[It's exam time at 'Atenisi, so I've prepared this summary of my rather chaotic Modern Pacific History paper for students. I'll post about the visit from Murray Edmond last week as soon as I can track down the photographs I took of his ebullient public performances.]
Modern Pacific History – a summary
What’s in a name?
In our first
lecture I argued that names like the Pacific are much more than simple and
permanent labels placed on pieces of the world. A name reflects the outlook and
interests of the person or people who created it, and over centuries and
millennia many different names have been given to the region we today call the
In a number
of ancient Polynesian cultures, ‘Moana’ was used as a name for the waters we
now call the Pacific. In the sixteenth century Spaniards journeyed from Cape
Horn at the bottom of South America to Southeast Asia, and gave the name
Pacific, which meant peaceful, to the great ocean they had crossed. The
Spaniards may have picked a different name if they had run into a cyclone, or
had called at an island like Tongatapu, whose inhabitants were very familiar
with the martial arts.
century palangi writers like Robert Louis Stevenson made the South Seas into a
popular and rather romantic term for the southern and central Pacific. In the
decades after World War Two the term South Pacific began to be used by
international bodies like the United Nations. Today politicians like New
Zealand’s John Key often talk about an Asia-Pacific region, and by doing so
lump small island societies like Tonga together with much more populous
continental nations like South Korea and Thailand.
Tongan-born intellectual Epeli Hau’ofa used an essay called ‘Our Sea of
Islands’ to argue that European colonists had thought of the Pacific Ocean as a
barrier between island peoples, when it really been, in precolonial times, a
highway. Hau’ofa disliked the term Pacific because it made him think of barren
water, and proposed using the word Oceania instead. More recently, the ‘Atenisi
graduate ‘Okusitino Mahina has proposed once again using the ancient and
beautiful word Moana to describe the waters around the nations of Tonga, Samoa,
class members to think about which word or words they would like to use to
describe the region where they live. Ilaisa said that he believed that a
pan-Pacific identity existed, but did not identify with the term Asia-Pacific.
Salise argued that the Pacific should be renamed Moana-a-Tonga, to remember the
empire that Tonga’s mariners and warriors established in the late medieval era.
I also used
our first lecture to explain the structure, or rather lack of structure, of the
paper. I explained that our class would imitate the great Doctor Who’s Tardis,
and jump from one time and place to another in lecture after lecture. Where the
Doctor explored the whole universe, we would confine ourselves to the Pacific
since the late eighteenth century.
A blind date
that the first encounters between Europeans and Pacific peoples could be
compared to a blind date, because each people lacked information about the
other, and in place of information relied on preconceptions. These preconceptions
were very different, and reflected the different historical experiences of
European and Pacific peoples.
understand the preconceptions that European and Pacific peoples brought to
their first meetings, we had to examine the different histories of these
The European background
first at Europe, which was experiencing rapid and fateful changes when mariners
like Bougainville and Cook set sail for the Pacific. The intellectual movement
we now call the Enlightenment was challenging the power of religion, by
insisting that the world must be understood through observation and reason,
rather than on the basis of theological dogma.
system we now call capitalism was emerging in Europe, as agriculture became
increasingly large-scale and profit-oriented, peasants were cleared off their
lands, towns began to grow, and gold and other commodities flowed in from
colonies in other continents. Many scholars have used the term modernity for
the world that the Enlightenment and capitalism brought into existence.
that early European responses to the Pacific were dictated largely by
preconceptions, rather than by reality. The Pacific was, for Europeans, a
mirror in which they saw aspects of their own troubled societies. Many Europeans
unhappy with the greed, hierarchy, snobbery, sexual repression, and poverty of
their society saw, in early descriptions of Tahiti, the island Bougainville
‘discovered’ in 1767, an alternative and better way of life. Influenced in many
cases by the social critic Rousseau, who praised the life of the ‘natural man’ living
outside European society, these Europeans saw the Tahitians as a people who existed
close to the soil, abhorred authority and violence, and saw sex as something
sacred rather than abominable. The Tahitians were, to use a famous phrase
coined by the English poet John Dryden, ‘noble savages’.
