The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania

By Kuehling, Susanne | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania


Kuehling, Susanne, Anthropological Quarterly


Paul D'Arcy, The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, March, 2006, 292 pp.

The Pacific Ocean is, according to Epeli Hau'ofa, a "Sea of Islands," a large world of sea lanes connecting islands. This powerful image, drawn to counter the dominant Western view of Pacific islands as isolated, nonviable economies, has so far gone unchallenged. In this book, a Pacific Historian explores the Pacific world in the eve of Western contact in the period between 1770 until 1870. It focuses on "Pacific Islanders' varied relationships with the sea as evolving processes during a crucial transitional era" (1), when maritime practices changed as new technologies and power relations emerged. Its regional focus on "remote Oceania" privileges Micronesia (especially the Central Carolines) and Polynesia. In five main chapters, the cultural spaces within Remote Oceania are examined as aspects of islanders' relations with the sea. This novel approach can indeed help to gain a better understanding of Pacific identity and history.

D'Arcy attempts to overcome the D'Urvillean classification of the Pacific into Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia that has been challenged by Pacific Historian Bronwen Douglas and others (8 fn). By choosing Remote Oceania as his field of study, he follows Archaeologist Roger Green and consequently excludes Near Oceania (Melanesia without Vanuatu and New Caledonia). Nevertheless, as the book covers the variety of Oceanic environmental systems and points out the interrelation of islanders and ecosystems, it should hold up for most of maritime Oceania.

Marine ecosystems are in constant flux and offer opportunities and challenges of uncertainty. El Niño/La Niña effects on the climate as well as regional disasters have affected Oceanic life. D'Arcy proposes that the dynamics of marine ecosystems are part of the islanders' view of their seascape (13, 178). The different ecosystems (coral reefs, lagoons, and mangrove swamps) and their dynamics correspond with cultural representations of the marine environment. D'Arcy reviews these ecosystems and postulates that "the sea dominates the lives and consciousness of the inhabitants...as nowhere else on earth" (26). The immediacy of the sea is reflected in Pacific islanders' way of life, in their settlement patterns and diet as well as in everyday activities, swimming and diving skills and-perhaps-in physical features such as the bulkiness of the bodies or enhanced skills of long-distance vision (33,134). The sea features prominently in cosmology (40). In fact, the high frequency of destructive typhoons, tsunamis, droughts and volcano eruptions strongly supports the argument that Pacific islanders lived in an uncertain world that required them rather frequently to escape from famine by sea travel (35).

With the exception of isolated Rapanui (Easter) Island, pre-colonial Oceania was indeed a "sea of islands." Canoe travel included long-distance voyages and inter-island exchange systems, as D'Arcy points out. He devotes a chapter to the various kinds of resources and objects of value that passed hands between the different ecosystems and the changes that occurred in the period under study. Kin relations between islands provided further reasons for travel, as feasts activated wider networks. Further reasons for canoe voyaging included the need to find an appropriate spouse, male competition, and the "pure enjoyment of voyaging and socializing" (54). Resettlement, migratory journeys and the hope to discover an uninhabited island were Oceanic answers to natural disasters, epidemics and conflicts, as by 1770, "the Pacific was still a sea of opportunity" (60). While the ocean provided routes, there were hardly any communal paths on land. Cargo was shipped rather than carried, due to the lack of wheel and beasts of burden in the area at this time (65). The risks of sea travel were outweighed by the benefits and balanced by the detailed knowledge and experience of navigators. …

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