- The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania
Paul D'Arcy, who teaches Pacific and environmental history as well as colonial race relations at the Australian National University, makes two major claims in this short and impressively researched book. First, he says academics have neglected the maritime dimension of Pacific history. Second, he maintains that "the realities of living in an oceanic environment promulgated openness to external influences among Islanders. As a result, the impact of Westerners is perhaps exaggerated" (2).
Like the proverbial shoe that may or may not fit, depending on the last used and the foot in question, his first allegation must be carefully qualified to be sustained. D'Arcy acknowledges that much has been written about Pacific Islanders and the sea. The problem as he views it, however, is that Pacific scholars have not been writing the right kind of stuff about the ways in which living in this great ocean have shaped human values and survival strategies. Unfortunately (he tells us), what has been written has been rooted too firmly in "Western scientific discourse"; as a consequence, he says, "Islanders' conceptions of the ocean" have evidently not been properly valued (8).
However popular it may still be in the social sciences and humanities to disparage science as a way of knowing, the substance of this book belies [End Page 638] such an antagonistic claim. Judging by the piecemeal and largely anecdotal character of the documentary evidence carefully assembled here for our consideration, it is painfully clear that not all that much has been recorded about what Pacific Islanders know (or once knew) about the sea and its sometimes capricious ways. In this regard, it is also telling that D'Arcy chooses to juxtapose Western science against "Islanders' conceptions" rather than, say, against "Islanders' science." Are our Western ways of knowing important things really so different from Islander ways of paying attention to the world?
Whatever your thoughts on this matter, I would argue that it is not so much our neglect as it is our basic ignorance of what others know that is at the root of the problem. It may be true, as the commonplace goes, that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but lacking reliable documentary information (scientific or otherwise) is a genuine excuse for why historians and others might be hampered in saying much about connections between people and the ocean.
The author's second major claim—that the vagaries of the sea have "instilled an expectation and openness toward outside influences, and, accordingly, the rapidity with which cultural change could occur in relations between various groups" (1)—is more readily supported, although once again D'Arcy weakens his case by adding that this observation "runs counter to the dominant paradigms of recent Pacific Islands' historiography" (1). I am not sure how one determines "paradigmatic dominance," but I do know that decades ago this same claim was the centerpiece of what scholars such as Thomas Gladwin (East is a Big Bird, 1970) and William Alkire (Lamotrek Atoll and Inter-Island Socioeconomic Ties, 1965) were telling us about what it takes to live in such a challenging environment.
Others may also agree with me that there is strong narrative tension throughout this book between the author's scholarly reporting of what is known (often too little) about "the environment as a significant influence on cultural and historical patterns" in the Pacific (12), and his understandable desire nevertheless to give us take-home generalizations even when facts, perceived by Westerners or otherwise, are few and geographically far between. Often the generalizing falls short. A few examples are appropriate: "Humans have an ancient biological relationship with the sea. Most evolutionary scientists now believe that all life on earth originated in the water" (27). "The seas of Oceania were bridges as well as barriers" (64). "The Pacific is not particularly treacherous to travel on. Commentators compare it favorably...