Regarding Islands: A Review of Rod Edmond and Vanessa Smith (ed.s) Islands in History and Representation.

By Daniel Bedggood

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Few men who come to islands leave them; they grow grey where they alighted; the palm shades and the tradewinds fan them till they die, perhaps cherishing to the last the fancy of returning home…. No part of the world exerts the same attractive power.

-Robert Louis Stevenson.

Islands are both physical, geographical formations and imaginative domains which have, historically, ‘attracted’ much attention and which have been put to diverse uses.   While not all of this fascination with islands reflects the gentle magnetism of the Stevenson quotation above (from In the South Seas ), the imaginative ‘capture’ of Western eyes and the practices of island dwellers themselves reproduce islands as exemplary locations for literal and ideological habitation.

Islands in History and Representation is a new collection of essays critically engaging with the varying attraction to islands.   Editors Rod Edmond and Vanessa Smith, distinguished researchers in colonial discourse criticism, have assembled an impressive range of other critics working on the theoretical ‘placement’ of islands.   The book, a new and welcome addition to the expanding research in ‘postcolonial’ discourses and theories on representation (and a title within the ‘Routledge Research in Postcolonial Studies’ series), melds together some connected and some disparate evaluations of the various ‘attractions’ and uses of islands, including uses as sites of cultural contact, dumping grounds, and ideological and social laboratories.

The context of the book’s production is based on the perceived need to emphasize ‘island-centred theorising’ within the ‘postcolonial turn within disciplines as various as history, anthropology, geography and literary studies.’ (6)   The claim for this need reflects on the emergence of critical literatures increasingly focussed on the particular experience of islands’ ‘production’; recent postcolonial or decolonising work on Oceania, the Atlantic, Caribbean, and elsewhere, raises the notion of particular contingencies present in island experience of colonialism.   Epeli Hau’ofa’s influential revaluation of the Pacific as ‘our sea of islands’, redressing, as it does, the ‘belittlement’ of post-contact island mentalities, is particularly instructive of the sort of critical practice that Islands in History and Representation engages with.

On one hand, it is argued that much of the fascination with islands is based on their accessibility due to their limited scope and potential for (ideological) containment; James Hamilton-Paterson is quoted by Edmond and Smith, stating that ‘[t]his unit of land which fits within the retina of the approaching eye is a token of desire.’ (2)   Yet, in subject focus, the book challenges this boundedness: its temporal ranging spreads the book over the extent of the ‘modern’ period, from early maritime expansion in the fifteenth century to contemporary, early twentieth-first-century; spatially, the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian Ocean island worlds are featured.   Even where presented as relatively bounded, in these studies, islands still function as sites of exchange or ‘contact zones’ (after Pratt).

Fitting with the argument of islands as paradoxically separate and yet fluidly connected, the individual authors produce separate analyses of historically distinct conditions and encapsulated islands.   Nevertheless, with the collection of essays thematically connected by a focus on history and representation of islands, there are bound to be associations of theory and practice, and there also appear to be ‘series,’ within the whole, more tightly grouped by similar subject or focus.   These ‘series’ reflect an overall theoretical intent, and shift in tropological treatment, from ‘bounded’ insularity to an archipelagic depiction (15).

The scope of the first ‘series’ of essays dwells on the ‘place’ of islands in the development and maintenance of the eighteenth-nineteenth-century Atlantic economy.   John R. Gillis argues that islands, as circumscribable models and imaginative zones at the periphery of European knowledge, were instrumental in the mercantile, political and imaginative expansion of European history ‘offshore.’ (19-31)   In particular, Gillis addresses the historical shift from ‘speculative’ to ‘economic’ ‘islands of the mind’ (19), with utopian and adventurous island narratives gradually replaced by systemised usage of islands as model societies and production zones, and with a privileged placement in economic exchange due to an accessible archipelagical connectivity (28).   Gillian Beer continues this analysis of islands as sites of eighteenth-century encounter: both between human cultures, and human understanding and the natural world (32-42).   Extracting an intensive ethnographic reading of Robinson Crusoe , Beer reconstitutes Defoe’s island awareness as a precursor of natural history texts and theory, and also prefigurative of animal-human associations in island identity.   The next two essays, by Markman Ellis (43-62), and Deirdre Coleman (63-80), share a particularly close dialogue, placing islands as combatative models of colonisation praxis.   Ellis’ analysis of eighteenth-century planters’ idyllic poetry, which celebrated the ‘cane-islands’ as part of an exemplary ‘imperial archipelago’ with Britain (49), underscores the fragility of this island system, especially due to its dependence on slave labour.   In apparent contrast, the (fleeting) island colony of Bulama, and African mainland counterpart, Sierra Leone, are, in Coleman’s analysis, also revealed as fragile in terms of utopian ideals (including emancipatory, libertinarian politics) juxtaposed with an inhospitable environment.

