Apr201408
The Cook Myth & Western Tattooing
08:59 AM
parkinson_maori.jpg
Sydney Parkinson's illustration of a tattooed Maori from Cook's first voyage.

In case you missed it on the Needles & Sins Facebook group yesterday, Anna Felicity Friedman recently posted a large portion of her tattoo-history dissertation on her wonderful TattooHistorian.com blog about the "Cook myth," which, as she writes, is "the common assumption that modern Western tattooing somehow derived from contact with Polynesian peoples during Captain James Cook's voyages in the late 18th century."

Here's a bit from her writing:

In addition to demonstrating that tattoos were often seen in a positive, or at least neutral, light, a crucial subsidiary aim of this dissertation is to debunk what can be termed the "Cook myth": the perception in many scholarly and popular texts from at least the 1950s that the historical origins of modern tattooing among Westerners exclusively derived from Cook's first voyage to the Pacific and his and his crews' encounters with tattooed people in Tahiti--that Cook, et. al., somehow "discovered" or "reinvigorated" tattooing.[1]  But this is clearly not the case.[2]  A look at texts from before the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates that many authors, explorers, scientists, etc. were wellfamiliar with the practice of permanently marking the body with a substance embedded underneath the skin. For example, one of Cook's contemporaries, explorer Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, writing about the Marquesan tattooing he saw in 1791, noted the similarities to and contrasts with the European tattooing that he said was not only common but of great antiquity:

We should be wrong to suppose the tattooing is peculiar to nations half-savage; we see it practised by civilized Europeans; from time immemorial, the sailors of the Mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese, have known this custom, and the means of drawing on their skin, indelible figures of crucifixes, Madonas [sic]. &c. or of writing on it their own name and that of their mistress.[3]

Read more, and check the footnotes for additional reference, here.


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Miguel Collins
Craig Dershowitz
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