Printer Friendly

Reflections on Pacific Historiography.

Edited by Doug Munro (Special Issue of The Journal of Pacific Studies, Vol 20, 1996) (School of Social and Economic Development, The University of the South Pacific, 297pp.).

Historians are becoming more relaxed telling stories about themselves. Autobiography is the new confessional, even if Foucauldians would point to the confessional as just another means by which we are rewarded, professionalised, flattered and punished into submission by the systems of power in our society. The certainties of modernist empirical scholarship have gradually eroded under such arguments, and scholars in most fields are today more sensitive to the personal politics of their research and writing, and seek the roots of their own intellectual choices.

Certainly that is the case with the field called Pacific history, which has always enjoyed an enlivening mixture of old and new fashioned historians working alongside anthropologists, linguists, political scientists, literary scholars and others. This special issue of one of the few historical journals published in the South Pacific islands themselves is an example of the guild of historians attending in personal tone to the changes in their sub-discipline, whose roots go back fifty years to the foundation of the first Chair in Pacific history at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia after World War II.

It is not the first album of family snapshots. This volume is intended to complement an earlier volume of essays (Pacific Islands History. Journeys and Transformations, (ed.) Brij Lal) which emerged from a taking-stock workshop in Canberra in 1991. The present volume is more structured than that diffuse, though memorable set of essays. The editor has divided it into four major sections - Reflections, Historiography, Autobiographical, and a Conversation - with a tail-end Debate about labour trade statistics which sits uncomfortably with the tone of the rest and reads rather like a gesture of help to an old friend.

This set of essays is also more personal. The 1991 workshop was a meeting of the 'founding' generation, most of whom grew their scholarship under the influence of Jim Davidson, the first Professor of Pacific history in the Research Schools at Canberra. That was about ideas and influences that underlay the evolution of the field. This reflects broader, yet also more intimate thoughts and practices of three generations - the founding fathers and mothers, the baby boomers who built on the postwar foundations, and what we might call the Generation Xers who are charged with taking Pacific history into the new millennium.

The early elites are well represented by Dorothy Shineberg, Mary Boyd, Oscar Spate, Barrie Macdonald etc.. Their stories reveal the archaeology of the discipline, its growth out of post war planning needs for the regional neighbourhood and early interdisciplinary cooperation. These reflections are taken up with identifying gaps that the field never properly covered and the flaws in the approach that dominated first generation Pacific history. Shineberg points to the lack of good, detailed English language studies of the French Pacific, which has been left until recently to French ethnographers and political propagandists. Barrie Macdonald identifies Davidson's beach centred training regime as an ironic cause of the field's insularity over the years. It was light on broad comparative and international frameworks that employed, say, Afro-Asian or Caribbean experiences by which to measure the Pacific. That is passing with a new exploration of identities straddling national boundaries or conflicting with them, and with the recent emphasis on governance in the islands. Macdonald is also uneasy with what he sees as a return to the fatal Impact obsession with the victimized native, as a more self absorbed and critical generation reach into the recent colonial past for weapons against continuing colonialisms. Max Quanchi analyses Australian school curriculum's alarming lurch away from interest in the Pacific under the pressure of national obsession with making money in Asia. He makes a plea for Pacific historians to become involved in producing school texts and resources that will spark interest among the coming generation and educate them about the Pacific content of their country's history.

Two essays from the Historiography section really form the axis around which Pacific history has evolved. The first is a general essay by J.G.A. Pocock on the historian in political society and the academy. Pocock takes us thoughtfully back to first principles, asking the question from an older philosophical tradition, what does history mean to the citizen in political society? Pacific history has never been a self-evident activity for its practitioners, though they may not have engaged in much public discourse about it until recent challenges by other disciplines and philosophies of knowledge, but Pocock shows just how much the Pacific offers the historical scholar to present to the world. For civil society in settler states in the Pacific - Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji - demands that its citizens live in societies with incommensurate histories, and Pacific historians have always had to work with the knowledge, however inchoate, that histories might never mesh. Pocock ponders this issue at great depth, and the associated problem of the historian in the academy finding a speaking position over against excluded or marginalized minorities who develop a cultural history approach to reclaim their pasts from colonising hands. Pocock's is a sobering essay full of wise questions and uncomfortable truths, which suggests a set of minimum conditions for the historian to go on doing the job. (p. 110)

The second essay is an account of praxis. Judith Binney explains the 'encounter' of histories, the different ways of remembering, recording and understanding what is important from peoples' pasts, in this case the descendants of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, the Maori leader who was many things to both Maori and Pakeha communities. In researching and writing his life (Redemption Songs 1995), Binney had to negotiate a text that left the autonomy and sacredness of Maori histories intact. This essay rehearses many of the issues at the heart of what Pacific historians contend with in creating texts that try to speak across cultures, about histories that have incommensurate meanings. Rarely do historians achieve results with the grace and ethical care that Binney manages. Ironically, there is a sense in Pacific history that the world of Maori studies/history lies off to one side, establishing its own boundaries of scholarly interpretation and dialogue (and silence), driven by the powerful politics of struggle in bicultural New Zealand. Angela Ballara provides the reader a pointed summary of the terms of this surging debate in her essay 'Who owns Maori tribal tradition?'.

