Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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'To the Curious Enquirer': Depictions of Pacific Peoples in Popular Illustrated Books from Paris and London c.1775-1810

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posted on 2021-11-14, 12:45 authored by Morrell, Vivienne Ruth

This study considers a range of illustrated encyclopaedias published in London and Paris in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries depicting peoples of the Pacific or Oceania. Using a framework of curiosity, exoticism, and costume iconography, as well as considering relevant contemporary developments, I argue that, despite the widespread appeal to 'curiosity', the books reveal a fairly superficial interest, at a popular level, in other peoples: one that is mainly interested in contrasting 'civilised' Europe with less civilised or 'savage' others. The genres to which these books belonged developed in the sixteenth century, and the books considered in this study followed their genre traditions, fitting the 'new discoveries' of Oceania into these existing traditions. The frontispieces set the tone of the books, and embodied moral value judgements revealing European views of political, social and economic relations between Europe and other peoples and countries at that time. They were also following an iconographic tradition set down much earlier and generally failed to acknowledge recent events that challenged these prevailing views. I consider how the images of Oceanic peoples in the French costume books were developed (or as I argue 'invented') from the source material, which was mainly images in the published accounts of Captain Cook's three voyages. In inventing images designed to please the eye, the sources chosen reveal the prejudices and expectations of European readers. But how were the 'new' Oceanic peoples incorporated into these books? By seeing Oceanic peoples as part of America it was easy to fit them into existing prejudices about 'savages' and into existing pictorial conventions for depicting 'savages'. For an audience expecting to see 'savages' wearing grass skirts and feather headdresses these images would have appeared 'authentic'. My study will highlight more popular views rather than the views of philosophers, or the voyagers' accounts, which understandably have been given more academic attention. These books are overlooked today because they are derivative and their images are not necessarily ethnographically accurate; yet they were popular in their time. They represent a conservative Eurocentric viewpoint and their inclusion of new material from Oceanic voyages did not challenge these views. Images and texts such as these likely reinforced European views of their own superiority and made it easy to justify missionary activity and colonisation in various parts of the world, particularly Oceania.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Maskill, David