Speaking Volumes: Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land, Marquesas 1774-1880

February 6, 1998

Tom Griffiths on Greg Dening's Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land, Marquesas 1774-1880 .

Islands and Beaches made me an historian. Or, to be more precise, its author did. I first encountered Greg Dening when he was completing the writing of this classic of Pacific history, published in 1980. In his exciting history classes at the University of Melbourne, I first heard some of the stories that now glisten in its pages, and I became captivated by my glimpses of Dening's intellectual journeying. In his hands, history was no mere subject at university; it became a form of consciousness, a definition of humanity, a way of seeing - and changing - the world.

So I was ready to devour this book when it came off the press, a timely gift (it seemed) from my teacher. It is an ethnographic history of the Marquesas Islands in the eastern Pacific. This small island group was settled by Te Enata ("The Men") perhaps 1,800 years ago. It was then encountered and possessed by Te Aoe ("The Strangers"): first by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, later by English and Americans, and from 1842 it was a colonial possession of France.

It is a disturbing and moving book, for Dening shares his bewilderment over the violence of contact, his pain over the loss of the old ways of Enata, and his puzzlement over the resulting silence, the limits of human communication.

Yet his triumph is to rescue memorable individuals from that holocaust, to thread together some biographies from the punctuated history of encounter. The book is about the islands (cultural worlds) that these people made and the beaches (cultural boundaries) that they crossed.

The history that is offered here is ethnographic, metaphorical and poetic. Dening is an anthropologist as well as an historian; he is cross-disciplinary as well as cross-cultural, and so the book is about methodological beaches as well as cultural (and sandy) ones.

Every chapter of historical narrative is followed by a "reflection", each of which explicitly muses on aspects of historiography and social theory that bear on the telling and meaning of the story. Past and present are shown to be bound together as fatally as native and stranger.

The whole book is a superb, sustained essay on historical consciousness. A string of major books by Dening have followed Islands and Beaches, each more radical and experimental than the last, the most famous of which is Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992).

Dening is at the centre of a school known increasingly as "the Melbourne group" (which includes Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac and Donna Merwick). Although many fine younger scholars acknowledge Dening's inspiration, some of his contemporaries have reserved special vitriol for him. They have criticised him for being "multicultural" and "trendy", for dealing in guilt, for intruding himself into his analysis, for peddling cultural relativism and for his sympathies with structuralism and postmodernism.

Recently, in The Killing of History (1994), Keith Windschuttle accused Dening of being one of the murderers of the discipline by blurring history and fiction and preferring theory over facts.

It is a gross misreading of his scholarship; I know no historian who has such a sacred sense of the past as Dening. But he is honest about the limitations of his knowledge and of his craft: that is a source of his sadness, and also of his theatre. He refuses to deny his freedoms.

Why does Dening inflame people so? For the same reason that he excites and inspires others: it is his passion and his poetry, his reverent sense of play. He has the courage to make himself vulnerable.

Islands and Beaches is more than a history of 100 years in the Marquesas; it becomes a parable of the Pacific, a distillation of the drama of European expansion, and a moral meditation on human nature. It is also a radical statement about the practice and potential of history.

Tom Griffiths is a fellow in the history program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra.

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