Our Sea of Islands

Epeli Hau'ofa

THIS ESSAY RAISES SOME ISSUES OF GREAT IMPORTANCE to our region, and offers a view of Oceania that is new and optimistic, What I say here is likely to disturb a number of men and women who have dedicated their lives to Oceania and for whom I hold the greatest respect and affection, and will always do. In our region there are two levels of operation that are pertinent to the purposes of this paper. The first is that of national governments and regional and international diplomacy, in which the present and future of the Pacific islands states and territories are planned and decided upon. Discussions here are the preserve of politicians, bureaucrats, statutory body officials, diplomats and the military, and representatives of the financial and business communities, often in conjunction with donor and international lending organisations, and advised by academic and consultancy experts. Much that passes at this level concerns aid, concessions, trade, investment, defence and security, matters that have taken the Pacific further and further into dependency on powerful nations. The other level is that of ordinary people, peasants and proletarians, who, because of the poor flow of benefits from the top, scepticism about stated policies and the like, tend to plan and make decisions about their lives independently, sometimes with surprising and dramatic results that go unnoticed or ignored at the top. Moreover, academic and consultancy experts tend to overlook or misinterpret grassroots activities because these do not fit in with prevailing views about the nature of society and its development. Thus views of the Pacific from the level of macroeconomics and macropolitics often differ markedly from those from the level of ordinary people. The vision of Oceania presented in this essay is based on my observations of behaviour at the grassroots.


Having clarified my vantage point, I make a statement of the obvious, that is, that views held by those in dominant positions about their subordinates could have significant consequences on people’s self-image and on the ways that they cope with their situations. Such views, which are often derogatory and belittling, are integral to most relationships of dominance and subordination, wherein superiors behave in ways or say things that are accepted by their inferiors who, in turn, behave in ways that serve to perpetuate the relationships. As far as concerns Oceania, derogatory and belittling views of indigenous cultures are traceable to the early years of interactions with Europeans. The wholesale condemnation by Christian missionaries of Oceanic cultures as savage, lascivious and barbaric has had a lasting effect on people’s views of their histories and traditions. In a number of Pacific societies people still divide their history into two parts: the era of darkness associated with savagery and barbarism; and the era of light and civilisation, ushered in by Christianity.


In Papua New Guinea, European males were addressed and referred to as ‘masters’, and workers as ‘boys’. Even indigenous policemen were called ‘police boys’. This use of language helped to reinforce the colonially established social stratification along ethnic divisions. A direct result of colonial practices and denigration of Melanesian peoples and cultures as even more primitive and barbaric than those of Polynesia can be seen in the attempts during the immediate postcolonial years by articulate Melanesians to rehabilitate their cultural identity by cleansing it of its colonial taint and denigration. Leaders like Walter Lini of Vanuatu and Bernard Narokobi of Papua New Guinea spent much of their energy extolling the virtues of Melanesian values as equal to if not better than those of their erstwhile colonisers. Europeans did not invent belittlement. In many societies it was part and parcel of indigenous cultures. In the aristocratic societies of Polynesia parallel relationships of dominance and subordination with their paraphernalia of appropriate attitudes and behaviour were the order of the day. In Tonga, the term for commoners is me’a vale, the ‘ignorant ones’, which is a survival from an era when the aristocracy controlled all important knowledge in the society. Keeping the ordinary folk in the dark and calling them ignorant made it easier to control and subordinate them.


I would like, however, to focus on a currently prevailing notion about islanders and their physical surroundings that, if not countered with opposite and more constructive views, could inflict lasting damage on people’s image of themselves, and on their ability to act with relative autonomy in their endeavour to survive reasonably well within an international system in which they have found themselves. It is a belittling view that has been unwittingly propagated mostly by social scientists who have sincere concern for the welfare of Pacific peoples. According to this view, the small island states and territories of the Pacific, that is, all of Polynesia and Micronesia, are much too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centres of economic growth for their inhabitants ever to be able to rise above their present condition of dependence on the largesse of wealthy nations. Initially, I agreed wholeheartedly with this perspective, and I participated actively in its propagation.


