Mariana Coló

Hot and wet

June 2016

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Whether as a paradisiacal and fecund wilderness or as a dangerous and pathological space of degeneration, the tropics are to certain extent a European imaginative construction about how the hot and wet regions of the world -and its inhabitants- should be.

Deployed in travelers’ account, maps, botany drawings, novels, paintings and photographs, the world between Cancer and Capricorn was often conceived as an altogether « Other »..A climatically, geographically and morally counterpart to the temperate and civilized West (Arnold, 1996; Driver & Yeoh, 2000; Stepan, 2001).

Both figured positively (as an Edenic land where free and innocent sexuality ruled -like portrayed in Sir Walter Raleigh travel diary in Guiana[1]-) or negatively (as a world of monstrous wonders and unrestrained sexuality -as in Georg Forster’s depiction of the Maori[2]-), the representations of tropical nature were intimately bound up with Europeans’ sensual experience in these lands.

“Tropicality” -as a negotiation between the imagined and the physical reality of the place that it represents-, condensed the European colonial desire to possess (native women and tropical landscapes)[3]. As well as solidified the fear of being overpowered and corrupted by tropical nature and its people[4][5], justifying, by thus, the need of European intervention and management.

However, tropical discourses exposed not only heterosexual desire but also undercover a male homoerotic fantasy, as in Captain’s Bligh description of the Tahitian mahu [6] or John Leylard’s aikane [7]. Or even Gauguin himself had much to say on the androgynous aspect of the natives[8] (Wallace, 2003; Protschky, 2011).

This complex repertoire of tropical landscapes, bodies and sexualities, shaped colonial ambitions, modern development, and still has a lasting impression in tropical representation thereafter. Holding both tropical and foreign people’s representations and experiences in productive tension might be a way of constructing new visions of “tropicality”.

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[1] In The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana (1614) Raleigh expressed : “ if there be any place upon earth of that nature, beautie, and delight, that Paradise had, the same must be found within… The Tropicks.”

[2] Georg Forster in his journal describes Maori sexuality through a scene in which two women “served with reluctance to the pleasures of young Men, and cried bitterly” as: “brutal lust” (…) that “breaks through all social ties, extinguishes all principles of true honor, virtue and humanity in every being (…)” (1773).

[3] As Philibert Commerson, the French naturalist who accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage of circumnavigation in 1766–1769, wrote: “[Tahiti] is one spot upon the earth’s surface which is inhabited by men without either vices, prejudices, wants or dissensions. Born under the loveliest of skies, they are supported by the fruits of a soil so fertile that cultivation is scarcely required and they are governed rather by a sort of family father than by a monarch … they recognize no other god save Love. Every day is consecrated to him and the whole island is his temple … the ‘women are meet rivals of the Georgians in beauty; they are full of … the graces and are entirely without clothing.”

[4] The British specialist on tropical diseases, James Johnson, offered advice to tropical travelers on the conduct of passions by pointing out that: “the monotony of life and the apathy of mind, so conspicuous among European in hot climates, together with the obstacles to matrimony, too often lead to vicious and immoral connexions with Native females” (The influence of tropical climates on European constitutions, 1827).

[5] In his Endeavour Journal, Sir Joseph Banks described the Manners and Customs Of South Sea Islands : “Besides this they dance especialy the young girls whenever they can collect 8 or 10 together, singing most indecent words using most indecent actions and setting their mouths askew in a most extrordinary manner (…). They are calld Arreoy and have meetings among themselves where the men amuse themselves with wrestling etc. and the women with dancing the indecent dances before mentiond (…)”(1769).

[6] Captain William Bligh, who served under James Cook on its final voyage to the South Seas (1776–79), portrayed with a particular enthusiasm the Tahitian mahu -transgendered males who took on the social and occupational roles of women, including taboos and restrictions- : “(…) it is strange that in so prolific a country as this, Men should be led into such sensual and beastly acts of gratification.” Furthermore in his logbook he points out that : (…) « those connected with « [the mahu] have their beastly pleasures gratified between his thighs, but are no farther sodomites as they all positively deny the crime” (William Bligh, Bounty Logbook, 1789).

[7] John Leylard resumes in his description of same-sexes practices in Hawaii the urge of making both an object of ethnographic analyses (since it represents “the most material and useful part of historical narration to omit it, the custom alluded to is that of sodomy (…)” as a religious condemnation of it. The aikane, young male warriors who served as intermediaries, agents and male sexual companions to the chiefs of the islands- were considered above all as: “(…) an inversion of the laws of nature, they bestow all those affections upon them that were intended for the other sex” (1776).

[8] “What distinguishes the Maori women from all other women, and often makes one mistake her for a man, is the proportion of the body. A Diana of the chase, with large shoulders and narrow hips” (The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin, [Melbourne: Heinemann, 1953]).

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