Touring the Islands: 19th-Century American Sailors and the Environment of the Indian Ocean

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM
Executive Room (Omni Shoreham)
Jane Hooper, George Mason University
More than a thousand American vessels sailed throughout the southwestern Indian Ocean during the nineteenth century. Crew members on board these whaling and merchant vessels eagerly anticipated opportunities for shore leave in the ports of Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Zanzibar. During brief stays on these and other islands, sailors did not merely rest, socialize, and feast on fresh food. In search of a respite from monotony at sea, they transformed themselves into eco-tourists. Sailors would take in a sunrise on the peaks of Mauritius, dip into the hot springs of Amsterdam Island, and stroll into the countryside of Madagascar. These American travelers shared their leisure activities with one another through written texts and oral accounts, both of which served to convert the foreign landscapes they encountered into knowable spaces, safe for American exploration and consumption. This paper will explore how American sailors envisioned the islands of the southwestern Indian Ocean by comparing their experiences at three locations: Saint Augustin Bay in Madagascar, Port Louis of Mauritius, and the isolated island of Amsterdam. Shared knowledge of tourist attractions in all three locations served to comfort sailors in the midst of lengthy and dangerous voyages and inspired them to explore the seemingly untouched landscapes once they arrived on shore. Many of their stories also naturalized the Western presence in, and domination over, the people and islands of the southwestern Indian Ocean.
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