It seemed to be based on irrefutable evidence, on the reality of our existence. Events of the 1970s and 1980s confirmed the correctness of this view. The hoped-for era of autonomy following political independence did not materialise. Our national leaders were in the vanguard of a rush to secure financial aid from every quarter; our economies were stagnating or declining; our environments were deteriorating or were threatened and we could do little about it; our own people were evacuating themselves to greener pastures elsewhere. Whatever remained of our resources, including our Exclusive Economic Zones, was being hawked for the highest bid. Some of our islands had become, in the words of one social scientist, ‘MIRAB Societies’, that is, pitiful microstates condemned forever to depend on migration, remittance, aid and bureaucracy, and not on any real economic productivity. Even the better resource-endowed Melanesian countries were mired in dependency, indebtedness and seemingly endless social fragmentation and political instability. What hope was there for us?


This bleak view of our existence was so relentlessly pushed that I began to be concerned about its implications. I tried to find a way out but could not. Then two years ago I began noticing the reactions of my students when I described and explained our situation of dependence. Their faces crumbled visibly, they asked for solutions, I could offer none. I was so bound to the notion of’smallness’ that even if we improved our approaches to production for example, the absolute size of our islands would still impose such severe limitations that we would be defeated in the end. But the faces of my students continued to haunt me mercilessly. I began asking questions of myself. What kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region, people you claim as your own, who have come to university with high hopes for the future, and to tell them that their countries are hopeless? Is this not what neocolonialism is all about? To make people believe that they have no choice but to depend? Soon the realisation dawned on me. I was actively participating in our own belittlement, in propagating a view of hopelessness. I decided to do something about it, but I thought that since any new perspective must confront some of the sharpest and most respected minds in the region, it must be well researched and thought out if it was to be taken seriously. It was a daunting task indeed. I hesitated.


Then came invitations for me to speak at Kona and Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai’i at the end of March, 1993. The lecture at Kona, to a meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists in Oceania, was written before I left Suva. The speech at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo was forming in my mind and was to be written when I got to Hawai’i. I had decided to try out my new perspective although it had not been properly researched. I could hold back no more. The drive from Kona to Hilo was my ‘road to Damascus’. I saw such scenes of grandeur as I had not seen before: the eerie blackness of regions covered by recent volcanic eruptions; the remote majesty of Maunaloa, long and smooth, the world’s largest volcano; the awesome craters of Kilauea threatening to erupt at any moment; and the lava flow on the coast not far away. Under the aegis of Pele, and before my very eyes, the Big Island was growing, rising from the depths of a mighty sea. The world of Oceania is not small; it is huge and growing bigger every day.


The idea that the countries of Polynesia and Micronesia are too small, too poor and too isolated to develop any meaningful degree of autonomy, is an economistic and geographic deterministic view of a very narrow kind, that overlooks culture history, and the contemporary process of what may be called ‘world enlargement’ carried out by tens of thousands of ordinary Pacific islanders right across the ocean from east to west and north to south, under the very noses of academic and consultancy experts, regional and international development agencies, bureaucratic planners and their advisers, and customs and immigration officials, making nonsense of all national and economic boundaries, borders that have been defined only recently, crisscrossing an ocean that had been boundless for ages before Captain Cook’s apotheosis. If this very narrow, deterministic perspective is not questioned and checked, it could contribute importantly to an eventual consignment of groups of human beings to a perpetual state of wardship wherein they and their surrounding lands and seas will be at the mercy of the manipulators of the global economy and World Orders of one kind or another. Belittlement in whatever guise, if internalised for long, and transmitted across generations, could lead to moral paralysis and hence to apathy and the kind of fatalism that we can see among our fellow human beings who have been herded and confined to reservations. People in some of our islands are in danger of being confined to mental reservations, if not already to physical ones. I am thinking here of people in the Marshall Islands, who have been victims of the USA atomic and missile tests.


Do people in most of Oceania live in tiny confined spaces? The answer is ‘yes’ if one believes in what certain social scientists are saying. But the idea of smallness is relative; it depends on what is included and excluded in any calculation of size. Thus, when those who hail from continents, or islands adjacent to continents – and the vast majority of human beings live in these regions – when they see a Polynesian or Micronesian island they naturally pronounce it small or tiny. Their calculation is based entirely on the extent of the land surfaces that they see. But if we look at the myths, legends and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, it will become evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions. One legendary Oceanic athlete was so powerful that during a competition he threw his javelin with such force that it pierced the horizon and disappeared until that night, when it was seen streaking across the skyline like a meteor. Every now and then it reappears to remind people of the mighty deed. And as far as I’m concerned it is still out there, near Jupiter or somewhere. That was the first rocket ever sent into space. Islanders today still relish exaggerating things out of all proportions. Smallness is a state of mind.


