History invites constant revision, and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific is both a meta-narrative and a remarkable revision of eighteenth and nineteenth century European exploration and colonisation. This ‘path-breaking’ book maps the micro and macro impact of European and British imperialism, the discoveries, the contact and conduct associated with colonisation and the irreversible consequences and transformations wrought by Empire in its quest for power, wealth, and global expansionism.
Based on maps, documents, literature and works of art held mostly in British archives, but also in European, New Zealand and Australian institutions, Smith synthesised and contextualised an astounding amount of material, initially over a two-year period between 1949 and 1951, which brought together an interdisciplinary programme that united text, image, art, science and Enlightenment values. Apart from the extraordinary resilience of these eighteenth century British and European maritime explorers or those on the first Fleet as they sailed into the unknown waters of the South Pacific, the book also illuminates the gaze of Empire in its exchanges with indigenous peoples.
In 1949, while on a British Council scholarship Bernard Smith was also commissioned by the Hakluyt Society in London to catalogue all the known works made by artists on Captain James Cook’s three voyages. Many of these drawings and paintings had been kept hidden in archives and rarely seen. They reveal the empirical eye of artists as they documented nature, strange climatic phenomena, cultural rites and artefacts, extraordinary animals and botanical specimens, with works made directly on the spot or on the high seas. These works of art act as silent witness or memory cards, and are testimony of contact, impact as well as the collecting mania that filled our museums like ‘ghosts of the dead’.1 The amassing of such ethnographic and anthropological specimens was another form of possession and power. But Smith also records the moral imperatives and insatiable appetites of the British and Europeans for what was being brought back from these voyages; the spectacle, the romantic perceptions and caricaturing of the exotic other, at first as a heroic, classicising depiction of the noble savage then, under Christianising enterprises by evangelist Missionaries, as ignoble paganistic savages. Smith’s awareness of the use of manipulative codes of representation during the era of colonial expansion is understated but pervasive.
Over the course of a decade as Bernard Smith uncovered more material evidence, he was also opening a panoramic vision of colonial crimes. His book therefore is a platform on which postcolonial studies and the discourse of decolonisation has been established, and from which many scholars, curators, artists and students have and continue to use as a reference and revisional tool.
Considering the vast geographic, literary, aesthetic and political terrain of the long eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, it becomes evident when reading this remarkable book that Smith’s analytical interpretation was through a lens of an antipodean outsider. When Smith analysed the accounts of contact, exchange, possession or violence, he was conscious of the ‘unequal exchange’.
Recently Stan Grant wrote, ‘This past week I have been reminded of what it is to come from the other side of history. History itself that is written as a hymn to whiteness.’2
He may have been born into the white side of history, but his birthright was one of a marginalised social position that gave him a unique perspective. Born illegitimate in 1916 and raised as a state ward, he grew up as a socially obscured child—the ‘other’ and outsider was a familiar shadow and condition that accompanied him throughout his life. Growing up in a ‘farming out' house during the great depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s Bernard Smith experienced inequality, injustice and subordination and was acutely aware of power relations. While he rose to become an eminent Australian art historian, his development and scholarly work was tempered by his formative experiences and weighted towards the outsider. Arriving in London in 1948, Smith intended to study early British and European perceptions of Australia and how these nations and their ideas shaped our colonial development. Interestingly and fortuitously Smith was mentored by European refugee scholars at the Warburg Institute, outsiders who had escaped Nazis Germany and found sanctuary in London. These historians guided Smith into a deep and rich interdisciplinary field of history in which Smith found ways of universalising and envisaging history as both contingency and convergence.
Smith’s rule of thumb was always about opening the dialogue not closing it down, and as he peeled back the layers of empire, colonisation and contact, he unfolded new ways of envisaging the previously unmapped world through art and ideas. As such, European Vision and the South Pacific is a major foundational work that reveals both a window into Empire and Enlightenment values, as well as to the beauty of lands, cultures and peoples of the South Pacific before European cross-cultural contamination. But Smith also shows us through works of art some of the first moments of contact, and as Fredric Jameson recently wrote ‘the moment of imperialism’ begins when ‘This "first contact", is met ‘with the enigmatic silence of otherness’.3
Why a third edition, you ask? Apart from European Vision and the South Pacific being regarded as a major Australian classic, and one of the first significant books on colonialism, colonisation and it also casts an uncanny relation to current global events. We can compare European imperialism of the mid 1700s with the new imperialism of today, indeed, in this edition’s new Introduction we state, ‘in today’s world, the complexities of territorialisation are as fraught and disputed as they were in the Georgian age of Empire, when subjugation, rejection and erasure of the Other were as tragic as the current treatment of displaced, stateless refugees and the disavowal of First Nations’ human rights’. Understanding the agencies that thrust vectors together is paramount in how we negotiate the present and future.
Today we are amidst a resounding, critical revision concerning the ‘colonial crime’ and the painful mourning of atrocities committed on First Nations people and those of other Pacific Islands. Smith’s book is prelude and overture and offers evidential markers to the current vigorous conversations and the recalibration about what began in 1768. While his 1960 publication of European Vision and the South Pacific didn’t receive the merit it deserved at the time, the second, revised edition, published in 1984 by Yale and Oxford University Presses, was heralded as a brilliant text that opened the floodgates for future scholars, curators and artists on postcolonialism. The book became a significant platform that many have used and continue to use, and why this Third Edition is important in reintroducing Smith’s polemics and opening new discursive corridors to reveal the other side of history.
Why Publish a Third Edition was originally presented at the 2022 Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference