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Sailors and Traders

A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples

Alistair Couper

Publication Year: 2009

Written by a senior scholar and master mariner, Sailors and Traders is the first comprehensive account of the maritime peoples of the Pacific. It focuses on the sailors who led the exploration and settlement of the islands and New Zealand and their seagoing descendants, providing along the way new material and unique observations on traditional and commercial seagoing against the background of major periods in Pacific history. The book begins by detailing the traditions of sailors, a group whose way of life sets them apart. Like all others who live and work at sea, Pacific mariners face the challenges of an often harsh environment, endure separation from their families for months at a time, revere their vessels, and share a singular attitude to risk and death. The period of prehistoric seafaring is discussed using archaeological data, interpretations from interisland exchanges, experimental voyaging, and recent DNA analysis. Sections on the arrival of foreign exploring ships centuries later concentrate on relations between visiting sailors and maritime communities. The more intrusive influx of commercial trading and whaling ships brought new technology, weapons, and differences in the ethics of trade. The successes and failures of Polynesian chiefs who entered trading with European-type ships are recounted as neglected aspects of Pacific history. As foreign-owned commercial ships expanded in the region so did colonialism, which was accompanied by an increase in the number of sailors from metropolitan countries and a decrease in the employment of Pacific islanders on foreign ships. Eventually small-scale island entrepreneurs expanded interisland shipping, and in 1978 the regional Pacific Forum Line was created by newly independent states. This was welcomed as a symbolic return to indigenous Pacific ocean linkages. The book’s final sections detail the life of the modern Pacific seafarer. Most Pacific sailors in the global maritime labor market return home after many months at sea, bringing money, goods, a wider perspective of the world, and sometimes new diseases. Each of these impacts is analyzed, particularly in the case of Kiribati, a major supplier of labor to foreign ships.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I was fortunate in being a research scholar at the Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, in the halcyon days of the 1960s. It was highly stimulating intellectually and socially to be alongside so many of the greats in Pacific Studies, including Harold Brookfield, Jim Davidson, Jack Golson, Harry Maude, Oskar Spate, and ...

Nautical Glossary and Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xiii

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Introduction: A Seafaring Perspective

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pp. 1-5

Writing in the American Historical Review>1 When we consider the millennia of exploration and settlement of the islands of the Pacific, and the continuum of ...

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Chapter One Sailors, Myths, and Traditions

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pp. 6-21

The Pacific sailor who is waiting for a jumbo jet at Nadi International Airport in Fiji has been in transit for almost three days. He has travelled by local boat from his home island of Nanouti in Kiribati to Tarawa, the principal island of Kiribati, and from there by small plane to Fiji. He is bound for Townsville, Australia, via another flight from Sydney to ...

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Chapter Two The First Pacific Seafarers

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pp. 22-42

The peoples of the Pacific have a history of early long-distance seafaring unequaled anywhere in the world. As far as can be determined, their ancient ancestors were the first ever to make use of the open sea for largescale migrations. Sometime before 40,000 BC they entered the western region of the Pacific from Southeast ...

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Chapter Three Settlements, Territories, and Trade

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pp. 43-59

Once ships, people, animals, plants, and seed crops were brought to the beach of an unoccupied island, the accounts by explorers of bountiful resources would be tested. There would be plentiful water supplies on high islands, but low islands lacked surface water. On some islands there would probably be coastal coconut trees, the seed nuts having been ...

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Chapter Four The Arrival of Foreign Ships

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pp. 60-74

Until the voyages of Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Bougainville, all in the years 1764–1769, and under Cook between 1768 and 1779, the arrivals of foreign ships at Pacific islands were few and sporadic. Some voyagers merely sighted islands, but when landings did occur, they were of short ...

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Chapter Five Pacific Commercial Shipowners

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pp. 75-99

The government-sponsored voyages to the Pacific in the eighteenth century were motivated by European rivalry, scientific inquiry, and public appetite for the exotic. The expeditions were conducted by naval vessels whose commanders were given specific instructions on behavior toward native peoples and were required to report on the resource potential of ...

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Chapter Six Under Foreign Sail

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pp. 100-117

The aphorism of Samuel Johnson reflected perceptions shared by people in Britain and America of life at sea in the late 1770s. Even in the reforming “rights of man” postcolonial United States, a new federal law of 1790 sanctioned the arrest of merchant seamen who deserted, and a law of 1835 still in effect conceded “beating, wounding, ...

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Chapter Seven Dangers, Mutinies, and the Law

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pp. 118-135

Pacific seafarers, in common with all mariners, faced dangers at sea. Many ships were lost with all hands in bad weather and on reefs. Sailors were also drowned when washed overboard, were killed by falls from rigging and other occupational accidents, and were exposed to violence and ...

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Chapter Eight Companies, Colonies, and Crewing

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pp. 136-149

The commerce, technology, and imperial politics of the mid-nineteenth century transformed seafaring generally and had major repercussions for the sailors of the Pacific. The period was one of increasing industrialization of merchant shipping in Europe and America. In contrast to the near merchant adventuring voyages of past centuries, ships now ...

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Chapter Nine Island Protests and Enterprises

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pp. 150-164

The First World War saw the removal of German colonial power. The Japanese, under a League of Nations mandate, eventually occupied all the islands of Micronesia except Guam (US) and the Gilberts (Britain). Britain acquired responsibility for Nauru, Australia took over German territory in New Guinea, and New Zealand acquired Western Samoa. The opening ...

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Chapter Ten Contemporary Local and Regional Shipping

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pp. 165-185

This chapter provides an account of local and regional shipping from the 1960s onward. Many political, technological, and significant social changes in the maritime sector of the islands have taken place within this period. The first part of the chapter deals with local shipping, which is the lifeblood of islands where some communities have depended ...

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Chapter Eleven The Global Pacific Seafarer

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pp. 186-206

The economic crisis after 1973 brought a fall in ocean freight rates and fierce competition within an overtonnaged world merchant fleet. This was followed by increased shifts in the recruitment of seafarers from western Europe and North America to the lower-labor-cost countries of Asia ...

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Epilogue: Some Contemporary Resonances

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pp. 207-208

The dependence of the Pacific Islands on sea trade has continuously increased over time, and multiplicities of social and economic activities are related to the cargoes and the people flowing through island ports. The sailors who are engaged in regional and international shipping are now less visible, as the old “sailor town” enclaves have given way to ...


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pp. 209-236


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pp. 237-251


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pp. 253-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864231
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islanders -- History.
  • Sea Peoples -- Pacific Area -- History.
  • Sailors -- Pacific Area -- History.
  • Shipping -- Pacific Area -- History.
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