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Imperialism in the Pacific

"There are only ninety thousand people out there. Who gives a damn?"
-- Henry Kissinger on the Marshall Islander people affected by the US nuclear test programme

Like every other part of the world, as the Europeans developed their age of "guns, germs, steel, and sail", discovery, conversion, imperialism, and colonisation would follow in subsequent centuries. Often there is confusion over these terms, especially imperialism and colonialism. Given their importance, brief definitions are provided, before exploring the history, effects, and solutions. The four definitions that follow typically will occur in a temporal order.

Important Definitions

"Discovery" seems obvious enough, but is often used to deny the existing presence of indigenous peoples. Perhaps the most obvious examples are phrases like "Christopher Columbus discovered America", which of course is inaccurate in the sense that he and his crew "discovered" Cuba, the Bahamas archipelago, and then the island later named Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Of course, people had already discovered these lands and had settled there, the Taíno people. Arguably, one could say that if there was a discovery, it was of the mid-North Atlantic. Columbus, for what it's worth, was a religious fundamentalist and apocalypticist who refused to believe that the islands and coastlines that he visited were not part of Asia. As Matthew Inman has pointed out he was not a very nice person at all.

The phrase "conversion" refers to the religious conversion of populations which already had their own faith, and can be carried out through a continuum of forced conversion to persuasion by proselytism, and both means can be backed by State power, including State atheism. Persuasion by proselytism is typically more effective, organised with missionary zeal and acumen (c.f., the Jesuits), and especially when the converting faith, backed with wealth and influence, can incorporate or adapt existing elements of a mythos and social norms into their religious schema. Conversion of existing rulers is an effective means to soften resistance to a forthcoming imperial conquest.

In its absolute and "hard-power" form, "imperialism" refers to the direct political and economic control of another country by a foreign power, typically achieved through conquest and typically for military and economic expansion. A soft-power variant can exist as substantial indirect political and economic influence. In modernity, imperialism was primarily a European phenomenon in its direct form, affecting the Americas, Asia, and "the scramble for Africa" and, of course, Oceania. The "soft-power" variant exists when nominally independent countries are allowed their sovereignty to the extent that an imperial power allows. The United Kingdom applied this sort of imperialism to China, and of course, the United States has done to so to Central and South America.

Imperialism can be distinguished from "colonialism", but is a precondition for it. Colonialism is thus distinguished from immigration insofar as the foreign population is not imposed by an external power, even to the point where the indigenous people are a minority compared to the migrant community. Colonial populations are also notable for typically having legal superiority over others, according to the dictates of the imperial power. Whilst nearly all colonial populations are from the Imperial base (such as in Australia), sometimes a colonial population can be established through a different population (e.g., the British Mandate in Palestine). With the rise of political independence, most colonies are now in a post-colonial situation, which inherit the structures, languages and people, and are often subject to economic and migratory neocolonialism.

The Pacific Experience

Most of the regions in the Pacific were originally populated by Austronesian peoples, who engaged in a prehistoric oceanic migration from Taiwan approximately 2000 BCE, according to contemporary research, first reaching the Philippines and finally Aotearoa New Zealand in c. 1250 CE. With remarkable acumen in seacraft, Austronesians spread throughout the Pacific, the Malay archipelago, to Madagascar and Comoros, and also are indigenous to parts of Indochina, Thailand and Myanmar, in total spanning half the planet's surface area. In the regions of the Malay archipelago and New Guinea, admixture occurred between the Austronesian and the existing populations from the previous glacial period when the Sundaic region was above sea level, generating a confirmed genetic distance between the notable diverse Melanesians, and the Polynesians and Micronesian peoples.

The Spanish were the first European explorers in the 16th century CE, initially Vasco Núñez de Balboa who crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, seven years later Ferdinand Magellan sailed across the ocean via the eponymous strait that bears his name. From Magellan's explorations, the Spanish incorporated most of what is now the Federated States of Micronesia into the Spanish East Indies, which is now known as the Philippines. Seeking a mythical great southern continent, the Spanish discovered the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. In the 17thC CE the Dutch, from their existing imperial colonies in the Dutch East Indies (i.e., Indonesia), entered the Pacific to the Bismarck Archipelago, New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga, and Fiji. In the 18thC CE, the British and French made their presence in the Pacific, with Cook's explorations being particularly notable for establishing that there was no "great southern continent" in the Pacific to exploit, with the exception of Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand.

With the forcible settlement by the British on the east coast of Australia the Pacific became an important supply source for foodstuffs, peal, and sandalwood. Skirting the borders between legal contracts and outright slavery the practice of "blackbirding" became common in Australia in the 19th century, with Indian labour imported to Fiji under an indenture system ("coolies") from 1879 to 1920. Christian missionaries, especially through the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived intent of converting the population and changing their societal norms, at least in part with regards to sexuality, but more to integrate the existing power structures to imperial power. Those who had the favour of an Imperial sponsor were provided all-important access to arms, especially in Tahiti, Hawaii, Tonga, and Aotearoa New Zealand.

As the number of Europeans increased, increasing levels of lawless behaviour proved devastating to the traditional societies. In Tahiti, the arrival of the mutineers of the Bounty, whalers, and merchants from Australia came with alcohol, arms, and infectious diseases led to a collapse in population from an estimated 16000 to 9000 in the first decade of the 19thC CE. Such disasters led to the establishment of missionary kingdoms (with missionary-developed constitutions) by the British and direct control by the French, who became the two main European imperial and colonial powers in the region by the 19th century, with Germany and the United States also playing a role. Germany would soon be removed from the area as a result of World War I, with Japan expanding into the islands in northern Oceania, and eventually would extend and lose their reach with World War II, largely replaced by the United States but also, under the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations, with increasing degrees independence or self-government, even among the French territories.

Imperialism, colonialism, and increasing levels of independence were primarily won by the indigenous people themselves, as they sought to resist the destruction of their traditional way of life or make allegiances of their own choosing. For example, the Franco-Tahitian War of 1844 to 1847, for example, occurred after the Protestant Queen Pōmare IV expelled French Catholic missionaries. In the Leeward Islands Annexation (Teraupo'o War) of 1880-1897, three indigenous kingdoms fought against the French colonial empire which had been guaranteed independence by the Jarnac Convention of 1847. The imperial signatories, France and the United Kingdom agreed to cancel the treaty in 1888. Rebelliions occurred in the German colonial possessions as well, having initially attempted to manage their colonies as commercial entities (e.g., Deutsche Neuguinea-Kompagnie). Following World War I, the Australians took over German New Guinea, whilst New Zealand took over Western Samoa, and Japan took the Carolines, the Marshalls, Palau, and the Marianas. In the Second War II Japan temporarily expanded its territories, reaching a maximum extent in 1942. Following the end of WWII, many of these areas would fall under the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States.

Over the last sixty years, there have been various moves towards some degree of self-governance or independence. In the 1960s Samoa and Nauru gained independence, along with New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati in the 1970s, and Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands in the 1980s, and Palau in the 1990s. The United States continued its control over Hawaii, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Guam, whereas France controls French Polynesia, New Caledonia, along with Wallis and Futuna. New Zealand has Tokelau, Cook Islands, and Niue, whilst New Guinea is partially controlled by Indonesia, and partially independent, Chile controls Easter Island, and Bougainville Island is controlled by New Guinea. Islands that were uninhabited at the time of colonisation (e.g., Midway Atoll, Pitcairn Island, Kermadec Islands) are excluded from this list. There is enormous variation in the degree of self-determination among these states. Niue, for example, has elected for self-government and has some autonomy in foreign affairs, but matters of defence are in the hands of New Zealand. Whilst self-governing, American Somoa is an unorganized territory of the United States, whereas French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity (collectivité d'outre-mer) with semi-autonomous status at best.

Self-Determination and Isocracy

The self-determination of peoples is a key principle in international law and part of the first chapter of the Charter of the United Nations. The second clause reads as a purpose: "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace". Proposals date back to the 1860s through the German term "Selbstbestimmungsrecht" in reference to the Schleswig-Holstein region which had a German majority population. A problematic term is that of "a people" by which universal membership does not apply, which in contemporary language is often defined as an "ethnicity" or in the past a "nationality". The problem is, of course, that all of these exist as a continuum with others, and just like historic considerations of "race" attempts to establish hard rules to determine who is and isn't a member quickly runs into serious problems, as does language. Despite Fitche's romanticism of how a shared language created unity among people his own advocacy for German nationalism would find that German dialects themselves are a continuum of mutual intelligibility; as Max Weinreich popularised; "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot". The "army and navy" aspect of Weinreich's quote also illustrates that expressions of self-determination are typically made within a geographical as well as a linguistic and residential boundary, and it is determined by the body which determines whether a democratic expression of views is going to happen in the first place.

To give four relevant examples of the Pacific, in May 2023 Moetai Brotherson, of the pro-independence Tāvini Huiraʻatira (previously known as the Front de libération de la Polynésie), was elected as President of French Polynesia. Obviously, he supports an independence referendum, but first is the need to define who is eligible to vote in the referendum. Independence referenda were conducted in 2018 and 2020, whereby independence was rejected by 57% and 53%. A third referendum held in 2021, with a 44% turnout, was boycotted by pro-independence groups from the indigenous Kanak population, whose leaders called for a postponement following a COVID-19 outbreak. In contrast, on two occasions (2006 and 2007) the residents of Tokelau have sought to conduct a referendum that would turn the country from a dependent territory to a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, like the Cook Islands and in both cases the referenda failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required. Finally, in 2019 an independence referendum was held in Bougainville, where over 98% voted for independence. However, this vote is non-binding and ultimately the government of Papua New Guinea will determine whether to grant Bougainville independence.

There is also, in the United Nations chapter a conditional "and" clause with self-determination which refers to "equal rights". As a critique of the advocacy of Father Lini of Vanuatu for "Melanesian socialism" and the nativist "Pacific Way", Michael C. Howard raised a class-based question on whether it was an improvement to encourage a traditional quasi-feudal system of chiefs and kings (themselves often holding a position due to imperial favouritism) and subjects. A similar critique of nationalism can be found with Rosa Luxemburg who argued in favour of proletarian internationalism instead, noting that the trajectory of technology, the state, and capitalism would mean that nation-states would increasingly become irrelevant. As mentioned, one of the typical effects of imperialism and colonialism is that the people of the imperial power have greater power than the people of the territories that they have colonised.

There is a particular degree of grim truth in this context for the Pacific countries and the people who live there. Although they have made almost no contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, they are the very people who are experiencing the deleterious effects of climate change; erosion of coastal land, inundation of fresh-water, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather, etc. Not only are the effects of climate change disproportionally affecting the people of the Pacific it is, within those countries, affecting the poorest, the women, the children, and the elderly more than those who can afford to stave off the effects. Under the principle of torts applies to the international scale, there have been attempts led by Vanuatu to establish an insurance fund, paid by GHG emitting nations, to prevent and adapt to such effects. To date, this has been rejected by the powers that be, who only believe in reparations when it suits them; and this is how new imperialism is being applied in the Pacific.