Under this umbrella of praxis, Judith Huntsman's piece on organising community histories with Tokelau historians brings us back to more island centred issues. Huntsman documents a process extending over years, in which various insider contests had to be reconciled with insider-outsider tensions to create one linear national saga at the same time as Tokelau was awash with separate regional accounts that never circulated for general discussion. The question Whose History? is nicely highlighted in this contribution. So too is history's dynamic, malleable character as the organization, writing and publishing were succeeded by the politics of launching the histories, and then their readings. Huntsman makes a politically incorrect but important point for historians to ponder: that written histories are often more flexible and contestable in their open, unsecret nature than the guarded oral accounts for specific times, places and occasions, which are transitory and disappear even in their moment of enactment.

For this insider-outsider, the Autobiography section was the most satisfying. At one extreme are touches of self-indulgence in some personal stories about schooling and travel that fail to illuminate the human and critical landscape, but that in general connect faces, personalities and passions to ideas; they give human meaning to this enterprise of doing history in the Pacific; and they console and encourage reflection. If, as Hau'ofa suggests, Pacific Island societes are held together by stories, their moral universe anchored in stories, then the same holds true for the society of scholars, writers, thinkers and activists who ply their arts in Pacific history. People came to the field by varying routes, some seemingly born to it, others arriving by accident, tripping over their projects, landing in the right place at the right time, turning the corner on a particular day to meet their destiny. Happily, destiny and mission are infrequently called up. Epeli Hau'ofa epitomises the Islander waylaid by a tertiary western education from what would have been a famous life as a great Tongan oral story teller, who discovers instead it had been translated into a gift for writing. Donald Denoon drifted into the Pacific out of Africa, working most of the time on seemingly unrelated, unPacific agendas which yet have become central to western understandings of the region. David Chappell virtually replicated the beachcombers' transient voyaging career before finding a home in Pacific history and informing it with his traveller's horizons. Brij Lal's historical reflections have been informed by the agony of ethnic nationalism that drove the Fiji coups. He admits to a haunting by Naipaul's 'fear of extinction' to say and write something of lasting value in the islands.

The fear of extinction brings us nicely to the final conversation by three younger scholars of varying ancestry Teresia Teaiwa, of Banaban and African American descent, Robert Nicole, a Swiss brought up in Tahiti, and the high born Fijian, Alumita Durutalo. Their conversation, 'It aint heavy, it's our history' was first recorded in July 1996 at the Media Centre of the University of the South Pacific in Suva. Its reproduction in this volume takes us beyond the fears of the 'arrived' generation to the agendas and imaginings of those laying new groundrules. Unlike the babyboomers, unleashed upon the cathedrals of learning, as one contributor puts it, expecting fulfillment and to make a difference, this cohort is uncertain and flexible about ways of doing Pacific history into the future, based on the histories they have lived with.

This is an evangelical generation, determined to make mainstream history less intimidating to islanders, to engage out of their own roots with the dispossessed and the patronised and the historicised. They recognize the generational gulfs that now play out in conferences and accept that some of Spivak's 'strategic essentialism' may be occasionally necessary by island scholars to clear their heads. Their personal stories as part of the Pacific history continuum make them conscious they are enacting a powerful historical critique as part of indigenous struggles to reclaim their own stories of the past. But they grope away from self-righteous denunciation of past Pacific histories even though they fail to acknowledge that western historians are also aware they have their own colonialisms to deconstruct.

Running through all these stories of Pacific history's past is a long running fear about entitlement and exclusion: who speaks; who has the right to be heard; whose view of the world is the correct one? This is a shifting battleground which has never dominated the field, and never will, while historians acknowledge, like David Chappell, how modest our efforts are to represent pasts. One of Chappell's stories is about a matai on Ta'u, American Samoa, who upon the suggestion he should write down his knowledge of Samoan oral traditions so others could study them, replied that once he had started to do that, but a hurricane came through and blew it all away. These stories may blow away in whatever future Pacific history carves out for itself, but until then, enjoy the energy, passion and understandings that doing Pacific history has meant to a lot of people.

Peter Hempenstall University of Canterbury, New Zealand
COPYRIGHT 1999 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hempenstall, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:1924
Previous Article:The Covenant Makers: Islander Missionaries in the Pacific.
Next Article:The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850.
Topics:


Related Articles
White Australia Defied: Pacific Islander Settlement in North Queensland.
Quite a Colony: South Sea Islanders in Central Queensland, 1867-1993.
Liturgy, Sanctity and History in Tridentine Italy: Pietro Maria Campi and the Preservation of the Particular.
The Mirror of Confusion: The Representation of French History in English Renaissance Drama.
Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage.
Historiography and Ideology in Stuart Drama.
Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. (Reviews).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |