Celebrity Culture and the Myth of Oceania in Britain, 1770-1823. Ruth Scobie. 2019

Celebrity Culture and the Myth of Oceania in Britain, 1770-1823. Ruth Scobie. 2019

Scobie, Ruth.
Celebrity Culture and the Myth of Oceania in Britain, 1770-1823.
Boydell Press.
ISBN 978-1-78327-408-6.
208 pages.


In the current world celebrity culture appears to dominate media, new “celebrities” emerge weekly, and fake news competes with “authentic” journalism, it is timely to consider when and how “celebrity culture” emerged.  Ruth Scobie’s volume examines the period 1770 to 1823, spanning the “Otaheite craze” of the 1770s to the publication of Byron’s poem The Island (1823), where the elusive figure of Fletcher Christian provided Byron with a model “for his own experience of the intrusive power of public curiosity”.


The Introduction provides a detailed examination of the emergence of British celebrity culture in London, which was made possible by the development of printing technologies, and the political circumstances of the time.  Political controversy and opposition were carried on in the pages of a greatly expanded and vigorous press.  Above all, the emergence of modern metropolitan celebrity aroused questions about the nature of celebrity as opposed to “true fame”.  Hitherto, true fame had been accorded only to traditional elites, people of rank and nobility, or to people whose achievements in literature or the arts were durable and long-lasting.  However, the growth of an ephemeral print culture and styles of theatre that responded to the latest sensations and scandals, meant that other types of individual might achieve celebrity: actors and actresses, lottery winners, criminals, auctioneers, naval heroes, politicians, and so on.  Was this true fame, or was it by contrast mercenary, valueless, illusory and even corrupting?  These were questions that emerged in the 18th century, and, the author argues, were important in shaping both how the metropolis pictured and understood Oceania, and how in turn this helped to shape ideas about Empire and colonialism.


The following chapters explore Joseph Banks and the scandal of celebrity, the immortality of James Cook, the Bounty mutiny and views of the Botany Bay settlement with a postscript on Wilkie Collins’s novella Ioláni: or Tahiti as it was (written around 1844 but not published in his lifetime).  The two chapters on Banks and Cook are of most interest to CCS members.


Joseph Banks was both the chief beneficiary and the target of public interest in the immediate aftermath of Cook’s First Voyage.  The language of Linnaean botany with its sexual overtones offered satirists a wonderful tool to criticise and lampoon the perceived dissolute behaviour of elites, and, by extension, their mismanagement and corruption.  Banks’s sexual adventures in England appeared to mirror those in Tahiti, and both he and Solander were subjects of the so-called Macaroni caricatures, where Banks was depicted (with asses’ ears) as a wealthy virtuoso, but also as an aggrandizing self-promoter. 


The impact of Hawkesworth’s edition of Cook’s voyages was huge and initially a little confusing.  It appeared to have been edited for a mass readership, but was far too expensive for that, and was plundered by every London newspaper and periodical, which reprinted long extracts.  There were, moreover, moral objections to Hawkesworth’s account, not just confined to the titillating discussions of sex, but also because his running commentary tended to moral relativism and denied the hand of Providence, which was considered to be an essential ingredient of contemporary travel writing.  Hot on the heels of Hawkesworth’s publication, there appeared letters, abridgements, and spurious editions, editions in instalments, poetry and plays (one which depicted Oberea complete with seductive dancing and songs), letters and epistles, including the so-called Otaheitean Letters, written by “Eowa” and published 1778-80, which provided an opportunity to contrast Tahitian simplicity with British commercial culture. 


All of this contrasts with the treatment of Cook, whom the author argues did not acquire the sort of celebrity that characterised Banks.  Cook’s long-lasting fame was comparatively slow to become established.  After his death there were poetic elegies, not all of which thought he would become the immortal hero depicted in Anna Seward’s verses, the best known of these.  In Cook’s case there was no body, no funeral, no grave on which to erect a physical monument.  His spirit therefore remained a haunting presence in Oceania, safely distant from the metropolis, in a sort of Virgilian underworld of the poetic imagination.  There was even an imagining of “Cook’s morai”, an Oceanic site of commemoration far removed from the scandals of metropolitan celebrity.  In the official Third Voyage account published in 1784, Cook was presented as a benign figure, who would in due course be transformed into the explorer-benefactor-founder of a British Empire in Oceania, bringing the benefits of western civilization to distant islands.


At the same time the 1780s saw an explosion of paintings, prints and pantomimes.  Competing renditions of Cook’s death were made by John Webber, George Carter, Charles Grignion Jr., and J.H. Ramberg, whose painting is reproduced on the book’s cover.  Pantomimes were particularly popu­lar; “Omai” (1785) is well known, but less so is “The Death of Captain Cook” (1789), which included a Cook morai, ballet and dances in a consciously ephemeral but pleasurable kind of mourning.  It is interesting to note that the well-known print of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook was based on a backdrop designed by Webber and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg for one of these pantomimes.  Webber in particular was responsible for a continu­ing output of images of the South Seas that fed into metropolitan ideas of Oceania.


This book is primarily for an academic audience, and it is not perhaps surprising that it is firmly anchored in post-colonial theory.  Thus the main objective is to show how celebrity fed into imperialist ideas, and shaped views of unfamiliar worlds such as Oceania.  New Zealand, after the first mention, is always referred to as Aotearoa, though oddly the same is not applied to Rapanui (Easter Island).  It is extremely thoroughly researched, with some 64 contemporary newspapers and periodicals listed, and therefore a good deal of the material quoted is unfamiliar.  There is much fascinating material, lots of poetry (ranging from the indifferent to the interesting), and the material on theatre and pantomime is particularly useful.  In several cases, the author identifies the contemporary London figure who is the real object of critique or satire rather than the Oceanic figure (e.g. the scandalous Lady Bellaston and the Duke of Cumberland), which adds richness to the analysis of individual cases. 


On occasion, a lack of historical context can produce general statements that may be misleading.  Did Cook’s death produce “several days of indiscriminate British revenge attacks”?  Certainly one significant incident is known but Captain Clerke managed generally to exert restraint.  Elizabeth Cook was better treated by the Admiralty than the author supposes, being given a share of royalties from the published account of the voyage.  She died very well off leaving a considerable amount in monetary legacies.  Cook’s claims to fame were also overshadowed by the onset of wars with America and revolutionary France, and by the dramatic career and death of Nelson who became inevitably the nation’s principal hero and celebrity.


The book is well produced, and laid out with notes at the foot of the page, rather than at the back, always a relief to this reviewer.  It could benefit from more illustrations, and it is notable that all those included come from Australian national collections, a fact which is indicative in itself of continuing interest in the colonial past (but may also reflect the high price of copyright permissions from large British institu­tions).  The language in the book may be dense, but for anyone interested in learning more about the reception of Cook’s voyages and the rich variety of roles they played in metropolitan culture, this is an intriguing and comprehensive survey of the celebrity culture of the period. 


Sophie Forgan

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 17, volume 42, number 4 (2019).

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