Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology. – Review

Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology. – Review – book review

Michel Naepels

Bronwen Douglas. Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998. Studies in Anthropology and History Vol.24. xviii, 342 pp., illust., map, bibliog., index. $US59 (Hc.), ISBN 90-5702-306-7; ISSN 1055-2464.

This book belongs to an unusual genre: it is neither a monograph nor just a collection of articles already published. Bronwen Douglas has selected and modified eight earlier articles, and commented on them with apologias and auto-criticism. The book starts with an important ‘Prelude’ and ends with a ‘Finale’. It shows an intellectual journey among what have already been called ‘islands of history’. It deals with three major themes: indigenous Pacific leadership; fighting in New Caledonia; encounters with Christianity in Island Melanesia (p.1).

In the first part, six pages with updated and new references complete the first article titled ‘Rank, power, authority: a reassessment of traditional leadership in South Pacific societies’. This is a comparative study with a focus on New Caledonian and Maori patterns of leadership, showing that ascription and achievement are not ‘polar opposites, but a matter of emphasis in particular contexts’ (p.38), and stressing the difference between rank (in a kinship system) and power (in a political system).

In the second section, Douglas shows how the terms ‘revolt’, ‘rebellion’, ‘resistance’ or ‘insurrection’ have been inappropriately applied to the Kanak wars of the first decades of French colonial rule in New Caledonia, since these wars were determined by Melanesian interests and internal conflicts. A better account reveals Kanak agency, re-evaluates their military performances and dismisses the European belief in their own ‘centrality in indigenous thinking and experience’ (p.185). The key article in this section is chapter 4: ‘Reading indigenous pasts: the ‘Wagap affair of 1862’, which tries to delineate a discursive space for the concept of agency through the comparison of colonial texts with Kanak oral versions collected and commented on by A. Bensa and J-C. Rivierre.

The third and last part of the book deals with indigenous and missionary aetiologies of illness and death, and representations of power and sacrality, in Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Here, conversion appears as a strategic appropriation of new concepts and rituals, a cultural domestication of Christianity by islanders. Chapter 7, ‘Dealing (with) death in a Melanesian world: indigenous aetiologies and the sickness of the Christians’, illustrates this perspective, by questioning the early missionary texts in order to reveal the changes in representations in Northern New Caledonia during the first decades of contact.

These eight articles are very detailed and convincing, and cannot be summed up in a brief review. However I hope I have made the global coherence of Douglas’ perspective apparent. But, apart from the historical narratives, the main interest of this book is obviously the epistemological discussion and reflexive research practices. Through the discontinuity of these ‘related but discrete articles’ (p.263) the continuous reflexivity of an epistemological concern emerges. That is the point I would like to explore and question. As a French-trained ethnologist I have to state first that I may be blind to ‘national disciplinary differences’ (p.11), and hope I have not misread Douglas’ point of view.

In explanation, she writes: ‘My general intent is to display the ethnographic potential of contemporary colonial texts to throw light on particular indigenous strategies’ (p.281). This aim is achieved in the eight articles, through a central methodological tool: critical reading of contemporary colonial texts–‘contemporary’ meaning ‘contemporaneous to the events described’ (n.6 p.23). These sources (missionary letters and journals, military reports, and so on) are used through an ‘against (or across) the grain reading’ (the expression is used p.18, 162, 187, 210, 235, 244 and 286) because ‘the relative historical silence of natives, women and subaltern make ethnographic, feminist and social historians necessarily reliant on alien texts which require creative critical reading, across the grain’ (p.187). One must agree with this project, but its presuppositions have to be questioned, as I cannot imagine which social historian would take a missionary description for granted: isn’t this ‘across the grain readin g’ something like a basic source analysis? So maybe the point is that what is lacking is a more precise and detailed presentation of the people producing colonial texts, especially missionaries. If this analysis of text producers is sketched in the case of Thomassin on p.301, we do not have a genuine social and intellectual history of these colonial actors whose writings Douglas reads against the grain. Maybe this is the reason why the only historical research on the colonial universe in New Caledonia, I. Merle’s Exp[acute{e}]riences coloniales: la Nouvelle-Cal[acute{e}]donie 1853-1920, is not mentionned.

This reading method is most effective in revealing indigenous agency and meanings, so I would not insist on my point. But I would repeat the criticism developed by N. Thomas in his Out of Time: it is easier to find and describe indigenous agency in the specific period of early contact and structuration of the colonial powers than in the longer colonial exploitation period (1989: 11-114). Moreover, if her main aim is to describe agency, I cannot understand why Douglas rejects oral history and modern (I would rather say contemporary, but the term is now confined in a very historical sense) ethnography. Her ‘defiant privileging of archival history … over oral’, which I find intrusive and presumptuous in the absence of vernacular expertise (p.15), has to be questioned. Of course, oral history has to be handled with caution, and the ethnographer or oral historian must develop an epistemological reflexivity. But we can maybe imagine an ‘across the grain’ production or reading of modem oral native sources — the kind of critical reading of interviews which allows Douglas to write authoritative statements such as: ‘Masters of the soil’ were normally left undisturbed by a conqueror’ (p.136), or ’45 enemy dead, an exceptionally large number for an indigenous war in New Caledonia’ (p.297).

Moreover, this way of contrasting oral history with archival history appears to maintain the ‘great divide’, which has to be crossed over if we follow the book’s title. I may be overstating Douglas’ assertion that for her, the history/anthropology pair is still partially congruent with the westerners/natives pair, in the sense that ethnography doesn’t appear in her book as a particular method of production and description of data, but is associated with natives and indigenous realities. I refer to the two sentences p.281 and p.187 quoted above, the first evoking the ‘ethnographic’ potential of colonial texts to throw light on particular ‘indigenous’ strategies, the second speaking of ‘ethnographic historians, and natives. This tendency appears in the way Douglas delegates French ethnologists to do oral inquiries, as potentially neutral vectors of Kanak representations (for example p.249 or n.8 p.282), even though she knows that Leenhardt, Guiart, M[acute{e}]tais, and Bensa have developed different research a nd writing practices (p.12). Against the criticism of Bensa (p.12-13) I must point out that he questioned the effects of his political commitment on his scientific work in a 350 pages collection of articles titled Chroniques kanak: l’ethnologie en marche.

These questions show how difficult it is to imagine and to implement the most effective articulation of ethnography and historiography. But indeed, the issues discussed in this book are those that every researcher concerned with agency faces. That is why it is a critical volume in the opening up of new frontiers in the study of the peoples and histories of Pacific islands, continuing the work of Sahlins, Dening, Thomas and others.

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