In 1773 a young Polynesian man called Omai was taken by Captain Cook back to London where he was introduced into high society. An instant hit he was invited to society functions, painted by many of the great painters of the time and even had a play written about him. He affected the mannerisms of a Tahitian prince and was even introduced to the British King George III.
By 1777 British high society had lost interest in Omai and Cook decided to take him back to Tahiti. Although Cook set him up on his home island with a house, gifts and even a horse and a suit of armour, Omai never settled back into island life. He considered himself better than his peers and was rejected by them. He died a few years after being returned to the island.
Why do I mention this? Well I have just watched the first episode of Meet the Natives, on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, where five tribesmen from Yakel village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, are flown to the UK to see how they fit in.
The hook for the series is that many people on Tanna believe that the bigotted old curmudgeon and useless husband of the Queen of England, Prince Phillip is a descendent of the god of their island and they are hoping to meet him and ask him when he will return to Tanna. Undoubtedly they will be disappointed. Though if they met the gaffe-prone idiot who famously told English students in China that they would end up with slitty eyes if they stayed in the country for long and asked Aborigines in Australia if they still threw spears at each other, they would probably be even more disappointed!
Now I visited the village of Yakel a couple of years ago and was struck by the way that although the people were aware of the outside world they had chosen to live a kastem life and preserve their own traditions. The village was a balanced and happy place, and the chief had made the decision to keep their children from school and not allow missionaries in order that they preserve their own traditions and are not swayed by the lure of the West.
The Chief is one of the people taking part in the programme. They have already stayed with a middle class pig farmer whose wife asked them if they eat their pets. Next week they stay with a family who live on a Manchester council estate and are shown smoking cigarettes.
The actual programme was quite entertaining and the tribesmen came over as articulate and humourous, but my worry is what will happen to them when it is time to go home? Will they be able to fit back into their village life or will it change them and their cultures for ever, and just for our entertainment?
This program is just one more example of TV production’s large budgets and small conscience combing the world like Romans looking for oddities to chuck in the Arena for our entertainment. Programmes like Meet the Natives and Return of the Tribe which it blatently copies, claim to respect fragile tribes and cultures, but by exposing them to the full onslaught of Western culture they are irreperably damaging them for our titillation. They claim to be anthropology, but at best they are just more exploitative reality TV. Shows like Last Man Standing don’t even claim this higher purpose, they just use a game show format to take six Western ‘athletes’ to various tribes to fight them like modern day gladiators!
A notable exception to this panoply of Roman-esque exploitation is the TV series, Tribe where Bruce Parry visits remote peoples with a small crew and lives as a member of the tribe. He eats what they do and tries do everything that they do, including hunting. Parry’s low impact approach seems to have little negative effect on the tribes he visits. He stays with them in their homes and the crew camp a little way away. The tribespeople are given a voice and their subtitled ribald comments about Parry are a highlight of the whole programme. Tribe is a celebration of tribes around the world and does not seek to turn them into a freakshow, or expose them to influences that will irrevocably change their traditionsa and way of life.
It is shame that some of the other programmes can’t say the same!
Words & pictures © Steve Davey 2007