Friday, February 12, 2010

The Polynesian experiment

A month has passed since I arrived back in these Shaky Isles from my second visit to the tropical Pacific in half a year. I'm supposed to be proofreading my tome on EP Thompson, searching the internet and the smudged back pages of newspapers for full-time jobs, and shaking with indignation at the new crop of political outrages that every new year inevitably brings (and, make no mistake, John Key's decision to make the poor pay for a tax break for his posh mates in Parnell is an outrage).

Somehow, though, I can't quite engage with the tasks fate has assigned for me here at the bottom (or the top?) of the world. My body is certainly present in New Zealand - the shivering I suddenly experience every time the temperature drops below subtropical levels attests to that - but my head is still several thousand kilometres to the north, bobbing about like a coconut on the calm green water of Fanga'uta Lagoon, at the edge of the terraced tomb-complexes of Mu'a, the ancient capital of the Tongan Empire.

Last week I confessed my continuing preoccupation with tropical Polynesia to an old and trusted friend. He chuckled, and accused me of 'romantic escapism'. My desire to pinch a yacht from the marina at Whau estuary and sail north through the half-drowned archipelagos of Tonga or the Austral Islands is not, it seems, a noble, adventurous impulse, but rather evidence of some subtle estrangement from 'the real world'. For my friend, the tropical Pacific, with its volcanoes and atolls and ramshackle fishing villages and stretches of leprous sand, is a sort of 'anti-place' - a 'negation' of the busy and complex societies of the First World which attracts those weary of rush and complexity. 'At least Gauguin could paint', my mate pointed out. 'What can you actually do up there?'

It is certainly true that the travel industry likes to promote the Pacific as a sort of anti-place - a region 'unspoilt by the modern world' where jaded palangi can 'leave their cares behind'. Is it really tenable, though, to argue that every Westerner who wants to wander the Pacific is an alienated escapist? Is there not some positive attraction that island nations like Tonga and Samoa exert? I've argued for the attractions of both societies in a series of posts, but I think a more general point can be made about the importance of Polynesia.

For anyone interested in the way societies develop and cultures change, the Pacific, and Polynesia in particular, should exert a profound fascination. I've just been mining The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, a book published a quarter of a century ago by Patrick Vinton Kirch, an archaeologist who has dug holes all over the Pacific. In the introduction to his book, which synthesises a vast amount of archaeological and ethnographic data with rare grace, Kirch suggests that Polynesia can be considered as a vast experiment in human development:

Polynesia is as exemplary a setting for...a study of technological and social evolution as we may hope to find...The fifty ethnographically known soocieties that comprise Polynesia were all demonstrably derived from a single ancestral society. Each society presents an ecological and evolutionary isolate which together can be likened to a set of historical, cultural 'experiments', in which the founding ancestor was identical, but where certain variables - ecological, demographic, technologic, and so on - differed from case to case...

Kirch's Polynesia is not a verdant, ahistorical paradise designed for refugees from the Western working week, but a vast, complex, inexhaustibly fascinating collection of responses to the challenges that nature and history throw at humans. Who would have though that the same group of ancestors - the Lapita people, who scattered shards of their intricately beautiful pottery across the west Pacific three thousand years ago, as though they were leaving a trail for modern archaeologists to follow - could have had descendants as various as the Tongans, with their elaborate, incorrigibly hierarchical empire, the Moriori, with their egalitarian hunter gatherer society in the subantarctic, and the Tikopians, who were environmentally savvy enough to thrive for thousands of years on an isolated island a mere four square kilometres in size? As Kirch says, Polynesian pre-history should not be the preserve of a few ethnologists and archaeologists - it should be a subject that all social scientists consider. Marxists, who have too often made Europe the engine-room of history, and lumped 'peripheral' parts of the world like Polynesia together under clumsy headings like 'feudalism', are particularly in need of instruction from Kirch and other scholars able to consider Polynesian prehistory in a materialist but empirical manner.

I have been making new journeys into the tropics in recent weeks. Late at night, sitting in the blue haze of a computer screen, I find myself drifting from my proofreading duties to a map of the Pacific. I pick out the name of an island, google it, bring up some basic information on a site like wikipedia, then move to the online archives of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, then do a search, then sit and luxuriate in an ethnographic essay or an archaeological report, then make notes in my exercise book...

