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The Ocean in Us
Author(s): Epeli Hau’ofa
Source: The Contemporary Pacific, Vol. 10, No. 2 (FALL 1998), pp. 392-410
Published by: University of Hawai’i Press
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Accessed: 22-06-2017 20:53 UTC
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Contemporary Pacific
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The Ocean in Us
Epeli Hau’ofa
We sweat and cry salt water, so we know
that the ocean is really in our blood
In a previous essay, I advanced the notion of a much enlarged
Oceania that has emerged through the astounding mobility of
in the last fifty years (Hau’ofa 1993). Most of us are part of th
whether personally or through the movements of our relativ
panded Oceania is a world of social networks that crisscross t
the way from Australia and New Zealand in the southwest, to
States and Canada in the northeast. It is a world that we have created
largely through our own efforts, and have kept vibrant and independent
of the Pacific Islands world of official diplomacy and neocolonial depen
dency. In portraying this new Oceania I wanted to raise, especially among
our emerging generations, the kind of consciousness that would help free
us from the prevailing, externally generated definitions of our past, present,
and future.
I wish now to take this issue further by suggesting the development of a
substantial regional identity that is anchored in our common inheritance
of a very considerable portion of Earth’s largest body of water, the Pacific
Ocean. The notion of an identity for our region is not new; through much
of the latter half of this century people have tried to instill a strong sense
of belonging to an islands region for the sake of sustained regional coop
eration. So far these attempts have foundered on the reef of our diversity,
and on the requirements of international geopolitics, combined with asser
tions of narrow national self-interests on the part of our individual coun
tries. I believe that a solid and effective regional identity can be forged
and fostered. We have not been very successful in our attempts so far
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the ocean that surrounds and sustains us.
A common identity that would help us to act together for the advance
ment of our collective interests, including the protection of the ocean for
the general good, is necessary for the quality of our survival in the so-called
Pacific Century when, as we are told, important developments in the
global economy will concentrate in huge regions that encircle us. As indi
vidual, colonially created, tiny countries acting alone, we could indeed “fall
off the map” or disappear into the black hole of a gigantic pan-Pacific
doughnut, as our perspicacious friends, the denizens of the National Centre
for Development Studies in Canberra, are fond of telling us. But acting
together as a region, for the interests of the region as a whole, and above
those of our individual countries, we would enhance our chances for a
reasonable survival in the century that is already dawning upon us. Acting
in unison for larger purposes and for the benefit of the wider community
could help us to become more open-minded, idealistic, altruistic, and gen
erous, and less self-absorbed and corrupt in the conduct of our public
affairs than we are today. In an age when our societies are preoccupied
with the pursuit of material wealth, when the rampant market economy
brings out unquenchable greed and amorality in us, it is necessary for
our institutions of learning to develop corrective mechanisms such as
the one proposed here, if we are to retain our sense of humanity and of
An identity that is grounded in something as vast as the sea should
exercise our minds and rekindle in us the spirit that sent our ancestors to
explore the oceanic unknown and make it their home, our home.
I would like to make it clear at the outset that I am not in any way
suggesting cultural homogeneity for our region. Such a thing is neither
possible nor desirable. Our diverse loyalties are much too strong for a
regional identity ever to erase them. Besides, our diversity is necessary for
the struggle against the homogenizing forces of the global juggernaut. It is
even more necessary for those of us who must focus on strengthening their
ancestral cultures in their struggles against seemingly overwhelming forces,
to regain their lost sovereignty. The regional identity that I am concerned
with is something additional to other identities that we already have, or
will develop in the future, something that should serve to enrich our other
The ideas for a regional identity that I express here have emerged largely
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from nearly twenty years of direct involvement with an
caters for many of the tertiary educational needs of mo
Pacific islands region, and increasingly of countries north
In a very real sense the University of the South Pacific is
the region, and many aspects of its history, which bega
era of decolonization of island territories, mirror the dev
regional communities it serves. The well-known diversity
zations, economies, and cultures of the region is reflected
population that comprises people from all twelve countr
university, as well as a sprinkling from other regions. Th
sity is heightened by daily interactions—between studen
among staff, and between staff and students—that take p
campus in Suva, and by staff visits to regional countries
to-face instruction of our extension students, summer sc
and consultancy, and to perform other university duties.
Yet through these same interactions there has develo
versity an ill-defined sense of belonging to a Pacific Isla
of being Pacific Islanders. Because of its size, its on-cam
arrangements for staff and students, and its spread, the u
premier hatchery for the regional identity. Nevertheless the
sity is much more palpable and tangible than that of a l
identity; students identify themselves much more with t
race, and personal friendships across the cultural divide
Pacific Islander identity. This is to be expected. Apart fr
loyalties, students come to the university to obtain certif
ing home to work for their respective countries. They do
university in order ultimately to serve the region as such.
In the early years of the university’s existence there w
attempt to strengthen the common identity through the
Pacific Way as a unifying ideology. But the Pacific W
ideology that was swept away by the rising tide of regional d
1980s. While promoting the Pacific Way the university
ously sponsoring diversity through the support it gave to
groups based on nationality and race. This support wa
clearly in the sponsorship given to Pacific Week, an annua
which students displayed, largely through music and dan
diversity of the region. The irony of promoting both the
the Pacific Week was lost in the hope that unity would so
from diversity. But any lasting sense of unity derived from
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serious attempt was made t
cal and social contexts. Aud
the movements; everythin
in the university’s
Anthropology, one
The development of a clear
also hampered by the intr
which, as a global movemen
ism and regionalism. Accor
of a worldwide class structure based on an international division of labor.
