Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire

Rod Edmond welcomes a new history of the people of the Pacific and hopes it will challenge outmoded stereotypes

Islanders
Author: Nicholas Thomas
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Rod Edmond
Price (RRP): £25

Nicholas Thomas's new book conceptualises the Pacific as an ocean highway criss-crossed by the routes of incessant voyaging. Foremost among these voyagers are the Pacific islanders themselves, not just those who migrated eastwards several thousand years ago in voyages unique for their range and rapidity, but those who from the late 18th century travelled across and beyond the ocean, and those who had always moved between its various archipelagos.

European voyagers, traders, missionaries, and colonisers are given their due but have no special precedence in Thomas’s account.

Pacific history has come a long way since Alan Moorehead published The Fatal Impact (1966), in which the Pacific is seen as a paradisal space fatally wounded by the incursion
of Europeans. According to this view, islanders were the passive victims of an inevitable fate.

Historically inclined anthropologists such as Greg Dening and Thomas himself then provided an alternative model by emphasising the interactive nature of cross-cultural contacts between Europeans and islanders. The beach became the margin where cultural difference was negotiated and from which neither side would come away unchanged.

Another reconceptualisation of the Pacific was made by the Tongan intellectual Epeli Hau’ofa in an influential essay Our Sea of Islands. Islanders, he argued, were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging.

Thomas has now taken these ideas a couple of steps further.

Recent historians have emphasised islanders as actors rather than victims but have still tended to assume that island communities were bounded. Hau’ofa’s essay is concerned with inter-island passages rather than with voyaging beyond the Pacific. In contrast,
Thomas argues that islanders were outward looking and curious.

Not only was the Pacific a place rather than a space, it was a cosmopolitan world in which islanders, Europeans, east Asians, black Americans and others met and mixed, entered and left. These voyages were social and conceptual as well as geographic. Travellers to and from the Pacific experienced new worlds that changed how they thought and felt, and carried home stories which influenced the communities, island or continent from which they derived.

Thomas presents the history of the Pacific as a compound of the many stories told by voyagers.

One vivid example that illustrates his method is that figure of fascination for European readers, the beachcomber. Canonically the beachcomber is a European cast adrift on an island. Thomas extends this term to include those islanders who made their way to Canton, San Francisco or London, or who found themselves on the beaches of other Pacific islands far from their home.

There are famous examples of such travellers, notably Mai (Omai), who Cook brought to London from Tahiti on his second voyage. Thomas is more interested in less-known figures such as another Tahitian, Tapioi, who arrived in London via Tonga, Sydney and many Asian and Atlantic ports and figured as the plaintiff in a trial at Clerkenwell magistrates’ court in 1808.

If Thomas’s new account of Pacific history seems the most inclusive and nuanced we have, popular conceptions of the region remain stuck at the level of ‘paradise found and lost’. On the rare occasions when news from Oceania is reported in Britain – a coup or a tsunami – the headline is invariably “Trouble in Paradise”.

Islanders is not only a fine work of scholarship but also a lucid and engrossing read. It would be nice to think that it makes its own fatal impact on the outmoded public understanding of the world’s most extensive community. 

Rod Edmond is emeritus professor of modern literature and cultural history at the University of Kent

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