MicSem Publications

Recolonizing Islands and Decolonizing History

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1991 History

Here we are, gathered together from all quarters of the Pacific and beyond, to take time to reflect on where Pacific history – and we who have some stake in it – are headed.

Here we meet, in Guam: "where America's day begins", as the masthead of the local daily paper once proclaimed. Guam – host to the US military since the turn of the century, and now one of the most popular tourist destinations for the newly affluent Japanese.

Over there on Tumon Bay, where we will be holding our sessions, is the heart of the tourist trade that brings some 600,000 visitors each year. It is also the spot where, 300 years ago, the Jesuit priest Diego Luis de Sanvitores met his death – a death that some see as martyrdom, and others claim was just retribution for the calamities his compatriots unleashed on the island.

Guam is a destination of another sort for the hundreds of Micronesians who have begun streaming into the island since the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association with the US in 1986.

Guam, colonized for over 300 years and still a US territory, now has satellites of its own in its surrounding islands.

I hope you are not disappointed with this venue for our conference, you who may have expected something a little more small-islandish. No one expects to see nipa huts at a conference site any more, but wooden frame houses on wave-washed shores are still a pleasant reminder of the ambience that everyone associates with the Pacific.

Still, Guam is an ideal site for this conference not only because of the warm hospitality of its people (who remain profoundly Micronesian, appearances sometimes to the contrary), but because the island exemplifies so much of what has happened and is happening throughout the Pacific.

Every island group in the Pacific can legitimately lay claim to certain things: a wealth of indigenous wisdom embedded in its unique cultural legacy; a parade of foreigners – traders, missionaries, naval parties and others -that crossed its shores to bring the mixed blessings of what Westerners called "civilization"; and, of course, colonization.

Virtually every group in the Pacific has been colonized at one time or another, and some still are. Micronesia's distinction for Pacific historians, however, may lie in the duration and variety of its colonial experiences. There is no island in Oceania that has had a longer colonial history than the one on which we are now meeting.

Together with the rest of the Marianas, it was first colonized long before most other island groups even found a place on Western maps. We might consider island Micronesia, then, a showcase of colonialism, past and present.

The Carolines, Marshalls and Marianas were ruled by four different nations in turn, one of them an Asian country (Japan). Each of these colonizing nations espoused its goals and employed its own strategies in the islands it rules. This procession of colonial powers offers a rare opportunity for us to compare the colonization process under several flags. But it offers us much more than this.

It affords us a view of the differing ways in which six or more cultural groups responded to the various forms of colonial rule. The Yapese, for instance, collaborated as willingly with the Germans as the Marshallese did, but for quite different reasons.

Marshallese chiefs, who had extensive land rights, profited so handsomely from tax collection and their cut of the copra trade that some of them had a higher yearly income than the German commissioner.

Yapese village chiefs, who had no claim over any other land than their own estates, did not stand to profit financially, but could call on the German police force to bolster their authority among the villagers and punish those who were slow in responding to their call for village labor.

Chuukese found in German rule what they needed: a strong central government that would rid them of the enervating warfare they had carried on from time immemorial.

Palauans and Pohnpeians were more divided in their response – the former along status lines and the latter by geographical districts. In Palau the chiefs worked with the Germans to rid themselves of the powerful sorcerers who were threatening to usurp them. In Pohnpei, the northern kingdom of Sokehs had especially strong grievances against the Germans, lead to an uprising there, while the other kingdoms complied outwardly with German demands.

There are sometimes more effective ways of defeating colonialism than by open rebellion. Micronesians became skilled in working around foreign rulers to accomplish what they wanted. Most island societies worked out ways to satisfy, at least to a minimal degree, the expectations of their current colonial ruler, while using the system to achieve their own aims and minimizing damage to their societies.

Yapese chiefs, for example, used two or three colonial administrations to shore up their authority, but successfully prevented their rulers from intruding in village affairs. Neither Germans not Japanese ever tampered with the political workings of the village, acquired land within the villages, or even intermarried with Yapese to any notable degree.

Other island groups drew the line differently. Palau encouraged intermarriage and surrendered large amounts of land, especially to the Japanese, to provide the inflow of money needed to fuel the competitive accumulation of riches that had always been central to the Palauan way of life.

The experience of working around foreign governments for a century stood Micronesians in good stead in recent years as the new nation states negotiated for their future political status. Well aware that the US intended to maintain its political influence in the northern Pacific, the island nations have accepted this as a nonnegotiable premise and tried to turn it to their advantage.

In an effort to make the best of the geopolitical realities and the battle between superpowers for dominance in the Pacific, they have maintained strong ties with the US in their new political statuses, To the newly independent countries of the south Pacific, this may have seemed like an unacceptable compromise. To Micronesian decision-makers, however, it appeared the only realistic course.

