A New Atlantic
Dommoore 2018 Atlantic Sunday Rushes 2048Px 2617

Tom Trevor

On a windy afternoon in late September 2018 a strange parade; part funerary procession, part protest rally; slowly snaked its way around the Devil’s Point peninsula in the Stonehouse district of Plymouth, in the South West of England (an important qualification as there are reputedly fifty-two ‘Plymouths’ scattered across the globe, testifying to the colonial reach of this historic British naval base). The Second Procession for Tupaia took the form of a cavalcade of customized ‘gilet jaunes’ hoisted high overhead on fluorescent poles, as ceremonial banners. Loudly proclaiming its presence through a hypnotic Javanese dirge, played on an array of Indonesian wind instruments made from recycled rubbish, the main body of marchers pounded out a relentless rhythm on a makeshift gamelan of plastic bottles and gongs. Occasionally this noisy ‘high-viz’ throng would come to a grinding halt in order to bear witness, in solemn silence, to a series of symbolic rituals, performed against the backdrop of Plymouth Sound, looking out to the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Along with local participants and passers-by, the gathering included artists, writers and musicians from across the Pacific, as well as Europe. The occasion being marked was the death of Tupaia, the Ra’iatean priest and star navigator who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage from Tahiti in 1769, in search of the fabled ‘Great Southern Continent’, but who died a year later on 11 November 1770 in Batavia (now Jakarta), in the Dutch East Indies.

The first version of this processional performance had taken place a week earlier in Greenwich, in South East London, setting out from the National Maritime Museum and wending its way through the English rain to the banks of the River Thames, where Pacific waka canoes waited to transport the dancing ghost of Cook away to the sea. Adapted in response to the prohibitions of the Royal Museums Greenwich, the central object of institutional anxiety in this closely monitored parade was a dog-skin naval uniform, which had been tailored for the occasion in Australia, as a symbolic gift for Tupaia. In order to avoid ‘contamination’ of museum property by the dingo fur, however, the Greenwich authorities had insisted that the cloak should be vacuum-sealed in plastic, bestowing a whole new set of symbolic associations on this gift from the South Pacific. At the same time, the museum’s health and safety guidelines required the performers to wear high viz vests if they were to process beyond the grounds of the institution; a prescriptive stipulation which, in response, was adopted as the central visual motif of the parade.

Gathered under the overall title of Cook’s New Clothes, this multi-faceted project also incorporated an installation in the vast, dilapidated Melville Building in the Royal Navy’s former victualling yards in Plymouth, as part of The Atlantic Project[1], along with related performance lectures, Stubb’s Dingo and Museopiracy, delivered in implicated sites across the city. Conceived and directed by Austro-Australian artist, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, in collaboration with Maori weaver Keren Ruki, Cook’s New Clothes brought together a cast of participants from around the globe, including choreographer Kirill Burlov, performance artist Nikolaus Gansterer, composer Mo'ong Santoso Pribadi, historian of European imperialism Simon Layton, textile researcher and designer Ruby Hoette, and Indigenous Australian scholars, Tamara Murdoch and Jessyca Hutchens, amongst others.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years earlier, on 26 August 1768, Captain Cook’s Endeavour set sail from Plymouth, ostensibly to record the transit of Venus from the vantage point of Tahiti, in the South Pacific, but tasked with a greater secret objective; to seek out and claim the Terra Australis Incognita for King George III. Whilst the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage has received much scholarly attention in recent times, with significant investment in the re-narration of this formative encounter between Pacific and European civilisations, the recognition of Tupaia’s role in this and the commemoration of his death are still largely overlooked. For a quarter of a millennium, the two-way dialogue facilitated through Tupaia’s interpretation and cultural mediation has consistently been recast as a monologue of Western ‘discovery’. As with the critique of anthropology, it is the mutual ‘coeval’ nature of communicative exchange that has been systematically denied in the ensuing discourse.

