Imagining Polynesia: Power, Identity and Domination in the Material Culture of Colonialism

Graeme Young


Across both geographic and temporal space, issues pertaining to sexual or sexualized cross-cultural interaction raise a number of important questions about the nature of colonial contact. For example, what do the erotic encounters, perspectives and representations that commonly define conceptualizations and experiences of the foreign Other reveal about the colonial project more generally? What effects did these have on (re)negotiations of boundaries and intersections between assumed colonizer and colonized, metropole and periphery, male and female, upper and lower class, and racially superior and inferior identity dichotomies? And, most basically, what role did the “erotic gaze” play in both encouraging and defining the nature of colonial encounters, and how can this phenomenon be seen to influence and be influenced by discourses on identity and related acceptable norms? By addressing these and other central issues within the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century representations of Polynesia,1 this study will propose a theorization of the intricate and mutually informing relationship between the systematic assumptions, practices and discourses of colonialism and sexuality. Eroticized representations of the region that circumscribed external understandings of its peoples and cultures and defined it within the popular imagination reveal more generalizable tensions between gender, racial and other relational identities. These tensions have profound effects that resonate far beyond assumed colonizer/colonized dichotomies that exist within the Polynesian periphery; indeed, following the questions outlined above, they highlight a number of the defining aspects of the colonial project itself and thus present an appropriate framework in which some of the fundamental aspects of the phenomenon can be conceptualized and assessed.


In order to explore these themes, this study is organized in the following way. Part I addresses the theoretical relationship between colonialism and sexuality. Following the respective works of Ann Laura Stoler and Anne McClintock, the discourses and practices that define each are properly historicized and found to be mutually dependent. In this sense, I argue that colonial history both influenced and was influenced by the emergence of “modern” Euro-American understandings of sexuality, and the processes through which this complex relationship was actualized are explored and reclaimed for colonial historiography more generally. Part II addresses the applicability of the arguments presented in the preceding section for understanding the material culture of colonialism, specifically in the context of colonial Polynesia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, it employs the arguments presented in Part I in an analysis of Herman Melville’s Typee,2 Paul Gauguin’s artistic representations of the region and the pseudo-scientific, anthropological and ethnographical studies that appeared in National Geographic Magazine from 1889-1909. Conclusions are presented in Part III, along with potentially valuable avenues for future research.


Part I: Theorizing Power and Sexuality in Colonial Contacts

The complex, multifarious and intricately nuanced nature of power in colonial contexts has been widely explored within existing academic literature. In relation to this theme, a significant amount of recent scholarly attention has been devoted to situating understandings of popular material culture within the diverse ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies that characterize multi-nodal colonial power relations in both their transnational and more localizable, contextually specific manifestations (Beaulieu and Roberts; Brody; Kaplan; Kaplan and Pease; Yoshihara). There is, however, a larger conceptual gap in terms of analyzing the sexualization of these colonial imaginaries. This decoupling of colonial and sexual histories is both theoretically and empirically problematic; rather than viewing each in considerable isolation from the other, a proper historicization of the discourses and practices through which understandings of each emerge and are constantly (re)formulated reveals their conceptual interdependence and interconnectedness. For these purposes, the respective works of Ann Laura Stoler and Anne McClintock are particularly instrumental. Each, therefore, deserves to be examined in turn.


In her 1995 monograph Race and the Education of Desire, Stoler undertakes a re-evaluation of the arguments presented by Michel Foucault in his 1976 Collège de France lectures and in Volume I of Histoire de la sexualité. According to Foucault, the concept of sexuality in nineteenth century Europe, rather than being socially repressed by various silencing and restrictive legal statutes, moral norms and adopted customs and practices, was instead a discursively constructed concept that was fundamentally linked with the realization of relational power. In this sense, Foucault posits four objects of knowledge related to authority and the regulation of sexuality, each rendered comprehensible and controlled through mechanisms of pedagogical, medical, psychiatric, economic and normative discursive power: (1) the hysterization and irrationalization of female sexuality and the construction of the hysterical woman; (2) the definition and circumscription of childhood sexuality and the subjectivization of the masturbating child; (3) the normalization of procreative practices and the focus on and limitation of the Malthusian couple; and (4) the psychiatric, medical and disciplinary definition of anomalous individual sexual behaviour and the creation of the perverse adult. These objects of knowledge allowed for the exercise of what Foucault describes as biopower, facilitating and justifying the emergence of a collection of techniques, technologies and disciplinary fields which constructed the bodies of men, women and children as knowable and controllable spaces (see Foucault, “The Repressive Hypothesis”; Smart). 


