OVER THE LAST HALF-CENTURY, international air travel has made the planet a more accessible, less mysterious place than ever before. But there remain, on this ever-shrinking globe, areas still beyond aviation’s reach. Even today, many of the scattered archipelagoes of the vast Pacific are only visited the old-fashioned way—by sea. Yet unlike other remote regions—the Russian Far East, Central Asia— these places are firmly entrenched in the Western world’s mind. Mere mention of “Pacific Islands” conjures up paradisiacal atolls, bare-breasted maidens, and cannibal tribesmen. Our map is further colored by great works of literature, film, theater, and art: Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, The Mutiny on the Bounty, South Pacific, the paintings of Gauguin. And of course by recent history: the savage naval and amphibious carnage of World War II.
Beyond those cultural reference points, what do we really know? According to Nicholas Thomas, perhaps less than we think. Europeans had a huge impact upon the lives of Pacific Islanders, but the islanders themselves “were not merely victims but actors,” in the age of empire. The Portuguese first arrived in the sixteenth century, but, as Thomas points out, the islands were “effectively unknown” to Europeans until the last third of the eighteenth century.
Much of that later knowledge is owed to British naval captain James Cook, a “superstar” among European explorers. His status stems from his inquisitiveness regarding a range of scientific disciplines—navigation, astronomy, biology, anthropology. Cook carried two Pacific Islanders aboard as co-navigators and the presence of islanders aboard European ships is central to Thomas’s theme. One, Mahine from Raietea, traverses the Pacific with Cook, meets him on a subsequent voyage, dines with Captain Bligh (pre-mutiny), and finally joins the mission to hunt down Fletcher Christian and his gang. Through Cook, Tahitians and Maori, ancestrally linked but firewalled by distance, are reunited. By the 1790s, East-West contact was frequent, as whalers and traders dropped anchor off islands to barter and provision. Ships brought goods prized among islanders: ironwork, firearms, whales’ teeth.
The “discovery” of the Pacific—a vast geography charted and exploited well after the Americas and Asia—fired the imaginations of Europeans, not least among them missionaries horrified by accounts of human sacrifice. Thomas notes that the pious self righteousness of nineteenth-century missionaries renders them ludicrous to modern minds, but obscures the energy, range, and influence of these ambitious lower-middle class Europeans. As penetration of the Pacific increased, it became convenient for some chiefs to ally themselves with the newcomers. For these men, Christianization granted European acceptability, and then alliances. Mass conversions followed. The missionaries also brought Western education, especially in regards to the written word. Meanwhile, an inter-island tongue based on Pacific grammar and (primarily) English pidgin, came into being, spread by islanders working on ships and as indentured migrant labor. Other aspects of European science and civilization were also eagerly adopted: by the second decade of the nineteenth century, native Hawaiians could boast of European-style clothing, houses, and ships.
Thomas’s book is packed with anecdote and detail, and illustrated with paintings and engravings, but it suffers badly from a lack of maps. Where does the isle of Simpo lay within the New Georgia archipelago? And where is New Georgia, exactly? The reader needs to keep an atlas nearby. Moreover, Thomas’s narrative approach is too often scattershot: a thematic or even chronological treatment would have more clearly distinguished the trees from forest. And Thomas is a professor of historical anthropology, not a writer of popular history. This makes for a thoughtful but rather slow narrative—ideal perhaps, for a long ocean voyage.
Still, for readers familiar with the region only through its representations in American culture, much of Thomas’s material may prove surprising. Who knew that the Russians launched voyages of exploration throughout the islands? Or that Peruvian slavers were raiding across the Pacific in the 1860s? Or that a form of writing, inspired by European script, was (probably) invented on Rapa Nui in the nineteenth century?
Traces of familiarity still survive, of course. Here, too, bare-breasted maidens run across palm-fringed tropical beaches, into the hammocks of randy sea dogs. But we learn why. Owing to the swift exploitation and exhaustion of local riches—livestock, bêche-de-mer, and sandalwood—the only barter product that many islands could offer visiting ships were sexual services. Venereal disease spreads quickly, decimating birth rates. And other European imports—dysentery, smallpox, measles—were even worse. Thomas reckons the Marquesas may have lost half their population.
Thomas expertly demolishes the shibboleth most common to anti-colonial literature: that life was a balmy paradise before the onslaught of the West. Cannibalism, dismissed as “colonialist fantasy” in some quarters, is most decidedly a part of the tapestry. We learn that “long pig”—human flesh—was close enough to pork in look and taste to fool several Bostonian castaways on Fiji. Warfare and raiding were rampant, and many Europeans were welcomed by one chief or another in hopes of aiding them against local opponents. Conversely, a number of peaceable visitors hacked down in the surf frequently turned out to be victims of local natives’ beliefs that they were allied with opposing tribes.
The transition to outright colonial rule was generally accomplished by the end of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to missions and trading stations. British colonization of New Zealand and Fiji took place with the acquiescence of at least some locals; British, French, and German colonization elsewhere in the region were virtual land grabs. Thomas’s analysis of these developments is generally nuanced. Colonization, he states, expanded the “gift giving, diplomacy, commerce and contest” that thrived between islands and tribes prior to the arrival of sailing ships. This may accelerate the pulses of liberals who cannot countenance the venality of pre-existing orders being in any way comparable to colonial interlopers. But Thomas is even-handed. “The argument here is in no sense that empire was anything other than exploitative, indeed brutal,” he concludes. “Yet it [entailed] the creation of a cosmopolitan arena, which extended and elaborated upon the deeply inter-social character of Islander Society.”
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based journalist and author.