When Cook encountered Oceanic peoples in the course of his three voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1780, he was astonished not only by their diversity and the extent of their dispersal across the Pacific Ocean - covering one third of the Earth’s surface - but even more so by their evident links and commonalities. The similarity of languages, ceremonial spaces, maritime technologies, religious practices and trading networks pointed to a civilisation with a complex history of voyaging and exchange that had existed in parallel with, but virtually unknown to, the West, for thousands of years. On joining the Endeavour in July 1769, as an ‘ariori priest (a devotee of ‘Oro, the god of fertility and war, with a long tradition of maritime exploration), Tupaia was able to list hundreds of named islands, stretching over a vast area of the central Pacific. To visualise this, more than 120 stones were placed in the sand, each a symbol of an island across a span of more than 4,000 kilometres from the Marquesas in the East to Fiji in the West; a distance equal to the width of the continental United States. Working closely with the Europeans, Tupaia then went on to transcribe these onto a map. While Cook, as a leading hydrographer, used instrumental measurements to fix the islands in Cartesian space, gridded by latitude and longitude, Tupaia located them in a relational universe of Polynesian space-time, with star, wind and human ancestors linked to particular people and places in expansive, dynamic kin networks.

One of the most distinctive commonalities of Oceanic culture is the gift economy. It is no coincidence that the seminal early twentieth-century anthropological study, The Gift by Marcel Mauss[2], was inspired by instances from the Pacific. Often ancestral treasures of great mana (spiritual power), such as a ceremonial cloak, were deliberately gifted to foreigners with whom the Islanders wished to inaugurate relationships. Just as the British naval uniform is emblematic of military discipline and colonial might, the gift of a cloak in Pacific ceremonies is a powerful symbol of friendship and respect. The significance of the dog-skin uniform in Cook's New Clothes, along with a cloak made from shredded plastic detritus reclaimed from the Pacific Ocean, is that Cook did not appear to have any such offering within his own collection, as one might have supposed he would. When the Endeavour made landfall at Turanga-nui-a-Kiwi (Gisborne) – the first European ship to arrive in Aotearoa (New Zealand) – it was Tupaia who led the dialogue, telling the local people that they had sailed from Ra’iatea, in the Society Islands, an ancestral homeland of the Maori. Thus, it was Tupaia, as the leader of an ‘ariol expedition, not the European, Cook, who was ceremonially welcomed as a tohunga (expert), with the gift of a valuable dog-skin cloak.

It seems that Tupaia’s cloak was subsequently inherited after his death in Batavia by Joseph Banks, the wealthy young leader of the Royal Society party of botanists and artists on board the Endeavour, who was later famously painted wearing the very same Maori accoutrement by Benjamin West. This powerful artefact now resides in the Pitt Rivers Museum, as part of the University of Oxford’s ethnological collection. It was Banks who had insisted that Tupaia should be welcomed aboard the Endeavour in Tahiti, even though Cook had been reluctant, refusing to support the Ra’iatean or grant him a uniform. In his journal, Banks records, on 7 July 1769, that Tupaia had “renewed his resolves of going with us to England… I therefore have resolved to take him. Thank heaven I have a sufficiency and I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a larger expense.”[3] Thus it was Banks who paid for Tupaia’s upkeep.

As well as being a naturalist and plant collector, founding the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Banks also had a keen interest in textiles and clothing (an enthusiasm which he shared with Tupaia, who accompanied him on his bartering trips throughout the voyage). While Tupaia did not survive, on Banks’ return to England the newly ‘discovered’ Pacific Islanders were soon represented in theatrical spectacles such as the pantomime Omai, A Voyage Round the World, performed at Covent Garden in 1785, which included as its finale a costume parade of the Pacific peoples encountered during Cook’s voyages.

“How to commemorate Tupaia?” asks the narrator in the voice-over to Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s film, Processions for Tupaia, documenting the events in Greenwich and Plymouth. How to restore subjectivity to this marginalised figure? “How to return ghosts to the future?”[4] In Johannes Fabian’s book Time and the Other, the ethnographer analyses a central device in the “making” of the object of anthropology as “temporal distancing”[5]. Situating the Other in a geographically remote and a distant time, such as an “archaic past”, is central to how modern Western institutions have created the image of the superiority of the history that they represent. The discourse of primitivism in modern Western culture was crafted on the imaginary of an archaic past that modernity had broken with and that history, just as every individual, had to overcome or suppress. But we know that the Oceanic civilisation Cook encountered was not ‘pre-modern’ or primitive. Indeed, it was highly sophisticated, with a complex history of maritime trade and cultural exchange across more than one third of the Earth’s surface. One way of honouring Tupaia’s legacy, therefore, would be to start by calling out the Western fantasy of ‘discovery’ which still persists today, emphasizing instead the contemporaneity of the dialogue that took place between European and Pacific cultures, facilitated by this remarkable intermediary, in the shared time of reciprocal exchange.

