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Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity

Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity

by Ann Elias

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From vividly colored underwater photographs of Australia's Great Barrier Reef to life-size dioramas re-creating coral reefs and the bounty of life they sustained, the work of early twentieth-century explorers and photographers fed the public's fascination with reefs. In the 1920s John Ernest Williamson in the Bahamas and Frank Hurley in Australia produced mass-circulated and often highly staged photographs and films that cast corals as industrious, colonizing creatures, and the undersea as a virgin, unexplored, and fantastical territory. In Coral Empire Ann Elias traces the visual and social history of Williamson and Hurley and how their modern media spectacles yoked the tropics and coral reefs to colonialism, racism, and the human domination of nature. Using the labor and knowledge of indigenous peoples while exoticizing and racializing them as inferior Others, Williamson and Hurley sustained colonial fantasies about people of color and the environment as endless resources to be plundered. As Elias demonstrates, their reckless treatment of the sea prefigured attitudes that caused the environmental crises that the oceans and reefs now face.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003823
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/10/2019
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Ann Elias is Associate Professor of the History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art at the University of Sydney, author of Camouflage Australia: Art, Nature, Science, and War and Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art, and coeditor of Camouflage Cultures: Beyond the Art of Disappearance.

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Coral Empire

In the 1920s, when the photograph in figure 1.1 was taken, oceans and the undersea were still, as they had been for centuries, the great enigma and frontier for poetic and technological exploration. Westerners imagined the deep sea and coral islands as wilderness external to human beings and separate from technology, culture, and daily life. And the underwater, whether at the edge of the sea or in the depths, represented an uncanny world of hidden animals and invisible mysteries. The sea confirmed already held beliefs based in the dualisms of human and animal, culture and nature, material and immaterial, and triggered questions about the boundaries of human and nonhuman life.

By the 1920s, the science of coral reefs had established once and for all that corals are not flowers, insects, or worms, as they were once thought. In the 1920s, the reef, once an object of bewilderment and fear, was reimagined through dreamy images of submarine glories and ranked as "unexcelled for beauty among all the spectacles of the universe." In 1928, when the woman in figure 1.1 was alive, there was great anticipation of the aesthetic enrichment and pleasure that coral reefs would bring to peoples' lives. In 1928, for instance, the American marine zoologist William Beebe (1877–1962) urged each of his readers to witness firsthand the beauty of a coral reef. He wrote, "Don't die without having borrowed, stolen, purchased or made a helmet of sorts, to glimpse for yourself this ... unsuspected realm of gorgeous life and color existing with us today on the self-same planet Earth."

But, of course, it had not always been the case that coral reefs were conceived as beautiful objects of gorgeous form and color. They have enriched but also ruined human lives, enabled and also destroyed human endeavors. "Woe to the ship which in an ebbing tide, and with a strong wind, may be driven across some of these subterranean ridges" warned the Queensland Times in Brisbane, Australia, in 1875. Captain James Cook (1728–1779) called the Great Barrier Reef of Australia an "insane Labyrinth" of coral. But Iain McCalman suggests how insane Cook himself was to sail the reef at night, a decision that saw his ship, the Endeavour, marooned for five weeks. That near disastrous decision, argues McCalman, was one of Cook's "profound environmental misunderstandings." This legendary moment of human and coral contact, which is also part of the history of science, exploration, and British expansion, illustrates vividly how the relationship of corals with history and culture has always been important. Corals epitomize "vibrant matter," the type of nonhuman bodies that Jane Bennett characterizes as having the capacity to "impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own." Corals have always been a physical and cultural force.

So strong a hold have corals exerted on the popular imagination that Stefan Helmreich refers to coral reefs as "figures," by which he means they are made by "creatures of fact and fiction that symbolize and embody social and scientific tensions, trends, and transformations." Drawing on Donna Haraway's work in the history of science and human-animal relations, Helmreich's study of the figure of the coral reef discusses the extent to which this oceanic phenomenon is prefigured and written in our minds. Foremost among the cultural avenues for the reef becoming an imaginative force was the popular press of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the subject of the reef preoccupied news of science and navigation, where a great deal was written about the beauty of coral reefs in tropical waters, and where much in evidence was the appropriation of the coral reef as metaphor for imperial ambitions and empire building.

