Travelers who frequent beaches, or stop often along coastlines or shores will probably have seen the sign, posted by lifeguards: “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean.” It is a caution to bathers and swimmers, yet also perfectly captures transformations taking place in the study of the seas.
In the past generation, oceanic and maritime studies have been expanded by a score of interdisciplinary works with wide resonance: on trade, migration, cultural encounter, and exchange.1 New conceptualizations, from Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic,” to a seaborne African and Indian “Hundred Horizons” of Sugata Bose, to a Pacific “Sea of Islands” of Epeli Hau‘ofa, continue to reshape scholarly disciplines and popular discourses on the role of the seas in history.2 The challenge of “the Pacific” is that it cannot a priori be written about as a subject. Rather, the Pacific is a subject that needs to be defined. What are its boundaries? What are the ranges of spatial—and temporal—extension?
There is not just one declared and defined “Pacific.” Rather, it is a region assembled from interlocking navigations, migrations, and settlements from the Philippines and South China Sea, Sulawesi and the Sunda Islands, the Banda and Tasman seas, the ancestral waters of the Hawaiians, Maori, or peoples of Kiribati. The Pacific is given meaning by routes of transit, wind corridors, circuits of traders and political activists, refugees and voyagers, and settlements. These meeting places are translocal, not simply connected geographic locales, but connections and links that generate places invested with emotions and historical meanings: uncertainty and affirmation, struggle, loss, mourning, denial, anxiety, and hope.
To illustrate these discussions, I might draw on examples from a range of Pacific-wide histories. These are, I think, familiar stories—or more to the point—should be: a canoe; a fashionable saint; a lost boat; a promise.
Long considered isolated on tiny, insular landfalls, the provenance of Pacific Island peoples continues to be a subject of debate. One key dispute questioned whether Islander ancestors could have sailed intentionally across the deepwater Pacific. These are very much settler questions, inquiries into whether ancient peoples could have inhabited their islands by design, or only by accident, driven by storms. More, could the different island groups have known return sailing within a network of connected archipelagic cultures?
No scholarship or argument was capable of resolving these questions, so in the 1970s a group of academics, activists, artists, and seafarers built a replica outrigger sailing canoe, the Hokule‘a, to sail between Hawaii and Tahiti, and settle the question by historical re-creation. In this way, the Hokule‘a canoe and its crew enacted a performed Polynesian history, tying together the research of archives and also of actors and lived genealogies. Such journeys underscored new experiments with personally engaged “Pacific” ways of communicating knowledge, drawing on epistemologies of oral and enacted traditions. Such are constitutive of the sort of creative and often locale-specific studies that have resonance in global historical transformations.
One of the great transformative powers in the Pacific across centuries has been trade—the movement of goods from sago and fish, to silk and spices, to sugar and copra, to petroleum and high technology. Not all of the trade was commodities, however; sometimes it involved bodies and lives resettled in strange lands by blackbirding or outright slaving.
The Spanish galleons that made annual circuits from China to the Philippines to the Americas from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries were famed for their gold, silver, porcelain, and silk treasures, but estimates suggest that tens of thousands of laborers, merchants, officials—and slaves—also made the crossing. Some were enslaved domestic help, requested by officials of New Spain. One of the women who traveled on the galleons was born Mirnha, reportedly a princess from western India. She was captured along the Indian coast, sold as a domestic slave in the seventeenth century, carried to Manila, and then to Acapulco.
Mirnha’s colorful, “exotic” look reputedly influenced the fashion that would define Mexican women, and her growing piety made her a favorite of Catholic biographers who extolled her virtue and prayers on behalf of Spanish empire across the Pacific. She was made a saint of the church and left a legacy of prophetic dreams that traced her life from Asia to the Americas.
Displaced lives haunt the history of the Pacific. In 2001, the Australian government received a distress call from international Pacific waters. Rescuers and naval forces came upon an Indonesian fishing boat, the Tampa, packed with more than four hundred sick and desperate passengers, largely refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The passengers were removed amid fears of unwanted refugees reaching Australian shores. To keep the refugees from the continent and legal process, millions in aid went to another country—Nauru. The “Pacific Solution” is an uneasy partnership: the scheduling of foreign assistance to small island states in exchange for becoming detention facilities—part refugee camp, part prison—for stateless peoples.
