Harry Liebersohn, The Travelers’ World: Europe to the Pacific (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).


            In The Travelers’ World, Liebersohn addresses one of the most critical functions of 18th and 19th century travel writing.  He posits that by perpetuating debates about foreign peoples through travel accounts, explorers served to shape European opinions about other cultures, meanwhile redefining “conceptions of humanity” in general.  As he indicates, this form of writing was particularly effective because of the popularity of travel literature and because of the fascinating observations explorers made in their encounters that sparked ongoing debates about island cultures.  Liebersohn also includes the necessary context for considering these literary contributions by making reference to the social and political cache for the traveler who made a voyage around the world, the development of more sophisticated travel science, and a blossoming interest in ethnography that appealed to the masses.

            Liebersohn’s six chapters engage a discussion of the historically intertwined relationship between travel writing and ethnographic discourse in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.  Chapter 1 offers examples of travelers who were well-known for their cultural and scientific observations about the peoples and lands they encountered, such as Forster and Commerson.   Liebersohn situates these observations in the context of social and political social thought of the epoch, such as Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.   Chapter 2 examines the mutually dependant relationship between European voyagers and patrons, and the financial and scientific expectations each had of one another.  He also keenly observes how these relationships evolved over the course of the century to value “disciplinary expertise” in addition to scientific elitism, offering the example of an attempt to create a school for naturalists in post-revolutionary France (91). 

The third chapter shifts the focus to collaborative interactions between voyagers and the island natives they encountered.  Liebersohn brings to light the potential fallacies of ethnographic accounts that suffered from voyagers’ superficial understanding of their interactions with natives due to language barriers, misinterpretation of kinship relations, and selfish interests. Chapter 4 reveals the philosophers’ affinity for travel texts as a space where they could apply their theories of man and civilization.  Liebersohn explains how Diderot’s “utopia”, Kant’s ideas on monogenism, and Humboldt’s focus on linguistic development all found empirical support in the voyage accounts of the epoch.  In the fifth chapter, Liebersohn highlights the differences between the naturalists and the missionaries who visited Polynesia at the time by contrasting the procedures and goals of each type of voyage.  Most significantly, he debates the controversial role of missionaries in the islands, from the negative reception by natives due to the immaterial and impractical nature of what they were being offered, to the positive advances missionaries made in learning native languages (something naturalists had glossed over in past expeditions).  Liebersohn’s sixth and final chapter outlines Darwin’s support and Melville’s contempt for missionary expeditions in light of their own travel endeavors, deconstructing the notion of a “unified travelers’ world” (273).

            In his conclusion, Liebersohn readdresses the notion of a “travelers’ world” unveiled in his introduction, and explains how the divergences among travelers may be reconciled in order that they may all belong to this terminology.  He proposes the idea of a “cycle” in the travelers’ world, with a “beginning, middle, and end” (298).  This cycle commenced with a country or individual’s interest in gaining a share of recognition in maritime ventures, continued with scientific pursuit and discovery, and culminated in a superior desire to take over the cultures encountered.

Several of the most compelling viewpoints Liebersohn presents in this text are those focused on the question of European ethnography.  First, the bulk of his arguments address one of the most essential questions to the study of travel literature: How well can we trust that the voyagers, naturalists, and missionaries, engaged in these voyages really understood what they were observing?  For example, Liebersohn provides convincing evidence from missionary accounts that supplants the observations made on earlier voyages to Tahiti with regard to the ease of learning the language and the willingness of the natives to make friends with foreigners.  Liebersohn attributes this in part to the brief amount of time many of the initial naturalists and voyagers remained in their island “paradises”.  He also cites the discrepancy between the goals of the naturalist versus the missionary due to the independence of the latter: “Missionaries challenged the naturalists, for they had their own conception of what it meant to “know” another culture, diminishing the aesthetic and racial categories so important to the naturalists and replacing them with the ethical and religious canons for understanding another world” (230).

To take this idea a step further, Liebersohn also probes the issue of the veracity of travelers’ reports, particularly when they depended on a patron or financier to support their work.  Liebersohn argues that “The scientific travelers were paid to be reporters.  But reporters, then as now, see unpleasant things, sometimes more than their audience would like to learn about” (80).  He offers the example of Alejandro Malaspina’s life imprisonment after his radical views based on his accounts of his voyage around the world as proof of the potential dangers of “veracity” at the epoch.

Finally, the author questions: How authentic can the reported native behavior have been when the subject knew it was being observed, particularly as a trophy of a voyager’s expedition?  Liebersohn proposes that, “Neither missionaries, nor naturalists, nor any other outside observer could claim superior authority as ethnographers; instead all of them became “interpreters of culture” (272).   Here Liebersohn provides examples of several natives who were used to gain information about an unknown local, and who were even transported back to Europe as scientific evidence of the wonders that were discovered abroad.  The author successfully recognizes the ethical implications of this practice by revealing their double function as “partly scientific sample, partly circus display” (142).  Bougainville’s Ahutoru provided quite a spectacle for the Europeans with whom he came into contact, but it is unlikely that his behavior could be used as a benchmark to make generalities about the nature of the Tahitians.

The Travelers’ World offers an original perspective on how to assess the scope of the impact travel writing had on social and political thought during this period.  It also responds to several of the inherent flaws in the scientific and anthropological project in which the 18th and 19th century voyagers participated.  Finally, this text urges the reader to reinterpret the body of travel literature in a “cumulative” context by considering each text in relation to others in the same tradition (299).