The University Record, February 4, 2002

Agnew endures rigors of old voyage

By Dana Ondrei Fair
News and Information Services

An etching in a book by Sydney Parkinson. On Sept. 10, 1770 the Endeavour ran arground of the Australian coast. (Hatcher Graduate Library Collection)
While contemporary travel is fast and efficient, 18th century travel was slow, laborious and quite difficult.

Vanessa Agnew, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literature, spent six weeks aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s 18th century ship, the

Endeavour, retracing a portion of Cook’s first voyage and learning firsthand the rigors and rewards of working on a square-rigger as it sailed from Cairns, Australia, to Bali and Indonesia.

A cultural critic specializing in 18th century travel writing and the intersections between natural history, music, exploration and colonization, Agnew teaches courses on opera, racial discourse and travel writing in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. Thanks to her research, she was recruited with five other historians and cultural critics from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the United States to participate in a series of documentary films titled “The Ship,” airing on the BBC and the History Channel in Fall 2002.

For Agnew and the rest of the crew, daily life aboard the ship began as they awoke from their hammocks in primitive, shared quarters. Throughout the day, program producers conducted individual interviews with Agnew and other crewmembers. The crew, when not being interviewed, completed routine duties including swabbing the decks, helming the ship, working the sails, pushing the capstan and climbing the mast.

The authentic experience extended to a daily menu of salt beef and pork, sauerkraut, dried anchovies, hard tack (a dry biscuit) and peas, and breakfasts of oatmeal and raisins. To prevent scurvy, the adapted modern menu included vitamin supplements. “We were desperate for decent food,” Agnew says. “And I never want to eat porridge again.”

The rare opportunity also gave her a firsthand understanding of the philosophic and intellectual ways in which an 18th century traveler may have interpreted the journey. As the ship nears land, the change in environment is gradual and methodic, providing those aboard with an opportunity to consider the surroundings. “The approach to an island is very slow,” Agnew describes. “One begins to speculate: Why is the vegetation dense in one location and sparse in another? Why are the flora and fauna different? Why are the people the way they are? One can see, for instance, how the German naturalist and writer Georg Forster might have come up with theories about cultural relativism in the South Seas, or the evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace with theories about the continental separation between Asia and Australia. It’s as though the islands themselves suggest a framework for comparison. The measured approach encourages contemplation.”

Agnew is captivated by the dynamics of cross-cultural encounters. During the 18th century, when a vessel and its crew came in contact with new people, the sailors and islanders often participated in gift giving, trade and hospitality rituals, she reveals. They played music and entertained one another, compiled vocabularies and set up markets. “Not only did the crew want what others had—fruit, livestock, beads, nails or sex—they wanted to satisfy basic curiosity. These initial interactions formed the basis for more systematic ethnographic reflection,” Agnew says.

From a broader perspective, the awareness that other cultures achieved through the voyages of Cook and similar explorers paved the way for what is now known as globalization. Europeans took possession of territory they considered themselves to have “discovered”; trade connections were established, and settlers, missionaries and colonial administrators were sent out from metropolitan centers, Agnew says. For the first time, it was not only possible, but also necessary, to think of the world as a totality.

Today’s world, in contrast to Cook’s, is readily accessible via the Internet. Agnew is preparing a hypermedia edition of Samuel Wallis’s journal dealing with the European discovery of Tahiti—once available only in manuscript form to academics. Through her work on the South Seas Project, a collaborative venture with the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University and the National Library of Australia, Agnew will help make this material available online.

“People often do not see how current ways of thinking are inflected by the past,” Agnew says. “Participating in a series of films like this gives me the opportunity to talk about the 18th century to a lay public. It also allows me to think about the ways in which we write about the past—whether that means the philosophic reflections of Georg Forster or ‘extreme history’ adventures aboard a replica of an 18th century sailing ship.”