Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Patty O'Brien

The Pacific Muse:
Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific

A McLellan Book: Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2006
reproductions of engravings, postcards and paintings, photographs, index
ISBN 0-295-98609-3, x + 347 pp

reviewed by Melissa Johnston

  1. Patty O'Brien's thoughtfully presented book, The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific, recounts the history of European colonial representations of the Pacific. O'Brien examines a myriad of images of Pacific women from various European sources including 'voyages of discovery' (p. 3), fiction, anthropology and film (p. 3). O'Brien states that many 'disparate threads' (p. 3) have contributed to the formation of a trope she has chosen to call the 'Pacific muse', 'that immense emblem of exotic primitivism' (p. 3). O'Brien traces exotic representations of women from European antiquity to the present day. She maps the application of the Pacific muse stereotype to geographical areas as diverse as Hawaii and Tahiti, Pitcairn Island and Australia. The spatio-temporal span of The Pacific Muse is indeed extensive. Despite its scope, O'Brien's thematic focus on the figure of the beautiful and exotic Pacific woman lends the book homogeneity.
  2. O'Brien's point of departure is to examine the many occurrences of the Pacific muse. She explains that the Pacific muse is a trope that has allowed Pacific women to be presented unproblematically as, 'benignly exotic and free of complication' (p. 3). The book's aim is to rigorously 'contest...this assumption' (p. 4). O'Brien challenges the trope by analysing the circumstances of its production and its circulation. The book's efforts to re-inscribe colonised women's history on the colonial canon is concordant with the theoretical concerns of post-colonial historical enquiry. O'Brien uses critical and analytical methods to take an, 'alternate historic path' (p. 4). In doing so, O'Brien hopes to forgo the mythologising process that has so often accompanied representations of the Pacific and its past (p. 4). O'Brien explains that the Pacific muse stereotype continues to influence political relations between nations in the Pacific and other countries. This book, then, is a timely one that will assist in exposing what Marianna Torgovnick called the 'trope of the primitive'.[1]
  3. The Pacific Muse's five chapters unfold chronologically, beginning with Classical Greek representations of the exotic through to the present-day touristic representations of the Pacific. The first two chapters are descriptive, while the latter chapters are analytical, with more commentary and discussion. Chapter One begins by arguing that the emblem of the Pacific muse has two important antecedents. Firstly, earlier colonialisms in the 'Americas, Africa and the Orient' (p. 18) played an integral role in shaping what European colonisers thought and said about the Pacific. O'Brien says the myths, pictures and texts that described women as exotic within the colonial discursive regime were extremely influential in the formation of the trope of the Pacific muse. After examining early occurrences of the Pacific muse, O'Brien works to 'eschew' (p. 4) the myth. Quoting Anne McClintock, she argues that the colonisation of the Americas was 'normalised through being likened to a sexual act' (p. 20). Reproduced on the same page is a Jan van der Straet illustration, America Americus Retexit. In this picture, America is revealed as a reclining, naked woman, who is gazed at severely by a clothed coloniser who holds worldly knowledge and Christian morality in his hands, the former represented by a sextant and the latter by a flag standard with crucifix atop. As O'Brien explains, 'the naturalness of van der Straet's drawing belied the harsher consequences of the mapping of America as a sexually available woman' (p. 21). The second antecedent to the Pacific muse discussed by O'Brien in the first chapter is the motif of the exotic in the European imagination. O'Brien traces the descent of the Pacific muse in order to demonstrate that the voyages to the Pacific during the European Enlightenment were informed by neo-Classical ideas (p. 38). Neo-Classicism propagated concepts such as gendered dualisms (p. 41), where women were associated with dominated nature and men with dominating humankind. O'Brien describes the neo-classical belief that climate influenced sexuality; the heat of the Pacific made 'young girls sexually mature' (p. 54). This is illustrated in Chapter Three, in the lines from Lord Byron's poem:

    In growth a woman, though in years a child
    As childhood dates within our colder clime.
  4. In neo-classical thought, Pacific women were also aligned with water, rendering them sexually dangerous, aqueous creatures that could drown a man. The association of very young Pacific girls with water and heat constructed them as Siren-like figures. They were seen as attractive, sexually mature and available to European men, yet morally dangerous. Liaisons with them had attendant consequences including 'shame and the destruction of man's happiness' (p. 51). As later chapters show, after the Pacific was infected with venereal diseases by the explorers and sailors, Pacific women were also seen as polluting. O'Brien states, '[r]epresentations of Pacific women became increasingly layered with the contemptuous imagery of polluting Occidental prostitutes once it was widely understood that the sexual paradise of the Pacific was diseased' (p. 91). Ambiguity between attraction and danger shows the inherently contradictory nature of the trope. The Pacific muse could be twisted to either extreme according to the situation, revealing itself as an ideological and political construction.
  5. The second and shorter chapter, 'Colonizing masculinities', examines a broad range of issues, from the influence of missionaries to the 'process of forming distinct national characters' (p. 69). During the period covered in Chapter Two, 1767–1860, ruptures appeared in the façade of the Pacific muse. O'Brien explains that violence and resistance on the part of the colonised arose when the false representations of Pacific women as 'benignly exotic' (p. 3) and willing to please white men were acted upon. Chapter Two argues the 'foremost myth of South Seas colonisation' (p. 68), that white men would have '[u]nfettered sexual freedom' (p. 68), was a construction. In a section called 'Representing Seminal Events,' O'Brien relates that during Wallis' voyage to Tahiti in June 1767, once the voyagers' sexual advances were repelled with violence, the voyagers, 'established the initial sexual commerce with the islanders using the long-standing colonial practice of coercion' (p. 68). After the Tahitians attacked the voyagers from canoes with stones, Wallis' men bombarded the island with cannon for five days (p. 70). Sexual commerce commenced shortly afterwards. This historical moment in Amusemens des Otahitiens et des Anglais, the frontispiece of J. P. Bérenger's collection about the voyaging of different European nations. The romanticised version of events, with the Tahitian women swimming lustfully towards the Englishmen's boat, is shown on the cover of O'Brien's book. O'Brien examines the colonial archive through a number of lenses. One way that O'Brien is able to read the gaps and silences here is by examining how the sexual commerce with indigenous women of the Pacific exposed the coloniser's anxiety and paranoia regarding their own sexuality. In O'Brien's analysis:

