Pacific, American Presence in

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Pacific, American Presence in

Two nineteenth-century novels of New Englander Herman Melville (1819–1891), Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), based on his adventures as a whaling sailor in the Pacific Islands, set fire to the imagination of the West to Polynesia as a literary landscape, where missionaries and seamen exploited the decline of Polynesians. This Western view of a paradise in decline has been developed by artists and writers as diverse as French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and American author Paul Theroux (b. 1941). The vision of Polynesia as a declining paradise has not changed much since Melville, except in the writings of authors of Pacific Island ancestry, such as Hawaiian Haunani-Kay Trask (b. 1949) and Epeli Hau'ofa (b. 1939), who was born in Papua New Guinea to Tongan parents. Hau'ofa wrote in his influential essay "Our Sea of Islands," "There are no more suitable people on earth to be guardians of the world's largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations" (1993, p. 14).

Such early nineteenth-century industries as whaling and sandalwood quickly led Western countries to exploit the resources of the Pacific. The West also exploited the region for slave labor. South American and Australian slavers kidnapped entire island populations. The British enslaved the people of Tasmania, Australia, and the Torres Strait Islands, and the Americans enslaved native Puerto Ricans and Hawaiians. Slave trade was also conducted between Peru and the Pacific Islands.

Eighteenth-century European writers saw Polynesia as a paradise, while nineteenth-century Victorians, especially representatives of the missionary movements of New England and the London Missionary Society, saw Polynesia as a paradise lost. Pandemics of European diseases depleted generations of Pacific Islanders. The missionaries spread a monotheism that they claimed would protect the islanders from the diseases that the Europeans themselves had brought to the Pacific. The missionaries exploited the much-weakened condition of the islanders by claiming lands and eventually inciting takeovers by the United States and other Western nations.

The advent of missionaries in the Pacific led to the formation of plantations using Asian migrant and Pacific Islander slave labor. The missionaries also precipitated a search for shipping routes to Asia. It was this search for Pacific routes to Asia and Australia that set the eye of the United States on the great natural harbors of the Pearl River in the kingdom of Hawaii, as well as Pago Pago Bay in Samoa. Both harbors were mapped and explored by a U.S. naval expedition of six ships, led by Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) from 1838 to 1842. The expedition included such scientists as geologist James Dwight Dana (1813–1895) at a time when the Pacific region was still largely unknown in the West.

In 1876, with the help of the U.S. government, several former American missionaries forced Hawaii's leaders to agree to a reciprocity treaty in the sugar trade. The treaty limited the kingdom's economic dealings to trade with the United States, although Hawaiian King David Kalakaua (1836–1891) refused to cede Pearl Harbor. Kalakaua traveled to Washington, D.C., where a compromise was worked out. Hawaii would allow no other foreign countries to use its lands and ports. In return, Hawaiian sugar would be exported to the United States duty-free. By this time, sugar was the center of Hawaii's economy, and white Americans controlled the sugar plantations and such related businesses as shipping and banking. Kalakaua was deeply concerned about his people and their culture, but eventually the now wealthy and powerful Americans in Hawaii incited the U.S. military takeover of the Hawaiian kingdom in the 1890s.

U.S. naval strategists were inspired by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's (1840–1914) theory of sea power as the key to world power. Mahan argued in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (1890), that there were three keys to sea power: "production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on, and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety" (chap. 1).

Mahan's analysis coincided with important trends in domestic and international affairs, and it provided a timely rationale for both the emerging navalism and the expanding global role of the United States in the late nineteenth century. His 1890 book made him internationally known. His views would greatly influence the thinking of such political leaders as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) and would help shape America's destiny at the turn of the century. By the twenty-first century, part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was based in Hawaii, and most transpacific sea-lanes passed through the Hawaiian Islands.