A lasting impact of 18th century European imperialism is that Pacific communities are still commonly viewed as being ‘remote’ and under-developed, occupying “islands in a far sea… too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centres of economic growth for their inhabitants ever to be able to rise above their present condition of dependence on the largesse of wealthy nations.”[6] In his influential essay, Our Sea of Islands, published in A New Oceania, the Tongan / Fijian writer and anthropologist, Epeli Hau’ofa, cites a counter-history where Pacific Islanders "were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging."[7] In contrast to the Europeans, “who drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that, for the first time, confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces”, Hau’ofa argues, “if we look at the myths, legends and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas.”[8] Thus, Hau’ofa called for his fellow Islanders to rediscover “the ocean in us”[9], challenging the neo-colonial view of small, isolated communities, dependent upon support, reflecting instead on their long history of sea-faring and epic ocean crossings in a world that is anything but ‘tiny’.

For the Samoan writer and poet, Albert Wendt, the “new Oceania”[10] encapsulated the hope of a new subjectivity, liberated from the effects of colonial and neo-colonial discourses that had oppressed Oceanic peoples in the past, and continue to do so in the present. In his autobiographical poem, Inside Us the Dead (1976) Wendt describes the generations of struggle for autonomy in his own family history, evoking his Polynesian ancestors and contrasting the visionary dreams and ideological nightmares from which many ‘new Oceanias’ had been made. Elaborating on this debate, the Hawaiian poet, Teresia Teaiwa observed, “The claim of being native in an ocean is altogether different from being native to an island. Decolonisation projects aimed at defending territorial borders, claiming national sovereignty and building nation-states are not what Albert and Epeli were envisioning… If we go to the water, the ocean, the moana, what might decolonisation look like?”[11]

Perhaps one vision, in answer to this critical question, might be found in Tupaia’s map. Not only does this document underscore the extent and mastery of Polynesian navigation, but it also represents a remarkable feat of translation between two very different wayfinding systems and their respective representational models. Reflecting on this difference, historians Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz argue that “we have become so naturalized to the Western approach to modelling geographical space that it is important to remind ourselves how artificial it actually is. It conceives of a world that is abstracted from the traveller, objectivized and fixed in two-dimensional cartographic representations… the earth’s surface is imagined to be covered by a grid of invisible lines of two orientations: the first marking the distance or latitude from the earth’s poles, the second marking the longitudinal distance from an arbitrarily fixed meridian.”[12] It is this all-encompassing system of longitude and latitude, and the Mercator-style cartographic projection that accompanied it, that enabled Eurocentric colonialism to be imposed upon Indigenous peoples across the globe.

In contrast, Tupaia’s conception of the relation between the traveller and the world, and their strategy of navigational orientation were clearly very different. “Oceanic navigation did not abstract the world from the navigator and did not fix it from an abstract exterior focal point of orientation”, write Eckstein and Schwarz. “On the contrary, the geographic centre of navigational orientation was inevitably the navigator, and the pahi, the voyaging canoe … which was imagined as fixed, surrounded by an animate world of ocean, sea life, wind, current, sun, stars, planets, and ultimately islands. Wayfinding in this system crucially depended on … closely observing the stars at night, the course of the sun in the daytime, and the directions of wind and swell, by observing the wake for current drift and leeway.”[13] At the core of the Polynesian system was an elaborate astronomy which was closely tied to the lunar calendar. However, crucially, it is vital to note that the “star and sun courses for … island to island travel were remembered not visually, that is in the form of compasses or maps, but through narrative: Tupaia would have known a vast set of narratives or chants replete with information about the seasonal viability of travel, providing exact bearings on traditional voyaging routes… [supplemented by] the observation of homing seabirds, changing swell patterns, cloud formations, reflections on the underside of clouds, deep sea phosphorescence and other factors.”[14]

The challenge confronting Tupaia, therefore, in map-making for the Europeans was how to translate the complexities of his navigational knowledge into the geographical model which the Europeans presented to him. Or, more specifically, how he could transfer a whole set of wayfinding chants centred on the position of the pahi, and informed by precise astronomical bearings as well as a whole range of other situational information, into the singular representational model of a chart?

