Friday, May 24, 2013

Arguing about 'Eua

The 'Atenisi expedition to 'Eua  has returned safely to the bright lights of Nuku'alofa, which seem bright indeed after our sojourn in caves and rain forest holloways. Here are a couple of photos  (click to enlarge them) from 'Eua, as well as some notes I'm asking the students to debate.

Questions for discussion

‘Eua and the problems of oral history

During our stay on ‘Eua we talked with Richard Lauaki, one of the oldest men on the island and a custodian of its oral history. Richard gave us his sometimes controversial opinions on subjects like the eruption of Niuafo’ou in 1946 and the subsequent movement of many Niua people to ‘Eua, the place of Niuans and their language in contemporary ‘Euan society, the raid on ‘Ata by Australasian slavers, and the failings of young Tongans. We also visited the grave of AE Yealands, the New Zealander who served as a coastwatcher on ‘Eua in 1942, and learned that the story many ‘Euans tell about Yealands’ death differs greatly from the way the soldier actually died.

You were given a copy of an essay about oral tradition by Sione Latukefu during your stay on ‘Eua. Latukefu talks about how careful attention to verbal accounts of the past helped him in his studies of Tonga, but notes that some other scholars have been led astray when they have tried to use oral history. We laughed about the way that Roger McKern, author of the first attempt at an archaeological survey of Tonga, was misled by mischevious locals into giving obscene names to some of the ancient sacred sites he tried to record.

Did your experiences on ‘Eua make you reflect on the value of oral traditions to the study of the past? Do you think that stories passed verbally down the generations can be relied upon to tell us about the past? If some stories about the past are false, does this make them useless, or can they still provide certain types of insights to a scholar? Does Richard Lauaki have qualities which might make him a more reliable source on ‘Euan history than Roger McKern?

Cook and contact

We have read Vaughan Rapatahana’s angry poem about Cook, which laments his coming to the Pacific, and earlier in the course we made an analogy between the situation of the relatively isolated islands Cook visited in the 1770s and the uncontacted peoples of regions like Brazil and the Andamans in the twentieth century. We had a long argument about whether or not the inhabitants of the Andamans’ North Sentinel Island, one of the world’s last truly isolated groups of humans, ought to be contacted or left alone.

After reading Cook and Anderson’s accounts of their visit to ‘Eua, hearing from scholars of Cook like Anne Salmond, and talking to contemporary ‘Euans about their view of Cook, do you think, like Vaughan Rapatahana, that ‘Euans would have been better off without contact from Cook and the Europeans who followed him? Can an analogy be made between ‘Eua in 1777 and the North Sentinelese today?

‘Eua and the centre

Both Cook and Anderson noticed the connections between ‘Eua and Tongatapu. Despite the occasional difficulty of crossing the Tongatapu Strait, the chiefs of the larger island held land on ‘Eua and despatched relatives there to exercise authority. Tongan oral history confirms the domination of ‘Eua by Tongatapu. The island was an integral part of the Tongan Maritime Empire, and remained subordinate to the old imperial capital of Mu’a even after the decline of the empire.

We have seen how the traditional relative centralisation of Tongan society helped Tupou I to build a modern state and maintain Tongan independence in the second half of the nineteenth century. By contrast Aotearoa had never been politically unified in the pre-contact era, and the efforts of Wiremu Tamihana to unite Maori under one king ultimately failed.

What signs of the ancient Tongan kingdom and empire did you find on the ‘Euan landscape, and in the island’s placenames? 

Noble ‘Euan savages?