As single, separate, and minute beings, there has been little about corals with which people have been able to identify. Charles Darwin (1809–1882), for example, described how a coral reef is built by tiny, "apparently insignificant," gelatinous creatures. Today, Eva Hayward argues that coral organisms are so tiny that we, as humans of a much bigger size, cannot map our bodies onto them, and as a result, it "makes identification a politics of erasure rather than empathy." But as colonies, as collectives, corals lend themselves easily to human identification. That is because they are characterized as empire builders and colonial animals. Humankind can easily identify with corals through militarized and anthropomorphic metaphors.

When Charles Darwin proposed the theory of subsidence to explain how volcanic islands sink, and also proposed the idea that corals develop upward at the edge of a sinking island, growing toward the light to become barrier reefs and atolls, he solved a scientific problem. But Darwin's theory of coral reef formation by tiny coral animals also became a suggestive metaphor for the ambitions of the British colonial project, and associated ambitions of Christian missionary life. Concerning the moral metaphor that developed around coral, Michelle Elleray explains how Darwin's theories acted as a social catalyst, and how in the mid-nineteenth century, "discussion of coral moves from scientific debate into a discourse on Victorian moral codes, especially in evangelical circles," where Christian families, for example, prepared their children for missionary work by likening them to the virtuous "insect" builders of the reef. But Darwin's influence also shone a light on what was popularly called the "industry" and "work" of coral animals. These anthropocentric conceptualizations explain why corals came to be known as "the greatest builders of the world," as if to say they live their lives in the same way as human beings: purposively making a worthwhile life through the design and construction of colonies, settlements, and communities.

By the end of the nineteenth century the British Empire boasted ownership of the world's greatest underwater coral empires. Newspapers, acting as ciphers for social and colonial perceptions, were keen to point out the extent of Britain's coral island possessions, and in 1917, a point in history that E. J. Hobsbawm argues marks the end of the British imperial project, one article claimed "there are over ten thousand islands in the British Empire." It was 1718 when Britain acquired the Bahamas, and 1859 when Queensland, Australia, whose shores are girded by the Great Barrier Reef, became a colony of the British Empire. The colonial project harnessed the moral dimension of the figure of the coral reef as the product of industrious and spiritually dedicated workers, and combined it with the politics of an international ambition for social, military, and economic power. The imperial imaginary found in the figure of the coral reef a useful political image and a metaphorical space to assert the rightness and goodness of the empire's own colonizing practice of expansion. Acquiring and building colonies, especially in the tropics, seemed as organic for the British Empire as the process of reef building itself. And, in an age of positivist science and Enlightenment influence, a marine animal that also built toward the light embodied a useful social symbol for enlightened Europeans.

However, a coral reef was both a robust and a risky metaphor for serving imperialism. It was a shaky comparison because coral reefs and empires are built over time, and while both are capable of rapid expansion, both are also susceptible to decline and ruin. Moreover, as history has shown, there is nothing more ambiguous than corals. On one hand, they are an undeniable force of nature; on the other, they represent a confusing entity that seems to defy the boundaries between male and female, and animal, vegetable, and mineral. Stefan Helmreich makes the point that encounters between humans and corals have frequently been based in disorientation and misunderstanding. And in 1972 Samuel M. Weber spelled out the nature of the epistemological confusion: "Animal, vegetable or mineral? The meanings of 'madrepore' are themselves strangely madreporic: animal, vegetable and mineral, living and dead, producer and product. Only its porosity seems beyond question: yet, here too, a certain confusion appears." Plant, stone, animal: the cultural history of corals shows they have been classified as all three. Flowers, insects, worms — corals have been confused with each one. Confusion over the true nature of corals came partly from science and partly from myths such as the myth of Medusa, who turned the plants of the sea to stone. Coral's fluid, visual boundaries and resemblance to flowers and gardens once assigned it to the vegetable kingdom until science later revealed it as the work of colonizing animals. In 1936, the children's writer Frances Jenkins Olcott called them "flower animals" to acknowledge their hybrid, border-crossing nature.

