The Fatal Impact – Alan Moorehead (London, 1966)

Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact is a surprisingly readable book on a pretty depressing subject. He takes as his theme the voyages of Captain James Cook, exploring how the contact they initiated triggered profound changes in the South Seas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

James Cook – Portrait by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Moorehead’s book is split into three distinct sections – Tahiti, Australia, and the Antarctic. In each, he details the way in which Cook, and other explorers before and after him, encountered the mysterious civilisations and wildlife of the South Pacific. The recurrent theme, as the title suggests, is how the coming of Europeans essentially destroyed the pre-existing societies and environments of the region.

Moorehead begins with Cook’s first visit to Tahiti. Here, the British explorers came upon a society which knew little of European ways, and influenced them through technology, disease, narcotics, and suchlike. In this sense it is a classic narrative of the tentative early stages of colonialism, a narrative that fascinates me as an historian of imperialism. Empire is typically seen as predicated upon strength and coercion and frontiers are typically seen as barriers beyond which civilisation or chaos reigns (for a good literary illustration of this last one see J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians). The reality is, of course, invariably different. Before the flag is run up, and the machinery of the colonial state imposed, empire is a remarkably fragile thing. Even if the whole story of what happened to Tahiti is perhaps overshadowed both by our own sense that the naive beginnings of a relationship between Europe and the islanders will end badly for the locals, and the fact that it is the first case-study in a book called ‘The Fatal Impact’ , it still makes for fascinating reading. Moorehead very effectively utilises primary source material – journals from members of Cook’s crew – to give a sense of these first contacts that is both highly readable and, commendably given the balance of source material, sympathetic towards the islanders.

Then he describes what happens when Cook returned to Tahiti a second time. The locals had become a little less afraid of Europeans, their customs and habits already changing as the ready availability of European technology invalidated some older cultural practices. Moorehead of course threatens to stray here into the very same trap that ensnared some of his subjects – seeing the native Tahitian as a ‘noble savage’ – living a happy, simple existence in blissful ignorance of the ‘modern’ world. However, he is acutely aware of this stereotype, and explains and demolishes it very well as a manifestation of contemporary westerners’ own dissatisfaction with the pattern of their lives.As well as technology, Moorehead outlines the devastating impact of Christian missionaries upon the lifestyle of the Tahitian people, as they slowly but inexorably became Protestants and began to eschew aspects of their old ways of life. In Moorehead’s account, it is Christianity which is to account for the true destruction of Tahiti’s old way of life, which he concedes is not perfect, but believes would probably have been better off without the coming of Cook – a man who Moorehead has a lot of respect for as sympathetic to the concerns of both his own men and the local populace, making it rather ironic that his arrival heralded profound changes on Tahiti. This is a shade simplistic. As violent and abhorrent as it was, colonialism offered up opportunities for local people even as it oppressed them. It seems inconceivable that some Tahitians would not take advantage of the material or status benefits offered by the opportunity to convert to Christianity that they would not have had within ‘traditional’ Tahitian society. Moorehead does give a sense of this in describing local power struggles over time, as leaders vied to win the favour (and weaponry, and booze) of the Europeans, but he doesn’t really extend this into a consideration of how ‘westernisation’ itself would have perpetuated these status conflicts – generational, social, or otherwise.

Terra Incognita Australis: The Counterweight Continent (oh how we miss you Terry)

The second part of the book deals with Cook’s landing in Australia and the subject (mis)adventures of the various conflict fleets that landed, eked out a precarious existence in settlements like Port Jackson (which is where the Swiss Family Robinson were going) and slowly worked out what Australia looked like.

This was, of course, accompanied by wholesale genocide of the local aboriginal peoples of Australia proper and Tasmania, the indigenous population of which was entirely wiped out. The early settlers to Australia were poorly provisioned, and unused to a seemingly harsh environment. Struggling to survive, they devastated the local wildlife. Moorehead accurately charts the awful treatment of local aboriginal people, who were slowly driven away from the relatively fertile coasts.

Much of this second section is also given over to a detailed explanation of attempts to chart Australia’s coastline, and also find a route across the continent. Initially, the only viable means of travel between settlements was not through the harsh and unforgiving interior, but by ship around the coast. I was quite amazed to hear about the remarkable journey of Edward John Eyre, a man I previously only knew of as an incredibly harsh governor of Jamaica. Indeed, Moorehead notes the unusual contrast between Eyre’s sympathy and respect for aboriginal people’s in Australia and his brutal repression of the slave revolt of the ‘maroons’, in which hundreds of Jamaicans were either killed or flogged. As an indicator of how serious this was, it was considered OTT even at the time, and Eyre was taken to court (though let off).

This second section also tees up the final element of the book by showing how commerce was creeping southwards, in the form of commercial whaling. In this respect the book also shows the interesting, sort-of-cyclical element of early colonisation – breaking up ideas of a straight line between first contact and formal colonisation. In Tahiti too, whalers began to show up once they knew there were rich pickings and safe harbours, bringing problems of a different sort to the state-sponsored expeditions and missionaries – who were at least under some form of discipline. At one point in his trekking, Eyre’s life was saved by a kindly British captain of a whaling vessel, sailing under a French flag, moored off the Australian coast.

Modern-day seal hunting: a picture paints a thousand words…

The third and final section of the book deals with the Southern oceans. Cook sailed several times in an attempt to find the South Pole. He never got very far, but his expeditions once again found safe harbours and, more importantly, abundant wildlife.Birds, seal colonies, pods of whales.

Reports of these rich pickings soon got around after Cook returned, and the commercial whalers and sealers set sail for the South. In this section Moorehead gives an excellent description of the appalling conditions on the whaling ships and what serving on them did to fresh-faced young lads eager to go to sea. Significant more tragic was the wholesale slaughter that the whalers and sealers wreaked upon the wildlife of the Antarctic, absolutely devastating the whale populations. He speaks of rivers once so full of breeding whales that it was dangerous to take a boat out on them being denuded entirely of whale life. Once the breeding grounds had been picked clean, whalers went out to the seas to take part in Pelagic whaling – hitting the herds as they moved. Whalers could soon predict when and where pods would be, exploiting the fact that if females or calves were attacked male whales would stay to try and defend them. This grisly business fed home markets’ demands for corsets, whale oil, and seal fur and meat.

Whaling in the c18th, a precarious and intensely violent business

This final section is a fascinating precursor to a much more recent turn toward ‘ecological history’ (see the work of Lotte Hughes and William Beinart or perhaps more famously Jared Diamond, also the excellent Mosquito Empires by John McNeil), studying the impact of man upon the planet. Moorehead accurately points out how the absurd logic underlying the unregulated and insatiable appetite of the hunters that drove their catches almost to extinction. Unlike the postscripts to the previous two sections, both of which mention that atomic bombs were being tested in the French Pacific and Western Australia, the final postscript offers some hope in the form of slowly recovering (though still much reduced) wildlife populations in the once bountiful Southern Seas.

All in all I really enjoyed Moorehead’s book, despite its melancholy theme about the devastation wreaked upon local populations in the wake of European arrival. It was a good illustration of the fractured and stuttering nature of Western expansion and the many disparate groups directly or indirectly involved – the protestant missionaries, the explorers, the freebooting hunters. At just under 300 pages, it was a very quick – if grim – read, and I would highly recommend it as an accessible but informative book, and furthermore one that has dated very well, to those wanting to know more about those first tentative stages of European imperialism in the Pacific.

I’m giving this a full five ∼∼∼∼∼ ‘similar to’s (which I think look a bit like the waves of the Pacific).






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