But not all
Europeans were enthusiastic about the Pacific. The same apparent sexual and
social freedom which appealed to devotees of Rousseau upset defenders of
Christianity and European imperialism. For Europeans who believed that
Christianity and commerce were gifts that had to be shared,
societies like Tahiti and Tonga were the ‘dark places of the earth’, where
sloth and hedonism reigned. The inhabitants of these dark places were not noble
but ignoble savages. In 1796 a ship called the Duff left England for Tahiti and Tonga, full of missionaries
determined to Europeanise the peoples of those lands.
I noted Kerry
Howe’s argument that certain common assumptions lie behind both the stereotype
of the noble savage and the stereotype of the ignoble savage. Both the noble
and ignoble savage are supposed to be the product of a timeless, static
society; both are supposed to be incompatible with a modern, European-made
world. Howe notes that, for much of the nineteenth century and the early
decades of the twentieth century, many Europeans assumed that the inhabitants
of the Pacific would die out, as a result of contact with Christianity, commerce,
noble nor the ignoble savage ever existed. Tahiti, Tonga and other Pacific
societies were far more complex than either stereotype suggested.
The Pacific Background
is an extremely diverse part of the world, and different societies brought
different preconceptions to their early encounters with Europeans. To
illustrate something of the Pacific’s diversity, I discussed the chart Patrick
Vinton Kirch designed to show how hierarchical various
Polynesian societies were in the centuries before contact with Europe.
At one end
of Kirch’s chart is Rekohu, the society that the Moriori people established in
the subantarctic Chatham Islands. The Moriori, who were the descendants of
fourteenth century Maori mariners, survived by hunting and gathering and had an
egalitarian, decentralised society. At the other end of Kirch’s chart is Tonga,
a highly centralised agricultural society where a class of serfs were separated
by wealth and culture from a leisured aristocracy. Tonga had developed
rudimentary state structures and an empire by the late medieval period.
It is not
surprising that the people of Rekohu and Tonga reacted differently to European incursions
on their rohe. When a European vessel landed on Chatham Island in 1791, the
Moriori were startled. Because they had imagined that they were the only people
in the world, they decided that the ship and its crew must have come from the
sun. By contrast, the chiefs of Tongatapu were relatively indifferent to Cook
when he first called here. Shortly after landing Cook had associated himself
with a low-ranking chief, and this suggested, to more senior leaders, that he
must be a visitor of little importance.
I devoted a
lecture to a couple of the early attempts to turn Polynesians from ignoble
savages into industrious Christians. Using an essay by Paul Van Der Grijp, I
discussed the fate of the first missionaries to land in Tonga, who were brought
by the Duff in 1797. Because of their
refusal to study Tongan society with any seriousness and the arrogance they
showed towards both Tongans and the small but influential number of rough and
ready palangi ‘beachcombers’ who had already settled in Tonga, the missionaries
became the victims of both theft and violent attacks, and eventually fled from
the nation they had hoped to convert. A missionary named George Vason ‘went
native’, married a series of local women, took part in a civil war, acquired
serfs, and had his body tattooed.
rejection of European for Tongan civilisation foreshadowed the story of Thomas
Kendall, an English missionary who became, in the second decade of the
nineteenth century, a lackey of the notorious Maori warlord Hongi Hika. Kendall
had intended to convert Hika, but ended up supplying him directly and
indirectly with the guns that would help him ravage much of Te Ika a Maui. The
fates of Vason and Kendall were not unusual in the early nineteenth century.
A digression and a debate: North
A handful of
‘uncontacted peoples’ unfamiliar with the world of modernity still exist
today. I suggested to the class that we could understand the situation of the
Moriori people in 1791 by considering the plight of the uncontacted people of
North Sentinel Island.
how the inhabitants of North Sentinel, which is part of the Andamans
archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, had resisted repeated attempted incursions by the British colonisers of the Andamans and then by the Indian
government. Boats and choppers that got too near North Sentinel Island attracted
swarms of arrows. Today the Indian government refrains from trying to contact
the North Sentinelese, and bars private vessels from going near their island.