Possibly as a consequence of their often contradictory nature, coral reefs were models for a wide variety of social claims about the British Empire, In 1861, they were a demonstration of the correct structure of a colonial society in which "the broader the base, the loftier the apex." In 1908, they were seen as mirrors of the human character, which, "like a coral reef, is made bit by bit." They served as a cautionary tale for the potential chaos and randomness of expansionism, with some observers concluding that the British Empire "grew like a coral reef, without a plan." They justified the significance of brotherhoods, guilds, and fraternities because "society has been built up like a coral atoll of innumerable fraternities — social, political and industrial." And when, in 1929, there were mounting concerns across the empire about worker exploitation, coral reefs served as a threat and warning to anyone who would forget that "[the workers] build the reef, and the reef maintains them. Disaster to the reef means death to its inhabitants."

The coral reef analogy continued to hold currency well into the early twentieth century. In 1905, coral polyps and their "work" offered a conceptual validation for the ongoing processes of colonization, for democracy, and for the greatness of the British Empire: "The Empire of Britain, like the coral reefs that guard so many of her island possessions, has been built up by no one man, but is the united product of the efforts of a countless multitude whose works alone abide. Statesman and diplomatist, sea-rover and soldier, historian and poet, administrator and the sturdy son of the soil, have all given their lives to the great work of empire-building." However, conceiving of the British Empire as a reef built by politicians, military figures, artists, historians, farmers, and mariners betrayed it as a racially exclusive democracy. Excluded was the contribution of Indigenous labor in building "the reef." As colonies of exploitation, places such as the Bahamas and Australia took advantage of local labor and resources to help make Britain flourish, and colonial newspapers acted as ciphers for the systemic racism that often characterized coral island peoples as inferior. When the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now the separate countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu) were annexed as crown colonies of the British Empire in 1915, a headline read, "More 'Lumps of Coral.'" It was a figure of speech that belonged to a vocabulary of domination: "lumps of coral" portrayed the people and culture of the islands as an indiscriminate conglomerate of things rather than a social ecology of differentiated individuals. Not only islands of the Pacific but also islands of the Atlantic, particularly the Bahamas, were known in colonial circles as "little unfruitful bits of soil." But what the islands of the Bahamas were praised for was their value as ports to hold the empire together through sea power.

James Cook's journals planted in peoples' minds the idea that coral reefs are fearful, disorienting, monstrous human snares. But that image changed greatly in the late nineteenth century when the impact of empirical science and the pleasures of observing the natural world from life turned attention to the reef as a living entity. This shift in perspective and interest brought increasing attention to what reefs looked like from under the water as well as from the surface. In the early twentieth century, people became more interested in the natural environments of coral reefs without the encumbering symbolisms of empire and colonization. The colonial lifestyle of corals was of interest in and of itself without allusion to the genesis of human colonies. People wanted to know how coral animals breathed, what gave them form and color, their position in the animal world, and how atolls were made. As anthropomorphism gave way to increasing interest in the autonomy of animals and plants, coral reef environments such as the Great Barrier Reef were described in nonhuman terms as "the greatest animal structure on this planet." Sydney Elliot Napier (1870–1940), a poet and journalist who explored the Great Barrier Reef in 1928 with a party of people that included the woman in figure 1.1, said it was inconceivable that people had ever referred to corals as lowly creatures and had looked upon corals as "so small, so helpless, so weak and seemingly 'contemptible'" that they had also found it difficult to believe that coral animals could build such complex and extensive habitats. Instead, Napier found it sublime and decentering to think about the deep time associated with reef building and the ancient nature of coral formations: it is, he said, "a miracle; a thing to strike us dumb."

The beauties and dangers of coral reefs and the relative accessibility of the underwater zone surrounding reefs presented a unique opportunity for cinematic and photographic representations. A thoroughly modern relationship developed between photography and filmmaking, coral reefs, and tropical water, one based in the common ingredient of light and the material quality of transparency. It became apparent that there was a magical correspondence in the way the natural phenomenon of corals and the technological processes of photographs both required light for photochemical reactions. It was a revelation that corals, as well as photographs, needed light to bring them to life and enable development.

