Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire by Nicholas Thomas - review by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

It’s Not Just Kirikiti

Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire


Yale University Press 336pp £25 order from our bookshop

Firearms made the invaders irresistible. They marched through the island, according to a British official’s report, ‘curtly informing the inhabitants that their land had been taken’ and that they were now the newcomers’ subjects. They killed and enslaved at will. Their victims were the native Moriori of the Chatham Islands, the remotest outposts of the Polynesian world; the year was 1835; and the invaders were Maori seeking an empire of their own in apparent imitation of European methods. European romantics imagined the Pacific as paradise. But this misrepresented an ocean that overfishing had already depleted and traditional violence had bloodied. The Europeans’ bad example, limited adaptability and ruthless depredations did not start the degradation, but they made it worse. In his new book on the nineteenth-century Pacific, Nicholas Thomas quotes a young participant in a doomed colony in the New Hebrides in 1881 – a Belgian for whom ‘Paradise’, he later recalled, ‘became a hell.’

Thomas is aware of the mutual hatreds and conflicting customs that made islanders kill, exploit and eat each other. He tells gruesome stories of their internecine wars. His vivid account of a massacre of so-called insurgents under a glimmering sky in New Caledonia in 1878 demonstrates that tribal

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