Since the 1950s, many of the South Pacific islands have become tourist centers. In French Polynesia, Tahitian soldiers returning from fighting for France after World War II (1939–1945) questioned the oppression of Tahitians within their own nation by the French government. The independence movement they started, however, was suppressed and its leaders were imprisoned when producers arrived from Hollywood to film Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando in 1962. With the film, the French government saw an opportunity for a rise in tourism in Tahiti. At this time France was also conducting nuclear tests on other islands of French Polynesia. It was not until the 1980s and the rise of the antinuclear movement in Tahiti that the Tahitian independence movement regained strength. Tourism, more than any other industry, creates a false international perception of the value and meaning of Pacific Islands nationality.

The term postcolonial, often used in contemporary discussions of colonialism, may not apply to many of the Pacific Islands, which remain colonies of the United States and France. Perhaps the greatest example of colonialism in Oceania lies in the way many economically powerful countries, both in the West and in Asia, have ignored or subverted the political sovereignty of Pacific Islanders.

The socioeconomic concept of a "Pacific Rim" exploits the region's sea-lanes and sea resources, including fishing rights. Pacific Rim is a term used to describe the nations bordering the Pacific Ocean, but not always the island countries situated in it. In the post-World War II era, the Pacific Rim became an increasingly important and interconnected economic region. Twenty-one Pacific Rim nations, including the United States and Canada, are members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), established in 1989 to provide a forum for discussion on a broad range of economic issues of concern to the Pacific region.

Except for the larger countries of Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand, APEC does not include any Pacific Islands nations. The Pacific Island nations themselves are members of the Pacific Islands Forum, which promotes intergovernmental economic, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation in the region. The members of the forum are the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, New Zealand, and Australia. Nonmember colonial states that are gaining some autonomy, such as Tahiti (French Polynesia) and New Caledonia, have been allowed to send observers to Pacific Islands Forum meetings.

The United States maintains a strong military presence in the Pacific Islands, as well as strong relations with its former and present colonial territories, and is attempting to organize the governments of U.S. territories in the region according to an "organic act" passed by the U.S. Congress. The legislation provides for a bill of rights and an American-style tripartite government and system of law that preempts whatever native law exists. Historically, the organization of a territory in this manner is a prelude to statehood.

Some American Pacific territories are considered commonwealths, which are organized but unincorporated. Incorporation is a permanent condition under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution. Palmyra Atoll, which was once part of the kingdom of Hawaii, is an example of an incorporated territory. Unincorporated, organized territories include Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Unincorporated, unorganized territories include American Samoa (technically unorganized but self-governing under a 1967 constitution) and several islands and atolls uninhabited by indigenous peoples.

United Nations Committee on Decolonization includes Guam and American Samoa on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, along with the Pacific Islands nations of Pitcairn (New Zealand), Tokelau (New Zealand) and New Caledonia (France). In the 1950s Hawai'i and French Polynesia were removed from the list by the United States and France, which led to Hawaii's statehood.

Most of the Micronesian islands that came under United Nations trusteeship with the United States after World War II have since gained greater autonomy or sovereignty. In 1946 the United States began relocating the native people of the remote Marshall Islands for the purpose of conducting nuclear tests. In the 1970s and 1980s the people of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands were awarded monetary reparations along with a settlement to be used to clean Bikini Atoll. Many Bikini residents were also resettled on other islands because of lingering unsafe radiation levels.

see also American Samoa; Federated States of Micronesia; Indigenous Responses, the Pacific; Marshall Islands; Occupations, the Pacific; Pacific, European Presence in.


Epeli Hau'ofa, ed. A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Suva, Fiji: School of Social and Economic Development, University of the South Pacific, 1993.

Kame'eleihiwa, Lilikala. Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea la e pono ai? How Shall We Live in Harmony? Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press, 1992.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1890. Available from Project Gutenberg at

Vaai, Saleimoa. Samoa Faamatai and the Rule of Law. Le Papa-IGalagala: National University of Samoa, 1999.

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