This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Discourses of Race and Disease in British and American Travel Writing about the South Seas 1870-1915




Clayton, Jeffrey

Type of Degree





The nineteenth century saw the islands of the South Pacific colonized by the Western powers, including the United States. Because of this relatively late date compared to other colonized regions of the world, the imperializing process was more widely witnessed and reported. Among the wider range of witnesses were literary travelers, including Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London. These writers came to the Pacific in the wakes of earlier, influential figures such as the explorer James Cook, the naturalist Charles Darwin, and the novelist Herman Melville, all of whom contributed to the appeal of the Pacific islands. These literary travelers would see a region decimated by disease, epidemics that spread because of the isolated nature of the Pacific, a situation that resulted in a lack of immunity to many Eurasian diseases, including smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, and leprosy. Trollope visited Australia, where he viewed the dislocation and depopulation of the Aborigines dispassionately. Stevenson came in 1888, seeking relief from his chronic tuberculosis. He was appalled by the degradation of the islanders and settled in Samoa. London, who visited in 1907 and again afterwards, initially viewed the struggle between white and native through the lens of his racist philosophies, derived from Freidrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer. Later, as his own health weakened, he began to write more sympathetically of native peoples. Postcolonial studies have grown over the past three decades, led by writers such as Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, but the South Pacific has received relatively little attention compared to the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, and India. However, Mary Louise Pratt’s theories of the “seeing-man” traveler and the contact zone, important redefinitions of imperialist behavior and the frontier, respectively, address New World colonialism in a way that acknowledges the differences between Old and New World colonizations. Because of the similarities in the colonial experience, Pratt’s theories of New World imperialism have been adapted to the adjacent world of the Pacific. One major critique of Pratt is that she ignores the literary traveler in favor of explorers and naturalists. This study demonstrates that in an analysis of South Pacific imperialism, literary authors as often complicate her theories as vindicate them.