Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Worlds Apart: A History of the Pacific Islands

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Worlds Apart: A History of the Pacific Islands

Article excerpt

Ian Campbell (2011) Worlds Apart: A History of the Pacific Islands, 2nd edition: Canterbury University Press.

Reviewed by Steven Ratuva

The second edition of Ian Campbell's Worlds Apart: a History of the Pacific Islands, published by the University of Canterbury Publishers (2011), comes at a time of vibrant discursive engagement amongst Pacific social scientists about what Pacific Studies and discourse should look like. The notion of "sea of islands" popularized by prominent Tongan anthropologist Epeli Ha'auofa, for instance, is an attempt to redefine Oceania through an anti-imperialist prism. The rediscovery and popularization of critical epistemology, inspired in part by post-colonial, post-modern and indigenous discourses and their subversion of the dominant colonial narrative has energized the Pacific intellectual space previously dominated by imperial and classical social scientists.

This "renaissance" in critical scholarship is naturally at loggerheads with status quo social science. Campbell's World Apart naturally falls into the category of status quo historiography because of its attempt to reinforce old assumptions and stereotypes and reinvent notions of the Pacific, which were romantic constructs of the European imagination. However, critical comments aside (we will return to this later), the book in its own way is encompassing in its chronological span and meticulous, although rather casual, in its narrative of events. The casualness makes for easy and relaxing reading for beginners in Pacific history and even travellers hoping to have a crash course on the Pacific past while lying down for a suntan and sipping Fiji Bitter, Vailima Beer or Royal Beer on a beach in a Pacific paradise.

Campbell, with years of research and experience in the Pacific, is able to weave his narrative with single-minded certainty and intellectual vigour through 20 chapters in a way which allows for systematic continuity as well as crossreferences between chapters. This makes the book intensive in contents, especially covering a 3,000 to 4,000 year period, from early settlement, precontact, contact, colonialism to post-colonialism. The book chronicles social change and the sequential order in which social transformation in the Pacific is narrated is highly informative and addictive once one starts reading.

However, there are methodological and analytical problems which need serious scrutiny. In the beginning, the book attempts to make a rather over-simplistic distinction between "old" and "new" Pacific history and argues that "The difference between the old and new schools was not moral or intellectual, but material." By material, the author refers to improvement of content through availability of finance and better access to historical sources. While this may be true, there are other important issues which the statement conceals. It seems that there is denial here of the different methodological approaches to Pacific history such as imperial history, which is based on narrative of the colonizer's conquest and triumph; political economy history, which is more focused on power and exploitative relations; post-colonial historiography, which sees the Pacific from the perception of the subaltern peoples and social history, which is more concerned with ordinary people and events rather than just elites (such as chiefs, royalty and states) driving history. These diverse approaches, based on different and sometimes opposing philosophical, ideological and methodological positions frame the Pacific differently using varying intellectual tools and critical assumptions. Thus it is more than just "material" as the author argues.

Furthermore, simply making a distinction between old and new Pacific history does a lot of injustice to the complex intellectual discourse which has shaped the evolution of Pacific historiography over the years. Pacific history must not be defined purely in terms of the formal disciplinary framework of the "history" subject but must encompass a whole range of narratives and discourses across disciplines including anthropology, sociology, economics, literature, linguistics, cultural studies, to name a few, as long as they deal with documenting, analysing and interrogating social transformation and social evolution over a period of time. …

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