Moreover, photography and the tropics seemed like a perfect marriage because tropical water in the right conditions seems almost as transparent and clear as air. The more transparent the water, the more visible the creatures and plants of the underwater, and the more successful the fixing of photographic images, moving and still. With the environment of the tropics readily engaging minds about the limits and potential for vision through water, the tropics became a space of the imagination similar to the technological spaces of modern entertainment. Like the illuminations of magic lantern slides and cinema screens, the water of the tropics was a site of projections, mirroring, illusions, and luminous shadows. The way the medium of water offered a lens to apparitions seemingly projected below in the underwater was similar to watching cinematic projections and recalling dreams.

The reef was an outer world on which the whole gamut of human emotions could be projected. It served as a source of social and political metaphor and as an inspiration for poetic vision, and it acted as an agent driving changes in technologies, shaping cinematography and photography, luring explorers and travelers, and forging new visual experiences for spectators of images. Photographers and cinematographers saw an opportunity to generate on film a coral orientalism that would appeal to general audiences, the science community, and maybe also artistic modernism. But to achieve this they had to be explorers as well as image hunters. Felix Driver points out that in the twentieth century, a distinction between the "adventurous explorer and the scientific traveller" came about through the modern explorer's links with cinema, mass media, sensation, the exotic, and "the inexorable advance of technological and commercial modernity across the globe."

Coral reef environments opened the mind to the "floor of the sea" or the "bed of the ocean" in a positive way. A fixation on the underwater of reefs emerged coterminously with cinematic society when interest in the natural world intensified with the advent of the moving image, turning the coral reef and the underwater into objects of a voyeuristic gaze. In the spatialization of the sea, the deep sea has been conceived as a sublime wilderness, while the shallower waters surrounding coral reefs promised a wilderness that was relatively benign because it is where water, air, land, plants, rocks, animals, and humans meet. Unlike the deep sea, which hides the abyss, the shallow waters of tropical fringing reefs and atolls were welcome for their vibrant features. That is not to say they did not have their own real and imaginary dangers in the form of hidden and alien animals. But the limestone rock that is the reef also promised safety and escape, whereas the deep ocean offered only disorientation and terror. Terrestrial space has mountains, jungles, and polar continents that stand out in the landscape and beckon to explorers. These are defined and definable features that anchor the imagination to singular environments. The deep sea is featureless, but a coral reef, as Jonathan Crylen points out, is a "static spatial landmark" in an otherwise undifferentiated environment. And scientists also agree that the pelagic zone of the open sea is an ambiguous space where the "biomass density in open water is minute compared to reefs." Coral reefs give explorers and photographers a tangible, featureful space to focus their minds.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction 1
Part I. The Coral Uncanny
1. Coral Empire  15
2. Mad Love  29
Part II. John Ernest Williamson and the Bahamas
3. Williamson and the Photosphere  49
4. The Field Museum—Williamson Undersea Expedition  68
5. Under the Sea  83
6. Williamson in Australia  97
Part III. Frank Hurley and the Great Barrier Reef
7. Hurley and the Floor of the Sea  117
8. Hurley and the Australian Museum Expedition  131
9. Pearls and Savages  147
10. Hurley and the Torres Strait Diver  165
Part IV. Hurley and Williamson
11. Explorers and Modern Media  185
12. Color and Tourism  199
Part V. The Great Acceleration
13. The Anthropocene  217
Conclusion  230
Notes  235
Bibliography  261
Index  277

What People are Saying About This

The Novel and the Sea - Margaret Cohen

Coral Empires is a brilliantly researched, aesthetically nuanced study of early photographic and film imagery representing coral reefs, one of the most gorgeous areas of the undersea, which is the least explored dimension of the blue humanities. Focusing on how coral came to be captured and exhibited in visual media of the twentieth century, and expanding to coral's transformed presence in museological displays, Ann Elias shows the power of imagery and exhibition to create our imagination and relation to the inaccessible undersea. In the process, Coral Empire tracks changing human interactions with the environment of the coral reef that became a tourist destination in the early twentieth century and that is at the forefront of exhibiting the devastating impact of climate change today.”

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change - Iain McCalman

“Ann Elias's Coral Empire is as intoxicating as a plunge into a reef lagoon: a refreshingly original and compelling analysis of how the underwater coral realm has evolved from a planetary space of fathomless mysteries and alien terrors to become a complex technology-driven spectacle that feeds the rampant imaginations, pleasures, vices, and curiosities of modern humans.”

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