Nicholas Thomas: Islanders

IslandersRevisionist perspectives on the Pacific

Alan Frost


Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire
by Nicholas Thomas
Yale University Press (Inbooks), $49.95 hb, 346 pp, 9780300124385


Nicholas Thomas’s principal purposes in this study are to show, first, that the peoples of the Pacific were neither incurious about the world beyond their islands, nor lacking in the emotional or imaginative means to apprehend cultures different from their own. Even before the coming of European maritime discoverers, they were accustomed to undertaking lengthy voyages and sometimes migrations from one part of the great ocean to another, practices which they extended when contact with the Europeans gave them the means of doing so. And second, that as a consequence of their travelling and becoming acquainted with other cultures, they altered their outlooks and social and political practices to meet new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. In justification of these purposes, Thomas stresses the need to get away from older, Eurocentric, historical and ethnographic perspectives; and to understand that the Islanders were people both able and willing to assert themselves and, to some extent at least, to determine their own destinies.

Thomas’s period is what he terms the ‘long’ nineteenth century, from the 1790s (when the first missionaries took British Christianity to Tahiti) into the twentieth century (i.e., before the commencement of World War I). In this time, as he correctly states,

European incursions into the lives of the vast ocean’s inhabitants became more consequential and injurious. At its beginning, contacts between Europeans and Islanders amounted to little more than sporadic visits. When it ended, virtually every island was under some kind of colonial regime, and on many, there were substantial populations of European settlers, hence sundry sorts of dispossession.

Deploying historical, anthropological, and ethnographic insights, Thomas begins his analysis in postmodernist fashion with the exemplary story of the young Hawaiian Kualelo in London in the winter of 1790–91. However, this study, unlike some of his earlier ones, is mercifully free of jargon, and reads straightforwardly.

While all Islanders are potentially within the author’s compass, he gives much more attention to some groups rather than to others. He discusses in detail circumstances in the Tahitian and Marquesas islands, in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, the large islands of Melanesia, Guam, and Easter Island. Though they are mentioned from time to time, New Zealand and Hawai‘i receive surprisingly little attention.

In the first instance, Thomas’s focus is on individuals. It has long been known that Islanders’ habit of shipping with Europeans took some of them to places far distant from their homelands – to New South Wales, Canton, the East Indies and India, to Britain, France, and the United States. Thomas greatly expands the number of such voyagers and the details of their voyaging. He also shows that significant numbers of people travelled from one island cluster to another: Hawaiians to Tahiti, for example; Tongans to Fiji, and vice versa. (The story of Tuati or John Sac is emblematic. He went from the Bay of Islands to Tahiti, then to New York and the South Shetland Islands, then returned to the Pacific with the United States Exploring Expedition.)

Thomas shows how, often in conjunction with missionaries, beachcombers, and merchant adventurers, local peoples took advantage of opportunities to trade – in foodstuffs with visiting ships, in sandalwood, in the weapons of war. Then he reveals how kings and chiefs regularly sought to use their contacts with the outsiders to increase their power and expand their control of land and people (as with the Bau people of Fiji). And he shows how, increasingly, Islanders joined in furthering the spread of Christianity. Only at intervals, though, does he analyse what might be termed state-based changes as a consequence of external pressures. (Here, his major example concerns Pomare I of Tahiti.)

If not exactly new, much of this information has not been brought into conjunction before; and Islanders is to be welcomed on this score. It is genuinely informative. However, it is not as successful as the author hoped or as the publisher announces. This is for reasons both particular and general. First, despite the author’s skill in teasing meanings out of partial or uncomprehending sources, he is repeatedly forced to admit that he simply cannot tell what precisely Islanders learned from their contacts with the outer world, and how this caused them to alter their views. For example, the inhabitants of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) suffered grievously from disease and raids for labourers in the early 1860s, with the population falling from something over four thousand to about five hundred. Such trauma could not but have had the most profound impact on individual psyches and on the whole culture. But as Thomas says,

there is really no account that enables an understanding of how the events of 1862–3 were seen and felt by the Islanders. Though it is hard to say what more detailed observations, what interviews even, could possibly add. If the facts of these events could be baldly described, the experience of them, and the psychological consequences of that experience, could surely not … The sudden violence of the raids, the void left by those taken away, and the awful attrition of life that followed were surely incomprehensible.