      An effect of the sex trade was that indigenous women's sexuality, which was viewed as positive within indigenous societies [...] were subordinated to those of the colonizing men, who did not bring with them a sexual culture that considered women's pleasure. This change made female sexual pleasure expendable in all sexual interactions by being equated with her ability to satisfy her partner (p. 90).

  6. In these encounters with societies that valued women's sexual pleasure, European colonisers felt threatened. The colonising men did not have a masculinity that depended upon their ability to sexually please women, so they sought to change Pacific women's sexuality in various ways. These ways included the construction of pervasive stereotypes, by proselytising Christianity and by the introduction of a sexual economy—a topic explored in Chapter Three.
  7. Chapter Three, 'Nature's Resources and the Forging of Empire: 1788–1890', examines mythmaking in the Pacific by placing it within the context of the economic imperatives of the colonial project. Economic prerogatives were often overlaid with ideological treatises regarding women's bodies. In this chapter, O'Brien shows how there was a fusing of the ideas of race, class (p. 115) and human bondage. Pacific women were considered another of the colonies' natural resources, and the Pacific muse, 'provided a logic for exploitation of Pacific women for personal or commercial gain' (p. 119). The author demonstrates that the sexual economy that was begun by Bougainville and Wallis' men was continued by the sealers, the whalers—whose profession involved ecological exploitation (p 119)—and reinforced by the missionaries. The third chapter also explores the most famous of the Pacific myths, the mutiny on the Bounty. Here, O'Brien relates how Tahitian women were kidnapped and forced into marital slavery. The women's agency is revealed in O'Brien's account of their escape attempts. The gaps in the myth of compliant Pacific women are exposed. Lord Byron's poem, The Island or Christian and his Comrades, is quoted here, illustrating how the mutiny on the Bounty struck a chord with many in Europe. The mutiny on the Bounty showed European men's desire to run away with 'benign' tropical brides. Some reasons behind this Enlightenment longing are explored in Chapter Four.
  8. Chapter Four examines how Pacific women served a particular ideological purpose for those theorising in philosophy, science and anthropology. O'Brien shows how European theorists, such as Rousseau and Voltaire, held up Pacific women as mirrors with which to examine their society, fashioning an inverse image composed of all the things they saw as antipodal to European characteristics. O'Brien recounts themes of noble savagery and, using the Pacific as a case study, illustrates how European thought framed the journeys to the Pacific within a discourse of 'time-travel'. That is, O'Brien shows how the social evolutionists and other philosophers of the time prepared the European explorers and colonists to expect an earlier version of Europeans in the Pacific. This chapter reveals that in studying the Pacific, European theorists believed they were studying 'the human mind as we find it universally'.[2] The Pacific was a testing ground upon which the major debates over gender and sexuality could be understood in universal terms. Constructing the Pacific as Europe's Antipodes gave the rational Enlightenment man his opposite; the inspiration for his character, the Pacific muse.
  9. The fifth and last chapter, 'From the 1890's to the Present,' is relatively brief. The beginning of the chapter contains intense exploration of Paul Gauguin's life in Tahiti, and the tragedies behind the faces of his melancholy muses. His painting, Nevermore, was inspired by his wife 'in the grip of grief at the loss of her young daughter' (p. 223) who may have died from congenital syphilis inherited from her French father. O'Brien then discusses the image of the Pacific muse in twentieth century popular culture. The physical treatment of Pacific peoples is examined in the Epilogue, where French and American nuclear testing in Pacific is shown to be somewhat acceptable to modern Western ideology because of the historical precedents. O'Brien theorises that because Pacific women were constructed as opposite and antithetical to the European male subject, abuse of their bodies in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was permissible. O'Brien gestures towards an idea that nuclear testing of the twentieth century was performed in the Pacific in part because of these de-humanising constructions.
  10. This book aims to interrogate the material that appears in the colonial archive and 'eschew' the mythmaking that has accompanied representations of Pacific women. Scholars wishing to explore the history behind modern perceptions of Pacific peoples would be well served by O'Brien's book. The historical narrative told in The Pacific Muse could also be read by non-specialists who seek a more critical examination of early explorers such as Cook and Bougainville. The limitations of the extant sources means that both the writer and the reader have to work a lot harder to discover the colonised women's voices cloaked by silences in the colonial record. Because of the limitations of the sources, as O'Brien herself states, 'their silences, their fragmentary nature, and the fact that almost without exception the colonisers produced these sources, only threads of the experience of indigenous women can be garnered' (p. 4), makes this alternative route to history the more difficult path. The Pacific Muse is ambitious in its scope and aim but the result is very rewarding.


    [1] Marianne Torgovnick Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 10.

    [1] Torgovnick Gone Primitive, p. 8


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