According to Eckstein and Schwarz, Tupaia’s genius was “to override the absolute cardinal orientation prefigured for him. From this stage of map-making onward, north would no longer be ‘up’, independent of one’s position on the map, east no longer ‘right’, south no longer ‘down’, west no longer ‘left’. Instead, Tupaia placed north … in the centre of the map and thus quit the abstract cartographic space set up by the Europeans. Every island which he would from now on enter on the first draft of his chart was a centre in its own right, a centre from which a pahi could depart on a specific traditional voyaging path. Viewers of the map are accordingly invited to abandon their aloof, singular, abstracted bird’s eye perspective and to situate themselves in Tupaia’s three-dimensional sea of islands... From here, they need to take two different bearings: first, to the north, located in the map’s centre; second, to the following island on a defined voyaging route. The angle between the two sets the course.”[15]

The prime meridian with which Endeavour’s crew operated was not accidentally set on Greenwich, London, of course. It was in London, after all, in the Admiralty’s headquarters, that all knowledge collected on Britain’s voyages of exploration (geographical, yet also geological, biological, ethnographic) was archived, new maps were compiled, and new explorers were instructed. The entanglement of state, science and cartography, of which the choice of Greenwich is evocative, was the outcome of joint processes of cognitive and social ordering that were exerting increasing power in the closing decades of the 18th century, when the Endeavour embarked on its voyage. By contrast, Tupaia’s world view centred on the embodied navigator in their canoe, in the midst of a ‘sea of islands’, situated in a relational universe of Polynesian space and time, far from the European seat of power.

If one were to take the logic of translation further and to understand Tupaia’s remarkable map as a re-interpretation of the Atlantic world view from an Oceanic perspective, the question arises: how might this challenge to the Mercator projection of Western universalism begin to conjure a vision of what decolonisation might look like today? How can Tupaia’s map help to divest Eurocentric modernity of its normative positionality?

According to the Argentinian philosopher, Enrique Dussel, Eurocentric modernity was ‘born’ in 1492 with the invasion of the Americas (the ‘New World’) at the point “when Europe was in a position to pose itself against another, when, in other words, Europe could constitute itself as a unified ego exploring, conquering, colonizing an alterity that gave back its image of itself. This Other, in other words, was not ‘discovered’ as such, but concealed.”[16] Before 1492, before the colonial enterprise, Dussel suggests, Europe could not begin to think of itself as the centre of the world. The condition for Europe’s self-understanding is precisely that of positing itself ‘against the Other’, of ‘colonizing an alterity that gave back its image of itself’. In fact, Europe cannot conceive of itself without the negation of the Other. The Europe-centred map of the world serves as a metaphor to show that without colonialism Europe could neither represent itself as the centre of geography nor as the ‘now’ of history. In this dominant world-historical reality, there is no modernity without coloniality.

Mexican sociologist, Rolando Vazquez analyses this as “a process of double negation, constituted by two co-implicated movements. The first movement is the colonial enactment of negation of the Other by enslaving, exterminating, exploiting, dispossessing, extracting. The second and simultaneous movement of the double negation is that of the denial and erasure of the first. The negation of coloniality is achieved by the dominion of modernity over representation with its narrative of salvation, of civilization, of progress, of development, and so on, and through the discrimination of the Other by relegating her to the past or to the outside of history, under categories such as ‘barbarism’, ‘under-development’, ‘poverty’, and so on. For example, in the narratives of progress and development, we erase the fact that the plantation system was essential for the formation of the Atlantic economy and the emergence of a global capitalism centred in the West. We negate the ‘Other’ materially through oppression, exploitation, and extraction but we also erase that process from our representation of world-historical reality.”[17]

