After some various travels & other events this summer which inspired a number of blog posts on other subjects, it is now time to return to my post-exam book reviews. This, as it happens, is the last of those on Pacific history, though ironically(?) the first I actually wrote, at the beginning of reading for my Pacific history field.
Today, I’m discussing Matt Matsuda’s book Pacific Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2012). In Pacific Worlds, Matt Matsuda seeks to tell a different history of the peoples and places of the Pacific Ocean from that which might normally be told, focusing not on the individual cultures or polities in a narrative fashion, addressing each dynasty separately, as historical surveys in the standard academic tradition might, but instead focusing attention upon the interactions between these many peoples and places. This is an approach seen, too, in Walter MacDougall’s book on the history of the North Pacific, Let the Sea Make a Noise, which I read many years ago, and should probably re-read, but which also treats the subject of “Pacific history” less as the histories of a grouping of specific cultures and more as that of a purely geographical region within which a variety of events and interactions took place. As this was the first book I read for my Pacific Islands field, I’m coming at it relatively fresh in this review, and you won’t find any reflection upon the books I read later (but blogged about earlier), or incorporation of what I learned from them.
Matsuda explains, or justifies, this approach by citing Fijian scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, who advocates “envision[ing] the Pacific … not [as] a vast, empty expanse, nor a series of isolated worlds flung into a faraway ocean, but rather [as] a crowded world of transits, intersections, and transformed cultures.” Further, Matsuda notes that “the Pacific,” as a unitary entity, and as a bordered, defined region, is a European invention, suggesting in his introduction that Pacific Worlds will instead relate Pacific history from the islanders’ perspectives, counteracting the Eurocentric viewpoint already/previously prevalent in scholarship. Indeed, Matsuda does share with the reader quite a number of local indigenous legends that suggest historical origins or developments, and treats them as such, not dismissing them as mere myth or superstition. To give just one example, he writes of the Saudeleur Dynasty of Nan Madol that “their influence extended out from the ‘other side of yesterday,’ likely the tenth century, when traditional tales say that two powerful holy men, Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa, had come from the west bearing sacred works and ceremonies.” He then goes on to summarize further traditional stories which relate the Saudeleur’s forced exile of a local god of Pohnpei, the god’s marriage to a human woman on another island, and the ensuing battle between their demigod son, seeking to regain his ancestors’ lands, and the armies of the Saudeleur, a story which may well contain within it elements of genuine past events. Not only does Matsuda include stories such as these, but he does so without making explicit arguments as to their validity as sources of historical knowledge, instead simply presenting these stories alongside other forms of evidence as if their validity, and their equality with archaeological and European textual sources, goes without saying. This, perhaps, is an even more powerful and more effective tactic than arguing for their validity explicitly.
However, he does not, as we might expect, reverse the perspective to present a more thoroughly indigenous history of the region, a history which might draw more exclusively upon oral histories and other traditional, indigenous modes of knowledge. Rather, Matsuda is more balanced in his approach, countering Eurocentrism not with a native-centrism, but with a narrative we might describe as relatively un-centered, drawing upon multiple perspectives and types of sources, and modeling a mode of history writing that suggests a vision of the peoples of the world, and their cultures, as all equal in their difference, and equally significant. Matsuda’s history gives no more priority to English or French stories, or perspectives, than to Tongan or Fijian ones, and does not boldly or starkly elevate or denigrate either Europeans or natives. In contrast to the more standard narratives of the nobility of European exploration & discovery, and of the wonders of European technology, with which we might be familiar, Matsuda emphasizes the ways in which the Europeans were often woefully unprepared for their Pacific voyages (e.g. three months at sea without enough food; stuck in the doldrums; missing numerous landfalls), had considerable flaws or failings in their understandings, and were “late to the party,” so to speak, “discovering” lands, peoples, and routes already well-plied not only by the islanders, but in many cases by Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian sailors as well. He also counters over-simplified narratives of European/indigenous binaries by describing how Polynesian people in Melanesia were no more resistant to disease, often no more culturally or linguistically capable than Europeans, and held similar prejudices against the dark-skinned Melanesian islanders. The result is a more nuanced understanding of “Pacific Islander” identity, agency, and victimhood, and a more balanced and inclusive vision of world history.
Matsuda’s account is a translocal history, which shows how phenomena such as the spread of Christianity, shifts in the sandalwood trade, and beachcomber1 involvement in local politics played out across the region. Anecdotal examples provide a rough, general sense of similarity and difference. Christian missionaries landed throughout the region, reaching some island groups earlier and some later, building missions in some places and not in other places; on some islands, for this or that reason, islander missionaries known as “local agents” were more successful than Europeans, while in other places the reverse was true. However, this translocal approach does a considerable disservice, one might argue, to the distinctive cultures of the Pacific, and their individual histories, not to mention a disservice to the reader seeking something of a thorough survey of each specific culture. Matsuda paints in broad strokes, describing small island societies based on kinship groups and more complex hierarchical societies of some Polynesian archipelagos, providing little explanation of what he means by “kinship groups,” “clan,” “tribe,” or “aristocratic hierarchy.” He also provides only the most minimal explanation (and sometimes none at all) of native terms like ali’i, marae, and iwi, leaving the reader in the dark as to the political structures of the Hawaiian kingdom and cultural or religious attitudes towards their nobility; the architectural style and cultural meaning of Maori and Tahitian sacred spaces; and the internal organization or inter-relationships between Maori tribes or clans.
That said, while Pacific Worlds lacks for providing an impression of cultural color, and falls short of a proper history of any one of the cultures of the Pacific, it does serve as an informative and not-too-Eurocentric survey of major political, economic, and social developments in the region, and the ways in which these developments affected the people of each island group differently. Its argument for approaching this and other regions of the world with an eye to interactions, rather than separate, isolated histories, is also of great importance.
Matsuda’s rejection of the artificial (European-constructed) boundaries of the Pacific also means the incorporation of considerable attention paid to events and developments in maritime Southeast Asia, including the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, and so forth. While the argument for the artificiality of boundaries is valuable, and the histories of this region genuinely interesting, however, it still distracts even further from devoting further attention to deeper or more detailed descriptions of the Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian societies so overlooked in World and other history books.
(1) “Beachcomber” refers to people of European descent who stayed in the islands, not necessarily “gone native,” in the sense of adopting native customs or joining native society, but most often disconnecting themselves from Europe, and seeking to create a new life for themselves in the islands, whether in an entrepreneurial fashion, or otherwise. Some beachcombers became quite influential in local events, society, and/or politics, while others lived quiet lives alongside or removed from the locals.