Bad Colonists

The South Seas Letters of Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke

Bad Colonists

Book Pages: 192 Illustrations: 24 illustrations Published: January 1999

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In Bad Colonists Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves provide a window into the fantasies and realities of colonial life by presenting separate sets of letters by two late-nineteenth-century British colonists of the South Pacific: Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke. Thomas and Eves frame the letters—addressed mostly to the colonists’ mothers—with commentary that explores colonial degeneration in the South Pacific. Using critical anthropology and theories of history-making to view the letter as artifact and autobiography, they examine the process whereby men and women unraveled in the hot, violent, uncivil colonial milieu.
An obscure colonial trader, Walker wrote to his mother in England from Australia, the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), and New Caledonia—and also from ships in between those places—during the 1870s and 1880s. Becke was a trader, too, but he was also a successful author of popular fiction that drew on his experiences in the Pacific. Written from Micronesia in the early 1880s, Becke’s letters are like Walker’s in that they report one setback after another. Both collections vividly evoke the day-to-day experiences of ordinary late-nineteenth-century colonists and open up new questions concerning the making and writing of selves on the colonial periphery.
Exposing insecurities in an epoch normally regarded as one of imperial triumph, Bad Colonists will appeal to students and scholars of anthropology, colonial history, cultural studies, and Pacific history and culture.


Bad Colonists is an exceptionally well researched and elegantly written exploration of two lives spent braving the turbulence of the pre-colonial South Pacific. It is a notable, fascinating and insightful contribution to our historical understanding, so often obscured hitherto by imperialist and anti-imperialist narratives. It will open up new enlightening areas of research, enabling us better to understand ‘the most glorious moments of empire from the vantage point of the poor white.’ ” — H. G. A. Hughes , Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

“[A] striking and powerful quality of Bad Colonists is that its commentary draws readers into its problematics, if only to impose alternative narratives on the letters. A deliberated partialness, that is, informs Bad Colonists, which in its experimental characteristics aims at enlisting the reader in the attempt at coming to (a new set of) terms with which to approach the anthropology of colonialism.” — Paul Lyons, The Contemporary Pacific

“[An] invaluable contribution to a better understanding of colonialism.” — Eric Venbrux , Pacific Affairs

"This is a gripping story, which the editors unravel with perfect pace and flawless scholarship." — Felipe Fernandez-Armesto , International Journal of Travel and Travel Writing

“The presentation of these two sets of letters is first-rate. Nothing less would be expected of a project in which Nicholas Thomas—a leading figure in the fields of anthropology and history—is involved.” — George E. Marcus, Rice University

“Thomas and Eves have addressed a topic of significant concern—the complex particularities of colonial culture and practice. Bad Colonists is more than a collection of annotated letters. It is a well-researched and elegantly conceived book that makes an important contribution to colonial history, Pacific culture, and anthropology.” — Don Brenneis, University of California at Santa Cruz


Availability: In stock
Price: $24.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nicholas Thomas is Professor of Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London. His books include In Oceania: Visions, Artifacts, Histories, also published by Duke University Press.

Richard Eves is an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, also at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Magical Body: Power, Fame, and Meaning in a Melanesian Society.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations xix

Preface xxi

Acknowledgments xxiii

Introduction: Letter Writing and Colonial Selfhood 1

1. " An Awfully bad Hand at Letter Writing": Vernon Lee Walker and Colonial History 9

2. The Letters of Vernon Lee Walker, 1878-1887 19

3. Self-Fashioning and Savagery: Louis Becke's Pacific Letters 77

4. The Letters of Louis Becke, 188-1882 91

5. The Apotheosis of Savagery: Louis Becke's Pacific Tales 129

Epilogue: Figures in History 146

Notes 149

Bibliography 155

Index 161
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2222-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2257-3
Publicity material