Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wanderings in New Guinea - book

Wanderings in New Guinea, Capt. J. A. Lawson, Chapman and Hall, London, 1875.

Why am I discussing a book written in 1875, because it is a most interesting book, but not if you have any serious interest in New Guinea. It is interesting because it is certainly one of the most fake, dishonest, and terribly misleading travel books ever written. Capt. J. A. Lawson is a pseudonym for someone (I have not found out exactly who, although I doubt if it would make any difference if I did). In any case this was a book so outrageously awful it rated an absolutely scathing review from none other than the great naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace himself.

The book claims to be the result of an expedition to New Guinea by Capt. Lawson. Briefly it begins with his preparations for the trip and then proceeds to describe his adventures along the way. There is an account of his shooting monkeys (there are no monkeys in New Guinea), and also deer (there are no deer in New Guinea), and descriptions of horrible noises in the forest, crocodiles and vultures, and what-have-you. Also along the way he encounters wild goats (there are no wild goats in New Guinea), hares (there are none), and squirrels (none). He is annoyed by more monkeys and shoots more deer. He then has an encounter with a bull he attempts to shoot and is almost killed (there are no buffalo bulls in New Guinea), and discovers lakes and mountains that do not exist as he describes them. Continuing on he encounters and describes a New Guinea tiger (tigers do not exist in New Guinea). He also encounters a dead buffalo and an ostrich (ostriches do not exist in New Guinea). At one point his party is reduced to having to drink blood, there is a desperate fight and they escape, he encounters a fox (foxes do not exist in New Guinea). There is even more of this utter nonsense and he finally leaves New Guinea on a Chinese Junk and eventually returns to England.

Anthropologists and others have often complained that prior to the establishment of their professions the only information available about the many strange people of the world came from the accounts of missionaries and travelers, and these were more often than not either biased or of questionable veracity. This book, Wanderings in New Guinea, has to be seen as the classic example of this problem. It is obvious that Capt. Lawson, whoever he was, had never been to New Guinea. He had a remarkable imagination and wrote a book that was calculated to sensationalize and sell, and apparently it did, which prompted the critical review by Wallace, because he feared that some people were accepting it as a factual account.

You have to remember that by 1875 very little was known about New Guinea. There were Portuguese, Indonesian, and probably Spanish explorers that had visited the island in the 16th century but spent little time there. Eventually the Dutch claimed the western half of the island, taken over for a time by the Germans, while the English claimed the southeastern portion of the island, eventually turned over to Australia for administration. The Highlands of New Guinea, the interior, was believed , erroneously, to be uninhabited as late as 1930. The island is known to have been inhabited by humans for 40,000 years, perhaps even 60,000. Aside from pigs and dogs that came with the people there are no mammals in New Guinea, certainly none of the creatures claimed by Lawson. Wanderings…was a book of its time, written while the age of exploration was still in its heyday, offering an account of strange lands and creatures, adventure, discovery, and what-have-you. It is not surprising that some people may have believed it was a factual account of a genuine expedition.

My major interest in this book, aside from my general interest in New Guinea where I did field work, has to do with a single passage that I believe sort of sums up the attitude European colonials apparently had vis-à-vis all the strange people and cultures they encountered, an attitude of almost complete indifference to them as individuals, people, and representatives of different ways of life. The main interest expressed by the colonial powers seems to have been whether or not they were humans, and also, were they Christians. I find it truly remarkable that from the 15th century until at least the 19th century no systematic or serious academic attempt was made to study their other than physical humanity, their cultures, social organizations, and so on. The science (or humanity, if you will) of anthropology did not appear until the late 19th century. I do not know if this was because Europeans were too busy and involved in exploiting them to wish to know anything about them, or if the interest in the human species just lagged behind the growing interest in natural history in general. There must have been at least some individuals who came to know various “savages” personally, but they did not have a voice that mattered. It is curious that at the same time “savages” were being considered less than human, especially in the United States, Australia, Tasmania, and other places, there was no hesitation in raping or otherwise having sexual relations with them (this raises an interesting hypothetical question of possible bestiality I will ignore for the moment).

There is a passage in which Lawson describes coming across a pair of what he describes as ape-like creatures, a male and a female. The female is reclining while the male is caressing her and giving her food. They are described as being human-sized and appear reasonably human. Does Lawson attempt to contact them, to capture them, to engage them in any way? No, he and his aide shoot and kill them with no warning. For reasons that are not explained Lawson dismembers her body, discovers an advanced fetus that does not survive. I sadly suggest this is the general attitude Europeans brought to bear during the colonial period, complete indifference to the humanity of others, little or no curiosity about them, and thus helps to explain the incredible savagery of colonialism. I am working on a short account of “The Savagery of Colonialism” and this account fits in well with what I am learning, even though it is entirely fictional.

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