Helen Gardner reviews Ian Hoskins’, Australia & the Pacific: A History  (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2021). 

 

Titles of general histories generally reveal not just the broad parameters of their analysis but also the power relations of a specific historical period.  Australia and the Pacific: A History is an ambitious book which covers Australia’s engagement with the Pacific Islands as well as the watery routes between Australia and the Pacific Rim; for example, San Francisco and Southern China during the gold rush and Korea in the 1950s.  The title implies some equality in its constituent parts, but this is not the case. Instead, Hoskins’ book tracks Australian efforts to control, to extort and exploit Pacific Islands and Islanders, although the evidence is presented anecdotally and without an overarching narrative. As a result, the politics of Australian responses to the Pacific tend to be lost in deft vignettes and the broad sweep of this book, which is none-the-less scintillating and engaging.

General histories are also revealing of the cardinal orientation of their analysis. Hoskins begins at St Thomas’ Cemetery on the north shore of Sydney Harbour. Here lie mariners such as Commander Goodenough whose body was returned from the Solomon Islands following his death by arrow in 1875. Goodenough was one of the few white victims of the labour trade to Queensland as Melanesians sought to stem the kidnapping of kin by attacking boats arbitrarily. Hoskins acknowledges that the graveyard is an apt metaphor; Australia is no longer interested in its Pacific history. This reviewer pondered a book with this title from different Australian sites. From Cairns, for example, one of the centres of Pacific Island engagement with Australia, from the origins of the sugar trade to the present. Cairns might have provided a more even playing field in terms of Pacific Islander engagement with Australia than Sydney.

Hoskins begins his history with a sweeping overview of the geological past as the sea level of the Pacific rose and Aboriginal people met new climatic challenges. The opening chapter provides an excellent overview of the shaping of Sahul and the separation of Australia from New Guinea in the relatively recent geological past. 

It is perhaps inevitable that a book of this scope combines British imperial with Australian national histories—the two can never be neatly separated. Hoskins includes a large section on Cook then redeems this seeming anomaly with a deft analysis of the celebration of Cook in Australia. Other examples of the imperial-national tangle are less easily explained. Hoskins covers Anglicanism in Melanesia, which was administered from British churches through New Zealand rather than Australia. By contrast, Methodist missions had a wide reach in the Pacific and they were led from Sydney from the 1860s. This important mission was adroitly represented through a lively diary written by a female Methodist missionary to Papua but without any real understanding of the systemic reach of Australian Methodism through Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Rotuma.

Hoskins provides some important insights into Australians in Papua New Guinea with lively vignettes of men such as James McAuley, whose experiences in the territories influenced his poetry, his faith and his politics. But this reviewer was disappointed by the reference to Papua as a colony. On the question of sub-imperialism, nomenclature matters. When Australia accepted the colony of British New Guinea in 1905 the region was renamed the Territory of Papua. This predated the Northern Territory, which separated from South Australia to come under federal control in 1911 and the Australian Capital Territory, which was gazetted in 1908. Papua was Australia’s first territory. Sean Dorney’s astute extended essay on Papua New Guinea is titled Embarrassed Colonist for a reason. Australians never believed they were colonists in Papua (or New Guinea). This strange sleight of hand allowed white Australians to hide their colonial ambitions and should be a warning to historians to think carefully about the place of Papua in Australian history.

Hoskins provides a nicely framed analysis of the origins of the labour trade and the attempts to regulate it, followed by the ethnic cleansing of the cane workers and their families from Queensland after Federation. This book is a reminder that Pacific Islanders were a continuous threat to White Australia. Indeed, fruit pickers of the 21st century remain closely controlled by labour hire firms and Australian Border Force under strict immigration laws.

Where Pacific Islanders are present, they are alien, outlier voices. Israel Falou is touted as perhaps the most prominent Pacific Islander currently in Australia, though this is true more for the rugby league states. Falou’s anti-gay stance was attributed by Hoskins to missionary conservatism, but Christianity in the Pacific is a broad church. Falou was initially Mormon and became Pentecostal as an adult. He learned as much from the strong strand of conservative Christianity in New South Wales as he did from his Tongan Pacific roots.

Nobel prize nominee I-Kiribati Ante Tong. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-08/pif/6760014?nw=0

Hoskins covers well the unfortunate Australian habit of insulting Pacific leaders, who are seen to be of much less importance to Australia than their Asian counterparts. When Nobel prize nominee I-Kiribati Ante Tong begged Australians to be better neighbours and make more effort to cut greenhouse emissions, Australia’s environment minister was overheard saying: ‘with the Pacific, it is all about the cash’. This reviewer could think of at least three other examples of bullying and overbearing Australian government reactions to Pacific concerns. Yet Australia has also responded to calls for help. Operation Helpen Fren brought stability to the Solomon Islands and the recent response to Tonga shows Australia will assist in an emergency.

This ambitious book brings together a wide range of material in a lively and engaging fashion. It has enormous historical and geographical reach and is particularly good on the recent past. Despite some missteps it is a scintillating read. Yet this reviewer was hungry for a more targeted analysis. The sum of its parts points to Australia’s long history of exploitation of the Pacific but this is never stated explicitly. Pacific Islanders are present in Australia, but the communities are small. Apart from a few sporting heroes, the Pacific voices heard in this country are mostly contributing to political debates about the history of the labour trade. The relative absence of Pacific Islanders in Australia stands in stark contrast to New Zealand where 23 Islanders, largely of Polynesian descent, have served as Members of Parliament since 1993. On finishing Australia and the Pacific, this reviewer was left wondering if any other country in the world has so successfully repelled its neighbours. 

 

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Helen Gardner
Helen Gardner

Helen Gardner is an Honorary Associate Professor affiliated to Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.  She has published on the history of Oceania and the 19th century relationship between Pacific based missionaries and armchair theorists of anthropology in the metropole.  More recently she has explored the decolonisation of the Pacific Islands with a focus on the independence generation of the 1970s.  She is currently the chair of the Journal of Pacific History.