Near the beginning of this course we examined early European visions of the Pacific, and noted that these visions had more to do with the anxieties of Europeans than with the realities of the Pacific. We saw how the ideas of Rousseau and the ecstatic reports of some early visitors to Tahiti encouraged a vision of Pacific Islanders as ‘noble savages’, who lived simply but happily in a pleasant landscape and climate. We saw how today’s tourism industry continues to promote this patronising view of Pacific peoples, in its effort to sell air tickets and rooms at resorts. Do you think that William Anderson’s account of the ‘Euans is influenced by the notion of the noble savage, or do you think his enthusiasm for the people he observed has a different quality? Do you think ‘Eua’s small tourism sector promotes the noble savage myth today, or does it use other ways to sell the island?

‘Eua and Oceania

In the first lecture of this course we noted that the Pacific has been given different names by different people from different cultures, and that the various names for the region reflect different intellectual perspectives and different political agendas. We saw how European romantics called parts of the Pacific the ‘South Seas’; how today some Western nations and corporations are using the term ‘Asia-Pacific’, and thereby conflating distant and apparently very different countries like Tonga and China; how the late Epeli Hau’ofa used the term Oceania, because he believed that, except when colonialists intervened, the sea has linked rather than isolated the various islands of this region; and how ‘Okusitino Mahina has suggested giving the waters of Western Polynesia back their ancient name of Moana.

James Cook and William Anderson’s accounts of their visit to ‘Eua have shown us that, in 1777, ‘Eua was a relatively inaccessible island for other Tongans, and had a far smaller population than Tongatapu. Today ‘Eua remains somewhat isolated from Tongatapu due to the expense and discomfort of ferry services. More than a few adult Tongatapuans have visited Australia or New Zealand or America, yet never set foot on ‘Eua.

On the other hand, many Tongans have relatives on ‘Eua, many ‘Euans send their children to high school on Tongatapu, and Tongan newspapers and radio and television programmes are widely consumed on ‘Eua.

We have seen how the population of ‘Eua is today composed of three main groups: the ‘indigenous’ ‘Euans, whose ancestors arrived on the island long ago from Tongatapu and other parts of Tonga; the descendants of the people of ‘Ata, who were evacuated after their homeland in the far south of Tonga was raided by Australasian slavers in 1863; and the Niuan community, which arrived on ‘Eua in 1958, as refugees from a volcanic eruption on their island in the far north of Tonga. Today the descendants of the people of ‘Ata still cheish the memory of their abandoned homeland, and many Niuafo’ouans practice a distinct culture and continue to speak a Samoic language of their own, in addition to Tongan. The ‘Atan settlement of Kolomaile and Niuan villages like Mu’a and Angaha reflect the efforts of both communities to retain a separate identity from ‘indigenous’ ‘Euans.

Does ‘Eua, with its complicated population and mixture of connections to and isolation from Tongatapu, provide evidence for or against Epeli Hau’ofa’s famous notion of Oceania? Does Hau’ofa’s vision of the people of Oceania as interconnected and mobile fit with or contradict the reality of ‘Eua’s modern history?

A different perspective

Sometimes the experience of travel can help us to reflect on the home we have left behind. The final lectures for our paper will deal with some of the opportunities and problems that late twentieth century globalisation has brought to the Pacific. Did your time on ‘Eua make you think in new or sharper ways about the impact of globalisation on Nuku’alofa?

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous libcom said...

well personally I think this whole push to study tonga/the remote pacific is a waste of time. capitalism is in crisis, Greece is in crisis, the workers are fighting, austerity emergency neo-liberalism is the order of the day in the west...and you want to focus on backwaters like tonga...why...why not focus on places where socialism is a possibility...

1:50 pm  
Anonymous libcom said...

ps I recall paul 'janman' baiting working class people at this blog some months ago...has he got a job yet?

1:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

(More importantly Maps - is that hat not far away? Or are you wanting to get sun skin damage? Your noggin will seize up at the very least...)

Greece and capitalism have been in crisis for about 200 years. And Greece for thousands but it survived. I

If something is interesting, such as a process of history, then it is as "relevant" as anything. It may even have a use-value.

Maps may be "wasting time" but he is interesting. He is "where it's AT."

11:04 pm  
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