Australia at the South Pacific kava bowl
14 Feb 2022|

Over 200 years, Australia went out into the South Pacific as bible-bashers and blackbirders, as carpetbaggers, captains and colonisers.

We sailed and traded and built and searched for both gold and souls. Always, we sought security. And these days we seek family as well.

The islands have been so important to Australia for so long, it’s amazing how much Australia forgets about its South Pacific roles and ambitions.

When musing two decades ago about missionaries, miners and mariners, I lamented that Australia’s work in the South Pacific is beset by policy taboos, popular amnesia and political failure.

Perhaps forgetting is what settler societies must do, marching forward and discarding much.

The amnesia means the South Pacific remembers our history in the islands better than we do. We’re usually welcome round the ceremonial kava bowl (or even the informal kava bucket) when we follow the kava customs—show up, sit down, and be ready to shut up and listen.

The perils of kava got me when I flew back to Fiji in 1987 to join the ABC team reporting on the second military coup of the year.

I got a car at Nadi and drove along the Coral Coast to Suva, stopping at several villages along the way to chat about the coup-coup times.

Reaching Suva that afternoon, I rang Sydney to see if I could get a slot on the ABC’s PM program.

‘It’s Gwayam Bobell here. I’be just got to Suba. I dwibben acwoss and stobbed a cubble of tibes to talk to the peeble.’

‘Ah, Graeme, good to hear from you. You haven’t, by any chance, had a few drinks of kava at those villages?’

‘Oh, a bubble of bowls!’  I didn’t get on air that night and for a while I answered to ‘Bubbles’.

My kava lesson was how a stray Australian had been welcomed with typical hospitality; it was accepted that an Australia would wander in, as many had before. That Oz role in the islands is the sweeping story of historian Ian Hoskins’s new book, Australia and the Pacific: a history.

Hoskins titles the book’s introduction ‘Our repressed Oceanic memories’ and tells a big story: ‘The Pacific Ocean has washed, scoured and thumped Australia’s east coast for more than five million years … Australia’s deep past and its modern history are intrinsically connected to the Pacific.’

We still struggle with the meaning of that connection and the strange but accurate line in the national anthem: ‘Our land is girt by sea.’

Hoskins, too, ponders the ‘national amnesia’ and answers it with nearly 500 pages of a ‘thematic survey’ that starts with the ‘shifting of continents and ends with contemporary climate controversies’.

This is sprawling history that gallops, seeing Australia and the islands through many shared frames. While the great interior of our continent dominates Oz imagination, Hoskins notes, we are drawn equally to our beaches and the sea.

The convicts arrived in what Hoskins calls a ‘Pacific colony’. And when the Sydney colony nearly starved in its early years, the second settlement at Norfolk Island offered luxurious soil. A later use of Norfolk was as the prison for offenders deemed too bad for New South Wales.

Within two decades of its founding, Hoskins writes, Sydney had a ‘remarkable oceanic reach’—the term ‘Pacific-minded barely conveys the complexity of the relationships’.

One of the 19th century chapters—‘Saving souls and taking slaves’—has the missionaries going out to make the islands Christian while the traders ship back Kanaks to create Queensland’s sugar fields.

The politics of the creation of ‘White Australia’ mingles with the stories of the merchants and patrol officers. The anthropologists and the artists mattered, as the European vision of ‘the other’ grappled with ideas of nobility and ignobility, admiration and fear.

A major story is how Australia got and governed Papua and New Guinea. One of my jests is that only two unusual countries in the world have rugby league as their national sport: Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

Hoskins offers a wonderful account of how Hubert Murray, governor of Papua from 1908 to 1940, saw rugby as an alternative to tribal warfare, headhunting and ‘the Papuan’s craving for bloodshed’.

With ‘a characteristic drollness which barely hid the magnitude of his challenge,’ Hoskins writes, Murray championed the view that football must substitute for ‘the old traditions of blazing villages and bleeding heads’.

Elite Oz rugby league these days is often, ‘My Polynesians play your Polynesians.’ Not much recruiting gets done in PNG, although Hoskins judges that Murray’s vision arrived and ‘football did become something of a replacement for tribal fighting’.

Hoskins’s account of where we are now is not dry history, but passionate and personal, as people keep moving across the Pacific. The ethnic and political tensions of Fiji, for instance, meant that by 2000 about 10% of Fiji’s Indians had migrated to Australia.

The ‘Pacific solution’, now 20 years old, outsourced boat people to the Pacific. The slogan ‘stop the boats’ shifts votes. As Hoskins observes:

The Pacific Solution has confronted contemporary Australia with difficult questions about its sense of self, its regional responsibilities and interests. The politicisation of the dilemma keeps alive the spectre of long-held racial anxieties about the vulnerability of an island continent and the exceptionalism of its inhabitants. Border security wins elections.

‘For Pacific island countries, climate change is an existential threat,’ ASPI’s Climate and Security Policy Centre observes. Hoskins makes that existential threat his final chapter, noting that the islands ‘regard Australia’s politicised arguments about climate change and coal mining with anxiety and bewilderment’.

Climate change is a great unfolding threat for the Pacific family. And Hoskins’s conclusion sees that challenge as part of our shared history:

Australia has changed its region but the Pacific has changed Australia. It provided the fertiliser needed to boost crop production on ancient soils. Pacific Islanders helped establish the continent’s sugar industry. The Pacific and its people helped to define White Australia. Conversely, when white Australians finally accepted that excluding their ‘coloured’ neighbours was racist and counterproductive, it changed Australia … The struggle of a Torres Strait man called Eddie Mabo reset our understanding of the nation’s foundation. The exiled detention of asylum seekers on Pacific islands has led to an agonised and unresolved discussion about Australia’s collective morality.