Ritual Encounters of the 'Savage' and the Citizen: French Revolutionary Ethnographers in Oceania, 1768–1803

Nicole Starbuck

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In the long term, encounters between Enlightenment explorers and Oceanic peoples impacted significantly on European government and colonialism. Accounts of the contact, and observations and evaluations made during these meetings, were read widely among the public and were used by philosophers, naturalists and eventually scientists to advance theories about the nature of humanity, society and ‘civilisation’. Yet in the moment, these encounters were unpredictable, precarious events fraught with fear and confusion, approached with high anticipation and coloured by a heady mix of sights, sounds and smells. Newcomers and locals each tried to bring some order to these episodes and to navigate them according to their respective needs. While circumstances varied from beach to beach and from one experience to another, participants routinely performed a combination of customary, ritualistic, practices: signs of peace and friendship, exchanges of gifts, products and knowledge, sharing of food and drinks, demonstrations of weaponry, planting of gardens and sometimes acts of possession.1 In different ways, they sought either to enter into a new relationship or to reaffirm and advance an existing but tenuous one. Indigenous communities often dealt with Europeans as with more familiar visitors, according to their usual protocols and sometimes by incorporating them into their existing relationships of exchange, while the voyagers sought to fulfil immediate needs—resources, respite and fieldwork—and to familiarise the ‘savages’ with European ‘civilisation’.2 Given the mixed objectives, the process was never entirely smooth, nor was the experience entirely shared; often, it proceeded no further than a burst of shouts and spears from a distant shore. However, the protocols of contact generally rendered meetings something which explorers could interpret and describe in a coherent report.3 The cross-cultural encounter might indeed be treated as a ritual.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEmotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200-1920
Subtitle of host publicationFamily, State and Church
EditorsMerridee Bailey, Katie Barclay
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-44185-6
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-44184-9
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NamePalgrave Studies in the History of Emotions

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2017

Open Access
This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.5/), which permits any noncommercial use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.


  • History of Emotions
  • Religious history
  • European History
  • Ritualism
  • Miracles
  • Oceania
  • French Revolutionary Ethnographers


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