Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dogma and innovation

British journalist Brendan O'Neill has written a badly flawed column about North Sentinel Island for the spiked website. O'Neill argues that, in the aftermath of their killing of the uninvited missionary John Chau, the Sentinelese need to be 'civilised', so that they can experience the wonders of the West.
O'Neill claims that groups like Survival International, which campaign against forced contact with peoples like the Sentinelese, have forgotten the delights of modernity & learning, & the misery of life in the forest. But I'm not sure whether O'Neill's setting the Sentinelese a very good example of learning.
O'Neill defines the Sentinelese as a 'Neolithic' people. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Historians & anthropologists use Neolithic to refer to Stone Age peoples who have developed gardening, & moved away from hunting & gathering. The Sentinelese are hunter gatherers.
Like many other commentators, O'Neill characterises the Sentinelese as suffering from a frozen culture, incapable of innovation. Similar claims have been made in the past for numerous other indigenous peoples, by outsiders advocating colonial projects.
The late John Chau was not much of an anthropologist, but one of the notes he scribbled before his demise includes a fascinating detail that refutes claims that Sentinelese culture is incapable of innovation. Chau described how an arrow with a metal head came flying his way. 
The metal on the Sentinelese arrow almost certainly came from the Primrose, a cargo ship that was wrecked on a reef off North Sentinel in 1981. The Primrose's crew were rescued by chopper just before Sentinelese could storm their vessel.
The Sentinelese have brought themselves into the Iron Age, by adapting metal from the Primrose for use on arrows &, in all likelihood, other tools. John Chau was probably killed by the material of his own civilisation, after it had been repurposed by an innovative island people.

Sunday, November 25, 2018


Like the rest of the world, I've been fascinated by the recent demise of John Chau, the would-be evangelist to North Sentinel Island. I haven't been entirely impressed, though, with the way the media, in the West and in India, has been characterising the history of the North Sentinelese. I've argued, in this tweet thread, that the work of some young Pacific scholars can help educate the world's journos about their errors. It's too late for John, of course. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Abolishing, or extending, New Zealand

Image result for zealandia
I'm chuffed to get a mention in Dan Kelly's piece for The Pantograph Punch about the recently discovered continent of Zealandia. Kelly discusses the musician Dudley Benson, who was inspired by the discovery to make an album that reimagines New Zealand as a set of islands connected with, rather than isolated from, the wider Pacific.

There are obvious parallels between Benson and Kelly's use of Zealandia as a bridge between New Zealand and its neighbours and Epeli Hau'ofa's famous notion of Oceania as a liquid continent, or 'sea of islands', bound together by thousands of years of journeys. I was honoured to be a reader for Lana Lopesi's new Bridget Williams book False Divides, which tries to extend Hau'ofa's metaphor into the twenty-first century and the suburbs of Auckland.

Is the conceptual isolation of New Zealand, which was the work, I have argued, of Allen Curnow and his nationalist mates in the '30s and '40s, finally being broken? I certainly hope so.

A lesson in technology

I'm giving a weekly lesson at my son's school. The teacher asked me to deal with technology, which is a term theme, so today I discussed the Moriori waka korari, or wash-through raft. 

The Moriori were Polynesian, but the bleak Chatham Islands that they discovered & settled lacked the tall trees that could be made into ocean-going vaka. Moriori improvised, & made the waka korari from from kelp & reeds. 

The boat appeared flimsy, but early European visitors noticed the way that it remained stable, in the cold swells of the Southern Ocean, because it floated slightly under the water. Moriori could steer the waka korari to isolated, bird-rich rocks dozens of kilometres from their main islands; Europeans who tried to follow them in whaleboats and skiffs often found themselves capsized. 

As far as I'm concerned, Bill Gates & Steve Jobs had nothing on the Moriori.