I will attentively recon-struct these more sympathetic evaluations as in some respects symptomatic o the Enlightenment’s ambivalence towards the non-European world.

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