LETTER TO THE EDITOR

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February 2, 2000

Please permit me to comment on the views of William Bodde Jr. expressed after his Silversea Millennium Cruise (Return to Paradise in the New Millennium, P.I.R. 28th Jan).

Bodde’s views on Oceanic people and the region generally are alarming given that they were made at the dawn of the New Millennium. They only serve to reinforce the relationship of dominance and subjugation that the West has with Oceania. Bodde apparently sees nothing wrong with writing and lecturing about ‘them,’ meaning Oceanic peoples from ‘afar’ demonstrating that centuries old European authored discourse of Orientalism still persists. His comments further amaze considering his ‘lectures’ on the cruise were intended to deal with ‘history, myth and reality.’

A critical examination I don’t think, with many comments only reinforcing the myth rather than attempting to describe the reality. A reality out of reach to Bodde, who in ‘super luxury,’ cruised back and forth over the Date Line in his ships the ‘Silver Cloud and the Silver Wind.’ The views he expressed surely haven’t been gained from regular visits to the P.I.R. website, leaving one to wonder what Internet sites he has visited and who in particular he has interviewed. Even from his deck chair on the Silver Cloud he could have gained a more insightful picture of Oceania than the one he has presented by a holiday read of Sia Figiel, Albert Wendt, Epeli Hauofa or any number of other regional writers.

His constant use of the terms ‘the islanders’ and ‘the islands’ as names for the people and places within the region only serves to deny Oceanic peoples of the nationhood they have struggled to wrest from Western colonising dominance. As Tongan academic, Epeli Hauofa, and others suggest, those from large continental landmasses must view the people of the region in terms of islandness. Quite apart from the ‘romantic’ connotations that ‘islands’ and ‘islanders’ have for Europeans, such a view is nearly always associated with smallness and helplessness and has provided a justification for European dominance in the region since the 1700s. Bodde could do well to consider some of the views, outlined by the same authors, that people of the region have of themselves.

The terms he uses also tend to homogenise the region, lumping together and as a result threatening a great diversity of languages, governance and cultural forms. Something, for example, the British did in colonial Kiribati. Banaban, Gilbertese, Ellice and for a time Tokelelauns were considered as one for administrative convenience, creating ill ease between the groups that previously didn’t exist.

It also seems, that in Bodde’s mind, the region continues to be the ‘place of dreams’ in the European imagination. In his words, a place of ‘special beauty,’ ‘islanders friendly and welcoming’ where one it seems can still enjoy a ‘lovely cruise’ in the ‘South Pacific Islands.’ All terms reminiscent of a 1950s Hollywood version of the Pacific. Bodde is correct when he states that the ‘myth of the South Seas Paradise lives on.’ However, it does so only because Bodde wills it too. He pays scant attention to reality with a very superficial view of development and the problems faced by the people of the region in recent decades. Assessing prosperity in terms of Westernisation only serves to privilege Western goods and values and the countries they originate from. Negated are diverse and rich Oceanic identities and cultural forms which regional educators such as Unaisi Nabobo, Konei Thaman and Teweiariki Teaero from the University of the South Pacific, are urgently calling to be integrated into regional school curricula. These, according to Bodde, do not seem to have a part in the development process. Does Bodde really believe that more stores, more cars, up-scale hotels and television are signs of prosperity? Was this the rationale Bodde worked with as Ambassador in the region for almost 20 years?

Bodde states that ‘the islands’ were untouched until the 20th century, when it is assumed that the increase in contact with the West has jettisoned them toward some semblance of development. Progress and development were not possible otherwise before contact with Europeans.

However, now with European help the sleepers have been finally awakened and progress has been made possible. Europeans for example have given ‘the islanders’ ambassadors to help sort out problems they have with one another, as Bodde states, between Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Also, according to Bodde, the sort of prosperity mentioned earlier is ‘often’ only possible with foreign aid assistance.

Some would suggest that the privileging of European activity in this way is merely evidence perhaps that the European psyche needs non-Western peoples and cultures to affirm their own uncertain sense of identity. These thoughts are echoed in Bodde’s apparent disappointment that the islands ‘have lost some of their laid back charm,’ that somehow Pacific people are not being true to themselves. It is a disappointment that Rhey Chow might suggest lies in Pacific people no longer being the original objects of European desire.

The Pacific never was a static, timeless entity waiting the powerful presence of the West to awake it from slumber. Robert Louis Stevenson echoed this old colonial trope as far back as the 1800s when he referred to the awakening of the ‘Sleepers of Polynesia.’ Denied are great diasporic movements of people in and around the region, a great mixing of goods, values and ideas that has meant that cultural change has always been an element of life among Pacific people. All this was going on thousands of years before Europeans sailed into the Pacific with their Euro centric way of describing what they saw, i.e. islandness, smallness, remoteness, indolence and so on.

What might be fitting at the start to the New Millennium is a quietening of the European voice, such as Bodde’s on his Millennium cruise, the type of which has echoed noisily around the region for the last two or three centuries. I, like Bodde have spent time in the region, noisily going about my business as a teacher in two Pacific island countries over a seven-year period. I have since returned to Australia where a strong Indigenous Australian voice is being heard. Listening to this has forced a rethink of my attitudes here but also towards those whom I worked with and taught in the Pacific. In 2000 let Europeans reflect more on their own practice and the way they relate to Pacific people and let Pacific people speak for themselves.

Greg Burnett  gburnett@metz.une.edu.au  

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