Book Reviews

Book Review: Islanders – The Pacific in the Age of Empire.

European adventurers supported by nobility and investors fist set out to discover the “Spice Source in the Far East” by sailing west. In their attempts and by a stroke of luck Columbus “discovered” the Americas followed by many others.

The Pacific, being much larger than the Atlantic Ocean and with landmasses wide spread, came much later.

Europeans began to voyage though the pacific in more depth in the 16th century. Saavedra, a Spanish adventurer, made the first real contact with indigenous people in 1528. The earliest circumnavigators, i.e Ferdinand Magellan, missed the larger islands and archipelagos. The few contacts made later by others in the 16th and 17th centuries ended with hostilities, and massacres of indigenous populations.

At first the French and English were prominent explorers, later joined by Americans, Germans and other nations.

Americans were more interested in trading, but Europeans continued their efforts in colonizing groups of islands. The French emphasised missionary work, trying to convert populations to Christianity, but were not adverse to occupying and exploiting the land. The French government also shipped convicts to the Pacific islands it administered, much like the English did to Australia later to Tasmania.

Europeans were also responsible for “introducing” inadvertently, communicable diseases to many islands, decimating indigenous populations

During all these tumultuous developments, a “lively” slave trade established itself, whereby the ruling class of several islands were captured and traded as menial workers to landlords in Europeans countries.

The author is the Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and professor of Historical Anthropology at Cambridge University, has travelled widely in the pacific and studied indigenous populations at length. We went through the archives of many religious establishments, and government records to tell us the compelling, sometimes shocking story of the western world’s impacts on the peoples of Oceania before 1900.

This beautifully written, and illustrated book is fascinating and helps the reader understand how divergent objectives of different groups of people have changed the lives to thousands of “happy” islanders.

A must for everyone, even remotely interested, in the voyages of “discovery” of supposedly civilized people to converts indigenous people, and amass wealth by abusing their innocence.

Highly recommended.