My august friend will be disgusted, I know, but here are reports on five islands I've 'discovered', and have been busy 'exploring' recently:


Rotuma, which is forty-three square kilometres in size, is politically part of Fiji, but it sits four hundred and twenty kilometres north of Suva, and has a Polynesian rather than Melanesian culture. In the 1980s Rotumans voted overwhelmingly against allowing large-scale tourism to come to their island, and after the 1987 coups led by Sitiveni Rabuka a minority of the island's population attempted to secede from Fiji. Although the secessionists did not succeed, Rotuma effectively governs itself, via an elected council.
/> Rotuma's isolation may have something to do with the idiosyncracies of its language, which is difficult for even trained linguists to acquire. Where most Polynesian languages have five or six vowels, Rotuman has ten. The language has a strange feature called 'metathesis', which means that a vowel sound at the end of a word must be pronounced before the consonant which immediately precedes it. In the ninteenth century, Catholic and Wesleyan missionaries developed rival orthographies for the language, so that Rotumans on different sides of the island were unable to communicate with each other in writing. Rotuman customs also differ in a number of ways from those of most other Polynesian societies. The island's idiosyncracies test the limits of our definition of Polynesian languages, and of Polynesian culture. Niuafo'ou

I discussed Niuafo'ou at length in my post on 'Eua, the island at the other end of the Kingdom of Tonga where many of its residents were resettled after a volcanic eruption in 1946. What I perhaps didn't emphasise in that post is the extraordinary physical features of the island: it is only fifteen square kilometres in size, and yet it features a large and very deep lake, which fills an ancient volcanic crater, and which is itself studded with small islands, at least one of which includes a lake of its own. Many of the island's villages are situated on the rim of the crater-lake, and a grass airstrip is also found there. Because Niuafo'ou lacks a good wharf, let alone a bay - the slopes of its volcano drop very steeply into deep water - the airstrip is cruical to its connection with the outside world. Unfortunately, the strip is so narrow, and the winds that blow above it so wild, that landings are only possible when conditions are perfect, and Air Chathams flights from Tonga's Vava'u Island as often as not have to turn around and return without touching down. Niuafo'ou's isolation, and the relatively late date of its incorporation into the Kingdom of Tonga, mean that its people have retained their own language, which belongs to the Samoic rather than the Tongic subgroup of Polynesian. The fact that the Tongan Empire was able to bring this remote, unwelcoming island into its embrace demonstrates the reach and power it had in the late medieval period.

Vanua Balavu

This island is the second largest in the Lau archipelago, which is scattered to the east of Fiji, and which has often been considered the boundary between Melanesia and Polynesia. The first settlers of Vanua Balavu, which is about fifty kilometres in size, came from Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, but later arrivals sailed west from Tonga, bringing their language and culture with them. In the nineteenth century a Tongan noble named Ma'afu established his own mini-nation in the Lau group, and settled many of his followers there. Today the Lau dialect of Fijian has a substratum of Tongan, and some villages on Vanua Balavu have Tongan names. The intersection of Polynesian and Melanesian cultures on the island has fascinated ethnologists and archaeologists.

Rennell and Bellona

These islands, which sit close to each other at the southwestern edge of the Solomon archipelago, are part of what is sometimes called 'Outlier Polynesia'. Most Polynesians live in the vast triangle of water and islands that has Hawa'ii, New Zealand, and Easter Island as its apices, but there are eighteen 'outlier' societies that exist to the west of the triangle, in archipelagos dominated by Melanesians or Micronesians. Early twentieth century ethnologists with diffusionist beliefs thought that Outlier Polynesian societies were 'stepping stones' left by the Polynesians as they travelled east out of Asia. Today, though, we know that Polynesian culture developed in the western part of the Polynesian triangle, in societies like Samoa and Tongan. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Outliers were settled from the east, after the establisment of Polynesian culture there.

Most of the Polynesian outliers are tiny, but Rennell Island is six hundred square kilometres - larger than Great Barrier Island, and six-sevenths the size of the entire Kingdom of Tonga. Rennell and Bellona were isolated for hundreds of years: their inhabitants could see the mountains of the main Solomons island of Guadalcanal in clear weather, but they feared the Melanesians who lived there, and seldom ventured beyond their islands. Rennell and Bellona did not adopt Christianity until 1938, and the first whites to stay a long time on Bellona were some Danish ethnographers who arrived in the late 1950s, and who were able to learn about pre-contact society from locals for whom it was a living memory.


This island covers fifty-odd kilometres, and sits at the southern end of the Austral group, in French Polynesia. Because of its location in the far south of the tropics, Rapa generally avoids cyclones, and has flora more reminiscent of northern New Zealand than Samoa or Hawa'ii. The resemblance to New Zealand is increased by the enormous earthwork forts which sit on the tops of the island's hills. These forts and familiar-looking fish hooks and adzes found on Rapa have led some Kiwi scholars to suggest that the island could have been the home, or at least one home, of the ancestors of the Maori. Despite its potential significance to New Zealand prehistory, Rapa has been visited only rarely by archaeologists and ethnologists. Now: does anybody have a spare yacht?

Footnote: while I have been travelling in my armchair, a young Yorkshireman named Carey Davies has been doing the real thing, slogging through swamps and rivers in Indochina, hacking through the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, and now wandering down the backroads of New Zealand.

Carey is a journalist and a member of the mavellously-titled Communist Party of Great Britain - Provisional Central Committee, a collection of masochists who have set for themselves the task of unifying Blighty's fractious far left in a new party that is rigorously democratic and anti-Stalinist. In pursuit of those ends, the CPGB-PCC (was the acronym any easier?) publishes the Weekly Worker, a paper filled with chaotic but entertaining debates between the various factions of the British and international left.

