Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters Smith, Vanessa. 2010

Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters Smith, Vanessa. 2010

Smith, Vanessa. 
Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters.
Cambridge University Press. 
ISBN 978-0-521-43751-6 (hardback) and 978-0-521-72878-2 (paperback).

Vanessa Smith is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney, with degrees from the Universities of Sydney and Cambridge. Intimate Strangers is part of a series in British Empire studies published by the Cambridge University Press.

The book focuses on an understanding of friendship and cultural exchange recorded in the writings of European visitors to the South Pacific in the later eighteenth century. "Taio" was likely to have been the first word spoken by "Oceanians" to Europeans, and the visitors interpreted it as "friend."

The author explores the many levels of friendship, including the special bond and name exchange that might eventually arise from such associations, as well as the exchange of gifts between Europeans and native peoples. She argues that the significance of taio and its many levels or ramifications was not understood, or was misconstrued, by European visitors. Smith observes that Captain Cook followed Admiralty instructions and "charted the Pacific according to codes of friendship, repeatedly getting it wrong." As examples, Smith cites Cook's name of Savage Island for Niue; the Friendly Islands for Tonga; Friendly Cove in New Zealand, as well as Nootka Sound in Canada. The book's title, Intimate Strangers, supports her conclusions.

Much of the book focuses on Tahiti, with occasional references to other locations. The time span covers approximately 40 years. It begins with Samuel Wallis and Dolphin (1767), Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1769), followed by the voyages of Endeavour (1769-1771), Resolution and Adventure (1772-175), and Resolution and Discovery (1776-1780). She covers the visits by Captain Bligh in Bounty (1788-1789) and Providence (1791-1792). She briefly deals with George Vancouver's visits to Tahiti and Hawaii (1791 and 1792); several Spanish visits (1772-1775); the Russian expedition in 1804; and, finally, the first London Missionary Society visit to the Marquesas (1796-1799). The book's organisation, however, is not strictly chronological.

The first half of the book considers taio relationships in four parts. Part one considers "Crowd Scenes", taio greetings and exchange on ship or on shore. Part two is entitled "Receiving Strangers," an example of which is the implications of Cook's instructions to Endeavour's men upon landing at Tahiti in 1769. The third part is "Calculated Affection," the European tension between intimacy and calculation rather than separation of these concepts by Oceanians. The final section considers "Performance Anxieties", such as Oceanic cultural rituals, sentiment, and authenticity as interpreted by European visitors. The examples represent only a few examples and implications of taio friendship and exchange explored by the author.

Professor Smith structures the second half of her book as case studies, tracing the voyages from Tahiti to France or England by Oceanians, as well as the travels of Captain Bligh to Tahiti, and visits by representatives of the London Missionary Society to the Marquesas. The author entitles these chapters "Fellow Traveling" (e.g., Tupaia or Omai), "Ruinous Friendships," and "Prizeable Companions. An easily recognizable example of a "ruinous friendship" concerns Captain Bligh, Bounty mutineers, and Oceanians.

The author does not study the travels by Oceanians to Lima, Peru. I found this to be curious since, while Peru is not part of Europe, it was the location of the second most important Spanish Viceroyalty, and Lima represented an important outpost of Spanish culture and administration in the Americas.

Smith asks why was it important for European visitors to be understood or accepted as "friends". She finds a purely utilitarian, calculated motive: to receive much needed foodstuffs and supplies, and to explore the broader future economic commercial considerations, or to meet the visitors' imperial world view. The deeper significance of "friend-ship" was rarely understood, or was misconstrued, by the visitors. The other implications included the bond relationship resulting in the exchange of names, with even deeper familial or interpersonal and property relationships. The understandings of the European visitors was often more superficial, or was translated into European concepts of social class.

The author's primary source material consists of the journals of James Cook, Joseph Banks, JR Forster, George Forster, Louis de Bougainville, William Bligh, and others. Cook's writings provide a relatively small amount of material cited, in comparison to references from accounts by Banks, Forster, or Bligh. This slant is not surprising, given the author's focus, and the more detailed observations of Oceanians by those three commentators.

Smith's lengthy bibliography includes several versions of Cook's journals. There are few works by historians, but many by specialists in literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. The author's text is sprinkled with references to Plato, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and others, which are used to define the meaning of friendship over time and within a European framework.

It is important to understand that this study reflects post-modern and deconstructionist approaches found in some contemporary academic writings. Post-modernism and deconstructionism are found in many areas of study including philosophy, literary criticism, music, art, history, sociology, linguistics, etc.

Post-modernism questions the existence of objective truth. It suggests that the reality of a written work (e.g., a biography of Captain Cook or a study of his contributions to navigation or geography) is merely a social construct, subject to time and space. Reality, "the facts," even truth, is subjective. Written words tell more about the writer and his/her motivations, than truth or accuracy of an interpretation or event.

Deconstructionism regards any text as suspicious. The approach seeks to break down and dismantle a writer's motivations to show that the conclusions are irreconcilable, contradictory, or insubstantial. This is why great attention is focused on written words, which are often parsed in detail. Professor Smith's book is similar to "post-colonial literary theory" that is found in Currie's book on Cook at Nootka Sound,1 in that it undertakes to study the meaning of words and a writer's intent, class, sex, sexual orientation, imperial world view, and motivations in order to examine a particular event or series of events.

I found parts of this book to be interesting. Certainly references to taio take on a multi-dimensional significance. The author's account of Captain Cook's death amongst what she terms the "crowd scene" at Kealakekua Bay is a useful adjunct to the more detailed study by Professor Glyn Williams.2 Her chapter on Captain Bligh's visits to Tahiti is very interesting. It includes an analysis of his journal entries, the writings of the Bounty's mutineers and their subsequent court martial. Another useful section considers the travels to Paris and London by Oceanians. However, I found a few sections of the book difficult. On occasion, I found the text to be impenetrable. I found the book to be generally well-written but it is not a "page turner."

Toward the end of her book, Vanessa Smith provides a few sentences summarizing her work:

This book has attempted to interrogate the reflexive assumption that contact can only become legible when we assume the professions of friendship disguise their opposite, that friendship is always calculating on other goals. I have analysed something of the long western philosophical tradition in which such suspicion of friendship is embedded. I have shown that Oceanic culture also framed and articulated discourses of friendship, and that the conjunction of these with European values through rough and ready acts of friendship-formation on the beach begged questions of those values. I have attempted to articulate the kinds of European double-think about friendship that were exposed by those encounters, without obscuring the effective register of European investment in friendship. ...I hope to move the notion of cultural observation away from the panoptic and towards the reciprocal, the dialectical and the partial. To see it a little less like either science or sentiment, and more perhaps like taio might have been: a model created between cultures.

This book is not for the casual or general reader or someone without an understanding of the voyages of Captain Cook or other 18th century navigators. It is written by a specialist in language and literature for an audience of other specialists and academics, using a post-modern, deconstructionist focus. The author incorporated an impressive catalogue of material in her cross-cultural, well-documented interpretation of friendship and exchange. It sheds light on a narrow aspect of Captain Cook's voyages and for this reason is useful in an attempt to understand the European visits to, and impact upon, Tahiti and its environs.


  1. Noel Elizabeth Currie, Constructing Colonial Discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound, Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 43, vol. 34, no. 1 (2011).
  2. Glyn Williams, The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade, Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 18, vol. 21, no. 4 (2008).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 34, number 2 (2011).

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