There is a gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands’. The first emphasises dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. When you focus this way you stress the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships. I return to this point later. It was continental men, namely Europeans, on entering the Pacific after crossing huge expanses of ocean, who introduced the view of ‘islands in a far sea’, From this perspective the islands are tiny, isolated dots in a vast ocean. Later on it was continental men, Europeans and Americans, who drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that, for the first time, confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces. These are the boundaries that today define the island states and territories of the Pacific, I have just used the term ‘ocean peoples’ because our ancestors, who had lived in the Pacific for over 2000 years, viewed their world as a ‘sea of islands’, rather than ‘islands in the sea’.


This may be seen in a common categorisation of people as exemplified in Tonga by the inhabitants of the main, capital island, who used to refer to their compatriots from the rest of the archipelago, not so much as ‘people from outer islands’ as social scientists would say, but as kakai mei tahi or just tahi, ‘people from the sea’. This characterisation reveals the underlying assumption that the sea is home to such people. The difference between the two perspectives is reflected in the two terms used for our region: Pacific Islands and Oceania. The first term, ‘Pacific Islands’, is the prevailing one used everywhere; it connotes small areas of land surfaces sitting atop submerged reefs or seamounts. Hardly any anglophone economist, consultancy expert, government planner or development banker in the region uses the term ‘Oceania’, perhaps because it sounds grand and somewhat romantic, and may connote something so vast that it would compel them to a drastic review of their perspectives and policies. The French and other Europeans use the term ‘Oceania’ to an extent that English speakers, apart from the much maligned anthropologists and a few other sea-struck scholars, have not. It may not be coincidental that Australia, New Zealand and the USA, anglophone all, have far greater interests in the Pacific and how it is to be perceived than have the distant European nations. ‘Oceania’ connotes a sea of islands with their inhabitants.


The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves. People raised in this environment were at home with the sea. They played in it as soon as they could walk steadily, they worked in it, they fought on it. They developed great skills for navigating their waters, and the spirit to traverse even the few large gaps that separated their island groups. Theirs was a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers. From one island to another they sailed to trade and to marry, thereby expanding social networks for greater flow of wealth. They travelled to visit relatives in a wide variety of natural and cultural surroundings, to quench their thirst for adventure, and even to fight and dominate.


Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Rotuma, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Futuna and Uvea formed a large exchange community in which wealth and people with their skills and arts circulated endlessly. From this community people ventured to the north and west, into Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, which formed an outer arc of less intensive exchange. Evidence of this is provided by existing settlements within Melanesia of descendants of these seafarers. (And it would have to be blind landlubbers who would say that settlements like these, as well as those in New Zealand and Hawai’i were made through accidental voyages by people who got blown off course presumably while they were out fishing with their wives, children, pigs and dogs and food-plant seedlings, during a hurricane.) Cook Islands and French Polynesia formed a community similar to that of their cousins to the west; hardy spirits from this community ventured southward and founded settlements in Aotearoa, while others went in the opposite direction to discover and inhabit the islands of Hawai’i. And up north of the equator one may mention the community that was centred on Yap. Melanesia is supposedly the most fragmented world of all: tiny communities isolated by terrain and at least one thousand languages. The truth is that large regions of Melanesia were integrated by trading and cultural exchange systems that were even more complex than those of Polynesia and Micronesia. Lingua francas and the fact that most Melanesians were and are multilingual make utter nonsense of the notion that they were and still are babblers of Babel. It was in the interest of imperialism, and it is in the interest of neocolonialism, to promote this blatant misconception of Melanesia.


