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READ: Oceania and the Pacific in 1750

The societies of the Pacific were a web of communities by 1750. Despite long distances and great diversity, they used sophisticated maritime technology to stay connected.

Oceania and the Pacific in 1750

By Trevor Getz
The societies of the Pacific were a web of communities by 1750. Despite long distances and great diversity, they used sophisticated maritime technology to stay connected.

Acknowledging Pacific history

The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest body of water. It is dotted with lots of islands, especially in the region bordering Southeast Asia. Within the vast Pacific region is Oceania—which includes the continent of Australia, the two large islands that make up New Zealand, and a number of island groups known as Melanasia. A lot of this region was populated by humans as long as 40,000 years ago! You may have seen a representation of this process in the Disney film Moana, which depicts the historical movement of Polynesian peoples through the song “Know the Way”, and also shows Moana herself navigating by the stars through a technology Pacific peoples pioneered over a thousand years.
A sophisticated ocean-going ship docked in the Fiji Islands, 1886. From the Alinari Archives. Getty Images.
But here’s a weird fact: Oceania, and the peoples of the Pacific, were often left out of world history textbooks until about 1999.1 That was when two historians, both teaching at the University of Hawaii, wrote Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. They were after all living in Hawaii, the long-standing Pacific society established by the Polynesian people. They knew that Hawaiians historically were part of a Pacific community that played a significant role in the human past. So, when they wrote their textbook, they made sure to acknowledge that history. The textbook became a bestseller, and they changed the way this region is studied in world history forever.

Human geography of the Pacific, c. 1750

The Pacific Ocean was settled by humans over a long period probably beginning 60,000 to 40,000 years ago (scientists still argue about these numbers). This first wave of migrations was made possible by the development of large canoes that carried people from the coast of China, through the Philippines, and from Malaysia through Indonesia and to the coast of New Guinea. There, people developed sophisticated agricultural techniques and built densely populated communities.
Some of these people also crossed the straits that separate New Guinea from Australia. Those who settled in Australia encountered a difficult and new set of environments, including widespread arid (dry) zones. Few plant or animal species in Australia could be domesticated, but the continent did have some large animals that could be hunted. For that reason, most of the communities of Australia remained primarily foragers (hunters and gatherers).
Meanwhile, the societies of South East Asia and Taiwan, and the early settlers of the south Pacific, were together developing a whole range of technological innovations that slowly allowed them to travel deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. The most important of these were navigational techniques that allowed them to read wind and ocean currents and locate themselves, as well as vast, sail-driven canoes to move them around. As a result, these peoples were able to gradually populate the islands of the Pacific region.
Eventually, these communities formed three large groups, each made up of peoples who were geographically spread out but still related to each other by culture and language. These three groups each covered areas of the planet larger than most continents. The first was the Melanesian group, which made up the densely-populated region of New Guinea and also a large number of pretty closely-packed islands from the Bismarcks to Fiji. North of Melanesia were the Micronesian group, based on somewhat more widespread islands including the Mariana and Marshall chains. Finally, to the east, the long-voyaging Polynesian people gradually populated very far-flung islands. At the geographic center of Polynesian society were the Cook and Society Islands. Larger communities were formed in the bigger Hawaiian chain and in New Zealand, where the Maori people spoke (and still speak) a Polynesian language. The furthest extent of Polynesian society was Easter Island, settled about 700 CE.
Cultural communities of the Pacific. Public domain.

Organizing communities and states

In 1750, the Pacific was inhabited by a sizeable range of interconnected, culturally linked communities. The vast distances between many Polynesian islands meant that numerous societies were somewhat isolated, but there is evidence of ongoing trade for all of them. Other regions, like New Zealand and New Guinea, built up large communities that needed political and social organizations to manage a large population.
To make decisions, most people in most communities in this region belonged to family groups, where a lot of the decisions were made. But in a number of societies, families were organized into bigger units such as clans and states. In 1750, the Maori society of Aotearoa (New Zealand) divided the land amongst several states, also called iwis. These were composed of a number of whanau, meaning families. Each state had several important chiefs, called rangatira and ariki, who came together in a collective decision-making group. Each iwi had its own power, but they all worked together. Still, as everywhere in the world, there was conflict both within and between the different Maori states.
Prior to 1795, Hawaii was similarly organized into a series of small, rival kingdoms. In that year, however, the King of the island of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, managed to conquer the neighboring islands including the large island of O’ahu. He declared himself King of all Hawaii’s islands, although Kaua’i held out until 1810. But these large-scale states were more the exception than the rule in this region, where the extended family, the village, and the clan were usually more important political institutions.
Gender relations also varied widely among these communities. Women in Polynesian societies may have been closer to full equality with men than any other part of the world. They could certainly be very independent, and women whose families held royal or chiefly positions could often inherit authority. This was somewhat less true in other societies of the Pacific. But the most important aspect of gender roles in this region was the complementary relationship of men and women. In general, people in this part of the world believed that men and women each had their own spheres of influence and their own roles, and that both were needed for a family or community to be successful. This meant that men and women both exercised power, but in different ways, and they weren’t really supposed to step outside of their roles.2
Ideas about culture and politics were broadly shared, despite the diversity of these many societies, because the masterful technology developed by the people of the Pacific allowed them to continue to trade with each other across vast distances. An archaeological study set in the Cook Islands, for example, uncovered trade goods such as stone tools that came from islands as far as Samoa, 1,000 miles away, and the Marquesas, 1,500 miles away. These kinds of trading connections helped communities on various islands to keep up to date with new technology and to disperse rare goods like obsidian, a useful stone tool desired just as it was in the Americas.
Obsidian tools found on Easter Island. Many of the stone and obsidian tools found on the island came from other parts of Polynesia. By Simon Evans, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Worlds colliding

Around the early eighteenth century, European ships began to arrive in some of the communities of the deeper Pacific. Of course, the people of New Guinea and other regions to the west had long had interaction with outsiders from the Philippines, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. These were familiar people to interact with. But Europeans were from far away, and they were travelling to places like New Zealand and Hawaii—neither of which had interacted much with outsiders for some time.
Some of these encounters were difficult. A Dutch expedition under Abel Tasman reached New Zealand in the 1640s. They fired a cannon to warn the Maori they met, and soon the encounter flared into violence. About 130 years later, British expeditions under James Cook reached Australia, and later Hawaii. Cook, as well, got into conflict with many of the people he met, resulting in a number of deaths. Arguably, these fights were sparked by simple cultural miscommunication. But it didn’t help that the Europeans usually arrived armed and sure of their own cultural superiority. It is also important to note that local resistance may not have been a misunderstanding but a valid defense. In the century that followed, Europeans would attempt—in many cases successfully—to conquer and occupy much of the Pacific and the continent of Australia.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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