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Through the wonderful south sea islands with Jack London

August 10, 2011

If you were in Lethbridge Alberta, Canada 100 years ago today, you could hop over the the Eureka Theatre to see Martin E. Johnson and his wife Osa present a lecture/performance/moving picture show about Martin’s trip with Jack London in the South Sea Islands, which he had embarked on four years prior. The Johnsons exploited this trip for many years, cashing in Jack London’s star status and the hunger that early 20th century Americans had for everything and anything “primitive.”



Johnson would publish two books about his South Sea adventures, Through the South Seas with Jack London (1913)  and Cannibal-land (1922) neither of which I would recommend to the casual reader as both are filled with racist depictions of the so-called “cannibal” inhabitants of the more “remote” islands. As documents of American history, however, they are quite illuminating.

The footage gathered on this trip was shown to audiences along with Martin’s lecture and Osa’s singing at least through the mid-1910s.

GOODWIN'S WEEKLY (Salt Lake City, Utah) 28 February 1914

In 1917 the couple returned to the region, and a year later the Johnsons release two more films about the South Sea Islands: Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific  and Cannibals of the South Seas. The latter is listed in IMDB with a 1912 release date, but the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, a very reputable source, gives 1918 as the year. It seems likely that this film was cobbled together with the footage from the London expedition, which may account for the discrepancy in dates.

In the following decades, Martin and Osa Johnson would go on to become make a series of Safari films, mostly set in Africa, which continued to capitalize on racist representations of “primitive” people but which primarily focused on indigenous animal life, playing up the dangers of the hunt.

Fatimah Tobing Rony discusses the Johnsons in her excellent book The third eye: race, cinema, and ethnographic spectacle.

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