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Risky Shores

George K. Behlmer, Risky Shores: savagery and colonialism in the Western Pacific, Stanford University Press, 2018, pp. xiv + 338.

In the common rooms and waiting rooms of my youth Punch was ubiquitous. One rarely read the articles, but always looked at the cartoons; a distinct genre of these showed missionaries in cooking pots. The resigned look of the victims and the smug aspect of those who were to dine on them managed to give the whole the calm atmosphere of an Oxford garden party. A late example showed two stout but rather speckled chaps in the pot: one of them is saying to the other, “I just hate the way they stick cloves in us”.

This kind of joke, which existed all over the industrialised world, was the last, trivialised vestige of what had been a major moral obsession: how do you deal with “stone age”, “neolithic” and “savage” people when you encounter them? Behlmer’s book is about the corner of the British Empire where they were found in many varieties, in the Solomons, the New Hebrides, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. This was not the empire of the flag following trade, but a backwater in which missionaries followed explorers – and sometimes were explorers. Behlmer is right to point out the triviality of the region as an important aspect of context. Demographically the whole region including Australasia amounted to under two per cent of the empire and economically it was proportionate. Politically, London was always reluctant and late in creating administrations and governments despite the near-unanimity among informed opinion that it should do so. He is also right to show how the traders operating in the area were at least as “savage” as any “native” if the word is interpreted ethically rather than developmentally. Thus, in this region, missionaries, a peripheral nuisance in most parts of empire, became central to the narrative.

“Savages” tend to eat people, to keep human heads as souvenirs, kill surplus children and strangle widows. Of these head-hunting provided the most sophisticated research and debate, but cannibalism became the major cultural obsession, a “taboo” in the ordinary sense if not in the Freudian. It was abhorred, of course, but also theorised, relatavised, excused and even admired: the Cannibal Society, established in 1863 included the MP Charles Bradlaugh and the explorer Sir Richard Burton in its ranks. Tom Harrisson, who went on to found Mass Observation, was prepared to indulge in the cause of ethnography in the 1930s: pork rather than chicken, apparently. But the more common attitude was probably that of Sir Hubert Murray who governed Papua New Guinea from 1907 to 1940 under various titles; he believed in stamping the practice out without being excessively censorious.

Behlmer’s book is a sweeping and scholarly account of the goings on in what was called, appropriately and sometimes officially, the “back of beyond”. It is as much about the colonialists as about the colonised and it is also to be commended for its constant recognition of ethical and linguistic complexity. If I have a quibble, it would be with the absence of first hand accounts of how it felt when, say, the overwhelming majority of Fijians converted to Methodism within a generation. But it should be read by all those interested in the British Empire as well as all those visiting the Back of Beyond.

Lincoln Allison