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Islanders: The Pacific in the age of Empire Thomas, Nicholas. 2010


Carr 1983Islanders: The Pacific in the age of Empire
By Nicholas Thomas. Published in 2010 by Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12438-5.

This book left me shaking my head in disbelief after reading so many examples of Man's inhumanity to Man. I felt embarrassed to be a member of the western society whose representatives had inflicted such pain and suffering on Pacific Islanders for so long.

But let me begin at the beginning. The book is about the history of the Pacific, and in particular the interaction between Islanders and Europeans (and Americans), from the late 18th to the early 20th century. The author is quick to point out that his book is not "the history", nor even "a history". It is merely the author's selection of a number of historical events. It is not clear what factors guided Thomas in choosing the events to relate, although he does admit to having some bias towards those islands with which he is most familiar (i.e. the Marquesas and Fiji).

The author starts with an historical introduction to the peoples of the Pacific and how they gradually migrated out to inhabit all of the islands of the Pacific. The reader might conclude that having stemmed from a common origin, the Islanders (to use the author's terminology) would have had similar cultures. Thomas shows that each island developed its own separate culture, and whilst there were some similarities (as Cook noted), the Pacific was quite a heterogeneous community.

In the course of ten chapters the reader is led through a chronological series of events. These start with missionaries leaving London for Tahiti in 1796, and end with the ill-fated attempt in the 1880s to establish "La Nouvelle France" in islands to the east of New Guinea. In between, there are tales of good intentions by missionaries that gave way to merciless exploitation by traders. Each island appears to have undergone the same sequence of contact with western society, starting with explorers, then traders, followed by missionaries, which preceded colonial powers, and finally the arrival of multinational companies.

The extent and the rate of such western "intrusion" varied from island to island, but in many cases the results were the same. Initial antagonism by the indigenous peoples was followed by violence against the intruders. The latter responded with retribution, and later the expropriation of lands, which only served to restart the cycle. The author does not judge the rights and wrongs of these actions; he sits on the fence, recognising that one culture's terrorist is viewed as a freedom fighter by others.

I wondered if the islanders were ever confused by the mixed messages that were given out by the Europeans? On the one hand there were the missionaries preaching a gospel of forgiveness, and "turning the other cheek"; meanwhile other Europeans were inflicting inhuman vengeance on tribes that was totally disproportionate to any misdemeanour.

The book is subtitled "The Pacific in the age of Empire", and the author gives examples of the involvement of various nations in the Pacific, principally Britain, France and Germany. France was eager to establish a presence in the Pacific and, as late as 1853, annexed New Caledonia. In contrast, Britain's approach seems to have been more bureaucratic. Islands were only annexed if they could generate sufficient income to cover the Government's costs of administration.

This is a book written by an academic in a style that I presume was meant for other academics rather than the general public. I learned a great deal from reading it, but found the going hard at times. Some sections are quite laborious, where the author writes in over-long sentences, and uses words that required me to have my dictionary to hand. It is packed with facts, giving dates, places, and the names of those involved in the various incidents, and it is has many useful footnotes that are often more than just bibliographic references.

I was disappointed to find that the book rarely gave any voice to the various island races. In most cases it is because there are few records of what the indigenous peoples thought. But this absence did not stop the author from speculating, with the usual caveats of "maybe", "perhaps", and "possibly" being added where necessary. The author's comments reminded me of one of Obeyesekere's arguments against Sahlins, and I wondered whether Thomas regarded his book as being in any way eurocentric?

As for Cook, the captain does merit a mention in some of the early chapters, but the narrative is chiefly concerned with contacts subsequent to Cook's voyages. The author clearly feels that historians have been too preoccupied by Cook. He describes him as being "treated like a superstar to an absurd extent, and as a result has arguably been misunderstood by both worshippers and detractors." And yet, after reading of the many massacres of the Islanders by settlers, traders, and armies, the book reminded me that from the start of Cook's voyaging in 1768 to the time of his death in 1779, only fifteen islanders had lost their lives. Cook's tolerance and humanity towards the islanders that he encountered is only enhanced by the inhumanity of those who followed him.

The 336 page book is well laid out, has copious footnotes and an index. There are 58 illustrations, although these are rarely referred to in the text. There is a map of the Pacific, but it would have been more useful if it had been on a larger scale, and not lost so much in the binding.

Reviewer: Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 34, number 2 (2011).

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