Race, empire, agency explored in UW history professor’s book ’Risky Shores: Savagery and Colonialism in the Western Pacific’

In his new book, UW history  George Behlmer argues that Britain’s early vi

In his new book, UW history George Behlmer argues that Britain’s early visitors to the Western Pacific in the 18th century, who were mostly mapmakers and missionaries, "manipulated the notion of savagery to justify their own interests.” The book was published this summer by Stanford University Press.

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A new book by University of Washington history professor George Behlmer seeks to improve understanding of the British colonial era by "reconsidering the conduct of islanders and the English-speaking strangers who encountered them.”

" Risky Shores: Savagery and Colonialism in the Western Pacific ” was published this summer by Stanford University Press.

The book, Behlmer writes, "charts the twisting course of an idea that has long sustained inequality among human groups... the defamatory idea of ’savagery’ together with its agent, ’the savage.’”

Behlmer argues that Britain’s early visitors to the Western Pacific in the eighteenth century, who were mostly mapmakers and missionaries, "manipulated the notion of savagery to justify their own interests.” Their descriptions of the islanders they met as savages "did more than merely denigrate,” Behlmer writes. "It would serve as well to emphasize the fragility of indigenous cultures.”

"Risky Shores” focuses on the islands of the western Pacific ocean between the time of Captain James Cook’s death in 1779 and the end of World War II in 1945. The area called Melanesia - a subregion of Oceania - encompassed New Guinea , the Solomon Islands , Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides ), New Caledonia and Fiji.

Across five chapters, Behlmer examines "the savage practices so closely connected in British minds with the western Pacific” such as cannibalism and headhunting.

Images of Melanesian "savages” - in reality local residents who were understandably threatened by the appearance, behavior and weaponry of white explorers - helped create "a unifying sense of Britishness” in the nineteenth and early 20 th centuries, Behlmer writes.

"These exotic people inhabited the edges of empire. And precisely because they did, Britons who never had and never would leave their home islands could imagine, in vivid if spurious detail, their nation’s imperial reach.”

"Risky Shores is a wonderful book,” wrote Jane Sampson, professor of arts, history and classics at the University of Alberta. "Beautifully researched, compellingly written and vitally important to debates about race relations and agency in the Pacific world.

"Behlmer analyzes a dazzling array of primary source material, enhancing more conventional explorers’ journals and missionary reports with his impressive command of ballads, artwork, films sideshow acts and literature. The result is an intellectual feast.”