In this next installment of my book reviews on readings done for a field in Pacific Island history, we move away from Hawaiʻi, to a different part of the ocean. I do believe that if/when I ever teach a course on Pacific history, Hawaiʻi will likely be quite prominent, because it is most directly relevant to our experience as Americans, to understand what the US stood for, what it stands for, how American values led to the downfall of the Hawaiian Kingdom… and because Hawaiʻi is the most prominent in our popular culture or collective consciousness, and the most likely of the Pacific Islands that students might visit (or might have visited). It is “close to home” conceptually and politically if not geographically, and so there are powerful reasons to devote particular time and focus to studying it. However, in the broader sense of studying non-US, non-Western histories, in the sense of learning about foreign peoples and places in order to attain a more global perspective, I was astonished at myself to realize how much I, even with my powerful interest in non-Western and non-ethnocentric perspectives, still tended to cleave to an Anglophone perspective of which parts of the world I am more interested in. After Moruroa discusses not the US, UK, or Japan’s involvement in the Pacific, but rather, that of France. And it really opened my eyes to how little I know of French history, French imperial history – how much my knowledge of world history, of world imperialism, is still through very much a US/British lens.
In After Moruroa, Nic Maclellan and Jean Chesneaux provide an overview of the political/colonial history of France’s possessions in the Pacific, with a particular focus on the second half of the 20th century, but with a seemingly thorough summary, too, of the earlier periods of “discovery” and colonization.
One of the key themes in the book is that the character or nature of France’s relationship to its Pacific territories is quite different from that of the US or UK to their current & former territories in the region, in certain important ways. The US, UK, and other colonial powers recognize their overseas territories as belonging to a separate category, both conceptually and politically, from the mainland; as one of the fifty states, Hawaiʻi stands as an exception, but places like American Sāmoa and Guam are decidedly in a separate category, both conceptually (in terms of how we imagine the space of “the United States”) and in terms of political status and rights. By contrast, France considers its overseas territories integral parts of the Republic, and sees the preservation of the integrity of the Republic’s territory as a constitutional imperative (21). Maclellan and Chesneaux also write that the typical colonial concerns of access to natural resources and military strategic locations are less prominent in French policy positions in the Pacific, than broader-ranging ideas of the importance of maintaining a Francophone community around the world (241), and a French presence otherwise in order for France to remain a “medium-sized world power” (82). The latter was seen as particularly important in the aftermath of World War II, as the US and USSR emerged as superpowers, and France desired to avoid being eclipsed; the role of the Pacific islands as nuclear testing sites, and as therefore essential to France’s becoming and remaining a nuclear power, ties into this as well (78). While the same could probably be said for the United Kingdom and certain other nations too, in terms of the desire to remain prominent on the world stage, the UK and other nations granted independence to many of their former colonies in the 1960s-70s with less difficulty and hesitation than France; one stark example of this is seen in the case of Vanuatu, which had been a condominium between Britain and France, and where the British administrators left relatively freely, while the French only grudgingly gave up following a brief but genuine violent conflict (73-74).
That said, while France’s attachment to the Pacific territories may be more deeply connected to broad nationalistic and global geopolitical concerns rather than more specific and explicit military or economic advantages, Maclellan’s discussion of the territories, and in particular his discussion of the period “after Mororua,” i.e. the late 1990s and the future, is strongly grounded in practical political and economic matters. While much of what I have read on the Pacific focuses on issues of cultural identity, cultural sensitivity (e.g. combating Orientalism and Eurocentrism), and maintenance or revival of traditional culture, Maclellan here emphasizes the very practical concerns of UN Resolutions, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), labor migrations, and the legal & political rights and statuses of citizens of the overseas territories, making for a vitally informative look at the region from a different perspective. That France is part of the European Union, and citizens of the overseas territories carry EU passports, he explains, presents new complications for the economic, legal, and political interactions between these territories and the Continent. Many fear that as France becomes more integrated into Europe, French identity in France may dissolve, leaving those in the Pacific the “only French people left on the planet.” Meanwhile, others also fear that as it becomes easier for Europeans to move more freely to France’s Pacific territories, gaining French voting rights despite being Belgian, German, or Spanish, this will pose a threat to Pacific identity and autonomy (229); though Maclellan does not draw the comparison, this seems a very reasonable concern, given the dominating political power of Asian-Americans and whites in Hawaiʻi, for example, overpowering native voices.
All in all, this was a fascinating introduction to the very different history and contemporary circumstances of the Francophone Pacific. Despite the fact that we are studying non-Western peoples and places to begin with, we do tend to focus excessively, perhaps without even realizing it, on Anglophone parts of the world; limited though my knowledge of the Pacific may be, of what I have read, the majority has been on Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa, Guam, Fiji, Sāmoa, and Tonga, and on the involvement of the US and UK in these regions, with France rather further off the radar. Yet, it is clear from After Moruroa that the French territories in the Pacific have their own distinct histories and contemporary conditions, important to understand, and inappropriate to assume to be perfectly comparable to other parts of the region. This also makes the Pacific an interesting place to look at to see how different imperialist powers operated very differently (and sometimes, perhaps, quite similarly) in neighboring parts of the world. The histories of Hawaiʻi and Aotearoa are interesting and important, but they are not representative of what went on in Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, and so forth – between the various sets of Polynesian islands, we have examples of states, overseas departments, independent countries, colonies, incorporated & unincorporated territories, condominiums, and sovereign states in Free Association, and we have peoples and places treated in a variety of ways by the Spanish, French, British, Germans, Japanese, and Americans over the last few centuries. I know embarrassingly little about African history – I truly would love to learn more, and have no doubt there are innumerable lessons to be learned from African history exclusively, specifically – but, I would imagine that there are many lessons, in terms of varying modes of, and attitudes towards, colonialism, that we can learn not only from Africa, but from the Pacific as well. And After Moruroa, by pulling us away from focusing only on the Anglophone Pacific, really helps illuminate that, and fill in the reader’s understanding of the diversity of situations in the broader, wider, Pacific.