The fundamental problem is, of course, that the records (such as they are) are mostly European or American. All too often, we can only surmise the full meaning of events for the Islanders. In this repeated hiatus, in order to suggest something of this meaning, Thomas tells the Europeans’ stories – those of the missionaries; of William Lockerby and Peter Dillon; of Robert Louis Stevenson – so that what readers find themselves attending to is an older historical telling that Thomas wishes to eschew. This problem is the less noticeable, and the analysis the more successful, as we move closer to the present, when the records, while still essentially Western, are more extensive and more formal, reflecting both colonial administrative and legal processes, and are therefore more likely to convey some Islander perspectives. Hence we are given a good sense of what drove the insurrections in New Caledonia and Fiji in the 1870s, and why so many Melanesians found it attractive to work as labourers in Queensland.

More than by the biases and silences of the records, however, the author’s success is limited by two striking flaws in his conceptual framework. The subtitle announces Islanders as a study of The Pacific in the Age of Empire; and as the first quote above indicates, Thomas well understands that in the course of the nineteenth century, European imperial nations and the United States seized control of almost all the Pacific islands. (Tonga is the notable exception.) Yet Thomas’s attention to the spread of formal colonialism is surprisingly sporadic. He attends to it in Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia; and says something about it in New Zealand and New Guinea, but comparatively little about it in Hawai‘i. If we see the imposition of foreign law and religion, the control of land and control of resources, as the leading features of colonialism, the most salient of these in forcing Islanders to face up to the dynamics of the wider world was the loss of land. At one point, concerning the sale of land in Samoa, Thomas asserts, ‘The Samoans were in no sense naïve, they understood what sale meant.’ But the burden of Stuart Banner’s comparative study, Possessing the Pacific (2007), is that, in the beginning, Islanders did not understand the full implications of the European land alienation; and that when they came to do so, they turned to foreign methods in an attempt to redress the situation.

This was so in New Zealand, but even clearer and on a much larger scale in Hawai‘i. While Thomas does discuss King Kamehameha I’s interests in owning European ships and in trading on a large scale, including in introduced crops, and King Kalakaua’s subsequent interest in creating a pan-Polynesian confederacy, he says virtually nothing about social and political innovations in the Hawaiian Islands in the period 1840–1900, when the Hawaiians made sustained efforts to retain control of their land, to improve their economy, to resist the missionaries, and to avoid annexation. These innovations included the adoption of a written constitution (1840); the establishment of a government along European lines, with a privy council, a cabinet, government ministries (including foreign and finance), and a supreme court; the abandonment (1845–55) of traditional forms of land tenure, and their replacement with English-style alienable fee-simple titles; a system of Hawaiian-language schools (some 266 by 1861); the reassertion of older cultural practices, including traditional medicine and hula; the publication in an Hawaiian-language press of political manifestoes and subversive (sometimes deliberately indecent) songs, poems, and stories; the creation of citizens’ leagues to garner political support; the organisation of a 21,000-signature petition and Queen Lili’uokalani’s travelling to the United States in a vain attempt to dissuade the president and congress from seizing control of the islands.

Noenoe Silva describes these moves in Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (2004), but neither this nor Banner’s study features in Thomas’s work. Instead, he merely remarks of this later phase, ‘The Hawaiian kingdom was occupied by the American military in 1893 and formally annexed in 1898.’ But the history rewards detailed analysis, for, as Silva observes, in Hawai‘i from the 1860s onwards that foreign importation the press

contributed to the imagining of the nation among people who did not know each other personally but who shared a large community. The lāhui [nation] was also created in the collective imagination by Kanaka Maoli [indigenous Hawaiians] grouping themselves as alike, sharing a language and culture, albeit with regional variations, and in opposition to the haole [white foreigners].

Had Thomas attended more to broader perspectives, he would have been able to offer comprehensive demonstrations of one of his central assertions: that in the nineteenth century the inhabitants of the Pacific islands showed a distinct ability to adapt to external cultures, in the process changing their own views and practices as they embraced modernity.



Published in February 2011 no. 328
Alan Frost

Alan Frost

Alan Frost is an academic, novelist, and poet. He has been elected to the position of Fellow at both the Royal Historical Society in London, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities in Canberra. He is well known for his books on Australian colonisation, including Botany Bay Mirages: Illusions of Convict Australia in 1994, and Botany Bay: The Real Story in 2011.

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