Stoler presents her arguments based on what she regards as the two major shortcomings of Foucault’s study. First, she claims, Foucault’s focus on the emergence and nature of European sexual discourses seemingly suggests that nineteenth century European society existed in a vacuum, uninfluenced by external contacts or cross-cultural interactions. This understanding, Stoler argues, ignores the fact that European discourses, instead of originating and applying exclusively within Europe’s geographical boundaries, were fundamentally influenced by, and influenced in turn, notions of dichotomized bourgeois and racialized identity that constituted and were constituted by colonial encounters. Thus, the technologies of sex upon which Foucault focuses his attention must be recognized to have existed, in a way that was mutually influencing as a result of a collection of various individual contacts and (re)formations and (re)interpretations of identity, in both the colonial periphery and metropole. Second, Stoler proposes that the racialized nature of imperial discourse permeated beyond the bourgeois culture that existed within European colonies, as sexual discourses constructed not only bourgeois identity in relation to a racialized and inferior colonized other, but also established intra-social divisions that marginalized inhabitants of the colonial metropole who were placed outside of the boundaries of these contextually specific and constantly (re)negotiated identity markers.


According to Stoler, each of these arguments is fundamentally linked with the four categories of sexualized objects of knowledge outlined by Foucault, and suggest that a necessary addition to this list would be the acknowledgement of (5) the construction and differentiation, as a result of colonial interaction, of the “racially erotic counterpart” which supplied the “libidinal energies of the savage, the primitive, the colonized,” and, acting as a reference point “of difference, critique, and desire,” allowed for the conceptualization of the other four fields in which biopower was actualized (6-7). Intersecting and malleable discourses of the self and bourgeois identity should therefore be understood in relation to a “hierarchy of distinctions in perception and practice that conflated, substituted, and collapsed the categories of racial, class, and sexual Others strategically and at different times” (Stoler 11). In colonial spaces, these differences were reified through claims advanced within such pseudo-scientific fields as racial hygiene, anthropology and ethnography; once the foreign other was rendered understandable within colonial epistemology, the identity dichotomies that this knowledge established created divisions that transcended traditional notions of colonizer and colonized in relation to the technologies of sex, with profound effects on the newly understandable bodies within both the colonial periphery and metropole (Stoler 1-54).


McClintock’s arguments (1995) are largely complementary to those presented by Stoler, as she also stresses that colonial contact should be understood as involving the formation, rather than merely articulation, of European middle-class identities. Furthermore, like Stoler, McClintock problematizes the traditional colonizer/colonized dichotomy that informs conventional colonial analysis, suggesting that intricate, transnational and socially permeating links existed between conceptions of race, class, gender and the constantly (re)articulated notions of identity that defined the European cult of domesticity. Thus, according to McClintock, the construction and discursive reification of race had an immeasurable impact on both the conceptualization of middle-class identity and what she describes as “the policing of the ‘dangerous classes’: the working class, the Irish, Jews, prostitutes, feminists, gays and lesbians, criminals, the militant crowd and so on” (5). The cult of domesticity, similarly, was a flexible yet fundamental aspect of the colonial project – and, more broadly, industrial modernity – that connected the private familial realm with the public imagination of the foreign, exotic and inferior.     


Two of McClintock’s other arguments, however, demonstrate an important theoretical divergence from Stoler’s work, and both have significant ramifications for the concepts explored in this study. The first of these is the of the concept of the porno-tropics, which, McClintock argues, refers to the eroticization of foreign geographic regions and their cultures within the European imagination, as the vague external other was treated as a space onto which repressed and “forbidden sexual desires and fears” were projected (22). In this trope, women symbolized both sexual indulgence and irregularity, and also served as civilizational boundaries and virgin territories for men to penetrate and dominate; exploration and Enlightenment understanding were a process of transforming wild and submissive feminized space into comprehensible and controllable subjects that cohered with male, Western, scientific ways of understanding. Thus, colonialism, according to McClintock, was directly parallel to – and even inspired by – gendered notions of identity and domination, as, blurring the lines between the assumed public and private spheres, the masculine colonizer exerted power over the feminine subject and natural landscape (21-24).   


