|The Cook collection on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum © Pitt Rivers Museum|
The advent of globalization came with a promise of happiness, innovation and scientific discovery for mankind. The price paid: a continuous and ever growing appropriation of resources, labour and mental subjection of those people falling outside this pledge. It is in the paradox of trying to realize a universalist vision of human progress through the abuse of part of humankind that the workings of coloniality are captured.
In pursuit of personal gain, colonial administrations actively obscured violent exploitation of peoples by presenting morally deplorable practices as aspects of a larger scheme of development. Uprooting political, economic, cultural and educational systems was justified as being part of a civilizing mission. Colonial rulers repeatedly advertised colonial missions as a responsibility and burden of white Europeans to bring civilization to mankind. It masked their true motives: economic profit and power.
Masking motives, omitting contextual details and the subversion of truths are all mechanisms of coloniality that have evolved into standard practices now deeply rooted in Western practices and institutions. Euphemism became an important linguistic tool to veil injustices as well as to bend truths to fit the promise of progress. These euphemisms live forth in modern discourses and ought to be addressed in order to successfully eradicate the mechanisms and legacies of coloniality that run through society.
The collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are not immune to the workings of coloniality and have been shaped through an imperialist lens. To illustrate, the early colonial missions are consistently referred to as ‘voyages’ and ‘expeditions’ to emphasize this aspect of newness, endless possibility and scientific discovery that worked well upon the imaginations of Europeans. Such terminology obscures ulterior motives behind these missions.
Let us zoom into one such case of euphemism and omission. The Pitt Rivers Museum houses a vast collection of artefacts from Cook’s voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1775. It is right to state that these tours on the Endeavour, the Resolution and Adventure were in part motivated by scientific objectives. One of the main organisers, The Royal Society, an institute for the promotion of scientific research, co-organized these missions with the Admiralty, which at the time was a separate branch of the British government concerned with naval affairs. However, the Admiralty’s motives for involvement extended well beyond the promise of science. Recent studies place Cook’s Pacific ‘voyages’ in a different light, not describing Cook as one of Britain's greatest ‘explorers/adventurers’ but rather as a problematic figure who laid the roots for colonialism.
It has come to light that Cook, on orders of the Admiralty, deliberately reported false information and left out crucial discoveries in his records to keep strategic advantages over other imperial powers. It has recently been argued, on the basis of reports from both Cook himself and from people aboard the Endeavor, that Cook deliberately hid the existence of a strait separating modern day Australia from Tasmania, instead mapping what was then called Van Diemen’s Land as a peninsula. Additionally, it should be noted that nine indigenous people were killed during Cook’s first encounter with Maori who had lived in New Zealand (then Aotearoa) for centuries. It could thus be said that positive connotations underlying notions such as ‘expedition, explorer, and voyage’ are used euphemistically to obscure narratives of coloniality. Such terms conceivably fit the initial objective of universal progress, however, by placing these tours in its wider context it becomes evident that conflicts of interests underlie the so-called Cook voyages. Therefore, further contextualization is needed to fill narrative gaps and to settle on more adequate terminology.
Interpretation panel for the Cook display © Pitt Rivers Museum
In conclusion, it is not right to simply state that ‘expeditions’ and ‘explorations’ such as Cook’s voyages preceded the arrival of colonial powers. They were itself in part an expression of coloniality. Through euphemisms and by omitting contextual details in the museum’s object labels, colonial legacies remain intact and are reinforced. The Labelling Matters project is thus not limited to the identification of derogatory language use but also inquires into that which is not said explicitly. Paradoxically, it is perhaps within the embellishing narrative and the realm of silences that historical truth resides.
By Jip Borm
Labelling Matters project Intern
Masters Student, University of Leiden