Fij i in the 1830s, i t was because, a s a local chief observed, ‘Your muskets and gunpowder are true, and your religion must be true.’ The surest way to succeed in evangelisation or empire-building was to equip native collaborators to fight their neighbours more efficiently.
Towards the end of the book, Thomas returns to the image of Tahiti, where so many romantic myths were born among late eighteenth-century seamen intoxicated by the ‘Cyprian Isle’. He reverts for a moment to nostalgia for a pre-colonial order in which warfare was relatively ‘occasional’ and eco-friendly natives were content with ‘subsistence’. Meanwhile, he sees Christian missionaries as profiting from islanders’ ‘depopulation and malaise’. He includes a moving passage of his own observations of the degradation of the Marquesas Islands in the 1980s, where a prosperous ‘soundscape ... of footfalls, pigs grunting, raucous cocks, and people talking’ disappeared from once populous valleys. In late nineteenth-century Fiji he records ‘cool’ colonial ethnocide displacing traditional violence ‘mainly delivered in heat and rage’, while disease, negligently spread through administrative incompetence, depopulates the island. His phlegmatic and shocking pages on the labour trade are an effective indictment of the malign effects of European intrusions: Easter Islanders, ‘wild with fear’, abducted and enslaved to dig guano in Peru; cynically casual shipboard massacres of recalcitrant recruits for plantations in Fiji in the 1870s; headhunting contracts, like those made in the Solomon Islands in 1872, according to which a chief ‘enters into an agreement with the master of a ship, that if he will supply him with so many heads of his enemies, which they keep as trophies, he will give him an equivalent in men, to be sent away for labour’. On the other hand, Thomas realises that empire could be constructive, even creative. It stimulated ‘multicultural engagements’, especially aboard ships, where islanders were often happy to serve as crew. It produced new kinds of culture – new languages, new var iants of Christianity and paganism. In Samoa, it produced a new game: kirikiti, a locally evolved descendant of cr icket with teams up to 100 strong ‘and a distinctive style of bat, closely resembling a type of ancestral club’. Kirikiti helped to deflect traditional r ivalr ies into a bloodless course. Before empire, Pacific i s land communities included some of the world’s most cunning shipwrights and most accomplished practitioners of celestial navigation. But opportunities for unprecedentedly long-range travel and trade transformed the ways in which they understood the world and negotiated their places in it. Even the labour trade had ‘modernizing’ effects. In short, according to Thomas, empire was ‘a cosmopolitan arena, which extended and elaborated upon the deeply inter-social character of ’ the pre-colonial Pacific.
His effort to foreground native stories and write ‘history shaped by Islanders’ largely f ails in the f ace of defective sources. Natives dominate only three out of twenty-five pages in the f i r s t chapter. The l ive l y vignettes are of Europeans who went native in varying degrees, or embraced martyrdom, or took to drink, or indulged their cruelty in the labour trade, or struggled with their own ignorance in attempts to make empire work. Hongi Hika, the politically inventive Maori chief, appears only as an appendage to the travels of Dumont d’Urville. We get a wonderful picture of Tem Binoka – the compulsive collector of European curiosities who ruled Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands in the 1880s – but the picture is Robert Louis Stevenson’s. Thomas misses an opportunity in barely using the good sources available in the case of Ta’unga, a mid nineteenth-century native missionary from the Cook Islands. The book’s major defects are the strangely selective and unsystematic coverage, which leaves most of the ocean out of account, and the surprising near-innocence of anthropology – the discipline in which the author was formally educated. It is impossible, however, to be unsmitten by the delights. Who could resist Nicholas Thomas’s accounts of the French on New Caledonia in the 1870s, struggling ‘to keep up with Paris fashion’ in ignorance that the Kanak people even existed, or of the Fijian cult of the 1880s that represented Jesus and Jehovah as Fijian gods, ‘who had sailed their canoe to the land of the white men’? To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 10
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LITERARY REVIEW February 2011