McClintock’s second concept that is applicable to this study is what she refers to as anachronistic space. This is connected with the aforementioned theory of the porno-tropics as, according to McClintock, it acknowledges the duality of the masculine penetration of feminine nature: whereas colonial exploration of apparently unchartered territory involved the progress across geographic space, it also involved a perceived regress across time. In this sense, the colonial metropole represented the culmination of scientific progress and temporal modernity; the colonial periphery, conversely, was confined to the realm of the past. This concept was applied to the supposedly evolutionarily inferior female body by, and in turn legitimized through, pseudo-scientific claims based on the pretense of objectivity and rational inquiry. All women who transgressed their defined and unstable identities were framed within the concept of racialized devolution, and, in doing so, demonstrated the tensions that underlay and connected notions of the degenerate and the primitive across class, race and gender (McClintock 40-42).


The arguments presented by Stoler and McClintock provide an appropriate framework in which to conceptualize the sexualization of colonial encounters and, more specifically, to examine the rich collection of eroticized European and American travel narratives, artistic reproductions and anthropological and ethnographical studies that were produced to define and describe colonial Polynesia. Nevertheless, one important divergence between their respective theoretical approaches should be acknowledged: Stoler, following Foucault, rejects the Freudian concept of repressed sexual drives as a causal factor for understanding colonial history, arguing instead that sexuality is an effect of discursive production and intersecting identities that should be analyzed in the colonial context; McClintock, conversely, seems to derive the concepts of the porno-tropics and anachronistic space from innate male sexual drives that are given freedom in foreign space and inform colonial expansion. Thus, Stoler’s Foucauldian proposition that nineteenth- and twentieth-century European sexuality was produced by a collection of discourses that were formed and fundamentally shaped by interactions with the foreign other contrasts McClintock’s Freudian concept of how these interactions should be seen as informed by European hierarchies, practices, desires, fears and gender insecurities. For the remainder of this paper, these tensions – as part of a broader framework which incorporates both Stoler and McClintock’s arguments – will be used to analyze (and will be explored within the context of) colonial interactions in and representations of Polynesia.3   


This article will explore these themes in relation to three specific examples of the sexualization of colonial Polynesia within nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular material culture: first, Herman Melville’s 1846 novel Typee and the implicit acknowledgment of underlying tensions between perceptions of sexually liberated paradise and barbaric cannibalism; second, the paintings of Paul Gauguin and the artistic rendering of intersections between sexualized race, gender and idealized primitivism; and third, the anthropological and ethnographical studies of Polynesia published in the first two decades of National Geographic Magazine and the reification of assumed sexualized identities within objectivized popular scientific discourse. Each of these eroticized representations of the region’s landscape and peoples will be analyzed within, and used to expand upon, Stoler and McClintock’s respective arguments. Such an undertaking not only provides a brief glimpse into the nature of the erotic gaze in Polynesia; more generally, it can also allow for a proper understanding of many of the most commonly neglected themes that define the colonial experience itself.4


Part II: The Production of Polynesia

i. Herman Melville and the Ambivalence of Colonial Encounters 


We can read Melville’s novel Typee within the tradition of the nineteenth-century romanticized travel narrative: recounting the supposedly semi-autobiographical experiences of its young American protagonist, Tommo, in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, the novel incorporates many of the tropes that characterize the genre more generally by depicting the foreign and exotic as a space of mystery, fantasy and adventurism. With even the most cursory reading, however, the novel reveals itself as more than a simple work of escapism; instead, its commentary on issues of race, “primitivism,” civilization and identity present fascinating insights into the sexualized nature of Euro-American encounters with foreign peoples and cultures.


