Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 230-232
[Access article in PDF]
In the rush to produce regional studies to trace the history of key economic regions around the globe, the Pacific basin has been a relatively neglected area. To date, there is no equivalent to Fernand Braudel's path-breaking history of the Mediterranean, or to K. N. Chaudhuri's celebrated work on the Indian Ocean. At a time when historians have been busily researching the evolution of human contacts in many other areas in the world, the Pacific basin has been almost entirely ignored.
There are, of course, persuasive reasons for this information gap. Until the early sixteenth century there were no historically confirmed contacts between peoples living on the two sides of this vast ocean, and the bulk of regional trade was concentrated in the seas adjacent to the Asian mainland or the Indonesian archipelago. Even after the first circumnavigation of the globe and the emergence of the galleon trade in the sixteenth century, trade contacts between Asia and the Americas eventually declined, and only began to revive with the age of imperialism [End Page 230] 200 years later. In the meantime, the history of peoples living on the islands in the middle of the Pacific, at the core of the region, was virtually terra incognita.
The essays collected in Studies in the Economic History of the Pacific Rim— the product of a conference on Pacific rim history at the University of the Pacific held in the spring of 1994—are designed to fill that gap. In an introductory essay Dennis Flynn (one of the editors of the volume) and Arturo Giráldez stress the importance of broadening the scope of the Pacific rim concept—which in the minds of many observers is limited to the Asian mainland, Japan, and the United States —to include other areas in the basin, while engaging in intensive multidisciplinary efforts to create a more integrated history of the region. In their view, the nations bordering the Pacific have played a more significant role in world trade than is generally recognized and deserve greater attention from world historians for their contribution to the human experience.
In an overview essay, historian Paul D'Arcy provides a useful tour d'horizon of the nature of commercial contacts and population movements in the Pacific basin up to the middle of the eighteenth century. In the process, he highlights some of the problems involved in Pacific studies: the lack of written sources, the fragmentary archeological record, and the plethora of languages spoken by peoples living within the area. Because of the vast distances involved, the region never possessed a sense of internal coherence equivalent to that which existed in the Mediterranean, in the lands surrounding the Sahara Desert, or even within the Indian Ocean. As a result, during much of the historical era, contacts among peoples within the Pacific basin—whether commercial or other forms of interaction—were local or, at best, regional in scope, until the decisive shift to a new international economic order during the nineteenth century.
In another essay, Lionel E. Frost probes the historical record to seek out the underlying reasons for the economic success of key east Asian economies in the late twentieth century. Basing his conclusions on three case studies—Song China, the period of European colonialism, and the contemporary era—he argues that the debate between proponents of market forces and cultural factors is too simple to deal with the complex reality. Cultural attitudes and values, he concludes, are an important factor in providing a basis for rapid economic development, but only where governments have taken forceful action to create the proper conditions for success.
In his essay "Peripheralizing the Center: An Historical Overview of Pacific Island Micro-states," David A. Chappell points out how peoples living on the...