Consequently, the Micronesian states, even those that proclaim their sovereignty, have chosen to maintain continuing political and economic bonds with their former colonizer, the US. While accepting the realities of their situation, as they were compelled to do in earlier colonial times, they are using their present political status to advance their own programs and goals.

As a result, there are now multiple political systems in Micronesia today: commonwealth, territorial status, and free association with the US in all its finer variations. There is also, of course, the outright independence that Nauru and Kiribati have enjoyed for some years now.

Even these quasi-legal terms mask some of the differences between the societies and what they hope to achieve. Chuuk, one of the states of the FSM, has come to depend on an external government to keep the peace, for it has never had a very highly developed system of government beyond the lineage. Yap and Pohnpei have had more elaborate traditional political systems, and Kosrae was forced to invent one after the collapse of its indigenous chiefly system in the last century.

All need the American money to some degree or other. They feel that, with US financial aid and their control over their own government, they can gradually move towards self-support and a greater degree of political autonomy in the future.

The irony is that Guam and the Northern Marianas, which have made such rapid economic gains that they could now support their own governments, are bound much more tightly to the US by virtue of their political status than their more indigent neighbors. Guam and the Northern Marianas may have the money to become independent, but they no longer enjoy this political option, and may have even lost the will to be independent.

It may be worth noting that Micronesia, unlike some other parts of the Pacific, has had a relatively free hand in realigning its boundaries. Nauru, for instance, was joined with the Marshall Islands under German rule for a time. At the beginning of World War I, it was seized by Australia and subsequently ruled as a trust territory. It became independent in 1968, some years before the Ellice Islands separated from the Gilberts to become independent.

Whatever fragile unity the Carolines, Marshalls and Marianas enjoyed since the beginning of this century was fractured in the course of its status negotiations during the 1970s. What was once the Trust Territory of the Pacific has now become four separate political entities. All of which simply shows that even the boundaries established or ratified during colonial years are far from permanent.

But this conference proposes to do more than consider examples of colonization at work. In fact, one of its major concerns is that decolonization of history. There are several issues that we can expect will be discussed here, even if not addressed explicitly in the presentations. It may be well to review some of these here.

First, there is the old question that has dogged Americans, Australians and Europeans for years. Who may presume to do Pacific history, and under what terms? By what right do we Westerners presume to make the judgments and interpretations that are so much a part of our craft? Who are the people we are attempting to describe and what claim do they have upon our work – not only to be portrayed accurately, but to be represented in making the judgments that we have arrogated to ourselves?

An old and tiresome question, as I was once told when I tried to discuss this with someone, but important nonetheless. Let me simply say that the number of islanders present for this conference is an encouraging sign. There are new indigenous voices being heard today, and they are well represented at this conference.

Second, what is the proper medium of history? Many of the best intentioned of us foreigners have assumed that the natural vehicle of history was the written word. But this assumption, I am happy to note, is being challenged in one of the conference sessions on historiography. History need not be read; it can be performed.

Other media – dance, song, oral tales and the graphic arts – are just as suitable for expressing history and far more congenial to most island peoples. If the only thing we did at this conference was to broaden the term "historian" to include more than those of us who fill blank pieces of paper with words, we would have done a great thing.

At least we would have finally rid ourselves of the arrogance of thinking that we possess a monopoly on Pacific history. This may not completely still the identity concerns that plaque Western practitioners of history (and perhaps it should not), but it could free us to do what we can do best, even as it calls our attention to the many others who can rightly be called our colleagues.

Third, what additional tools of the trade do we need in order to practice history in the Pacific? What do we foreigners have to learn from Pacific islanders by way of a methodology of history? How can we see to it that the people we describe will not become mere objects rather than subjects, voiceless because we do not possess their words. What can we do to ensure that they do not become simply a generalized faceless mass?

I believe that this issue will emerge in the sessions on historiography, but let me touch briefly on one or two possible implications.

If history of the Pacific is really to be done island-style, then it will have to be history by consensus, a point taken up by De Verne Smith in a recent review article of hers on Rick Parmentier's book on Palau. It is not enough to record the "truth" of the matter; that truth must be asserted by all parties with a major stake in the question. Hence, the historian is not the final arbiter of truth, the one who after analyzing and contrasting variant forms makes the judgment as to what actually happened and why, he or she is more the meeting house secretary, or the chairman of the committee, the one who negotiates the compromise that will prove acceptable to all parties. In island practice, variant forms or ideas are not openly discussed, but are hidden from view so as not to disturb the appearance of consensus.

What meaning does this have for those of us who are accustomed to doing history in the solitary splendor of our office or study'? However far-ranging our sources, we do history by ourselves, as individuals seeking to understand and impose meaning on what we have heard or read or experienced

Very few of us work in the hurly-burly of the meetinghouse where agreement must be worked out with painful slowness and political deals made over kava or the local drink of choice.