Such themes are evident from Typee’s first pages. In a particularly illustrative scene, Tommo’s narration assumes a characteristic tone that blurs the line between fact and fantasy, depicting the local women who first swim out to greet the ship’s passengers as a group of nymph-like mermaids, almost mystical in their beauty and willing to indulge in the crew’s implicitly unrestrained physical desires. Recounting the event, he remarks:

Their appearance perfectly amazed me; their extreme youth, the light clear brown of their complexions, their delicate features, and inexpressibly graceful figures, their softly moulded limbs, and free unstudied action, seemed as strange as beautiful.... Our ship was now given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification. (Melville 14-15, emphasis added).

This sexualized encounter reflects McClintock’s concept of the porno-tropics: as the ship and its crew, representing the epitome of masculinized science, technology and courageous adventurism, approaches the mysterious islands – upon which the crew’s apprehensions and desires had previously been projected in much vague, ill-informed and divergent speculation – the boundary between the civilized and the uncivilized, the known and the unknown, and the submitter and submitted is unmistakably personified and eroticized by the female body. The fact that these native women are at once strange and beautiful represents, following McClintock, the sexualized uncertainty of Euro-American contact with undeveloped virgin territory, marking the dualities of desire and repulsion, confidence and insecurities, and fantasies and fears that defined the ambiguities and tensions of male identity in encounters with the feminized foreign other (14-16).


These themes are expanded upon as Tommo and his companion decide to escape the harsh and laborious conditions of life on their ship – which, personified by its strict and cruel captain, serves as a microcosm in which the harshness, alienation and repression of mid-nineteenth century American industrial life is critiqued – and are subsequently captured by the supposedly cannibalistic Typee tribe. Despite being treated with unexpected kindness and generosity, Tommo still expresses concern that he will be murdered and consumed by his captors; since, Tommo opines, it is impossible to discern what “fickle passions [...] sway the bosom of a savage” given their famous “inconstancy and treachery,” Tommo worries that “beneath these fair appearances the islanders covered some perfidious design, and that their friendly reception of us might only precede some horrible catastrophe” (Melville 83). There is, however, a considerable degree of ambivalence regarding Tommo’s understanding of the Typee, as this aspect of their ascribed identity notably contrasts with his idealized affection for one of the Typee women, Fayaway.5 As the narrator describes, Fayaway “was the very perfection of female grace and beauty,” “a child of nature,” who, “nurtured by the simple fruits of the earth,” “enjoying a perfect freedom from care and anxiety,” and “removed effectually from all injurious tendencies,” symbolizes for Tommo the primitive innocence and uncorrupted sexual freedom that characterizes the island’s Eden-like tropical paradise (93-94). Fayaway, for Tommo, exists in a peaceful harmony with nature that suggests a preferable alternative to the restrictive and repressive norms of his own society. His infatuation with her – or, perhaps more accurately, with what she represents in his mind – leads him to question the basic assumptions about the civilized/uncivilized and enlightened/savage identity dichotomies that informed his judgement earlier in the novel. He begins to consider, for example, whether or not cannibalism is truly more barbaric than the methods of discipline and punishment practiced in more “civilized” societies (137-40), and furthermore concludes that it would be preferable for the natives to “remain the happy and innocent heathens and barbarians that they now are” than, by allowing themselves to be influenced by their new external contacts, become “victims of the worst vices and evils of civilized life” (202).


Tommo’s sexualized perceptions of the Typee therefore become a point of identity negotiation around which preconceived notions of the self and other become blurred; following Stoler’s second critique of Foucault that portrays the colonial periphery as a space for the construction of the erotic foreign other and formation of bourgeois identity, the sexual realm becomes the arena around which all other social standards, hierarchies and structures are continuously undermined, critiqued, (re)formulated and (re)articulated. The eroticized ideal of the Typee is both constructed by the narrator in reference to his own cultural background and simultaneously employed as an alternative framework in which this same culture is brought into question. As Tommo’s perceptions of the foreign other are constantly undermined, affirmed and (re)negotiated around the tension between sexual openness and barbaric violence, his understandings about himself, his own culture and the culture to which he is being exposed enter a state of flux in which boundaries are either destabilized, transcended or removed completely.


