Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Martin and Osa Johnsons’ first expedition to the South Seas. Considering their contributions to American visual and popular culture, commemorations could take myriad forms.
From 1913 to 1937, the Johnsons produced and featured in more than fifteen documentary films and published five books recounting their travels to Africa, South-East Asia and the South Seas. Their productions were a huge success with American audiences. When their first film, Cannibals of the South Seas, premiered on Broadway in 1918 it broke box office records and brought unprecedented media interest to the documentary genre. Their broad appeal is clear in the in the 1930s dance craze “Congorilla,” inspired by the Johnson’s first feature “talkie,” and the comic strip “Danger Trails” printed for eager readers of Kansas newspapers.
In March 1939 the Fashion Academy named Osa Johnson one of American’s twelve best-dressed women and in 1940, the American Society of Cinematographers named her one of the ten most photogenic personalities outside filmdom. After Martin’s death in 1937, Osa established the company Osa Johnson Inc., and produced a fashion line, Osafari, a jewelry line, Osa Johnson’s Jungle Jewelry, and a line of soft toy animals.
In the 1960s their papers and collection helped establish the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas. Since opening, the Safari Museum has repeatedly won best museum in Kansas, attracting 5,000 visitors annually to its education centre, exhibitions, and shop where their films are sold. A wider audience is reached through the travelling exhibits and outreach programs. One hotel in Chanute models itself on a version of the safari lodge, while African animal sculptures welcome visitors to the small town.
It’s a somewhat incongruous sight, but one that underlines the remarkable link the museum creates between mid-America and African safari. The couple’s story is woven throughout the museum’s collection of their memorabilia—Osa is represented as a daring feminist and a latter-day conservationist who, along with her husband, shot wildlife with a camera rather than a gun. Although she also rode shotgun for her handsome, boyish partner in adventure, with whom she set up domestic bliss in the savannahs of Africa or the jungles of Borneo. The ongoing appeal of the photogenic couple, whose romance only enhanced their daring, is evident on eBay where copies of Osa’s retrospective account of their rise to fame have sold for over $500.
As to the Indigenous people who hosted the Americans in their lands and homes, a more troubling story quickly emerges. Usually unnamed individuals routinely made appearances in scenes of ridicule or novelty the couple staged for the amusement of audiences back home. The Johnson’s films and photographs of their experiences in the wild reached mass audiences in American theatres. In our book called Across the World with the Johnsons: Visual Culture and American Empire in the Twentieth Century, we show that those audiences included visitors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored some of the Johnson’s films and, in turn, collected some of their objects. Martin’s close-range photographs contributed to the Hall of Mammals’ claims to provide taxidermy dioramas of beasts in life-like poses and natural settings.
Moreover, the Johnsons reveled in keeping pet animals, keeping the young of mature kills for themselves, or sending them to zoos in the U.S. Osa’s line of soft animal toys complemented the couple’s writings, including their children’s books, where the dark dangers of safari were lightened by a convivial colonial vision of white woman’s domesticity, local servants, and cute pet chimpanzees, orangutan, baby elephants or a collared jaguar.
In terms of conservationism, Martin and Osa framed their experiences in Borneo and Africa through an ethnographic lens and imagined themselves as recording for posterity last images of “savage” people and animals in their “natural” state. They wove a story of extinction wrought by the impact of modernity, as much as they promoted American know-how in bringing modern life to distant lands. They advised that the aerial images of mass animal migrations across the savannahs following the rainy season would never be witnessed again. Their promotion of conservation reminds us that traditional gun safari continues to feed western desires for manly action and exotica, as evidenced by the recent safari shooting of a lion by an American dentist.
So what might contemporary audiences take from the Johnsons in terms of their relevance to today’s world? Some contemporary fans of the Johnsons have hoped to relive these encounters with the wild, if in a contemporary context, through taking part in reconstructions of their travels. Their films are also popular, having been released by the Safari Museum. Many of today’s enthusiasts admire the couple’s promotion of conservation, if less engaged by the fact that the Johnsons killed animals as well as photographed and filmed them in the name of educating the audiences of their day. And in terms of their intrusions into the lives of traditional peoples in various places, it is worth remembering that the Johnsons followed existing imperial routes of exchange and domination, relying upon military forces and British authorities as well as experienced porters for aid.
Sensation was as much their genre as ethnography or zoology: in their films and advertising, scenes of the Johnsons flying across the African savannah in their own zebra-patterned by-plane combine with promotional images of Osa frying lunch on board their sailboat or helping young local women in Meru apply make-up. And they were fulsome in their account of risking death among the Malakulans of present-day Vanuatu in order to capture footage of “savages” and telephoto-lens snapshots of what they claimed was a “cannibal” feast.
Ultimately, the Johnsons’ adventures were enabled by colonial and imperial race relations on the ground, to which they also contributed. As the 100th anniversary of the Johnson’s first expedition to the South Seas draws near we might consider their complicated and sometimes contradictory legacy, not only for American historians and film enthusiasts, or for world heritage conservationists, but also for the descendants of the local people they encountered.
Lamont Lindstrom, Kendall Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tulsa, studies the cultures and languages of Vanuatu. Prue Ahrens is an art historian specialising in the Asia Pacific region. Fiona Paisley is a historian at Griffith University, Brisbane, working on international networks and settler colonialism in the twentieth century.