Atlantic History The Pacific
Kate Fullagar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0168


The Pacific has only very recently interested Atlantic historians. No one text treats the relationship between the two, though increasingly scholars of both fields are looking to each other in recognition of their shared emphasis on polycentric interactions among people, ideas, and things in an ever-changing historical world. Within the time span indicated in this article (1500–1900), both Atlantic history and the Pacific also share themes of exploration, idealization, missionizing, colonization, and bonded labor. The field of Pacific studies, however, emerged earlier than Atlantic history; it was a product of political decolonization from the mid-20th century; thus, it initially had more in common with other decolonization offshoots, such as African studies. Indeed, some of the earliest practitioners worked in both African and Pacific studies, and many started together at the Australian National University (ANU). It was from the ANU that the so-called godfather of Pacific history, J. W. Davidson, laid down some of the first guidelines for the field, which were chiefly to center on the islands themselves, away from European or American capitals, and preferably with active participation from the scholars in contemporary Islander issues in relevant Islander languages. Ever since, Pacific history has had a strong focus on indigenous agency relative to some other fields of oceanic study. It is, as commentator Damon Salesa recently pointed out, perhaps the most significant contribution the field can make to Atlantic history, which has not always remembered native peoples as much as it should in its investigations of population movements. On the other hand, Salesa also notes that Pacific studies might learn a lesson or two from Atlantic history’s consistent focus on its oceanic properties. It is an irony of Pacific history that not all of its component parts have been equally aware of the watery realms that connect them. Histories of the Australasian corner, in particular, often neglect the ways in which the Pacific has shaped their fate. Others have recognized the meanings of island geography but, due to an intense focus on the local, they have sometimes overlooked the larger sea that inaugurated island history. It was the sea that first carried people from Southeast Asia into the Pacific some four thousand years ago. Voyagers from the Atlantic World did not appear until the 1500s, first from Spain, then largely from the Netherlands, and then from France and Britain. These voyagers, however, did not settle in the Pacific until the late 18th century, after which they gradually added new systems of governance, worship, and work.

General Overviews

Partly as a result of the early emphasis on local islander issues in Pacific history, general surveys were slow to appear. The best text to date is Denoon, et al. 1997—certainly still influenced by the island-centered mantra—though Howe 1984 and Scarr 1990 are also valuable contributions to the field. Campbell 2003 is an accessible updated textbook and especially good on cross-cultural contact; Oliver 1989, a once classic set text, has been only partially revised, though it is still authoritative on precolonial times. Borofsky 2000 is the first broad survey to connect the field explicitly with relevant scholars in other fields, adopting a powerful postmodern approach, though some readers might find the lack of a single-authored narrative to be a critical problem. Matsuda 2012 is a recent and superb overview that uniquely includes Asian and American border histories.

  • Borofsky, Robert, ed. Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000.

    A massive volume that combines articles by many key Pacific scholars with reflections by some exemplary postcolonial scholars of other fields, including James Clifford, Richard White, Gyan Prakash, and Edward Said. A successful attempt at a postmodern survey of historiography, contact, colonialism, and decolonization.

  • Campbell, Ian C. Worlds Apart: A History of the Pacific Islands. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press, 2003.

    An extended and revised edition of Campbell’s popular History of the Pacific Islands (1989), this version continues Campbell’s well-considered balance between island-centered history and an analysis of cross-cultural contact. There are now more chapters as well on contemporary events from a historical perspective.

  • Denoon, Donald, Malama Meleisea, Stewart Firth, Jocelyn Linnekin, and Karen Nero, eds. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521441957

    Probably the most authoritative history to date, it covers themes from first settlement to the postcolonial state, with good bibliographic essays in each section. A modern child of the Davidson paradigm of island-centered scholarship.

  • Howe, Kerry. Where the Waves Fall: A New South Sea Islands History from First Settlement to Colonial Rule. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1984.

    One of the first histories to cover such a scale, the work has been criticized for incorporating the Davidson precepts so fully that Europeans are all but invisible. Howe’s decision to end at colonial rule is pointed, if, for many, also frustrating.

  • Matsuda, Matt K. Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139034319

    Unusual in its breadth, which includes the Asian and American borders of the Pacific, this book has been acclaimed for its combination of grand themes and micro-biographies. It is an important contribution with a world-historical emphasis.

  • Oliver, Douglas L. The Pacific Islands. 3d ed. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1989.

    The first edition (1961) was a classic and popular set text; the third edition only partly updated the scholarship. The chapters on precolonial times remain significant but the analysis of Islander agency with the onset of colonialism is limited. The updated version runs with the current fashion of excluding Australian Aborigines and naming Europeans now as “invaders” instead of as “aliens.”

  • Scarr, Deryck. The History of the Pacific Islands: Kingdoms of the Reefs. South Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan, 1990.

    Generally better received by fellow Pacific scholars than Campbell’s, this survey is less accessibly written and takes less interest in social and cultural dynamics. It is, however, strong in its survey of prehistoric times and narrates well the political and economic history of colonialism in the Pacific.

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