The Tampa group was joined by other boatloads of Iranians, and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, as governments reviewed human rights and United Nations political asylum conventions. The dilemma of the refugees linked Asia, Oceania, and the rest of the world into debates on international “burden sharing,” as states like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines agreed to grant asylum if other countries provided their own resettlement quotas. These were questions that could not be resolved by any single nation in the Pacific.
Over the years, individuals and families lived as reluctant colonists in refugee camps, building up transitory island communities, before being moved into resettlement lives. Some survivors took residence and work offers from Malaysia to the Philippines, while some were accepted in the United States. The Tampa survivors themselves faced multiple fates: 179 were sent back to Afghanistan; New Zealand took in more than 200, and asylum was granted in Canada and a few Scandinavian countries. Australia, though a regional economic and political power, took in a small number—28—and continues to be roiled by debates about “queue jumping” and arguments that present the country as a fragile settler state, threatened by unwanted intruders. The camps the refugees occupy or have left behind bear witness to the desperation and resilience of the stateless and largely unwanted.
The people of Kiribati face an equal question of displacement. In the twenty-first century, climate change had come, and with it the phenomenon popularly known as global warming. Worldwide debate raged as to whether environmental changes were real, imagined, natural, or man-made. But one thing was incontestable: low-lying islands were disappearing under the ocean, and serious talks began about resettlement of entire populations.
In 2008, president of the island Republic of Kiritabi, Anote Tong, hosted a United Nations environmental forum in New Zealand and made his point starkly. “To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that.” The first Pacific place of the new millennium might, perhaps, also be one of the first to disappear. Remedies could not come from just the islands themselves. The United Nations–sponsored Kyoto Protocols entered into force in 2005. The agreements set targets for carbon emissions and allowed countries to “cap and trade” output credits with other countries, but disagreements about the responsibilities of major powers like the United States and growing Pacific economies in Asia left the issue uncertain.
A tiny state with fewer than 100,000 citizens spread across all of its archipelagos, Kiribati looks small, yet has an islander history that is nonetheless very much a translocal place of the Pacific and the world. On the atoll of Tarawa, stories tell of voyagers from Samoa, or even Sumatra and Indonesia, and records track invasions from Fijian and Tongan warriors. European merchants and slave traders came followed by whalers, giving the populations a unique but not unusual blend of Micronesian, Polynesian, Melanesian, and European backgrounds. Spaniards and later, Protestant missionaries, brought Christianity. The major island groups have a colonial history, having been taken as British protectorates beginning in the nineteenth century, and some fell under Japanese imperial rule during the Pacific War. Tarawa was noted for its bloody battles, and the Line Islands were used during the Cold War for nuclear weapons testing. In the decolonizing Pacific, independence in the 1970s brought self-government but also separation and claims for autonomy between different island groups.
Marine products remained the principal exports: fish and seaweed going to Japan, Taiwan, Australia, the United States, and Western Europe, manufactured goods imported from the same and China, Korea, and New Zealand. Because of Kiribati’s equatorial location, Japan and China established satellite tracking telemetry facilities there, and the Chinese compound was rumored to be eavesdropping on American missile and military operations in the nearby Marshall Islands. The seas around Kiribati are marked by overlapping transits, just as the islands were and are global Pacific places. Such places are the trans-local sites of oceanic histories being made and remembered, whether recovered through a proud revival of ancient navigation; celebrated in the legendary lives of slaves and saints; held in the testimonies of refugees and exiles; impelled by global environmental change which no nation or people can address alone. In Kiribati, children greet strangers with their own favorite question: “Where are you going?” It is a good question, and a reminder to never turn your back on the ocean.
This article was adapted from Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and an address given at the Australian Historical Association Conference, the University of Wollongong, July 2013.
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Epeli Hau‘ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” in A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, ed. Eric Waddell, Vijay Naidu, and Epeli Hau’ofa (Suva, Fiji: School of Social and Economic Development, The University of the South Pacific in association with Beake House, 1993), 2–16.