Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire

February 3, 2011

Nicholas Thomas creates such a clear sense of these islands and their heterogeneous peoples as a pulsing, productive set of entities that it comes as a shock to look at the map in the front of the book and see the cartographic scattering of mostly tiny dots that make up "the Pacific Islands".

The gap between the colonial records, with their misleadingly certain maps of island space, and the accounts of travels and encounters in the pre-colonial and colonial eras between islanders and Europeans, and between islanders and other islanders, is what Thomas' account rises so gracefully to bridge. The book's core concern is not so much with justifying the actions of one side or another (although it acknowledges the conflicts between Europeans and islanders) but with movement itself.

The rhythm of these movements was set by existing pre-colonial trade and ceremonial exchanges between islands, but it would come to take other forms, some driven by curiosity and internal politics and some imposed and endured from without. Two key examples were the willingness of islanders to join early European journeys of discovery, and the brutal and bloody removal of island populations to provide indentured labour throughout the broader Pacific region. Thomas pays careful attention to the fact that each of these voyages out produced returns and made for new flows between peoples, even when the return was in the shape of another enslaving ship rather than that of departed loved ones.

Thomas' description of the journey into the imperial world of the Pacific is made inclusive and companionable with lovely asides such as the following description of William Churchward's appointment as "adviser and chief secretary" to Malietoa, the hereditary Samoan ruler. "As job offers went, this was not great - there was no salary attached, unless Churchward was somehow able to persuade Malietoa to impose taxes to fund one." In such small sentences, the strange political landscape of the colonised Pacific comes into view.

But this light touch does not hide the violence and melancholy that is such a key part of the region's imperial history. Thomas recalls reading the missionaries' accounts of the busy lives in progress in the Marquesas Islands, and the sounds and rhythms of community. But by 1984, when he visits the region, the population has become concentrated on just a few islands, leaving huge ornamental house platforms in deserted valleys "as a kind of memorial".

The quiet he encounters there is rare in a history of political manoeuvres involving diverse local and European powers where ideas were adopted and put to use in new imaginings. In the 1800s, Tahitian leader Pomare, whose cosmopolitan entourage included well-travelled Hawaiians, knew enough of European history to remark that "perhaps the people would cut off his head as the people of France had done with their King".

In another part of the Pacific in the early 1900s, a small group from Gela in the Solomon Islands were among the approximately 6,000 islanders who were forcibly repatriated from Australia with the coming of the "white Australia" policy. On their return to Gela, Thomas notes, they "convinced the Melanesian Mission teachers that they were miserably paid, organized a strike and otherwise boycotted and disrupted the paternalistic regimes of many mission stations". The very same movement (in this case the "recruitment" of island labour) that produced a political movement in the Solomons led to a massacre in Fiji and the irrecoverable depopulation of smaller islands.

As this comprehensive but gripping book shows, it is hard to predict what something as volatile as movement between complex cultures will produce, even within the (sometimes deadly) strictures of colonialism. In the case of the cosmopolitan, adventurous cultures of the Pacific, the outcomes were even more complex and unpredictable.

Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire

By Nicholas Thomas. Yale University Press, 356pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300124385. Published 26 November 2010

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