- The Manipulation of Custom: From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands, and: Happy Isles in Crisis: The Historical Causes for a Failing State in Solomon Islands, 1988-2004
It is a rare luxury to have two quite similar books to review together—not as an opportunity for point scoring between them, but rather for judging how Pacific histories are written.
Fraenkel's book is important and timeless, being the first to record a step-by-step chronology of the events behind and during the catastrophic political, economic, and social collapse of Solomon Islands. In 1998, Solomon Islands was proceeding steadily, if slowly, toward a delayed nationhood. Then, unexpectedly, a feud between two neighboring island peoples—some traditional landholders on Guadalcanal and some immigrant groups from Malaita, with grievances and injustices on both sides—degenerated into a low-intensity civil war. This was called, rather curiously, "ethnic tension."
The already fragile government could not cope, so core infrastructure and social services collapsed, especially after Malaitan factions within the police force raided the Police armory and joined in the looting andfighting. The capital, Honiara, became a Malaitan-dominated enclave where armed militants plundered the city and the state. In the Guadalcanal countryside, groups of unemployed youths, "raskols," banded together into loose groups of private militia rampaging destructively while no one knew who, if anyone, was in charge. As the lawlessness and looting spread to encircle Honiara, 20,000 plantation workers and impoverished townspeople fled to Malaita as refugees.
At the very same time that the main faction leaders were categorically denying any personal responsibility or culpability, they were also demanding that the beleaguered government intervene, especially to pay pseudo-traditional (ie, cash) compensation to calm both sides. Their greed and their looting of the state, often abetted by venal politicians, made the collapse inevitable. However, it took a long time for the regional powers inthe Pacific, especially Australia, to accept that the Solomons could no longer cope alone and could not recover without armed intervention from outside.
As Fraenkel noted, his book "provides a [chronological] account of the crisis from 1998 to 2003. . . . It relies on those documentary resources that are available from scanty local and international newspaper reports, government press releases, rebel newsletters . . . [though] such sources are inevitably prone to error, both of interpretation and omission. Plausibly, reconstruction is best left to the historians. . . . Diplomatic sources after all only become available 30 years after the event" (12).
The value of Fraenkel's book is its first comprehensive chronology of those troubled years during which all [End Page 442] parties, including the faction leaders, the government, and the media, were deluged with disinformation, rumors, and counter-rumors. Throughout the crisis, there was a grave lack of reliable information about the objectives of the key players, the intentions behind the rhetoric, and what was actually going on. The reality was that on the ground, even in Honiara, most people could not read or write, were prey to the rhetoric and rumors, and were very frightened. But in attempting to cover such cataclysmic events historically as they unfolded in an essentially oral society, the record captured in the media and in other documentary sources was not enough. All too often the media reported rhetoric that hid rather than clarified the issues involved. There were huge gaps when developments were simply not understood, not recorded, or not commented on by the media. A good history will be one that somehow covers these gaps as well.
The upshot is that that Fraenkel's book, the first trawl through the local and international media sources, while creditable and invaluable as a pioneer work, leaves one highly dissatisfied with the "foreign-ness" of...