These sexual discourses, furthermore, are inherently connected to notions of race, as it is only when Tommo discovers the shrunken head of a white European and the cannibalized body of a native – the racialized, violent and implicitly primitive practice of cannibalism reminding him of his status as a potential victim as well as his superiority to the Typee – that his pre-existing identity is reaffirmed and he decides to return to his crew, symbolizing the comforting confines of his own civilizational identity. Primitive and idealized sexual freedom, in this sense, is inseparably identified with the barbaric consumption of human flesh; escaping from the latter thus necessarily entails deserting the former as well. This link between the eroticized other and primitive barbarism is fundamental to the fifth object of knowledge that Stoler adds to Foucault’s original arguments, since, as colonized bodies were rendered both savage and sexual, they allowed for the association of the other four categories that Foucault describes with a reference point for undesirable sexual behaviour. In this way, and as demonstrated by Tommo’s personal and civilizational identity struggles, the lines defining the identity dichotomies described in the first section of this paper are both blurred and internalized, revealing many of the inherent tensions that exist within the colonial project as a whole.6


ii. Paul Gauguin and Idealized Primitivism


Similar themes define Paul Gauguin’s representations of the region and its people. In one of his most famous depictions of life in the Polynesia, intriguingly entitled D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous?, Gauguin stylistically depicts a collection of Polynesian women at various stages of life – and in various states of nakedness – as a visual analog for the concept of development and civilizational progress. The natives, whose clothing, activities, and setting suggest both a harmonious relationship with nature and (as implied by the temporal connotations of title of the piece) an ahistorical and static existence, reflect, following McClintock, the concept of anachronistic space as their bodies are taken out of the narrative of teleological Euro-American advancement and placed within a decontextualized vacuum. The female body, in its exposure making a mockery of the European concepts of modesty and sexual decency while questioning the desirability of an antithetical European civilization that is conspicuous in its lack – with clothing serving as a visible manifestation of sexual repression7 – becomes, through its eroticization, primitive, sexual, and outside of time. In this sense, the naked female becomes an archetypical figure for native primitivism, as the undressing and feminization of the foreign other renders it at once idealized and under threat. The sexualization of the female body as anachronistic space upon which a feminized vulnerability is projected, for Gauguin’s purposes, to represent the dangers that all Polynesians face as a result of external contact thus merely changes the form, rather than the nature, of the sexualized colonial imaginary; although Gauguin is critiquing the colonial project and its damaging civilizational impulses, he is doing so by referring to, and artistically recreating, an essentialized form of Polynesian identity centred around sexualized femininity.


It is important to note that the natives depicted in Gauguin’s representations of Polynesia are almost exclusively female, demonstrating, for Gauguin’s purposes, the area’s sexualized and feminized vulnerability in relation to the destructive Euro-American notions of progress. Although usually conspicuous in their absence, male figures, when present, are equally noteworthy: in Gauguin’s 1892 piece Monao Tupapau – L’esprit des morts veille, a man, symbolizing death, watches over the nude prostrated body of a female native; in Contes Barbares (1902) a white, probably European, male voyeuristically observes two largely unclothed Polynesian women with a facial expression that seems to suggest a dangerous combination of inquisitive rationalism and perverse desire. In both of these examples, males, and what they represent, imply the death and destruction of the feminized native. Similar to Tommo’s eroticized encounter with Fayaway, the sexual realm, for Gauguin, thus becomes the arena in which civilizational, racial and gender identities are brought into question; as a white, European male himself, Gauguin is permanently an outsider in the idealized, sexualized and feminized exotic paradise that he envisions as a refuge for his own self-imposed exile. This dual sense of longing and exclusion becomes a point of critique and identity construction, as Gauguin, in authoring the experiences of the feminized native in contrast to the masculinized colonizer, seeks to situate his own self-understanding and sense of belonging – and thus find personal freedom away from the constraints, conformity and rigid convention of European society – within a highly sexualized dichotomy of essentialized identity. Contrary to Tommo’s experiences, however, Gauguin did not ultimately disavow his struggle and reaffirm his “civilized” identity; indeed, he remained in Polynesia, despite considerable personal and legal troubles, until his death in 1903, living what was by all accounts a life of considerable indulgence. Like his artwork, Gauguin’s experiences in Polynesia provide valuable insight into the sexualized nature of colonial contact. Any divergence from the trends discussed in relation of Melville’s work merely demonstrate the internal complexities of this phenomenon, along with the importance of considering each encounter within its own unique and subjectively specific context.8


