Taking up some 30% of the Earth’s surface, the Pacific Ocean always posed challenges and opportunities. Exploring, settling and trading, the inhabitants both of the islands scattered therein and of the shores that ring it saw the vast expanse of water not as a barrier, but as a highway—a point often missed by the plethora of outsiders who later came to traverse, observe, exploit or settle.
As a Pacific Rim nation, Australia has a long history of bi-directional connections with the Pacific. The extremely competent Polynesian seafarers found and settled Norfolk Island, for example, and we can but speculate whether some of their canoes may have hit upon the Australian mainland.
After the arrival of the Europeans on the Australian continent, the Pacific Islands became a source of produce for the fledgling colony and a market for its products; they provided the essential leg to make the England-Australia trade viable in the early days: England-Australia (convicts and products), Australia-South Pacific (products); South Pacific-China (beche de mer, sandalwood), and, finally, China-England (tea etc). The search for oils that drove European, and thus also Australian life in the increasingly industrialised world of the nineteenth century defined Australia’s connection with the Pacific in the years to come, through whaling and sealing, and soon after through trading for vegetable oils, particularly coconut oil and later dried coconut flesh (copra) in its unprocessed state. Australians established plantations in the islands and imported Pacific Island labour, often employing questionable means, to work on Australian farms, especially on Queensland plantations.
In the great carve-up of the Pacific into Imperial interest spheres, the Australian colonies were active players representing British, but also colonial Australian interests: the southeastern section of New Guinea (‘Papua’) became a possession of Queensland in 1888, and Sydney based trading interests continually locked horns with German interests in Micronesia.
The early days of the twentieth century saw the newly created Commonwealth of Australia expand its trading spheres of interest and eventually, with the outbreak of World War I, also fulfil its colonial ambitions by occupying all German Pacific colonies south of the Equator (with the exception of Samoa which was occupied by New Zealand). She was to retain her territorial gains of German New Guinea and Nauru as Mandates of the League of Nations and after World War II, as Trust Territories of the United Nations.
While Australia had seen the Pacific region as a source of commerce and produce, the events of World War II demonstrated that the islands played a major strategic role in defining the nation’s security. As a result, Australia’s relationship with its neighbours changed, with Australia taking a greater interest in their ‘stability’ in particular after the island nations’ independence. Australian universities were given scholarships for Pacific Islander education and substantial Australian funds flowed to the Pacific in form of aid monies. Inter alia, Australian-built patrol boats now serve in the Pacific Islands’ navies enforcing their fishery rights. At the same time, Australia became the destination for large numbers of Pacific Islanders: the 2001 revealed that there are now more people living in Australia who claim Pacific Islander ancestry than who claim Australian Indigenous ancestry.
The recent developments of Australia taking a policing role in the Solomon Islands are a timely reminder that Australian national interests in the Pacific continue unabated. It is thus appropriate to narrate European and especially Australian interaction with the Pacific for contemporary audiences showing the long history of our nation’s involvement with the region.
Through printed matter this exhibition traces European history and cognisance of all matters Pacific: from representations on early maps that show imaginary continents and gradually give way to more accurate details as traveller’s accounts became available; the published texts of scientific expeditions to the Pacific by the Imperial powers of the day (United Kingdom, France, Imperial Russia) which provided first observations; the experiences of Pacific Islanders sailing with the Europeans, such as the Tahitian Omai with Cook, the Palauan Lebu with Wilson or the Carolinian Kadu with Kotzebue, who provided some local commentary and insights.; to the early residents on the islands such as missionaries and others, such as William Mariner on Tonga, who filled in other detail often in (necessarily) biased accounts. The exhibition captures these elements well.
Naval officers were charged with projecting a colonial presence in the region and enforcing colonial rule where needed. Like their merchant marine contemporaries, these officers only rarely published accounts of their voyages, and most their observations are confined to logbooks and letters retained in archives. There are, of course, exceptions and these are well represented here.
What is inevitably lacking in an exhibition such as this is the voice of the islanders themselves, a voice which is only reflected in the interpretations of European observers. Local traditions were orally transmitted and printed matter was absent. Only in more recent years did local literature emerge in printed form—if we ignore missionary publications of biblical texts in local languages.
Also largely lacking from the published record are the voices of the vast number of traders and beachcombers, the early Europeans to settle and work in the Pacific Islands. Often near illiterate, or when not, preoccupied by their entrepreneurial spirit, these men had little time to read let alone write. A notable exception, represented in this exhibit, is the Australian trader Louis Becke, who in later life turned into to journalist and prolific writer of short stories. Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson, how saw the Pacific from the outside (despite his brief stay on Samoa), Becke lived, loved and laboured in the region for over twenty years, mixing with islanders and traders on remote islands as wells as the more urban Samoa. Of all, he can be considered the best writer to capture the late nineteenth century Pacific.
Dealing with four and half centuries of printed matter on the Pacific, the exhibit truly spans time and space. The exhibition is crucial reminder of the power of the printed word to trace the history of engagement with a region. This is particularly poignant at a time, when the new communications and publications technologies of the World Wide Web are increasingly dominating the way we disseminate and increasingly ‘consume’ information.
A/Professor Dirk H. R. Spennemann