Evidence of the conglomerations of islands with their economies and cultures is readily available in the oral traditions of the islands concerned, and in blood ties that are retained today. The highest chiefs of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, for example, still maintain kin connections that were forged centuries before Europeans entered the Pacific, in the days when boundaries were not imaginary lines in the ocean, but rather points of entry that were constantly negotiated and even contested. The sea was open to anyone who could navigate his way through. It would be remiss of me not to mention that this was the kind of world that bred men and women with skills and courage that took them into the unknown, to discover and populate all the habitable islands east of the 180th meridian. The great fame that they have earned posthumously may have been romanticised, but it is solidly based on real feats that could have been performed only by those born in and raised with an open sea as their home. Nineteenth century imperialism erected boundaries that led to the contraction of Oceania, transforming a once boundless world into the Pacific islands states and territories that we know today. People were confined to their tiny spaces, isolated from each other. No longer could they travel freely to do what they had done for centuries. They were cut off from their relatives abroad, from their far-flung sources of wealth and cultural enrichment. This is the historical basis of the view that our countries are small, poor and isolated. It is true only in so far as people are still fenced in and quarantined.


This assumption, however, is no longer tenable as far as the countries of central and western Polynesia are concerned, and may be untenable also of Micronesia. The rapid expansion of the world economy since the post-World War II years may indeed have intensified Third World dependency, as has been noted from certain vantage points at high level academia, but it also had a liberating effect on the lives of ordinary people in Oceania, as it did in the Caribbean islands. The new economic reality made nonsense of artificial boundaries, enabling the people to shake off their confinement and they have since·moved, by the tens of thousands, doing what their ancestors had done before them: enlarging their world as they go, but on a scale not possible before. Everywhere they go, to Australia, New Zealand, Hawai’i, mainland USA, Canada and even Europe, they strike roots in new resource areas, securing employment and overseas family property, expanding kinship networks through which they circulate themselves, their relatives, their material goods, and their stories all across their ocean, and the ocean is theirs because it has always been their home. Social scientists may write of Oceania as a Spanish Lake, a British Lake, an American Lake, and even a Japanese Lake. But we all know that only those who make the ocean their home and love it, can really claim it theirs. Conquerors come, conquerors go, the ocean remains, mother only to her children. This mother has a big heart though; she adopts anyone who loves her.


The resources of Samoans, Cook Islanders, Niueans, Tokelauans, Tuvaluans, I-Kiribatis, Fijians, Indo-Fijians and Tongans, are no longer confined to their national boundaries; they are located wherever these people are living permanently or otherwise. This is as it was before the age of Western imperialism. One can see this any day at seaports and airports throughout the central Pacific where consignments of goods from homes-abroad are unloaded, as those of the homelands are loaded. Construction materials, agricultural machinery, motor vehicles, other heavy goods, and a myriad other things are sent from relatives abroad, while handcrafts, tropical fruits and rootcrops, dried marine creatures, kava and other delectables are despatched from the homelands. Although this flow of goods is generally not included in official statistics, yet so much of the welfare of ordinary people of Oceania depends on an informal movement along ancient routes drawn in bloodlines invisible to the enforcers of the laws of confinement and regulated mobility.


It should be clear now that the world of Oceania is neither tiny nor deficient in resources.


It was so only as a condition of colonial confinement that lasted less than a hundred of a history of thousands of years. Murnan nature demands space for free movement, and the larger the space the better it is for people. Islanders have broken out of their confinement, are moving around and away from their homelands, not so much because their countries are poor, but because they had been unnaturally confined and severed from much of their traditional sources of wealth, and because it is in their blood to be mobile. They are once again enlarging their world, establishing new resource bases and expanded networks for circulation. Alliances are already being forged by an increasing number of islanders with the tangata whenua of Aotearoa and will inevitably be forged with the native Hawai’ians. It is not inconceivable that if Polynesians ever get together, their two largest homelands will be reclaimed in one form or another. They have already made their presence felt in these homelands, and have stamped indelible imprints on the cultural landscapes.


We cannot see the processes outlined above clearly if we confine our attention to things within national boundaries, and to the events at the upper levels of political economies and regional and international diplomacy. Only when we focus our attention also on what ordinary people are actually doing rather than on what they should be doing, can we see the broader picture of reality. The world of Oceania may no longer include the heavens and the underworld; but it certainly encompasses the great cities of Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. And it is within this expanded world that the extent of the people’s resources must be measured. In general, the living standards of Oceania are higher than those of most Third World societies. To attribute this merely to aid and remittance, which latter is misconstrued deliberately or otherwise as a form of dependence on rich countries’ economies, is an unfortunate misreading of contemporary reality. Ordinary Pacific people depend for their daily existence much, much more on themselves and their kinfolk wherever they may be, than on anyone’s largesse, which they believe is largely pocketed by the elite classes.


