Pacific, European Presence in

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Pacific, European Presence in

Although the Pacific can be defined to include all the countries that lie along the littoral of the Pacific Ocean, and all the islands that lie in its waters, a more restricted perspective limits the Pacific to islands, and generally excludes such Asian archipelagos as Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Conventionally the islands are divided into Polynesia, largely in the central and eastern part of the South Pacific, Melanesia, in the southwestern Pacific, and Micronesia, primarily in the northwestern Pacific. Anthropologists contest this categorization—"many-island," "dark-island," and "small-island" groups—for constructing arbitrary boundaries between geographical zones and cultures. The continent of Australia is often included in the "Pacific," but sometimes joined with New Zealand as Australasia. The nomenclature and definitions underline the role of the Pacific basin as a crossroads of migration, trade, and cultures, as well as a terrain of European discovery and fantasy.


Portuguese and Dutch ships ventured past the western Pacific islands in voyages to the East Indies and East Asia from the 1500s, and Spanish galleons sailed past other islands going from Mexico to Manila. These early explorations left few traces other than long-lasting names: the Marquesas, Espirito Santo, Easter Island, and the Solomons islands; only in Micronesia did the Spanish undertake efforts at evangelization. With the voyages of James Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and their British and French successors, joined by other navigators, Oceania entered the European worldview in the late 1700s.

As the Age of Enlightenment discovered these distant and exotic islands and their flora, fauna, and people, commentators embroidered legends around paradises lost or found. Tahiti was proclaimed the "New Cythera," Denis Diderot published a treatise inspired by Bougainville's travels, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau articulated the myth of the bon sauvage ("noble savage"). A contrary image, more popular among priests and pastors than philosophers, portrayed islands of cannibals and head-hunters, human sacrifices and violent warfare (including the murder of Cook in Hawaii). Both images have bedevilled the islands to the present. Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, and Victor Segalen, to use French examples, perpetuated the myth of Tahiti still visible in tourist brochures and popular representations; popular culture indulged in caricatures of stone-age primitive peoples.

Scientists, particularly naturalists, navigators, and cartographers, promoted European expeditions, but others had different reasons for establishing European outposts. Politicians saw potential sites for settlement—as occurred at Botany Bay in 1788—and viewed the Pacific as a new theater of geopolitical rivalries. Islands, they argued, with claims that the center of the world's economic and political gravity would eventually shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, provided vital provisioning and garrisoning ports on the long voyage between the Americas, Asia, and Australasia.

With the nineteenth-century upsurge in missionary fervor, Catholics and Protestants (of various denominations) vied to convert the native peoples. Traders were interested in commercial opportunities. Whaling and sealing dominated early nineteenth-century economic activities, while merchants exploited supplies of sandalwood and bêche-de-mer valuable for exchange in China. As these resources became depleted, there was hope for establishment of plantation economies in tropical islands, and for discovery of mineral resources. Meanwhile, beachcombers and adventurers drifted onto the islands, establishing European toeholds. These various interests combined to promote a "scramble" for Oceania.

In the early modern age, the Spanish had advanced a nominal claim to Micronesian islands, and the Dutch retained a somewhat vague claim to the western half of New Guinea. The British extended their colonial imperium in Australia from Botany Bay and Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) to the whole of the continent by the 1820s. In 1840, they narrowly beat the French in a race to claim New Zealand; two years later, the French took over the Marquesas and Society islands, gaining control of Tahiti. A perceived slight to a Catholic missionary precipitated the move—Protestant missionaries had worked in Tahiti since 1797 and gained influence over the local chieftain—that allowed France to get a stake in Oceania. In 1853, France annexed New Caledonia to create a penal colony. Believing that they could imitate and perfect the British system of transportation, the French sent convicts and political prisoners (including Communards in 1871) to the islands from the 1860s to the 1890s. The British riposted by taking over the Fiji islands in 1874.

In the 1880s, other imperial powers entered the scramble. Germany took over northeastern New Guinea and neighboring islands, as well as the western Samoan islands, while the United States raised the flag over the eastern Samoan islands. Washington increased its holdings in 1898 when victory in the Spanish-American War allowed it to acquire the Philippines and Guam, and in 1900 the United States formally took over the Hawaiian Islands. Britain had by now taken over southeastern New Guinea, the Solomon islands, and the Gilbert and Ellis islands; France had claimed Wallis and Futuna; and Chile incorporated Easter Island. By the end of the century, only Tonga had not been formally integrated into a colonial empire. The New Hebrides, contested between Britain and France, became a "condominium" with two flags, two currencies, and two colonial administrators, a situation that endured as one of the most peculiar colonial arrangements until Vanuatu became independent in 1980.

As claims were made (and very often before), missionaries, traders, and planters arrived. Sugar became the major export of Fiji, and tropical fruits gained profits for planters in Hawaii. In the western Pacific, planters concentrated on copra, the dried meat of coconuts that European factories transformed into soap and other oil-based products. An attempt to create cotton plantations in Tahiti enjoyed only temporary success during the American Civil War. The French discovered huge reserves of nickel in New Caledonia, the world's major producer by the late 1800s; settlers also developed pastoralism. The British mined phosphate in the Gilbert islands and Nauru, as did the French on Makatea. Prospectors later found a wealth of minerals in New Guinea.

Economic initiatives created a demand for labor. "Kanakas" (Melanesians) were recruited, sometimes under duress, for plantations around the islands and in Queensland. The British imported Indian indentured laborers to Fiji, where they came to outnumber indigenous islanders. In New Caledonia, the French employed Japanese, East Indians, and Indochinese; Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, and Americans migrated to Hawaii. Others Europeans settled in New Zealand and New Caledonia, though their presence elsewhere was relatively small.

