Society for Cultural Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922 introduces a heroic scientific figure, the Ethnographer. Explicitly white and male, he abjures the company of other white men and lives "right among the natives ... to grasp the native's point of view." Malinowski's diaries and letters illuminate the colonial, and by implication postcolonial, situations of ethnographic knowledge production. Contacts with white traders shaped his own colonial project, modernist ethnographic research. Using his diaries, letters, and ethnographies; archival documents; white visitors' accounts; and my regional ethnographic and oral historical research I examine colonial cultures of islanders and "unofficial whites" (traders, planters, goldminers), often more influential than government officials or missionaries in forming images of Europeans and altering island lives. Interisland exchanges of shell valuables, greenstone axeblades, foodstuffs, and household goods reached deep into prehistory but were continually reshaped by regional conditions. Islander agency in frontier and colonial situations is visible in oral histories and colonial records. The problem: How to make volatile strangers who controlled desirable new forms of wealth into pliable exchange partners. White traders had strong, if superficial, interests in kula-type exchanges as competition for islanders' labor. The Ethnographer pestered them for information, a trade secret. Storekeepers employed islanders to polish greenstone axeblades or make shell necklaces they sold for pearls, pearlshells, or gold dust. White traders altered interisland exchange, shaping Malinowski's modernist anthropology. Island and European wealth objects and accumulation strategies formed multiple, intersecting geographies of desire. The kula Malinowski described was a creative product of its colonial milieu.