Research Stream


Pacific Passions: Explorations of Humanity from the Age of Enlightenment to the French Revolution, 1766-1804

The Revolution of 1789-1799 did not only introduce ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ to the people of France but also inspired attempts among political leaders and intellectuals to reach a deeper understanding of humankind – its diversity, its capacity, its fundamental morals and passions. This project therefore examines the cross-cultural experiences and ethnographies of French maritime explorers during the Revolution  and asks if these men not only observed but felt what it was to be human - a particularly intriguing question given that the Revolutionary voyages marked the transition between a natural philosophy of human nature and a science of ‘race’.

Pacific Passions: Explorations of Humanity from the Age of Enlightenment to the French Revolution, 1766-1804’

Image: Canoe of the Island of Bouka’, plate XLIII, Voyage in Search of La Pérouse, Performed by Order of the Constituent Assembly, During the Year 1791, 1792, 1793 and 1794, and Drawn Up by M. Labillardière, … Translated from the French (London: John Stockdale, 1800).

The profound changes wrought by the French Revolution fed, and were in turn fed by, evaluations of peoples at home, in neighbouring regions and in distant lands, as well as by deepening patriotic feeling and investment both in the laws of nature and the concept of equality. They therefore provided a uniquely rich context for scientific expeditions to the South Seas, though one given limited attention in the history of Oceanic voyaging until recently. These voyages were intended, among other things, to study the nature of ‘Man’ and each produced a mass of data – documents, portraits, and objects – about the ‘savages’ of Oceania. The voyagers’ fieldwork was supposed to be objective, dispassionate, but their encounters were intense and largely unpredictable events and therefore emotions - their own and their hosts’ - naturally coloured their accounts. Further, their assumptions about what fear, hostility, sensuality and other feelings looked like profoundly shaped their evaluations.

Nicole Starbuck has been examining the South Seas encounters and ethnographies of the d’Entrecasteaux (1791-1794) and Baudin (1800-1804) expeditions in the context of changing emotional standards in Revolutionary France and in comparison to the earlier Enlightenment encounters and ethnographies of the Bougainville (1766-1769) and La Pérouse (1785-1788) expeditions. With a focus on themes such as family, fear, spirituality and fraternity, she explores this Oceanic work alongside other Revolutionary-era voyages and cross-cultural experiences, both beyond France ‒ the Egyptian Expedition (1798‒1801) and the Haitian Revolution (1791‒1804) – and within – the regional voyages of, for example, La Vallée and Le Grand d'Aussy.

Starbuck, N. ‘Ritual Encounters of the ‘Savage’ and the Citizen: French Revolutionary Ethnographers in Oceania, 1768–1803’.  In Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200‒1920: Family, State and Church, edited by M. L. Bailey and K. Barclay, pp. 123‒43.  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.