Class members disagreed vehemently over whether the North Sentinelese ought to
be visited again by emissaries of the modern world. At one extreme, Ilaisa
argued that the islanders should subdued by force and introduced to the Bible;
at the other extreme, Miko argued for their indefinite isolation, suggesting
they were better off apart from the modern world.
Two-sidedness and countermodernity
after World War Two the Australian scholar Alan Moorehead published a book
called The Fatal Impact, which became
famous for its argument that the peoples of the Pacific had been devastated and
doomed by the impact of contact with European missionaries, capitalists, and
colonists. Moorehead’s book was popular because it reflected a common palangi
view, but in the 1960s a group of scholars based at the Australian National
University began to develop a new ‘island-centred’ vision of Pacific history,
in which Pacific peoples were not passive victims of history, but instead
adapted creatively to the changes Europeans brought to their societies in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
scholars’ picture of Pacific history as a two-sided process has become dominant
in the academy, but Moorehead’s viewpoint still has its advocates. In New
Zealand the charismatic Maori politician Hone Harawira often argues that Maori
lived in a peaceful paradise before being losing their power and agency to
European invaders. The Tongan academic Linita Manu’atu sees her country as a
victim of cultural colonisation, and wants to restore its pre-contact culture.
against the ‘fatal impact’ view of Pacific history, and suggested that it had
echoes of the old notion of a noble savage doomed to destruction if his
timeless paradise is disturbed by outsiders. I invited class members to
consider the earlier contacts between Europeans and Pacific Islanders, and the
stories of men like George Vason and Thomas Kendall, and decide for themselves
whether Pacific cultures were as brittle as Moorehead and Manu’atu believe.
that, rather than succumb tamely to the palangi newcomers, Pacific peoples
constructed a series of ‘countermodernities’ during the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, by appropriating and adapting the modern ideas,
institutions, and economic practices that had emerged in Europe during the
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These countermodernities soon came
into conflict with European missionaries and colonists.
Countermodernity and resistance: Aotearoa,
Samoa, and Tonga
I used a
series of lectures to discuss the countermodern societies that various
Polynesian peoples constructed, and the ways that these societies came into
conflict with European imperialists.
the life and work of Wiremu Tamihana, the Waikato chief who created the
Kingitanga, or King movement, in an attempt to unite Maori against European
settlers in the middle of the nineteenth century. I discussed the village
called Peria which Tamihana established as a model for the Maori assimilation
of European technology, ideas, and forms of organisation. Peria had a flour
mill which was owned and operated collectively, a school which taught lessons
in Maori, and a church which offered a version of Christianity that reflected
Maori experiences. The Waikato Kingdom which grew around Tamihana in the 1850s
and early ‘60s was a prosperous and independent nation which exported huge
amounts of food to the impoverished colonial city of Auckland. It was invaded
and conquered by colonists in 1863 and 1864.
another lecture to examine the life and work of Rua Kenana, a Maori prophet who
tried to establish an independent state in the Urewera mountains of central Te
Ika a Maui. I described Rua’s courage in facing up to persecution from the
settler government of New Zealand, but also noted his claims to divine status,
and his use of this claimed status to intimidate or deceive his followers. We
watched some of Vincent Ward’s feature-length documentary film Rain of the Children, which shows the
terrible poverty of Maori who had been robbed of their land by settlers, and
the desperation which led them to Rua’s movement. When we discussed Rua
Kenana’s place in history, several class members argued against judging him too
harshly. Tevita argued that Rua “was a man who did what he had to do in his
We used the
work of the distinguished Samoan writer Albert Wendt as a route into the history of
Samoa’s anti-colonial Mau movement, which brought New Zealand rule of the
island of Upolu to a standstill in the late 1920s and early ‘30s with
roadblocks and tax boycotts. The Mau established its own government in a
village on the edge of Apia, and proclaimed the slogan Samoa mo Samoa (Samoa
for the Samoans).