Culture contact had a dramatic effect on islanders, though without the "fatal impact" that some writers postulated. Infrastructural development, paid employment, and imported goods changed material life. Evangelists succeeded in converting most islanders to Christianity (and establishing virtual theocracies in some islands), though with syncretism of Christian and local beliefs. Law codes regulated behavior, and secular and ecclesiastical authorities tried to stamp out what they termed immoral behavior: semi-nudity, dancing, and promiscuity. Diseases brought by Europeans, as well as intensive labor and even cultural anomie, caused a steep demographic decline in some islands. Health care and education nevertheless became more widely available. Sexual liaisons between Europeans or Asians and islanders created a métis population in Tahiti and Hawaii, while in some other islands virtual segregation prevailed. Colonial rule eroded the authority of traditional chiefs, and everywhere islanders remained politically disenfranchised.


The islands stayed sleepy if picturesque outposts of empires, as described by Robert Louis Stevenson and Somerset Maugham, despite international changes. World War I (1914–1918) saw a few shots fired between German and French warships off Tahiti, and contingents of islanders were sent as soldiers to fight on European battlefields. Defeated Germany was ejected from the Pacific, its possessions divided between Japan (Micronesian islands), Australia (New Guinea), and New Zealand (western Samoa). World War II (1941–1945) had an even greater impact, as Japan pushed forward to create a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere, and islands, notably Hawaii (with the Pearl Harbor attack), Guadalcanal, and New Guinea, witnessed intense fighting. The Kokoda Trail in New Guinea remains an iconic Australian war experience. The United States stationed troops on such islands as Bora Bora and New Caledonia, and thousands of GIs, dollars, and the "American way of life" sent shock waves through Oceania. With war's end, Japan's possessions became a U.S. trust territory under United Nations aegis.

Most observers thought that many decades, and probably generations, would pass before Pacific islands gained independence. Indeed, campaigns for independence were notable by their absence, though political movements (especially in Tahiti) demanded greater political rights and indigenous cultural recognition. In 1958 French Polynesia and New Caledonia chose to remain "overseas territories" of France, and the following year Hawaii became the fiftieth state of the United States. The Netherlands withdrew from West Papua, the remainder of its East Indian empire, in the 1960s, and Indonesia annexed the territory, which was substitution, in the eyes of local people, of one imperialism for another.

In 1962 New Zealand withdrew from Western Samoa, the first independent Oceanic state. Fiji followed in 1970, despite opposition from traditional chiefs concerned that parliamentary government would give power to Indians. In 1975 an Australian Labor government rushed Papua New Guinea to independence. The British, also eager to disengage, granted independence to the Solomon islands, the Gilbert islands (Kiribati) and the Ellis islands (Tuvalu) by the end of the decade, and persuaded France to join in releasing Vanuatu. Decolonization in the island Pacific thus occurred later than in other parts of the world, and generally without the militant nationalist struggles or violence that characterized separation of some other colonies.

New Zealand, Britain, and Australia nevertheless retained vestiges of old empires. New Zealand kept Niue and Tokelau; the Cook islands, nominally independent, signed a treaty of "free association" with Wellington. Norfolk Island, populated partly by descendants of the Bounty, remained an Australian territory, and Britain reluctantly held on to Pitcairn, home to several dozen people (also Bounty descendants). The United States and France showed no inclination to leave the Pacific. In the midst of the cold war and military involvement in Asia, the United States judged its outposts vital strategic bases, and on Bikini atoll it tested nuclear weapons. American Samoa and Guam remain unincorporated territories whose residents are nationals with right of entry and abode in the United States, but with limited representation in Congress. Under pressure from the United Nations to wind up the Trust Territory in Micronesia, the United States made the Northern Marianas a commonwealth and preserved close links with independent Belau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The French were concerned about the "Caldoche" settler population in New Caledonia, but also considered retention of its islands as a guarantee of a political and military presence in the Pacific. The French, too, carried out nuclear testing of atmospheric and underwater devices at Mururoa from the early 1960s until the mid-1990s, much to the consternation of neighbors in Oceania and Australasia. Paris also faced nationalist opposition in French Polynesia and especially in New Caledonia, where the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste coalition led a struggle for independence in the 1980s. This placed the largely Melanesian movement in direct conflict with Europeans and migrant Polynesians who allied with them. The French government proposed several new constitutional arrangements—opinion about relinquishing New Caledonia was hotly divided in France—while violence escalated until agreement on a twenty-five-year moratorium on independence was reached in 1988.

The islands of postcolonial Oceania face problems of economic underdevelopment, ethnic divisiveness, international marginalization, and cultural globalization. Gang violence and elite corruption are rife in Papua New Guinea, ethnically motivated coups overturned governments in Fiji in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Solomon islands in the early 2000s verged on civil war, Vanuatu has seen continued political instability, Nauru is bankrupt, and the Cook islands host dubious financial institutions. Considerable emigration is a response to limited economic opportunities. Many islands rely on aid, and the European Union is one of the largest donors, while tourists from Europe represent an economic resource, evidence of a continued, if reduced, European presence in a region where the French and British flags still fly.

see also American Samoa; Anticolonialism; Assimilation, East Asia and the Pacific; Australia; Bismarck Archipelago; Fiji; French Polynesia; Hawaii; Missions, Civilizing; Missions, in the Pacific; New Caledonia; New Zealand; Pacific, American Presence in; Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific.


Aldrich, Robert. "The Decolonization of the Pacific Islands." Itinerario 24 (3-4) (2000): 173-191.

Campbell, I. C. Worlds Apart: A History of the Pacific Islands. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press, 2003.

Fisher, Stephen Roger. A History of the Pacific Islands. London: Macmillan, 2004.

Lal, Brij, ed. Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.8

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