Author Article by Nicholas Thomas: How the empire brought invention, as well as exploitation, to the Pacific

Islanders is a compelling account of the lived experience of the empire in the Pacific, the last region to be contacted and colonized by Europeans following the voyages of Captain Cook. NICHOLAS THOMAS reveals the experiences that led him to write Islanders, a book which charts the impact of colonial Europe on indigenous cultures. Thomas argues that this impact, much to the contrary of conventional accounts of this period, was at times positive.

Islanders was inspired by two sorts of experience. The first was in the Pacific. Since the 1980s I have been lucky to spend time, to travel, to do fieldwork, in the Marquesas Islands, Fiji, Niue, New Zealand, and elsewhere. On rugged and remote islands like ‘Ua Pou in the Marquesas, twenty-five years ago, I sat on shingle beaches with kids who laughed uncontrollably as they taught me the names of parts of the body in local dialects. In Fiji a few years later I spent long afternoons and evenings in great customary thatched houses, listening to young men and old talk politics, football and custom as we drank kava.

More recently, in Niue the Polynesian artist, John Pule, and I sought out stories and memories of the unusual and innovative painted barkcloths made by the locals in the late nineteenth century. Something about the way people in these places and others got on with their lives affected me. In the Marquesas young men would drag outrigger canoes through heavy surf to fish. In the mountainous interior of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, life was and still is a matter of exchange, debt, and ceremony, even as it has become entangled with commerce and postcolonial ethnic politics. There and elsewhere, I was struck by the extent to which people remained, in vital and intractable ways, themselves, whether they had remained all their lives at home, or worked in south Auckland factories, participated in UN peacekeeping missions, or entered the international art world. They were at once marked by this worldliness and they shrugged it off.

Pacific Islands

The second sort of experience that shaped Islanders was work in archives. I have struggled through legible and indecipherable manuscripts, worked my way through the reports, journals and memoirs of missionaries, traders, colonial officials, anthropologists and others in many libraries in Australia, New Zealand, the US, France, Germany, and Britain, as well as collections in the Pacific Islands themselves, since I got started in this field, a naive student in the early 1980s. But the most recent stage of this work was concentrated on collections in London, and especially those of the London Missionary Society, accessible in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, just off Russell Square. I had always been interested in missionaries and gained a fresh sense of what was at issue in Islanders’ adoption of Christianity as I read the letters and journals, but was excited, indeed astonished, to gain tangential and fragmented information concerning another sort of process altogether.

From the very end of the eighteenth century onwards, it transpired that many, many Islanders – especially, in the early days, Hawaiians and Tahitians – travelled extensively. They joined ships, mostly as ordinary maritime workers, they visited the ports of the Pacific rim and those of Europe and north America, they visited many other islands in the Pacific too, and sometimes stopped and settled upon them, in some cases never to return home, in others to gain experience that they later took back to their own communities. I was struck, in particular, by the life of one Tapioi, a true Polynesian Odysseus, who left Tahiti on the very first day of the nineteenth century, and who subsequently visited Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Palau, the Phillipines, the east Indies, England and Australia, among other places.

These lives and stories had consequences, they changed the way Pacific Islanders understood themselves and their world. For me, they demanded a new paradigm in cross-cultural history. Indigenous people have for too long been seen simply as ‘locals’, as members of bounded communities that were impacted upon in various ways by agents of Western civilization, religion, commerce and government. But their experience had long been extra-local. They traded and trafficked among themselves. With European voyaging, they suddenly ranged more widely, to discover not only other regions of the world, but the wider range of Pacific cultures, with whom ancestral affinities were shared. There was a cosmopolitanism to their practice and their imagining. Islanders deals with a host of lives and stories but is above all concerned to track this cosmopolitanism, from its emergence in the wake of Captain Cook’s voyages, through the tumultuous changes of the Oceanic nineteenth century.

Islanders by Nicholas Thomas

Nicholas Thomas is director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and professor of historical anthropology, at Cambridge University, and has travelled widely in the Pacific. Among his books is Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook. His latest book, Islanders, is available to order here.

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