iii. National Geographic and the Sexualization of Popular Pseudo-Science


Many of the themes present in Gauguin’s art also characterize, albeit on pseudo-scientific pretences, the anthropological and ethnographical studies that appeared in National Geographic Magazine in the two decades following its original publication in 1889. Similar to Gauguin’s paintings, many of these articles place the natives that they depict as outside of time and therefore providing a glimpse into prehistoric life; indeed, one of the magazine’s earliest mentions of the Polynesian Islands draws explicit parallels between “tribes who within the present generation” inhabit “the islands of the Pacific” and “life of the Stone Age” (Hubbard 167-8).9 Significantly, most studies of the region that appeared in National Geographic Magazine during this period concerned Samoa or the Hawaiian Islands; as targets of American annexation, the inhabitants of these places were commonly portrayed as inferior and barbaric savages who, with the help of American missionaries, political oversight and economic cooperation, would be able to progress towards civilization and benefit from the effects of benign tutelage.10 These identity discourses are commonly structured around a series of unstable contrasts, suggesting that Polynesians are literate Christians yet naked primitives; gentle, generous and virtuous yet subject to barbaric acts resulting from minor disputes; and lazy, non-industrious and ignorant of economics yet blessed with resources and the potential to benefit from education (Morgan 1900).


National Geographic is particularly notable for the fact that it commonly published photographic depictions of foreign spaces and peoples. Visual imagery played an important role in the popular construction and dissemination of the colonial imagination, and indeed, the uniqueness of this medium as distinct from literary or artistic representations deserves due consideration. As Susan Sontag argues, the practice of photographing a person or event is necessarily an act of relational power as it seeks to “appropriate the thing photographed” for the purpose of classification and rendering the unknown understandable (4); in this sense, photography is unique in its capabilities for “deciphering,” “predicting” and “interfering” with human behaviour as, unlike earlier forms of visual imagery, photographs are widely considered to be “not dependent on an image maker” and are therefore able to assume a pretence of observational objectivity (Sontag 157-58). In relation to this unique ability to author the identities and experiences of others with the authority of a neutral perspective, an interesting duality that seems to characterize the anthropological depiction of nakedness can be discerned: in some images (Webster; Blackman), the exposed female body is used to suggest the region’s peaceful, sexualized allure; in others, however, this is sharply contrasted with the explicitly asserted potential for savage violence (Grimshaw), as the unclothed, threatening native male is dichotomized with his sexualized female counterpart. Both common gendered representations imply different yet inseparable forms of primitivism that were instrumental in justifying claims to the benefits of American imperialism, as each, in its own way, referred to the natives’ inferiority and potential for improvement under the civilizing guidance of the United States.


The assumptions implicit in this colonial discourse are informed by the same sexualized civilized/uncivilized dichotomy that underwrites the other productions explored in this study. Again, McClintock’s concepts of the porno-tropics and anachronistic space provide insight into the nature of much of the work published in the magazine during this period: the Polynesian islands and the peoples who inhabit them are simultaneously portrayed as savage and sexual, repulsive and inviting, and feminine and un-evolved, thereby demonstrating the sexualized tensions that define the colonial gaze and contaminating claims of scientific objectivity. Similar to the portraits of Gauguin, the naked female body was assumed to possess a certain docile simplicity; however, serving the purpose of American expansionism, it was depicted as underdeveloped and in constant contrast to other primitive practices that were commonly discussed such as cannibalism, headhunting and valour-less savagery in battle. It was, therefore, feminized and sexualized in order to be portrayed as uncivilized yet civilizable. American colonialism was to be realized and justified in the space of the exposed female body, which symbolized vulnerability, primitivism and enticement; by covering up this nakedness with the effects of civilization, this savagery was to be removed as, similar to the themes presented by Melville, the uncertainty that underlay primitive sexuality and violence were inseparably linked (Webster 1899; Blackman 1908; Grimshaw 1908). 


