115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Island Empires: Torture and Sovereignty in Fin-de-Siècle Pacific Adventure Fiction 

Katherine Anderson, Western Washington University

In adventure fictions by authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, British citizens implement torture to quell rebellion on “their” Pacific Islands, thereby appropriating the state-of-emergency rhetorics originally used to justify the British state’s torture of citizen-subjects in reaction to perceived crises. These fictions undermine state-sanctioned forms of terrorism and contribute to evolving definitions of citizenship and human rights.

Proposal: 

When “The Methodical Mr. Burr of Majuru” (1895) discovers his wife on the verge of committing adultery, he acts swiftly. Mr. Burr, a British trader in the Marshall Islands, follows his native wife to her assignation and cuts off the head of her lover with one hand while holding her in place with the other. He then forces his wife to carry the head into town and stand on display, holding the head and singing the song her lover used to woo her. Ned Burr’s deliberate use of spectacular cruelty pleases him mightily, not only because it teaches his wife “‘what may happen to her if she ain’t mighty correct,’” but also because it raises him “‘in the esteem of the people generally’”; he has solidified his absolute power by making an example of his traitorous wife. This act of extraordinary violence seemingly situates him far outside the bounds of a liberal British government, an anachronistic loner whose grasp at sovereignty stands in stark contrast to the humanitarian bureaucracy of a modern civilization. Yet he is not alone. During the burst of imperial fervor accompanying European rivalry over Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific in the 1890s and into the early-twentieth century, British characters like Mr. Burr often appeared in Pacific adventure fictions by authors such as Louis Becke (Mr. Burr’s creator) and Robert Louis Stevenson, asserting their absolute sovereignty on the isolated islands of Oceania through the torture of indigenous subjects.

This paper argues that in implementing the spectacle of torture to quell rebellion on “their” islands, these citizens of Victorian empire actually appropriate the state-of-emergency rhetorics originally used to justify the British state’s torture of citizen-subjects in reaction to perceived social crises. In both cases, whether perpetrated by the state or by the individual outside the law, torture serves as a means of justifiable terrorism meant to reassert British sovereign authority. By transferring the state’s rhetorics of sovereignty, emergency, and sanctioned violence onto individual citizens within the Empire, these adventure fictions undermined state-sanctioned forms of terrorism and made significant contributions to evolving definitions of (British) citizenship and human rights at the close of the nineteenth century.