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In Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840 (2001), Jonathan Lamb asserts that voyages by explorers to the South Seas took place in a contested and unclear environment. The recollections of their journeys are therefore void of any sense of reality and must be viewed not in “the truth they produced (for they were broadly regarded as lies) but in terms of their potent dramatization of the feelings incident to the preservation of the self” (6). Moreover, these vivid and intense tales concerning the preservation of the “self” in the South Seas is what fed a growing body of voyage or travel literature. The most popular works among the reading public in England during this time is what makes up a skillful and analytical discussion by Lamb in this work of both historical and literary merit.
Part of the reason why this book is worthy of such praise involves Jonathan Lamb’s handling of the historiography of his topic. A careful examination of both the introduction and sources in the index indicate a lack of consultation by him of anyone else who might have written about the preservation of the “self” in the South Seas from 1680-1840. There is no direct evidence of the author’s views on how this work fits in to what other people might have said about his subject, which, to say the least, is quite surprising. What effectively addresses this, however, is the exhaustive amount of research and references to sources Lamb incorporates with such finite precision throughout the book. Moreover, Lamb’s blatant disregard of the historiography is excusable only because it appears the subject of his work is incredibly narrow in focus and at the same time unique in its approach. It is therefore possible to conclude or view this work by Lamb as both pioneering in what it discusses as well as authoritative in nature.
Among the chapters in this book by Jonathan Lamb on the preservation of the “self” in the South Seas from 1680-1840, two are worth noting and discussing at some length. The first one is Chapter Two, “The Romance of Navigation.” This part of the book stands out because not only does it represent Lamb’s argument in general but also quite cleverly, points out that stories involving self-preservation also stimulated the economic appetite of its readers in the hopes of expanding the British Empire. Lamb references several literary works from the year 1712, which include Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Seas, Woodes Rogers’ A Cruising Voyage round the World, and one by Daniel Defoe titled Essay on the South-Sea Trade. These literary works are “intended to pique public curiosity about the possibility of establishing a trade route in the Pacific” (51). Defoe is one individual who felt strongly about this and the possible effect it could have on the travel of British merchant ships. He discusses this in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), where he imagines or “mythologizes the isolated British presence in distant seas not as the acquirement of fabulous personal wealth and treasure, but as an infant colony capable of resupplying British merchant shipping” (52).
In addition to discussing the idea of self-preservation in an economic sense, Lamb believes another purpose of these stories involves the preservation of one’s own health. More specifically, preventing bouts of scurvy where a vile sensation of rottenness “caused the bodies of the mariners to grow foul and degenerate” (116). In response to this, mentioned often is the name of Captain James Cook, who apparently dealt a severe blow to this medical malady of the high seas. However, Lamb is correct in pointing out that there is no conclusive proof or consensus on which of Cook’s methods worked better, such as the eating of sauerkraut, which is rich in Vitamin C. Out of all of them, Lamb sides with the views of Thomas Trotter in his book Observation on the Scurvy (1792). Cook’s success according to Trotter relied more on the psychological in “pointing out the huge difference between the esprit de corps of a ship bound on a voyage of discovery and that of a vessel engaged in station duty” (129). Trotter believes that even though the threat of scurvy lurked in the back of every sailor’s mind, maintaining a positive frame of reference was just one way in the preservation of the “self” and something Cook utilized in his voyages to the South Seas.
This work by Jonathan Lamb is commendable for two main reasons. It is incredibly original in the choice of topic and the scholarship put forward by him in its development has added another perspective to the study of voyages by explorers to the South Seas from 1680-1840. In fact, Lamb has succeeded in widening the lens of a scholar who studies this topic on a regular basis or just the ordinary individual who has a dedicated interest. What is also praiseworthy of this work is the incredible amount of ease he uses to his benefit in analyzing and discussing various works of literature. Even though he is a professor of English, the skill he employs in analyzing the concept of self-preservation in the South Seas through certain works of literature is highly admirable. An example of this is his discussion of the idea of self-preservation in examining the plot of Robinson Crusoe. According to him, the island Crusoe is located on is reflective of “the two opposite moods of self-preservation, the constraint and the reach of an individual who is thrown alone into an empty place but finds the means to set a table in the wilderness” (184). The type of literary analysis Lamb offers here, combined with his choice of such a unique topic are two ingredients among others that make this work a resounding success.
The only complaint with this book is that the author does not include endnotes. His citation of the works he uses appears in the text itself and they are an unusual sight for this type of writing. Even though there a couple of footnotes sprinkled throughout the book that he uses to briefly expand or clarify certain points he makes, not enough is provided on a consistent basis that is worth noticing. A minor flaw in an otherwise superbly written work by Jonathan Lamb.