The anthropological and ethnographical pretences of these studies, furthermore, facilitated the reification of the eroticized primitive other as, following Stoler, an object of knowledge around which identities and norms were focused and (re)negotiated. The primary contrast here is between the American practitioner of scientific endeavour and the sexualized native who, lacking the former’s access to objective universal knowledge, is rendered, along with his or her behaviour, practices and culture, knowable in accordance with the observer’s correct and authoritative frame of reference. The former, in this dichotomy, represents the conquering masculine; the latter, conversely, represents the conquered feminine. The colonial periphery therefore becomes the space in which the identities of both the colonizer and the colonized are formed in reference to each other; these identities, furthermore, are both informed by and have a profound influence on the assumed boundaries between race, class and gender. The articles and images from National Geographic Magazine discussed here are an important manifestation of this process, and thus provide invaluable insights into the realities of the colonial imagination.11


Part III: Conclusions and Potential Avenues for Future Research

By combining a number of concepts respectively presented by Ann Laura Stoler and Anne McClintock, this study has proposed an appropriate theoretical approach for understanding the sexualization of colonial contact – specifically its manifestation in popular material culture – in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Polynesia. Although the arguments presented above are limited to the scope of three specific examples of the production and sexualization of the region in the colonial imagination, certain generalizable trends become evident in relation to the formation of racial, class and gender identities and the ramifications that these formations had for both the colonizer and colonized. Specifically, these forms of identity should be viewed in a continuous and circumstantially dependent state of flux, constantly (re)articulated and (re)negotiated through complex processes of domination, authorship and exclusion. Although further research into these trends across a broader historical and geographic scope is necessary to explore the commonalities and – perhaps even more importantly – the differences that can be identified in various colonial contacts, they nevertheless present a useful starting point for undertaking such a project and providing a glimpse into a frequently neglected characteristic of colonialism more generally. Particularly fruitful directions that such research can take deserve to be addressed, and while the concluding remarks offered here are by no means exhaustive, they may still provide certain relevant considerations that any future scholarly endeavours should take into account. 


Following the arguments presented above, an important issue that remains unresolved is the tension, as outlined in the first section of this paper, between the Foucauldian and Freudian bases of Stoler and McClintock’s respective theories. As this study has explored, the individual works of both authors serve as suitable conceptual models in which to analyze the erotic nature of the colonial imagination and the colonial project more generally; the question of whether or not these can be reconciled, however, deserves to be addressed. As each of the examples presented above has shown, sexual discourses both informed and were defined in relation to colonial encounters with profound effects on identity perceptions and social organization. In this sense, more scholarly attention should be dedicated to the re-evaluation and re-contextualization of the complex and multi-directional genealogies of modern Euro-American understandings of sexuality, exploring ways in which a variety of interdependent discourses and practices emerged and were continuously (re)negotiated at different definable historical moments. Focusing on the interaction between numerous historically situated actors, structures and processes will allow for a more complete and more nuanced understanding of the relationship between colonialism and sexuality. There are, of course, serious practical and conceptual problems – particularly in relation to incorporating the transnational and the local, the general and the specific, and the exceptional and the everyday – inherent in addressing these issues; nevertheless, the potential value of such an undertaking remains considerable.


The final significant avenue for future research concerns the extent to which the sexualization of colonial encounters was subject to resistance, subversion, manipulation and adaptation through localizable contacts. Although important progress has recently been made in restoring the voices, perspectives and agency of the colonized to colonial history, more research is necessary to incorporate these themes into a theoretically robust and historically-grounded understanding of sexualized colonial encounters. The extent to which this is even possible, however, remains uncertain, as there are considerable ethical, methodological and conceptual barriers to the idea of authoring the subjectivized (post)colonial other without reproducing, in some form, the epistemic violence in which certain knowledges and ways of knowing are circumscribed by external understanding.12 Nevertheless, existing interdisciplinary theories of resistance – particularly those concerning everyday acts of subversion, co-option and dissent as well as the undermining of the dominant epistemologies, discourses and forms of identity that characterize power – provide promising conceptual bases for valuable and original historical research, and should thus be engaged with accordingly.13 Similarly, the experiences of colonizers themselves should not be seen as either totalizing or monolithic; although certain general trends can be drawn, it is important to recognize and restore the variety of different – and sometimes divergent and contradictory – perspectives and interests of all individuals involved in colonial encounters. Incorporating this multiplicity of individually defined identities and voices within a flexible and constantly evolving theoretical framework is perhaps one of the defining challenges of interdisciplinary research into colonialism as a historical phenomenon. This study has attempted, however modestly, to contribute to this task in relation to colonial Polynesia; its limitations, like those that define all attempts to join micro and macro-historical narratives, should not circumscribe the wider implications of its conclusions.