At the end
of 1929 New Zealand police opened fire on a Mau protest march, and the movement’s
leader was killed. This bloody act was followed by a de facto counterinsurgency
campaign, during which Kiwi troops and police pursued Mau activists through the
jungles of Upolu, and burned pro-Mau villages to the ground. Wendt’s parents
were involved in the Mau, and some of his writings deal with the movement. We
watched Shirley Horrocks’ documentary A
New Oceania, which discusses Wendt’s life and work, and shows images from
the Mau era.
that Tonga’s first modern king, Tupou I, created a countermodern society in
Tonga, by creating a modern state, complete with a constitution and a set of
ministries, and abolishing the quasi-feudal system which had existed in his
country for centuries, but at the same time turning down the demands of palangi
capitalists for the opening of Tonga to foreign ownership. Tupou was successful
in preserving Tonga from colonisation, and I argued that he succeeded partly
because Tonga, unlike Aotearoa or Samoa, had a long tradition of centralised
government and a national identity.
Modernity and confusion: cargo cults
We devoted a
lesson to cargo cults, which I defined as movements that aim to give their
members material rewards associated with modernity through the use of magical
the most famous of all cargo cults, the John Frum movement from Tanna Island in
Vanuatu, whose members believe that certain rituals – the raising of an
American flag, for instance – will encourage an American soldier who served on
Tanna during World War Two to return with a vast ‘cargo’ of modern goods and
cash. We also considered a much more obscure cult which existed on Atiu Island
in the Cooks shortly after World War Two, where a group of followers of
a self-proclaimed prophetess cleared forest so that a ‘ghost ship’ could
arrive carrying goods.
a quick account of some of the main trends in the plentiful scholarly
literature on cargo cults, I asked class members to consider how they felt
about the phenomenon. One class member dismissed cargo cultists as fools.
Tevita argued that cargo cults could be construed as countermodernities; I
disagreed with this, because I think that cult leaders lacked the sort of understanding
of how to appropriate and manipulate modernity that leaders like Wiremu
Tamihana and Tupou I clearly showed.
Antimodernity: the case of the Kwaio
century and a half, the Kwaio people of Malaita in the Solomon Islands have
resisted modernity in almost all its forms. Today the Kwaio continue to live in
semi-nomadic groups, shun most modern goods, and practice their traditional
religion. Kwaio have forged a reputation as ferocious defenders of their
autonomy. In the nineteenth century they frequently attacked the European boats
which came to Malaita in search of sandalwood and slave labour, and in the
1920s they killed many of the members of a party of tax collectors sent by the
British administration of the Solomon Islands.
were an important part of the Maasina Rule movement which challenged British
control of the Solomons in the years after World War Two, and more recently
they have been opponents of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon
Islands, an Australian-led intervention in the Solomons. I talked about the
work of the Marxist anthropologist Roger Keesing, who wrote extensively about
the struggle of the Kwaio to preserve their traditional way of life. Keesing
became so influential amongst the Kwaio that the Solomon Islands government
banned him from visiting Malaita, on the grounds that he was stirring up
class members to consider their attitudes to the Kwaio. Salise argued that the
Kwaio ought to be allowed to live autonomously from the Solomon Islands state,
though he considered their hostility to modernity “a little extreme”.
A field trip to ‘Eua
Four days on
the verdant and rugged island of ‘Eua gave us a chance to put some of the ideas
we had been discussing in the classroom into practice. During our time on ‘Eua
we talked with Richard Lauaki, a member of Tonga’s Niuan minority and an
authority on the history of both Niuafo’ou and his adopted home. Richard’s two
hour talk, which mixed historical insights with improbable claims, and included
talk of divine intervention in human affairs, helped us to think about the
problems that scholars like Roger Keesing must have faced when they collected
oral history. We read
Sione Latukefu’s essay ‘Oral Tradition and Tonga’ to help us with these
We encountered more problems when we tramped to the highest point on
‘Eua, following a trail used by Cook, and found the grave of the New Zealand
soldier Shorty Yealands there. ‘Euans told us five different stories about how
Yealands died; each of these stories contradicted the official version of his
returned from ‘Eua we looked at Tonga's experiences in World War Two.
Drawing on essays by George Weeks and Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, I described the
influx of Americans and New Zealanders to Tonga, and the clashes which broke
out due to the brutal racism of some Americans and the Tongan habit of
‘borrowing’ goods like tobacco and torches from American warehouses. The
lecture was an attempt to put into context the killing of Shorty Yealands by a
Tongan soldier placed on a demoralising punishment drill for theft. I argued
that the Second World War marked the first great challenge to the system Tupou
I had established in the nineteenth century. Tupou I and later Queen Salote had
wanted to limit the influence of capitalism on Tonga, but the presence of
twenty thousand free-spending Americans lured many Tongans off their plantations
and into the cash economy.
Papua New Guinea: a primitive
exception, or a glimpse of the future?
We began our
lesson on Papua New Guinea by examining a magazine article on the recent killings
of women suspected of sorcery in the country’s highlands. The killings, which
have prompted international condemnation and anguished debates in Papua New
Guinea’s parliament, have been seen by some observers as confirmation of the
inherent violence and backwardness of New Guinean society. Class members seemed
to share this dim view of New Guinea. I argued that they were succumbing to the
old stereotype of the ignoble savage, and suggested that sorcery killings might
in some ways be an expression of the failings of capitalism in Papua New Guinea.
an essay by Michael A Rynkiewich, I discussed the ‘big man’ system which
emerged in ancient New Guinea. Because they lacked central authority, the
fragmented societies of New Guinea relied on ‘big men’, who had proved
themselves by oratory or bravery in warfare, to knit them together temporarily.
The big man specialised in attracting prestige and resources to his corner of
The big men
were co-opted by the Australian colonisers of New Guinea, and after
independence in 1975 they became MPs and local government officials, intent on
winning state resources for their part of the country. These political big men
lack any ideological vision or national consciousness, and are prepared to see
one region deprived of funding so that they can reward their followers. They
pillage the state and jump from one party and coalition to another in search of
remarkable journal published by a senior Papuan military intelligence officer, I
described how big man politics saw Papua New Guinea lose its war against the
secessionist province of Bougainville, despite a massive advantage in troops
and materiel. I suggested that today big man politics makes a reasoned response
to the sorcery killings difficult. I argued that the sorcery killings might be
compared to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in the sense that they are motivated
more by impoverished people’s desire to steal land from their victims than by
some primordial savagery. I suggested that, with its huge population and
mineral-rich economy, Papua New Guinea would be crucial to the future of the
Pacific, and thus needed careful study.
Andy Leleisi’uao and Pacific identity
the course by returning to the question of Pacific identity. I described the
career of Andy Leleisi’uao, an artist born in the Auckland suburb of Mangere to
is a self-taught artist, and many of his early paintings dealt with
controversial issues in Samoan society. He condemned the influence of greedy churches
on Samoans, and lamented the effects of alcohol on Samoan men. In his later
works Leleisi’uao has constructed an elaborate fantasy world, where UFOs sit on
tropical Polynesian islands and hybrid creatures wander landscapes covered in
years ago Leleisi’uao became involved in a dispute with some members
of Mangere’s Pacific community, after he had painted a mural full of strange
horned creatures for the Mangere community centre. Conservative Pacific
Islanders, including influential religious leaders, campaigned successfully
against the mural. Leleisi’uao was infuriated by their claims that he had lost
touch with his culture.
partly in response to criticism of his work from within the Samoan community,
Leleisi’uao created a manifesto in which he defines himself as Kamoan – the
word is a mixture of ‘Kiwi’ and ‘Samoan’ - and invited anyone to share this new
identity. We discussed Leleisi’uao’s dispute with the Mangere community, and
his bold attempt to create a new identity for himself. Class members were
strongly supportive of Leleisi’uao in his struggle with the Mangere community,
feeling that nobody should be allowed to make a definitive judgment about what
is and isn’t part of a Pacific culture.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]