Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the academy to 'Ata

Last week Markus, a long-time reader of this blog, made some pungent and pertinent comments about the difficulty that people outside Western universities often have in accessing the texts produced in those institutions. Most Western universities are funded from the public purse, but too many of the university-based journals in which academics publish research hide their contents behind firewalls. The tragedy of Aron Swartz, who broke into a huge academic database in an effort to liberate the information it held, and was rewarded with a campaign of legal harassment that led to his suicide, has helped to make the private ownership and commercial use of academic literature a topic of discussion over the last year, and a number of important journals have belatedly made their contents freely available online (I could while away a lifetime at the archive of the Journal of the Polynesian Society).

Markus' comments reminded me of an experience I had near the end of my recent stay in Tonga.

A day after the end of the academic year at the 'Atenisi Institute I rushed to Fua'amotu airport, a hot sheet of concrete set amidst the coconut and banana plantations of the southeastern corner of Tongatapu Island, and grabbed a flight on the small aeroplane that connects Tongatapu with 'Eua, the hilly, well-forested island which is home to the Kingdom of Tonga's southernmost present-day inhabitants. Along with Taniela Vao, a lay minister in the Free Wesleyan church and long-time scholar of Tongan society, I had been invited to visit Kolomaile, a village near the bottom of 'Eua with an obscure and tragic history.

The village was founded in 1863, after Australasian slavers raided 'Ata, a rugged but tiny island two hundred kilometres south of 'Eua, and made off with half of its population of three hundred or so. Alarmed by reports that the 'Atans had been transported to Peru, where slaves were being sought to work on plantations and in kitchens, King Tupou I ordered the evacuation of the island's remaining inhabitants to 'Eua.

I talked a little about this tragedy in a blog post which was eventually published in revised form in the Oceania issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief. Much more importantly, the distinguished historian Henry Maude devoted a few pages to the raid on 'Ata in Slavers in Paradise, a book which heroically catalogues the depredations of the dozens of ships that cruised the Pacific in search of captives in the 1860s. Nevertheless, the depopulation of Tonga's southernmost island remains a little-known event outside the kingdom. Even in Kolomaile, which is still home to most of the descendants of the 'Atans, some of the details of the raid and the events which followed it have become confused. Taniela and I had been invited to Kolomaile after a young woman from the village approached me and asked me what had happened to 'Ata, and why the 'Atans had come to live on 'Eua.
When we stumbled down a dark bush road to Kolomaile's kava club to meet a group of descendants of the 'Atans, Taniela and I carried bulging folders. The papers in our folders wouldn't have excited the average academic scholar of the Pacific. They weren't pages from some important unpublished manuscript, like a long-lost diplomatic paper or a missionary's diary. The folders Taniela and I were carrying were filled with texts - research papers, book reviews, archaeological reports, ornithologists' surveys - which had been published in a variety of academic journals, and which could have been downloaded in a few short minutes by any graduate student or staff member at a Western university.

And yet these texts, which are the work of the scholars who have visited 'Ata over the century and a half since the island was raided and evacuated, were treated as both a surprise and a treasure by the men and women we met in Kolomaile. These men and women had been raised with stories, some of them vague or apocryphal, about their ancestors' land, but had never seen photographs of its reefless approaches, high cliffs, and fertile plateau. They had wondered about how their ancestors had managed to survive on such a small and isolated island, but had never known what sort of the birds flew there and how many fish could be caught there. They had wondered how long their ancestors had lived on 'Ata, and debated different dates, but had not known about the layers of soil turned over by archaeologists, and the shards of delicate Lapita pottery which showed that the island had been inhabited two millennia ago.
After we had passed around some of the pages academics have devoted to 'Ata, Taniela and I began to talk with the residents of Kolomaile about their understanding of the past. I soon ran out of Tongan, and was forced to put up with a lecture on theology by a kava-drunk Baptist who had emigrated from Tongatapu to Kolomaile, but Taniela talked for hours with the holder of the Halahala, one of the two traditional titles associated with 'Ata, and made notes in his carefully elegant script.

"Some facts are jumbled or missing" Taniela told me the next morning, when we sat beside the Tongatapu channel scanning the water for passing whales and recovering from kava hangovers. "The date 1887, rather than 1863, is given for the raid. And the 'Atan surnames are sometimes lost. People don't necessarily know the names their ancestors on 'Ata had." He stopped, and grinned wryly. "Or perhaps they do know the names, but are ashamed."

Taniela was referring to the offensive myths about the 'Atan past which have circulated for many years on 'Eua. The young woman who had asked us to help her research her family history reported being teased "for not being Tongan" when she was growing up, and being told that she should leave 'Eua and go home to her remote rock in the sea. The descendants of the leader of the Tongan community in 1863, a man named Paula Vehi who had spent time in Australia and learnt some English, have often been told that their ancestor was a traitor who colluded with the slavers to send his own kin to oblivion in Peru. As the scholarly literature which has been devoted to 'Ata shows, neither of these stories has any credibility. The archaeological record demonstrates that 'Atans were culturally Tongan, and in regular contact with more northerly Tongan islands. And an analysis of the movements of the slavers who struck 'Ata shows that they would never have had the chance to meet and liase with Paula Vehi. Without access to the discoveries that academics have made during visits to their homeland and to Australasian archives, though, the people of Kolomaile have found it hard to dispel laukovi.

As far as I could tell, Taniela and I were the first outside scholars to visit the village of Kolomaile and talk with its people about their past since 1921, when EW Gifford turned up there. Gifford's monograph Tongan Society collects thousands of pieces of folklore from across the kingdom, and has been an important resource for scholars ever since its publication at the end of the 1920s. Nobody seems to have introduced Gifford's opus to the people of Kolomaile, though: when I showed them the sections of the text devoted to 'Ata, they seemed bemused.

The disconnect between the academics who have studied 'Ata and the descendants of the people who lived on 'Ata for millennia symbolises, for me, the sort of indifference that Markus complained about last week. I am planning on keeping in touch with the people of Kolomaile, and making sure they are no longer excluded from the discourse about their ancestors.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

11:51 am  
Anonymous markus said...

Cheers, Scott.

I'll get around to commenting in full in the next week or two (just had some bad health news about a family member, so I'm dealing with that at the moment). But, you've outlined a very interesting (and in some senses, quite heartbreaking) situation.

And, yes, I can see the broader relevance to my argument.

1:46 pm  
Blogger baruk said...

Over the last few years I have had access to academic databases and libraries, and have been amazed at the amount of information available about my own people that most of us do not know about. This is beautiful, exciting stuff. Set the research free!

7:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Information wants to be free.

8:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

facts are often jumbled or missing

11:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you the great work.i will try to get one copy of your book when it's done!!malo

8:53 am  

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