Thus, one of the characteristics of Eurocentric modernity is that it is oblivious to coloniality, even though it is fundamental to its existence. While upholding its own self-made narrative it has simultaneously hidden the processes of negation that have enabled it to exist. In this hegemonic position, Eurocentrism assumes itself as universal and that there is no ‘outside’ of its own logic; no epistemic outside, and no genealogy outside its epistemic territory. Thus, Vazquez writes, “When non-Western-centred peoples show that they have other knowledges, other philosophies, other forms of life, they are often seen as holding romanticist positions. We are told that everyone has been touched by modernity and that there is no such thing as an ‘outside modernity’. For decolonial thought, however, there is an ‘outside’ of modernity; this is not to claim that there are worlds in a state of purity that remain untouched by modernity, but rather that there are genealogies and trajectories of life and thought that do not come and cannot be traced back to … the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.”[18]

If the history of progress and civilisation referred to as ‘modernity’ cannot be disconnected from the history of enslavement and extraction in the form of ‘coloniality’, it follows that the movement for decoloniality should be a process of “de-linking”[19], in Walter Mignolo’s terminology. Decoloniality does not seek to become modern. It is not a struggle for denied histories to be recognized as part of the global history of modernity. Rather, “inspired by the radical autonomy of Maroon and first nations struggles,” Vazquez writes, “decolonial delinking and the rejection of modernity as the horizon of expectations is … a radical departure [from] Eurocentrism and the dominant West.”[20] If modernity has suppressed the possibility of other worlds, then “decoloniality means to reclaim the possibility of naming and inhabiting the world; it is to be able to embody and experience those other worlds.”[21]

Whilst Tupaia’s map of the Pacific could be seen as a window into another ‘world’, outside Eurocentric modernity, this would still implicitly privilege a European modernist viewpoint, in the characteristic power position of being able to see without being seen itself. What if one were to emphasize instead a reciprocal gaze, in shared time, so as to view the Eurocentric world from an Oceanic perspective? How could the Pacific help to envision a new Atlantic? Is it possible to conceive of a decolonial Western world, liberated from its assumption of universality, and the accompanying logic of enslavement and extraction? Vazquez suggests that this is firstly a task of listening. “We believe that the humbling of modernity is the condition of possibility for beginning to listen to other worlds of meaning.”[22]

In Cook’s New Clothes, the role of Tupaia was absent from the processions in Greenwich and Plymouth. The principle figure was the dancing ghost of Captain Cook, wrapped in a cloak of shredded plastic reclaimed from the Pacific, zig-zagging ahead of the main entourage, which centred around the pallbearers of Tupaia’s dog-skin coat. At the final station of the second procession on Devil’s Point, the gathering watched in solemn silence as Cook walked out into the waters of the Plymouth Sound. The last sighting was of a figure immersed in the sea, accompanied by the sound of the wind, seagulls and the rhythmic swell of the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

[1] The Atlantic Project was a pilot for a new international festival of contemporary art in the South West of England, taking place in public contexts and outdoor locations across Plymouth, from 28 September - 21 October 2018: www.theatlantic.org

[2] Marcel Mauss, The Gift (1925)

[3] Joseph Banks, The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks (1769)

[4] Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Processions for Tupaia [video] (2018)

[5] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (1983)

[6] Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘Our Sea of Islands’, A New Oceania (1993)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Epeli Hau’ofi, The Ocean In Us (1998)

[10] Albert Wendt, ‘Towards a new Oceania’, Mana Review (1976)

[11] Teresia Teaiwa, ‘On Analogies: Rethinking the Pacific in a Global Context’, The Contemporary Pacific (2006)

[12] Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz, ‘The Making of Tupaia’s Map’ in The Journal of Pacific History (2018)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Enrique Dussel, ‘Eurocentrism and Modernity (Introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures)’ in boundary 2 (1993)

[17] Rolando Vazquez, The Museum, Decoloniality and the End of the Contemporary (2017)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs, Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (1999)

[20] Rolando Vazquez, The Museum, Decoloniality and the End of the Contemporary (2017)

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rolando Vazquez, ‘Towards a Decolonial Critique of Modernity’, Capital, Poverty, Development (2012)