Environmental and Urban Studies Program Presents
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
Empire on the Line: Botanical Ethnology and Social Distance in Enlightenment-era Tahiti
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium
4:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Dr. Geoff Bil, Visiting Assistant Professor History, University of DelawareFrom 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 (1768–71), 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 (1772–75). 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 endeavors, it could also prove their ruination.
Dr. Bil received his PhD in history from the University of British Columbia in 2018. He was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanities Institute, LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden from 2018 to 2019. He has published most recently in the British Journal for the History of Science, and his manuscript. Indexing the Indigenous: Plants, Peoples and Empire is under contract with John Hopkins University Press.
For more information, call 845-758-7870, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time: 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Location: Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium