POSSESSING THE PACIFIC: LAND, SETTLERS, AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FROM AUSTRALIA TO ALASKA
by Stuart Banner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. 400pp. Hardcover. $35.00/£22.95/€24.50. ISBN: 9780674026124.
Reviewed by Catherine Lane West-Newman, Department of Sociology, The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Email: l.westnewman [at] auckland.ac.nz.
POSSESSING THE PACIFIC undertakes a comparative historical study of colonial land policy and practice in what became Anglophone states and nations which either border on, or are located within the Pacific Ocean. Although the idea of taking the Pacific as a focal point for such an examination, once posed, seems obvious, no one to my knowledge has previously taken such an explicitly spatial orienting approach. So while there are, for example, comparative studies of land issues in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Haverman 1999) and many books that focus on a single nation state (see the multiple citations in this volume) all these encompass events and policies affecting the whole nation, which in the case of Canada and the United States at least tends to much generalization. In consequence the possibility of finer grained analysis through the explication and dissection of strictly local circumstances is lost. But here, rather than policy in the US or in Canada being the unit of analysis, the discussion of North America, for example, is focused on the specifics of California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, Hawai’i and British Columbia. In addition, past descriptions of land issues in, for example, the smaller Pacific nations of Fiji and Tonga have been largely found in anthropological studies where they are not necessarily a central concern. Given the quite intensive circulation of explorers, settlers, colonial officials, and policy ideas within the regions, the present approach is illuminating and effective. For these reasons alone the book would be a most welcome addition to the literature on land, settlers, and indigenous peoples.
But there is more in the shape of a scrupulous attention to local historical accounts which allows Stuart Banner to capture a very real flavour of specificity and difference in a range of geographical spaces. I have frequently noticed with regret (and sometimes noted in this Review) that accounts of Antipodean histories which originate in the United States often seem to be filtered through a peculiarly American sensibility and set of assumptions about the nature of law, for example, that render their own histories all but unrecognizable to the subjects of such discussions. Banner, on the other hand, clearly writes from within the particular local knowledge of the places he describes, the result of scrupulous research and excellently chosen sources. Both the acknowledgements and bibliography in this book attest to an intimate knowledge of local research materials on the places examined and to consultation with local scholars and other experts. Or, as he puts it: ‘The research for this book [*921] required travel to some very nice places’ (p.i). And it is ultimately that, I think, which makes this such a satisfying book.
For all the above reasons, I found this account exciting and original in its historiography and in the political economy of colonization and land that it presents. Certain characteristics appear common to the negotiations of purpose and meaning that accompanied the alienation of indigenous land across a wide diversity of cultures and terrains. These are nicely summed up in Banner’s comments on the question of ownership and Fijian land tenure.
This was not the most edifying of debates. Every participant’s opinion of the true nature of traditional Fijian practice was colored by one ulterior motive or another – whether the self-serving desire for land or the more high-minded goal of seeing the land remain in Fijian hands. None of the men who wrote with such certitude about Fijian custom seems to have known as much about Fiji as he professed. (p.274)
The white settler project in each of the territories was to acquire land, at least some of which was already occupied by indigenous inhabitants of those places. Colonists therefore had to resolve (at least to their own satisfaction, though often to no one else’s) questions of ownership. For example, could the land be declared ownerless (terra nullius), or should it be accessed under treaty arrangements backed up by introduced systems of land purchase and legal tenure? Both sellers and buyers had to be identified and the roles of individuals and governments in such processes determined. Banner tracks the ways in which these issues were addressed in Australia, New Zealand, Hawai’i, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington, Fiji and Tonga, and finally Alaska – a state recently elevated by circumstances to unusual prominence in the United States, and therefore in international popular consciousness.
As well as tracing the rather astonishing range of acquisition modes produced out of various combinations of political necessity and ideological belief within the selected locations in these colonies, all of which were ‘either governed or heavily influenced by the Anglo-American legal system’ (p.3), Banner also looks at the differences in outcome and the ways in which results continue to affect indigenous-white relations in the Pacific. Most importantly, though, he seeks to explain the diversity of outcome, looking for the crucial factors in determining why Tongans still own all and Fijians much of their land, why Maori are receiving substantial Treaty settlements which include the return of some lands, while Hawaiians and aboriginal Australians and Oregonians now possess very little of theirs. In this context it is interesting to note the huge significance that European perceptions of original inhabitants and local populations have had in shaping indigenous-settler relationships. Much has rested on whether ‘the natives’ appeared to whites as hideous, savage, alien or ‘really rather like inferior versions of us and quite admirable all things considered.’ Adjectives like “degraded, worthless, and filthy” (p.290 (in this case a judgment on ‘the natives [Tlingit] around Sitka’ in Alaska) were commonly applied to the apparently alien of many places, especially the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia. It seems that there is often a link between the voicing of such contemporary [*922] judgments and refusals by the peoples in question to accommodate European desires, especially to acquire land and/or such trading goods as food and furs.
The key variables Banner identifies to explain the differences in arrangements and outcomes include political organization – especially the level of unification under a single leader, degree of military opposition to settlement, and settler perception and ranking of peoples through criteria of ‘civilization’ and technological capacity in the indigenous population. He points out that, in every case of European settlement in the Pacific, initial customs and practices in dealing with local populations tended to harden into precepts that guided the precepts of the more formal land policies that developed as time went on. Of all the territories considered in this account of colonization, only in Tonga was no land alienated to Europeans. In a highly stratified chiefly society with a single government, King George Tupou I was able to impose and sustain an absolute ban on the sale of land to foreigners. On the other hand, in New Zealand Maori tribal groups were autonomous and accustomed to intertribal warfare, which was often over the possession of land, so that there was no overarching political focus for resisting the pressures to alienation of resources under pressure from would-be settlers. Banner points out the message in this; that indigenous political organization was crucial in determining whether or how land would be sold to Europeans. It is therefore a particularly sad irony that the efforts of King Kamehameha III to reform the indigenous land tenure system as a means of preventing alienation of land to foreigners ultimately became the vehicle for an almost total annihilation of indigenous land ownership in Hawai’i.
Banner concludes that the variations in colonial land policy were produced by factors that were never directly declared or explicated in colonial policy. The presence or absence of pre-contact agriculture was strongly determinative of whether or not indigenous peoples were recognized as owners of their land or merely transients with no claim upon it. The degree of indigenous political organization and ‘the relative speed of white settlement and the establishment of imperial control’ (p.318) strongly influenced decisions whether to treat the territory in question as terra nullius or appropriate for treaty making. Whatever the modes and mechanisms, however, in every case except Tonga the end result was approximately the same – indigenous peoples were effectively separated from their land and settlers reaped the benefit of that transfer. Although, as Banner reveals, many such decisions were made ad hoc and even by default, with no real thought for the future, their effect continues to be felt more or less strongly in each of these places to the present day. In New Zealand, for example, the Treaty of Waitangi, once repudiated by settler parliaments as a legal nullity, is now a foundational instrument in the polity and in the imaging of national identity.
There is no way in a short review to do justice to the richness of detail within this book. I shall use it as a teaching resource on culture, colonization, and land, but would also recommend it as a fascinating account of a significant foundational period in the history of each of these places. Above all it is a book that enables us to understand better [*923] the interconnectedness of our geo-political world.
Haverman, Paul Ed. 1999. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ RIGHTS IN AUSTRALIA, CANADA, AND NEW ZEALAND. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Catherine Lane West-Newman.
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