The funds and goods homes-abroad people send their homeland relatives belong to no one but themselves. They earn every cent through hard physical toil in their new locations that need and pay for their labour. They also participate in the manufacture of many of the goods they send home; they keep the streets and buildings of Auckland clean, and its transportation system running smoothly; they keep the suburbs of the west coast USA trimmed, neat, green and beautiful; and they have contributed much, much more than has been acknowledged. On the other hand islanders in their homelands are not the parasites on their relatives abroad that misinterpreters of’remittance’ would have us believe.


Economists do not take account of the social centrality of the ancient practice of reciprocity, the core of all Oceanic cultures. They overlook the fact that for everything homelands relatives receive they reciprocate with goods they themselves produce, and they maintain ancestral roots and lands for everyone, homes with warmed hearths for travellers to return to at the end of the day, or to re-strengthen their bonds, their souls and their identities before they move on again. This is not dependence but interdependence, which is purportedly the essence of the global system. To say that it is something else and less is not only erroneous, it denies people their dignity.


What I have said so far should already have provided sufficient response to the assertion that the islands are isolated. They are clearly not. Through developments in high technology, communications and transportation systems are a vast improvement on what they were twenty years ago. These may be very costly by any standard, but they are available and used. And telecommunications companies are making fortunes out of lengthy conversations between breathless relatives thousands of miles apart. But the islands are not only connected with regions of the Pacific Rim. Within Oceania itself people are once again circulating in increasing numbers and frequency. Regional organisations – inter-governmental, educational, religious, sporting and cultural – are responsible for much of this mobility. The University of the South Pacific, with its highly mobile ·staff and student bodies comprising men, women and youth from the twelve island countries that own it, and from outside the South Pacific, is an excellent example.


Increasingly the older movers and shakers of the islands are being replaced by younger ones; and when they meet each other in Suva, Honiara, Apia, Vila or any other capital city of the South Pacific, they meet as friends, as people who went through the same place of learning, who’worked and played and prayed together. The importance of our ocean for the stability of the global environment, for meeting a significant proportion of the world’s protein requirements, for the production of certain marine resources in waters that are relatively clear of pollution, for the global reserves of mineral resources, among others, has been increasingly recognised, and puts paid to the notion that Oceania is the hole in the doughnut. Together with our Exclusive Economic Zones, the areas of the earth’s surface that most of our countries occupy can no longer be called small. In this regard, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia and French Polynesia, for example, are among the largest countries in the world.


The emergence of organisations such as SPACHEE, SPREP, Forum Fisheries and SOPAC; of movements for a nuclear-free Pacific, the prevention of toxic waste disposal, and the ban on the wall-of-death fishing methods, with linkages to similar organisations and movements elsewhere; and the establishment at The University of the South Pacific of the Marine Science and Ocean Resources Management programmes, with linkages to fisheries and ocean resources agencies throughout the South Pacific and beyond; indicate that we could play a pivotal role in the protection and sustainable development of our ocean. There are no more suitable people on earth to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations. Although this is a different issue from what I have focused on for most of this paper, it is relevant to the concern with a far better future for us than has been prescribed and predicted. Our role in the protection and development of our ocean is no mean task; it is no less than a major contribution to the well-being of humankind. As it could give us a sense of doing something very worthwhile and noble, we should seize the moment with dispatch.