We who are so concerned about "Pacificizing" our histories might take better account of what meaning consensus history might have for us as we practice our trade. This is all the more true since, as Smith points out, our histories take on an authoritativeness that we may never have intended.

In this day of increasing literacy in the Pacific, they are often consulted by islanders and used for their own historical reconstructions on such sensitive issues as land law, chiefly genealogies, migration, and other things.

And that leads us to the fourth and final question: What is the proper point of departure for historical inquiry? Western historians, in principle if not always in practice, pride themselves on serving the truth. We toil in the belief that there is an essence, buried deep within the complexity of the facts and the one-sided accounts with which we work, that can be reached.

Our hope is that what comes from our word processors will approach "what truly was", even if we know that we can never entirely capture it. Yet, I know of few island historians who would adopt such a clinically sterile notion of the truth.

Micronesians are unabashedly pragmatic about their goals: to serve the "truth" of society as it exists today, or as it should exist if the present order were properly righted.

The reconstruction of island history that is going on today might be compared to the "invention of custom" that is absorbing the attention of anthropologists everywhere in the Pacific. Both may serve the very practical, and often political, purpose of furnishing the underpinnings for the present social order.

This should be no surprise to any of us, for Herodotus, the authors of the Pentateuch, and just about everyone else who did history for so long worked from the same premises and for the same reasons.

The canons that guide our historical research today are a recent invention, no more than a century or two old.

My point here is not to belittle local historical methods at the expense of the modern ones in which some of us were trained. It is to ask Western historians and those islanders trained in that tradition how far they are prepared to go to accommodate island history. If we are going to pride ourselves on doing history Pacific-style, then we should be ready to go a good deal further than we have already.

Authentic Pacific history means far more than a pen in a brown hand rather than a white one. In fact, it may mean taking up the nose flute or guitar rather than the pen, in the first place. It also means different presuppositions about "truth", and different modes of inquiry into the truth. It means a very different orientation to our work, far more different than we have acknowledged in our historiographical musings up to now. Perhaps far more different than any of us in this room are capable of making.

These four issues, and the many others that are related to them, will never be resolved at this conference, but they may form the backdrop of our dialogue in the various sessions. Whatever happens, we should at least recognize one thing. The genuine indigenization of Pacific history involves more complex questions than are normally dealt with the prefaces of our books. Let us not be discouraged, however; we can do good history without trying to pass it off as bogus "tropicallized" history.

Lastly, I would like to offer an observation or two on the direction of Pacific history in our day, even at the risk of appearing banal.

Pacific history, like all history, begins with a story to tell. For many reasons, its story has tended to focus on the confluence of traditions. local and western, in the area. Its concern has been largely the impact of these more recent forces on these island societies, small and vulnerable as they are. What changes did the early copra traders bring to these islands? How were the islands affected by the Spanish-American War? For that matter, what has been the effect of the oil price hike on the local economy?

On another level, however, Pacific history tries to tell the story behind the story. Its growing interest is not just to chronicle the evolution of the island societies as one group after another, from early European explorers to the US Marines, hit the beach. Pacific history today tries to lay bare the workings of these societies, their psychocultural guts, to reveal the why and wherefore of their response to outsiders and what they attempted to impose

It is not enough, for example, to know that the Pohnpeian chieftainship survived German land reforms in which land was granted fee simple to people who had been only tenants before. We must know why. How is it that certain foreign elements were totally rejected, others adopted with some modification, and still others incorporated with almost no change?

Our pursuit is to understand not just how meanings have changed, but the very dynamics of the change process in each culture. Like the anthropologists with whom they fraternize and collaborate, historians are becoming absorbed in the study of the cultural workings of Pacific societies. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that we are on a quest to identify the shape of some cultural analogue to the DNA molecule the inner mechanism that determines the shape and form of the future society.

There are other levels, too. As we historians run out of shoreline to survey on these rather small islands, there is nowhere to go but inward. So we explore other questions, on still other levels, often enough having to do with our own identity.

Who are we, self-proclaimed historians with degrees on the wall to attest to our competence, to practice our trade in others' homelands? What are the epistemological assumptions under which we work, and how do these differ from those of the people we study`? What claim do the people whose history we study have upon our work? How can we ensure that they will not become objects rather subjects, voiceless like the people we describe of a century or two ago? Is our historical work, when all is said and done, a truer image of ourselves than of the peoples about whom we write?

All of this leads us full circle, in our work as in this talk. Yet we -and, we can hope, the people whose past we study – are richer for all our academic meanderings. My sincere hope is that this conference will, in some small way, contribute to the fruitfulness of our studies, just as they will have contributed, again in a small way, to the self-identify of the peoples of the Pacific.

[The address was delivered at the Opening Banquet in Island Garden Ballroom, Cliff Hotel, Agana on December 4, 1990.]