Pacific Studies: A Brief Introduction (Part II), featuring a bibliography

Charles McCrary
Continued from part I

Pacific history, particularly done from an American and/or European perspective, has a different history and historiography. These histories are situated in a long tradition of Western knowledge production about the Pacific, and are generally quite conscious of this fact. For over two hundred years, Americans and Europeans have used the Pacific as a site of knowledge production, including botanical, geological, mineralogical, zoological, and of course anthropological knowledge. These encounters have determined the shape of many narratives of Pacific history. British and French
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville
histories of adventurers like James Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville were popular in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. These histories traded on familiar tropes of New World exploration, but often with variations on those themes. Pacific Islanders in these histories were often depicted as savage cannibals. Of course, some Islanders did in fact practice cannibalism, though it was almost always practiced against conquered tribes or opposing kingdoms. An American whaler, for example, would have little chance of being eaten. Islanders were exoticized as savages, but Europeans and Americans were also celebratory of the “natural beauty” of the islands and Islanders. Naturalness cuts both ways. In light of these issues and others, questions about how to frame these interactions, and who—or what—are the subjects of Pacific history remain difficult and central.

There are multiple venues for Pacific history. Here I will give an overview of a few, and at the end of the post I’ll provide a brief bibliography. My intended audience here is American historians who are largely unfamiliar with Pacific history but would like a short guide for where to look if they would like to incorporate it into their research and/or teaching.

The Journal of Pacific History publishes a wide range of historical (and occasionally archaeological or anthropological) work on the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Historical Review, published for the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, is the most common venue for American historians who work on American history in the Pacific. There is a somewhat heavy twentieth-century focus, as they focus on, as the journal’s self-description puts it, “American expansion into the Pacific and beyond, as well as post-frontier developments of the 20th-century American West.” By that last phrase they mostly mean histories of California and the Pacific coast of Mexico. Work on Hawai‘i is somewhat common in that journal, but there is not much on the rest of Polynesia or, for instance, nineteenth-century missionary work there. In general, Hawaiian museums and universities produce much of the institutional backing for Pacific-based projects. This is changing somewhat, though. A number of research centers, including those on the United States East Coast, are devoting considerable attention to Pacific history. In 2005, Common-Place published a special issue entitled “Pacific Routes,” which featured fifteen articles outlining a research agenda for historians, especially Americanists, who should integrate the Pacific into their work. David Armitage and Alison Bashford recently co-edited a collection entitled Pacific Histories, which brought together scholars from around the world (some of whom contributed to the Common-Place issue as well) to generate a unified study of Pacific history—from its northernmost to southernmost and easternmost to westernmost points—and organize its main themes, “towards the creation of integrated and dialogic pan-Pacific histories” (3). This volume and the Common-Place issue are both excellent places to start learning about the Pacific.

Much like the “Atlantic World” model(s) has done, the Pacific world helps Americanists construct their stories in ways more true to their data’s world, rather than in ways guided by current national boundaries, which, of course, were often not in place at the time being considered. The study of the Pacific, while not erasing the nation-state as a unit of analysis, is necessarily transnational and international. There has been a significant movement, especially within American studies, to escape the nation-state, but there are good reasons to keep it around. Nations matter.[1] However, not every story is about nations, and many stories are at least about the interactions and transactions among them. The Pacific world, especially in the age of empire, was full of Islanders and their kingdoms, as well as imperial powers from Europe and elsewhere, and they converged in spaces on boats, beaches, ocean, and islands. The Pacific World is not the same as the Atlantic World. The Atlantic World model, with which Armitage has worked extensively, for the most part focused on continents, not ocean.[2] However, as Armitage and Bashford put it, “in the Pacific, and in Pacific history, the islands are at the centre while the edge comprises the more economically and political powerful ‘rim.’ For this reason, the ‘centre’ in the Pacific—that sea of islands—can be simultaneously indigenous and postcolonial. But the postcolonial history of the Pacific, drawing equally on the epistemological and political perspectives of both indigenous peoples and incomers, can now be written from imperial records and imperial centres” (13). This kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary work provides the most promising models for Pacific studies.

Historians like Armitage and Igler in the United States, following the work of Greg Dening, Anne Salmond, and Nicholas Thomas, all anthropologists who produced historical work, have contributed to a growing and dynamic body of scholarship. My way to describe and classify this body of scholarship, for the purposes of my exam area, was something like this: The study of the Pacific is a historical project focused on empire and global politics, with considerable attention to environmental history and serious and sustained engagement with postcolonial studies and scholars. In this series’ next installment I’ll write about different models for doing Pacific history, including “flows,” “networks,” and especially “exchange.” Specifically, I’ll focus on sex, a particularly important type of exchange, or site for exchanges.

Here is a very brief bibliography of Pacific histories. I included those that 1) would be good introductory texts; 2) have somewhat broad scopes; and 3) I like. It’s very incomplete; please add references in the comments!

Armitage, David and Alison Bashford, eds., Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Chappell, David A. Double Ghosts: Oceanic Voyagers on Euroamerican Ships (Me Sharpe, 1997)

Cushman, Gregory T. Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge, 2013)

Dening, Greg. Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land: Marquesas, 1774-1880 (Hawai'i, 1986)

Dening, Greg. Performances (Chicago, 1996)

Denoon, Donald Malama Meleisea, and Stewart Firth, eds., The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders (Cambridge, 1997)

Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of the Pacific Islands (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Geiger, Jeffrey. Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. Imperial Imagination (Hawai'i, 2007)

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (Oxford, 2013)

Imada, Adria L. Aloha America: Hula Circuits through the U.S. Empire (Duke, 2012)

Kauanui, J. Kehaulani. Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (UNC, 2008)

Klein, Bernhard and Gesa Mackenthun, eds. Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean (Routledge, 2003)

Matsuda, Matt K. Empire of Love: Histories of France and the Pacific (Oxford, 2003)

Matsuda, Matt K. Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures (Cambridge, 2012)

Newell, Jennifer. Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans and Ecological Exchange (Hawai'i, 2010)

Obeyesekere, Gananath. Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (California, 2005)

Okihiro, Gary. Island World: A History of Hawai‘i and the United States (California, 2008)

Okihiro, Gary. Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones (California, 2010)

Osorio, Jonathan Kamakawiwo’ole. Dismembering Lāhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887 (Hawai'i, 2002)

Salmond, Anne. Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (California, 2010)

Salmond, Anne. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas (Yale, 2003)

Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Duke, 2004)

Smith, Vanessa. Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters (Cambridge, 2010)

Somerville, Alice Te Punga. Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (Minnesota, 2012)

Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Harvard, 1991)

Thomas, Nicholas. Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Yale, 2012)


[1]: A good argument in favor of the nation-state can be found in Thomas M. Allen, A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 221–224. Also, this book is awesome.

[2]: However, some scholars, like Marcus Rediker and Chip Callahan, are refocusing on the place of the ocean itself within the Atlantic and Pacific. See also Paul D’Arcy, The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005); Margaret Cohen, The Novel and the Sea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).


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