convergences Screen 26 | Routines

John Webber: detail from beach scene.

John Webber: woman and canoe
      "The women, even of the younger sort
have no pretensions to being called beauties.
     Their face is rather broad and flat
with highish cheek bones and plump cheeks.
           Their mouth is little and round,
    the nose neither flat nor prominent,
         their eyes black, little
              and devoid of sparkling fire.
But in general they have not bad shape,
         except for their legs,
                   which are crooked,
and may arise from their much sitting.
              Their complexion is swarthy
    but this proceeds partly
         from smoke, dirt, and paint."
    "The men are as often quite naked
        as in any other trim. The women
are always clothed and appear reserved.
             They are less than the men
        exceedingly dirty and very ugly.
They were offered by the men
        for dalliance to our people,
    and by some accepted,
             though this connection
    was by no means general. A girl
             who was a week or ten days
on board the ship with one of the officers
         was taken great pains with
    to be got clean as possible. This
        they could not fairly attain,
but after a score of good scrubbings
    she was a very different creature
                  to what she appeared
    when first taken in hand. Her colour
was very near white as our own,
          with a somewhat reddish hue."
    "The women appeared less in stature
than the men, and not well featured,
    having high cheek bones
            and otherwise very ordinary,
which together with their being
                smeared over
    with grease and dirt, rendered them
         not very desirable objects,
                  but rather the reverse
so that our seamen seemed
               quite easy about them
    and I never heard
        of any connection between them,
but even through all this nastiness
    the fine rosy bloom of youth appeared
        on the cheeks of some of them.
Indeed, some of the officers,
        whose stomachs were less delicate,
    purchased the favours of some of them,
but at a high price,
             to what was generally given
        at any other place we had been at,
for the men seemed rather unwilling
    to let them out
        except for something they wanted
which they could not otherwise get,
    and even this was practised
             only among the lower class.
        The better sort would not hear
                 anything of the kind."
Civilization is what they miss, what they complain of lacking. And what is civilization to sailors? An ideal they serve, elegance and the maintained illusion of security, the established and uncontested images of how the world is, what one knows or thinks he knows: people behaving in pleasingly predictable ways, money of course ---money enough to participate in what is going on, ladies that smell like ladies, cities that smell like coal smoke and urine, newspapers, churches and church bells, shops full of goods, coffee houses, gin and ale, talk that you understand on the street, sounds that you know, unambiguous authority, the poor house, the plague. Sometimes a man is happy to leave it all, to disconnect, at first. But he looks back and remembers. His roots are still in that other place. The alien yearns to dissolve his alienation, to eliminate the strangeness of the landscape, to transform his surroundings into the familiar. Civilization is fully knowing a situation. It is always the others who are savages.
Engraving from John Webber sketch.

Engraving from John Webber sketch.

The Englishmen's accounts of the women betray both attraction and repulsion, sometimes at the same moment. Cook, it seems, is one of the few on board never to indulge his appetite, even when the opportunities have been so resplendantly available in the southern islands. Less idyllic here, the axis of biological desire still spins between poles of male and female, though the barriers of custom, ceremony and attire inhibit the spontaneous urge for outright physical connection. Is taste a means of maintaining genetic uniformity? These Mooachaht ladies do not taste or smell exactly like the English seamen's mothers. But the officers, at least, seem somewhat tolerant, the consequence, perhaps, of a liberal education.