Indigenous Responses, the Pacific

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Indigenous Responses, the Pacific

Some three millennia ago, the ancestors of the indigenous people of Oceania began migrating from Asia across the vast stretches of ocean between the island groups that today constitute Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. What prompted this migration has been a matter of great conjecture, but at some point the migrations out of Asia became inconsequential and Oceania entered into a long period of isolation from the rest of the world. Although there were significant movements of populations across the region that periodically reshaped the cultures of particular islands or island groups, cultural influences from outside the region remained negligible.

So, when European explorers first began crossing the Pacific in the sixteenth century, the indigenous people of the region were truly dismayed at the sudden appearance of a very different race of men with strange customs and very dangerous armaments. Although the explorers were sometimes keen to demonstrate the firepower of their vessels and crews, they generally attempted to establish amicable relations with the indigenous people. Unfortunately, the early seamen's tales of tropical paradises populated by hospitable, handsome, and sexually uninhibited natives attracted equally large numbers of unscrupulous adventurers and zealous missionaries. Both groups undermined the customs and traditions that had for millennia governed the behavior of the indigenous people. The adventurers disregarded the codes of responsibility that governed the seemingly unconstrained behavior of natives, and the missionaries condemned the indigenous culture as degenerate and wished to eradicate it, to replace native beliefs and mores with Christian doctrines and principles.

Ironically, because representatives of European governments, religions, and commercial enterprises all wished to enter into favorable and uncomplicated agreements with the indigenous people, they essentially superimposed authoritarian indigenous regimes on societies that had traditionally stressed local autonomy, systems of shared authority, and complex customs governing relations between communities. Thus, at the point where European culture was poised to overwhelm the indigenous cultures, the resistance of the indigenous people was undermined by tensions between the supporters of the new authoritarian regimes and those natives who resisted such regimes in the name of indigenous traditions.

Like indigenous people in other regions of the world, the Pacific islanders had no resistance to many communicable diseases introduced by Europeans, and as their social institutions were undermined, they seemed especially susceptible to such consequences of personal degradation and communal decline as alcoholism and venereal disease. Furthermore, as Europeans sought to exploit the natural resources of the islands, they attempted alternately to recruit or to conscript indigenous laborers. Unused to such heavy, regimented work and weakened further by the effects of poor arrangements for accommodating large concentrations of workers, the indigenous population suffered additional dramatic declines. As a result, European colonials began to import large numbers of Indian and Chinese laborers, in much the same way as enslaved Africans were brought to the West Indies to offset the devastation of Native American populations. Although most groups of Pacific islanders never disappeared as completely as the Ciboney, Arawak, and Carib, they sometimes became minority populations in their own homelands.

In the nineteenth century, the European powers formally defined their spheres of influence across the Pacific, much as they did in Africa and Asia. Despite the relative brevity of the formal colonial rule, the British and French, in particular, left an enduring cultural legacy. In many places across Oceania, British or French influence continues to define the local culture more pointedly than indigenous practices and traditions. The American victory in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the German defeat in World War I (1914–1918) combined to make the United States and the Japanese Empire the emergent powers in the region during the interwar period. The awesome scale of the military operations in the Pacific during World War II brought many of the trends during the colonial period to a terrible climax. The indigenous populations experienced extensive and extended dislocations. The tremendous numbers of men and amounts of material introduced into the region permanently changed the face and pace of life in the islands. What had previously been imported only at great cost was now available in surplus—as war surplus.

After the surrender of Japan, the Pacific region did not experience the same convulsive movement toward independence as many of the other former territories within the European colonial empires. The indigenous populations were simply not concentrated or cohesive enough for revolution. In fact, as American influence spread throughout the region, the islands increasingly became welfare states, dependent on U.S. foreign aid for their very survival. It was not until the 1970s that some of the island groups became autonomous territories and then, politically, fully independent states. Still, most remained economically dependent states. The increasing economic reliance on tourism and the increasing emphasis on material culture has created environmental issues that threaten to become a crisis. Most pointedly, there is simply not enough space to dispose of burgeoning amounts of waste in conventional ways. The very coral reefs that have for millennia protected many of the islands from storms have, in the space of several decades, created toxic lagoons in which industrial and human waste have ruined the colonies of fish that once sustained the islanders by providing their primary source of protein.

see also China, After 1945; China, First Opium War to 1945; China, to the First Opium War; Chinese Revolutions; Compradorial System; Empire, Japanese; Korea, from World War II; Korea, to World War II; Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific.


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Fischer, Steven R. A History of the Pacific Islands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Frost, Alan. The Global Reach of Empire: Britain's Maritime Expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, 1764–1815. Carlton, Victoria: Miegunyah Press, 2003.

Lawson, Stephanie. Tradition versus Democracy in the South Pacific: Fiji, Tonga, and Western Samoa. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Price, A. Grenfell. The Western Invasions of the Pacific and Its Continents: A Study of Moving Frontiers and Changing Landscapes, 1513–1958. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.