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Empire on the Line: Botanical Ethnology and Social Distance in Enlightenment-era Tahiti
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

From the Enlightenment era forward, the Pacific has served as a crucial touchstone for European speculation on differences between indigenous and Western cultures. My paper examines the role played by botanists in these considerations, with particular reference to social factors that shaped observations by European naturalists in Tahiti. Following a preliminary discussion of European-Tahitian botanical interactions over the course of James Cook’s Endeavour voyage (1768-1771), I proceed to examine the heightened attention to epistemological contrasts between Tahitian and European environmental worldviews given in published accounts authored by Johann (1729-1798) and Georg Forster (1754-1794), who served aboard James Cook’s HMS Resolution (1772-1775). I attribute this shift to the Forsters’ relative lack of acquaintance with Tahitian cultures and te reo Tahiti (the Tahitian language), owing largely to the more itinerant nature of the Resolution voyage. The second part of this presentation turns to HMS Bounty expedition’s (1787-1790) unprecedented length of stay at Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees en route to the Caribbean, which encouraged cross-cultural intimacies palpably - even dangerously - at odds with Forsterian dichotomizing. In bringing these case studies together, I reflect on a paradox: namely, that while some grasp of indigenous knowledge was fundamental to global botanical endeavours, it could also prove their ruination.

Time: 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Location: Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium
Sponsor: Environmental and Urban Studies Program
Contact: Michele Dominy.
E-mail: mdominy@bard.edu
Phone: 845-758-7870