I came into contact with Carey when he was doing research into EP Thompson and the British New Left as part of a history degree he was pursuing at the University of Sheffield. During a visit to Manchester, Carey discovered more than a score of documents written by or about Thompson in the archives of the old, Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain. After Thompson left its fold in protest at the crimes of Stalin and Krushchev's invasion of Hungary, the party sometimes sent spies out to monitor his political activities, and Davies’ discoveries included detailed reports of Thompson’s appearances at political rallies - reports scribbled in the back rows of windy London halls by bitter old Stalinists.

Carey has been recording his travels on a blog called Rain on the Lens, where he combines photos of almost pre-Raphaelite delicacy with reports on exotic flora, fauna, and lavatories. Some of the fans of modernist architecture who visit this blog might be offended, or at least stimulated, by Carey's recent post on the Kawakawa toilet block and the Austrian hippy who built it.


Blogger Carey said...

"...a young Yorkshireman named Carey Davies has been doing the real thing, slogging through swamps and rivers in Indochina, hacking through the inner-city suburbs of Sydney, and now wandering down the backroads of New Zealand."

...while slaying hapless natives in games of badminton

1:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rapa is the secret draft version of New Zealand?

3:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband is from Rotuma, and the way he talks it is the most beautiful paradise in Polynesia. I hope you get to visit some day :)

4:24 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

The only thing I knew about Rotuma (and Rurutu) were performances by their people at the 1984 South Pacific Arts festival (the one where, when Te Whanau o Aotearoa were flying home, we heard from the capitan that ' a Greenpeace ship had been blown up in a New Zealand harbour."
Rapa - now that is interesting: am gonna look for more stuff there. There is a most interesting article about some latish archaeology there (I assume you've caught up with it Maps?)
And I thank you for, yet again, posting truly stimulating material-

6:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't Rotuman so unusual that it is a linguistic isolate rather than an exceptional Polynesian language?

7:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the official website of the people who study the Rptuman langage:

"The Rotuman language has proved a puzzle for linguists since it has some distinctive characteristics that make it difficult to assign to a subgroup within Oceania.

There are several reasons for this according to Andrew Pawley, a linguist at Australian National University. In part it is because Rotuman is an isolate, having no very close relatives that can shed light on its development.

Complicating the issue is evidence of at least two layers of Polynesian loanwords, mainly from Samoan and Tongan, accounting for some 40 percent of the total vocabulary. In recent years Rotuman has also borrowed heavily from Fijian and English, especially in areas associated with modern culture.

Another source of confusion is the fact that the language uses metathesis (the inversion of word-final vowels with immediately preceding consonants) which produces a vowel system that includes umlauting, vowel shortening, and dipthongisation. The result is that an original system of five vowels has increased to ten. Metathesis has increased the rate of change in Rotuman, adding to the problem of its classification.

Nevertheless, when Polynesian loan words are stripped away, Pawley finds convincing evidence linking Rotuman to western Fijian (Pawley, 1979).

As a result of metathesis, most Rotuman words have two forms. For example, the word hosa 'flower' becomes hoas in some contexts, the word pija 'rat' sometimes appears as piaj. According to Niko Besnier, the incomplete forms of Rotuman words are derivable from the complete forms through the following processes: (a) a rule of metathesis inverting the order of the last vowel of the word and of the immediately preceding consonant, if there is one; (b) a rule of vocalic assimilation that reduces certain vocalic pairs obtained through metathesis to a single vowel whose phonological characterization is a combination of the distinctive features of the two vowels in the underlying pair; (c) a rule of reduction that changes the first vowel of the other vocalic pairs into a glide, thus reducing the underlying pair to a dipthong; and (d) a rule of length reduction that shortens clusters of similar vowels obtained from (a) to single vowels (Besnier 1987).

Grammatically, the complete form is used to express definiteness, the incomplete form is used to express indefiniteness. For example, 'epa la hoa' 'the mats will be taken' (where 'epa is the complete form) is used in reference to specific mats (definiteness), while 'eap la hoa' 'some mats will be taken' (where 'eap is the incomplete form) is used in reference to any mats (indefiniteness). All content words have definite and indefinite forms (Churchward 1940).

Rotuman has been written in three different orthographies: one devised by early English Methodist missionaries, one by French Roman Catholics, and one by Churchward. The early Methodist orthography is rarely used nowadays. Most Methodists use the Churchward orthography, which is taught in schools. Catholics still use the French-based orthography primarily, although Churchward's orthography has gained increased acceptance, albeit in a modified form. In addition to umlats over 'a', 'o' and 'u', Churchward uses a single dot under the 'a' to designate a sound between 'a' and 'o', and a single dot over the 'a' to designate a sound between 'a' and 'e'. He also uses macrons (dashes) over vowels to indicate lengthening. Rotumans often omit these diacritics in informal writing."

1:06 pm  
Blogger pollywog said...

Great post...

and yes i've always though that we polynesians are some next level evolution type humans

naturally selected for all things good but corrupted by outside influences :)

2:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Polynesian supremacism?

10:02 am  

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