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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 250-253

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In Oceania: Visions, Artifacts, Histories. By Nicholas Thomas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Pp. xvi + 269. $49.95 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).

Nicholas Thomas, director of the recently established Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University and one of the most prolific writers in the field of Pacific island history, has published widely about such topics as cross-cultural trade and encounters, the relationship between anthropology and history, Oceanic art, and postcolonial studies. His latest book, In Oceania, is a collection of revised essays written between 1990 and 1996. Although Thomas primarily addresses scholars working in his particular field, the insights developed in this book have much to offer for the study of world history.

Investigations into the encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Pacific have traditionally followed two models. One postulates that the encounters had detrimental effects on Oceanic societies; death from disease and rapid acculturation changed the cultural composition of these societies beyond recognition. This so-called "fatal impact" model has encountered resistance from historians, generally through some form of "islander-centered" approach. In that model indigenous peoples were, and continue to be, actively involved in the making of the modern Pacific. Thomas attempts to transcend this dichotomy of victims and agents by arguing that the colonial encounter produced "entanglements" between the Pacific and Europe. Such an approach acknowledges change as well as continuity and requires practitioners in the fields of history and anthropology to [End Page 250] study "local precolonial or noncolonial relations as well as those emanating from Europe" (p. 209).

Dissatisfied with the methods put forward in anthropology and history, Thomas suggests an approach called "historical anthropology." Rather than understanding Oceanic cultural phenomena as radically divorced from developments in the West, he advocates placing cultural institutions in the historical contexts that helped shape, change, and recreate their manifestations. Thomas implicitly disapproves of broad, monolithic world historical models. The multiple entanglements among Europeans and the indigenous societies of the Pacific are best understood locally rather than globally. With this insight his usage of the term artifact in the subtitle of his book ("Visions, Artifacts, Histories") gains salience. Instead of using it as a common label for Oceanic material culture, Thomas expands the term to include "rhetorical artifacts of discourse that have also been collected and burdened with new meanings in new contexts" (p. 8).

Thomas chooses Tupaia's map as a prominent example of such an entangled artifact to introduce his set of essays. A Tahitian priest and chiefly adviser, Tupaia served as an important early informant for the naturalists accompanying Captain James Cook on his voyages through the Pacific. His map is remarkable since it "fuses an indigenous perception of the world with the moralizing cartography of the Enlightenment" (p. 4). Located at the intersection between the indigenous Pacific and European ontologies, the map serves as a good point of departure for Thomas's analysis. The first part of the book seeks to investigate the rhetorical artifacts attending the European visions of the south Pacific, and are thus a tribute to the work of art historian Bernard Smith. Arguing against the static nature of European discourses as postulated by scholars following the lead of Edward Said, Thomas contends that many European images of Pacific islanders underwent transformation through the European-Pacific encounters themselves (see chapter 3). Chapter 4 illustrates the fluidity of European categories. European engravings of indigenous artifacts were originally intended to legitimize the collection activity, but the appropriation of such abstractions by both Europeans and indigenous cultures went well beyond the original intent of the endeavor. Likewise, chapter 5 illustrates the flux within European representation by mapping the shifting conceptual categories that led to the creation of the categories of "Polynesia," "Melanesia," and "Micronesia." Thomas attempts to take issue with a large body of "postcolonial literature" that presents a static, self-contained picture of European discourse on the rest of the world. [End Page 251]

Moving beyond the field of European representation, Thomas's last set of essays tackles...