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Reviewed by:
  • Texts and Contexts: Reflections in Pacific Islands Historiography
  • Keith L. Camacho
Texts and Contexts: Reflections in Pacific Islands Historiography, edited by Doug MunroBrij V Lal. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8248-2942-1; 264 pages, notes, index. US $47.00.

In Texts and Contexts: Reflections in Pacific Islands Historiography, editors Doug Munro and Brij V Lal present a series of essays that explore the rise of Pacific Islands history as a field of study from 1938 to 1992. While the temporal scope could have expanded to include older and more recent studies, this era was chosen because its authors generated what the editors call the “foundational texts” of the field (1). Sixteen contributors, comprising anthropologists and historians, thus examine thirty different authors whose texts initially shaped the meaning and direction of Pacific Islands history. To what degree contextual issues of audience response, disciplinary training, personal interest, and scholarly credibility actually informed these texts is a matter taken up by the contributors. As the editors note, “each contributor was asked to examine a particular text—in some cases, complementary texts—in the context of its/their inception, production, and intellectual influence on a particular field of research” (6). A few texts were produced by independent scholars and nonacademics, whose works might even be considered primary sources of the twentieth century. But the majority of these texts were histories written by former colonial officials, many of whom held academic positions in or professional affiliations with the Australian National University (anu).

Interested in the exploits of European [End Page 503] explorers and settlers, many officials-turned-historians clamored to write about these figures in an attempt to impose disciplinary uniformity in what was and continues to be a disparate field of study. The contexts, then, of colonial governance, individual curiosity, and university professionalism provided the means through which Pacific Islands history distinguished itself from the established history canons of Europe and North America, and from the emergent anthropology canons of the Pacific. In this respect, this anthology is less a critique of the ways in which historians write about the past, and more a nostalgic tribute to a generation of scholars and scholarship who once asserted themselves against and within these canon-making processes. Almost every contributor reaffirms this nostalgic sensibility for a field previously dominated and represented by colonial, patriarchal, and written histories. In fact, nostalgia saturates the entire volume, urging present-day historical readerships to take stock of the early disciplinary contributions to Pacific Islands history. While debates persist as to whether such disciplinary developments can be described as “dated” or “timely,” “rigorous” or “reductionist,” most of the contributors remain convinced about one point: the field of Pacific Islands history primarily arose out of the anu school of history.

This anthology is separated into four parts, which explore the role of Canberra, under the guidance of the influential historian J W Davidson, in producing historical scholarship in and about the Pacific. As the contributors separately observe, many of the authors received institutional support from Canberra to circulate their ideas, research their theses, or publish their monographs. Without the institutional endorsement of Canberra, and without the interdisciplinary vision of Davidson, the contributors generally concur that the texts that gave disciplinary form to Pacific Islands history would not have been produced. In part 1, titled “General / Regional,” the contributors open the volume by examining the influence of fatal impact, island-oriented, and periphery-centered approaches in the making of survey histories. The authors under consideration include K W Howe, P Morrell, Douglas Oliver, Deryck Scarr, and O H K Spate. In this section, the contributors discuss macro-histories of European beachcombers, labor recruiters, missionaries, planters, and sandalwood traders. Part 2, titled “Methodologies,” features histories written by Gavan Daws, David Lewis, Norma McArthur, Marshall D Sahlins, Andrew Sharp, Bernard Smith, and Francis West. In addressing these histories, the contributors examine how debates on epidemic diseases and depopulation, images of objects and peoples, indigenous social structures and voyaging techniques, and political and religious figures of authority further pushed the interdisciplinary makeup of Pacific Islands history. The contributors demonstrate that anthropological, demographical, psychoanalytical, and visual methods partly dictated the...