“A mark peculiar”- Tattoos in Captive Narratives, 1846-1857

  • Sean Bride

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis explores the Western logocentrism that tattoo’s are expressions of captivity by reading three indigenous captivity narratives; The Captivity of the Oatman Girls by Royal B. Stratton (1857), Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville (1846) and Torrey’s Narrative, or, the Life and Adventures of William Torrey by William Torrey (1848). This logocentrism derives from the tattoo’s long history as a method of control; since at least Ancient Greece the tattoo has been used in Europe to mark slaves and crimes, and to signify the foreign ‘Other.’ The thesis deploys Jacques Derrida’s notion of aporia to destabilize the idea that tattoos are expressions of freedom or captivity, and to illuminate them as both. In examining the texts, aporia and freedom need to be understood in the context of nineteenth century colonialism, which was cisheteropatriarchal as well as white supremacist. The context of colonialism means that the imperial gaze constructed the centre and margins through peculiarity. Tattoos, the first signifier according to Lacan, are, to paraphrase William Torrey, ‘marks peculiar.’ Peculiarity is an unstable notion; peculiarity shows queerness and strangeness, but it also shows belonging. Belonging can be considered in a captive sense (to be possessed) but it can also be considered in a safe sense (to be at home). Each of the captivity narratives I studied considers the themes of freedom, captivity and home differently, whilst sharing some common themes. For example, I read each text as queering tattoos and linking them to cannibalism. Through an aporic gaze I have aimed to read the texts/tattoos in a way that rescues them from the imperial gaze; yet the auto-ethnographic methodology employed in this thesis means my body and my gaze, my own ideas about gender and the language of gender, is a context. Tattoos make perceptions visible, showing both logocentrisms and aporia.
    Date of Award18 Oct 2018
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Winchester
    SupervisorChris Mounsey (Supervisor) & Emile Bojesen (Supervisor)


    • tattoos
    • captivity narratives
    • aporia
    • queer studies
    • colonialism
    • Herman Melville
    • Olive Oatman
    • William Torrey

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