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Graeme Young graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 2011 with an interdisciplinary degree in history, political science, and international relations. He is currently completing the first year of his MPhil in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, researching power and resistance in South Sudan.



1. This study refers to a geographical outline of the Polynesian triangle that encloses an area from Easter Island in the east to Hawai’i in the north and New Zealand in the south. Although these spatial boundaries are commonly assumed in discourses on Polynesia, they are nevertheless problematic as they refer to a colonial construct of shared space and identity and, furthermore, have inspired the emergence of modern nationalisms that ignore historical practices of intra-oceanic migration, interaction and influence. For these arguments, see Edmond (15-16).

2. The full title of Melville’s novel is Typee; or, a Narrative of a Four Months’ Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands; or, a Peep at Polynesian Life.

3. Stoler addresses what she considers to be the problem of the entrenchment of Freudian concepts within the academic study of colonialism in Stoler (165-77). Mentions of Foucault are almost entirely absent from McClintock’s study. Although McClintock offers a number of critiques of Freud’s theories of sexuality within her broader theorization of gender, race and class, his ideas nevertheless inform a number of her arguments. See, for example, McClintock (87-95). A similar acknowledgement of the Foucauldian and Freudian bases of Stoler’s and McClintock’s works, respectively, can be found in an early review by Ha (187-90).

4. For a more general history of the sexualization of Polynesia, see Connell (554-81).

5. For more on ambivalence in contemporary post-colonial theory, see Bhabha.

6. For further, yet fundamentally different, examinations of the sexual nature of the novel, see Milder (3-26), Heath (43-65) and Edwards (61-74). 

7. Melville explores a similar point, writing: “When I remembered that these islanders derived no advantage from dress, but appeared in all the naked simplicity of nature, I could not avoid comparing them with the fine gentlemen and dandies who promenade such unexceptionable figures in our frequented thoroughfares. Stripped of the cunning artifices of the tailor, and standing forth in the garb of Eden – what a sorry, set of round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, crane-necked varlets would civilized men appear!” (200-01).

8. For further analyses of Gauguin’s depictions of Polynesia, see Staszak (353-64) and Edmond (246-64).

9. For an excellent analysis of the ahistorical assumptions that define anthropological discourse about the Pacific, see Thomas.

10. See Webster (207-17), Austin (218-20), Morgan (417-26) and McGhee (333-42). Studies pertaining to regions beyond the geographic scope of this paper (e.g., the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Panama) were also extremely common in early editions of National Geographic Magazine. A brief glimpse into almost any period issue is likely to give the reader appropriate insight into the dominant imperialist sympathies of the magazine’s editors and contributors. See also Tuason (34-53).

11. Many of these problems still define modern anthropology. See Kulick and Wilson. An excellent account of nineteenth-century ethnography in Polynesia can be found in Herbert (150-203).

12. This concept has been most notably articulated by Gayatri Spivak. For more on post-colonialism see also Said and Bhabha. 

13. Significantly, Foucault provides space for resistance to the complex, multi-nodal, and multi-directional relations that characterize power by conceptualizing power and resistance as fundamentally inseparable; in an ontological sense, each presupposes the other. Two important points about Foucault’s theorization of resistance deserve elaboration. First, resistance is not necessarily emancipatory as it can be co-opted into systems of domination and normalization. For Foucault, effective resistance therefore involves turning the mechanisms of power against themselves by, in a sense, co-opting structures of co-option. Secondly, as governmentality involves the definition and construction of externalized subjects, resistance thus demands a process of desubjectification. This, according to Foucault, does not merely involve the construction of alternative discourses, practices or modes of identity; rather, it requires a problematization of all previously accepted notions of the self and its relation to external phenomena. See Foucault's “The Repressive Hypothesis” and “The Subject and Power.” For other theories of resistance, see Amoore; Bhabha; Hoy; and Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance; The Art of Not Being Governed, and Weapons of the Weak



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