The next ‘series’ dwells on representation of Pacific islands as sites for: the articulation of racial typing (Vanessa Agnew, 81-94); cultural relativism, in Cook’s encounters with different islanders (Harriet Guest, 95-115); a concern with cultural identity and the merits of interbreeding in close social contact (Smith, 116-132); and disposal of ‘abject bodies’ (Edmond, 133-145).   These four essays read particularly well in combination, with an apparent progression of material and concerns that are closely linked, thematically.   Agnew’s discussion of the theoretical and empirical rise of racialised distinctions, is based in different interpretations of Pacific island encounter.   Observations of the relative disinterestedness and competitive receptivity towards Western culture displayed, respectively, by Tierra del Feugians and Tongans, for example, is suggested to have been a basis for making racial distinctions about development (89).   Nevertheless, she argues that, while Germans were intrinsic to this early theorising, no unified ‘German’ model is perceptible, reflecting back on a disunified, contingent Germanic experience (93-4).   Similarly, the apparent activity of cultural relativism in Cook’s voyaging from island to island, analysed by Guest, is driven by different observational impulses, including political, anatomical, mercantile and moral dimensions, which also result in contradictory evaluations.   In Guest’s view, comparisons between Tongans and Tahitians were complicated by imaginative expectations and anxieties over the position of Europeans in a cultural hierarchy (108-9).   Smith’s study of Pitcairn islanders, interbred products of Bounty mutineers and Polynesian mothers, continues an examination of islands and cultural anxiety.   While often portrayed as an ‘ideal’ settlement in the South Seas, the ‘English’ identity of this micro-colony is suspect, of a type with Bhabha’s ‘colonial mimicry’ which unsettles paradisiacal depictions.   The overwriting of part-Polynesian origins and fears of inbreeding are retrieved by Smith’s analysis as a ‘repudiation’ of ‘heritage’, an unhealthy, but expedient ‘cultural forgetting.’ (131-2).   Likewise, in Edmond’s study of leper islands, the principal of separation is a key feature of islands’ attractiveness to authorities.   Edmond dwells on islands as ineffectual sites for containment of undesirable qualities, noting the linkage of concepts of disease and cultural contamination which remain in force today, ensuring the reuse of islands for imprisonment of today’s ‘epidemic’ of refugees.

A more loosely-connected ‘series’, the final four essays and Greg Denning’s ‘Afterword’ tie up the volume’s consideration of island representation by examining twentieth-century reconfigurations of island identity and relationships.   Decolonisation, creolisation, recolonisation, and globalisation figure prominently in these essays’ ‘island contingencies’.   Roger Moss extensively examines Walcott’s intertextuality of form in Omeros , recreating a new, decolonising ‘Homeric’ tradition through epic ‘catachresis’, centred around Walcott’s own island experiences (146-161).   Françoise Vergès takes up the particular conditions of creolisation, and narratives of emancipation from the French metropole as a distinctive twentieth-century island predicament, only recently beginning to gain agency (162-176).   Klaus Dodds, however, views a different example, where islands can still signify an imperial legacy, and sustain exercises in recolonisation.   His examination of the Falklands conflict suggests that, with the right political marketing of identity, inhabitants of a marginal territory can become central to issues of empire and colonial prestige.   Invocation of being an ‘island race’, Dodds suggests, can evoke an historical archipelagic relationship that appears oddly anachronistic in the late twentieth-century (178-9).   Manipulations of scale and island connections, however, are often sustained in the connection between contemporary figurations of locality and globalisation.   In Elizabeth McMahon’s essay, islands’ transmogrification into nations and the globe itself are part of the everyday translation of scale in ‘placement’.   Island identity is graspable topos to encapsulate, in microcosm, the state of larger ‘islands’ of containment.   In McMahon’s view, insular identity requires interconnections of an archipelagic, postcolonial order to avoid the stasis of ‘colonialist expediency.’ (202)   In a similar vein, Greg Denning argues that constant reconfiguration of island identity, with travel and interchange as key components, is a lasting, exemplary model for island representation (203-6).

Taken separately, on each essay’s individual merits, this collection should be seen as a valuable publication; viewed as a collection , though, Islands in History and Representation stakes a claim in postcolonial studies that warrants attention, revealing, as it does, as much about ‘continental’ mindsets and concerns as about conditions and expectations of islands and islanders themselves.


Daniel Bedggood, a teacher and researcher at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, has recently gained his PhD for a thesis entitled Tainted Moves: Subjects of Contemporary Travel Literatures.


Rod Edmond and Vanessa Smith (ed.s) Islands in History and Representation (London: Routledge, 2003).

Homi K. Bhabha The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

Epeli Hau ‘ofa   ‘Our Sea of Islands.’ A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Ed. Eric Waddell, Vijay Naidu and Epeli Hau’ofa (Suva: U of the South Pacific P, 1993).

Mary Louise Pratt   Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation   (London: Routledge, 1992).

Robert Louis Stevenson    In the South Seas: The Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands (London: Kegan Paul, 1986).

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