Disorienting identities

A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific
March 2, 2001

In A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific , Donald Denoon and Philippa Mein-Smith set out to provide an alternative to the narrow self-sufficiency that has characterised the various national historiographical traditions within the Pacific region.

Theirs is a formidable task, requiring a mastery of extremely diverse cultures and societies, ranging across the uneven terrain of political, economic, social and cultural history. An overarching focus on identity politics in the region serves to tie these disparate elements into a wider thematic unity.

The authors stress that their "claim to the reader's attention is the novelty of the regional focus", and it is an approach that does indeed offer an impressive range of fresh insights.

To name but a few examples: the much-maligned term discovery is reinstated as a useful way of understanding the arrival of Europeans in the region, not by reverting to the Eurocentric narratives of heroic exploration, but by emphasising the theme of "intersecting worlds". The book demonstrates how all parties to this "mutual discovery" encountered multiple new worlds, and each sought to accommodate the other(s) within their respective cosmologies.

The struggle for land resources between Europeans and indigenous peoples is another theme that benefits from a regional perspective. For example, it is commonly assumed that the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 rendered the Maori experience fundamentally different from that of the Australian Aborigines. But by focusing on the underlying similarities between the two, Denoon and Mein-Smith subtly challenge some of the prevailing myths that Australians and New Zealanders have about themselves, and each other.

The book is designed to "round out" the contours of Blackwell's series History of the World, but it is unlikely that it will be read within that framework.

Indeed, the requirements of the series seem to have hindered rather than enhanced the book's potential, having hemmed the authors in to a set of parameters that seem not to have been of their own choosing. By their own admission, the "region" in question is hardly self-evident, and this ultimately forces them to fall back on nationalist paradigms in order to generate meaningful questions and themes. The book has more the quality of comparative national history than of regional or transnational history.

It is therefore doubtful whether the approach ultimately serves to "disorient" the national histories of the countries concerned, as the authors somewhat vaguely suggest. Rather, the various histories of the region are mutually enriched by exposure to the thematic concerns of neighbouring historiographical traditions. It is this that remains the authors' undeniable achievement.

The book is therefore not a text for world history purists, but it is an extremely welcome addition to the insulated worlds of Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Islands history, and will be of particular use to undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with these national contexts.

Stuart Ward is lecturer in history, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King's College, London.

A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific: The Formulation of Identities. First edition

Author - Donald Denoon and Philippa Mein-Smith with Marivic Wyndham
ISBN - 0 631 17962 3 and 21873 4
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 523

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