Pacific

Travel itineraries are significant in the world of diplomacy, as Ian Hoskins illustrates in this panoramic survey of Australia’s interactions with the Pacific. Gareth Evans, freshly installed as Australia’s foreign minister in 1988, made a point of visiting the South Pacific neighbourhood before paying his country’s traditional obeisance to Washington and the European capitals. Within a month he had visited Papua New Guinea, Nauru, the Solomons, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Evans was sending a message, visibly prioritising ‘our Asia-Pacific geography over our Euro-Atlantic history’.

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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.

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Some reviewers like to stamp their own character on a review in its opening sentences. I prefer, however, to share with you some of Alan Frost’s words:

When I was a boy, living in a village set against a beach in Far North Queensland, I was struck by two kinds of trees. Ringing the beach at intervals were great ‘beach-nut’ trees (Calophyllum inophyllum). As early photographs of the beach do not show them, these trees must have been planted by European settlers. In my time, when they were perhaps seventy or eighty years old, they were up to fifty feet high, and they spread fifty feet in diameter … And scattered about the littoral were tall hoop and kauri pines … One behind our house may have been more than one hundred feet tall. It was said that this kauri pine was a beacon for ships at sea.

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Works of Indonesian fiction, whether set in Indonesia or written by Indonesians, are still comparatively rare in Australia, and can therefore be difficult to read sensitively. In her collection of three novellas set in New Caledonia, Adelaide/Bandung and Bali, Melbourne writer Dewi Anggraeni attempts to explore the ground between cultures and the way people straddle cultures and come to an accommodation and understanding of each other. She is not always successful.

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At the conclusion of the fascinating essay ‘Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Cook’s Second Voyage’ in his recently published book Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages, Bernard Smith writes:

The most carefully planned and the most scientifically and efficiently conducted expedition ever made up to its time in the realm of reality provided the poet with a world of wonder and a nucleus of recollections from whence emerged in its own good time the most romantic voyage ever undertaken in the realm of the imagination.

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