The perpetrators of the smallness view of Oceania have pointed out quite correctly the need for each island state or territory to enter into appropriate forms of specialised production for the world market, to improve their management and marketing techniques and so forth. But they have so focused on bounded national economies at the macro-level that they have overlooked or understated the significance of the other processes that I have just outlined, and have thereby swept aside the whole universe of Oceanic mores, and just about all our potentials for autonomy. The explanation seems clear: one way or another, they or nearly all of them are involved directly or indirectly in the fields of aided development and Pacific Rim geopolitics, for the purposes of which it is necessary to portray our huge world in tiny, needy bits. To acknowledge the larger reality would be to undermine the prevailing view, and to frustrate certain agendas and goals of powerful interests. They are therefore participants, as I was, in the belittlement of Oceania, and in the perpetuation of the neocolonial relationships of dependency that have been and are being played out in the rarefied circles of national politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and assorted experts and academics, whilst far beneath them there exists that other order, of ordinary people who are busily and independently redefining their world in accordance with their perceptions of their own interests, and of where the future lies for their children and their children’s children. Those who maintain that the people of Oceania live from day to day, not really caring for the long-term benefits, are unaware of the elementary truth known by most native islanders: that they plan for generations, for the continuity and improvement of their families and kin groups. As I watched the Big Island of Hawai’i expanding into and rising from the depths, I saw in it the future for Oceania, our sea of islands. That future lies in the hands of our own people, and not of those who would prescribe for us, get us forever dependent and indebted because they could see no way out.


At the Honolulu Airport, while waiting for my flight back to Fiji, I met an old friend, a Tongan who is twice my size and lives in Berkeley, California. He is not an educated man. He works on people’s yards, trimming hedges and trees, and laying driveways and footpaths. But every three months or so he flies to Fiji, buys eight to ten thousand dollars worth of kava, takes it on the plane flying him back to California, and sells it from his home. He has never heard of dependency, and if he were told of it, it would hold no real meaning for him. He told me in Honolulu that he was bringing a cooler full of T-shirts, some for the students at the University with whom he often stays when he comes to Suva, and the rest for his relatives in Tonga, he goes for a week or so while his kava is gathered, pounded and bagged here. He _would later fill the cooler with seafoods to take back home to California, where he has two sons he wants to put through college. On one of his trips he helped me renovate a house that I had just bought. We like him because he is a good story teller and is generous with his money and time. But mostly because he is one of us.


There are thousands like him, who are flying back and forth across national boundaries, the International Dateline, and the Equator, far above and completely undaunted by the deadly serious discourses below on the nature of the Pacific Century, the Asia/Pacific co-prosperity sphere, and the dispositions of the post-cold war Pacific Rim, cultivating their ever growing universe in their own ways, which is as it should be, for therein lies their independence. No one else would give it to them – or to us. Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us. We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth and together use it to overturn all hegemonic views that aim ultimately to confine us again, physically and psychologically, in the tiny spaces which we have resisted accepting as our sole appointed place, and from which we have recently liberated ourselves. We must not allow anyone to belittle us again, and take away our freedom. Epeli Hau'ofa/


Notes: I would like to thank Marshall Sahlins for convincing me in the end that not all is lost and that the world of Oceania is quite bright despite appearances. This paper is based on lectures delivered at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, and the East West Center, Honolulu, March/April, 1993. Vijay Naidu and Eric Waddell read a draft of this paper and made very helpful comments. I am profoundly grateful to them for their support. For geographic and cultural reasons I include Fiji in Polynesia. Fiji, however, is much bigger and better endowed with natural resources than all tropical Polynesian states. I use the terms Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia because they are already part of the cultural consciousness of the peoples of Oceania. Before the nineteenth century there was only a vast sea in which people mingled in ways that today’s European-imposed threefold division has not been able to eradicate: the’boundaries’ are permeable. This important issue is, however, beyond the purview of this paper. 


We would, however, point out one aspect of the way in which Micronesian navigators conceptualized their navigational environment which highlights the confidence with which they work. The European, at sea in a small vessel, tends to envisage his situation as one in which his craft moves towards, passes by, and then away from fixed islands. The islands are secure and he is in motion. But Galdwin describes how the Puluwat navigator, once on course, inverts the concept and in his navigational system considers the canoe to be stationary and the islands to move towards and past him. Such a vision seems to reflect a high level of security and confidence in the self-contained little world of craft, crew, and navigational lore. We accept that the risks and dangers of the sea which seem to weigh heavily in the minds of continental men are not given such emphasis by island navigators today. And we may surmise that a western Pacific islander in the past might well sail east or south or north in search of new land, confident in the belief that, as usual, islands would rise over the horizon to meet him.


R.G. Ward and J.W. Webb
From The Settlement of Polynesia,
ANU Press, Canberra, 1973

July 5, 1993