Nationalism and regionalism were bourgeois attempts to prevent the in
ternational unity of the working classes. The demise of the Pacific Way
through natural causes, and that of neo-Marxism as a direct result of the
1987 right-wing military coups in Fiji, removed from our campus dis
courses the ideologies that transcended cultural diversity. The Pacific Week
sputtered on for another ten years as an affirmative expression of differ
ence, with nothing concrete to counterbalance it.
Outside the University of the South Pacific, Pacific Islands regionalism,
promoted by several other regional organizations, was facing parallel
problems, together with a considerable degree of confusion. Much of this
could be traced back to the colonial period. For example, our region has
come under a variety of names that reflect not only confusion about what
we are, but also the ways in which we have been slotted into pigeonholes,
or juggled around for certain purposes. The earliest general name for the
region was the South Seas, which became virtually synonymous with
Paradise, a false concept that we have not successfully shed because it is
used to promote the hospitality industry. When I grew up in Papua New
Guinea in the 1940s we were still South Sea Islanders. We had not heard
of the South Pacific or Pacific Islanders.
A much less used term for our region is Australasia, which is a combi
nation of Australia and Asia, meaning south of Asia. According to the
Concise Oxford Dictionary, it refers to Australia and the islands of the
southwest Pacific. The term implies that the islands are in Australia’s
orbit. Not infrequently, however, Australians refer to the region as their
“backyard,” the sort of area that has to be guarded against intrusions
from behind.
Only after the Second World War did the term South Pacific come into
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general and popular use. It seems to have first spread throu
Alliance military terminology during the war, and was po
James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific, an
Hammerstein’s hugely successful musical version of it. Bu
misleading one. As used in our premier regional organ
Pacific comprises not just those islands that lie south of t
covers the whole region, from the Marianas, deep in the N
New Zealand in the south. Be that as it may, the term Sou
replaced South Seas, which today is confined almost tot
books and old records.
Since the beginning of the postcolonial era the term Pacific Islands
Region has emerged and is gradually replacing South Pacific as the de
scriptive name for our region. The South Pacific region was a creation of
the cold war era, and its significance was largely in relation to the security
of Western interests in the Far East. South Pacific clearly included Austra
lia and New Zealand, but the term Pacific Islands Region excludes our
larger neighbors and indicates more clearly than before the separation
between us and them. This may reflect our contemporary political sover
eignty, but in more recent times it has emerged to signify our declining
importance to the West since the end of the cold war, as well as the pro
gressive movement by our neighbors toward Asia. The South Pacific of
the cold war, when our region was liberally courted by the West, is fin
ished. Perhaps the best indication of this is the recommendation made at
the last meeting of the South Pacific Conference to remove the term South
Pacific from its secretariat, the South Pacific Commission. It will come as
no surprise if the secretariat is renamed Pacific Islands Commission, or
some other redesignation to be determined by the ever-shifting percep
tions of what our region is or should be. Will the same change be made to
the conference itself? And what of the South Pacific Forum, or for that
matter, our very own University of the South Pacific? The point is that as
the Pacific Islands Region we are no longer as needed by others as we
were; we are now increasingly told to shape up or else. The Forum Secre
tariat has been radically downsized, and the headship of the South Pacific
Commission has recently been taken over by a non-Pacific Islander, for
the first time in about three decades.
Two other terms that include our region are significant indicators of
our progressive marginalization. The first is Asia-Pacific Region as used
by certain international agencies such as those of the United Nations, to
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lump us together with hundr
tion of services of various ki
Cooperation, apec, which cov
whole of the Pacific Island
Pacific Region we are an ap
and in apec we do not exist.
characterized as the “hole in
take careful note of this bec
could in fact be dispensable.
This is not an exaggeration.
were persuaded to give up th
for the benefit of the Britis
Bikini were coaxed into givin
benefit all mankind. Both gr
of their inheritance largely
among the world’s displaced
sacrifice have forgotten or ar
What does this bode for us
Banaba and Bikini were not i
has made it clear that ours is
kinds of experiment and ex
nations with minimum pol
It may well be that for the
millennium we in Oceania wi
and Bikini were urged, to giv
The older terms for our reg
emerged from the struggle
regionalism first emerged as
of revolutionary or even non
is the root of much of the pr
not been able to define our world and ourselves without direct and often
heavy external influences.
In summary, we could take our changing identities as a region over the
last two hundred years as marking the different stages of our history. In
the earliest stage of our interactions with the outside world, we were the
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South Sea paradise of noble savages living in harmony wit
nature; we were simultaneously lost and degraded souls
Christianized, colonized, and civilized. Then we became th
region of much importance for the security of Western in
We were pampered by those whose real interests lay elsew
who conducted dangerous experiments on our islands. W
through that stage into the Pacific Islands Region of nake
dependency. Our erstwhile suitors are now creating with o
rim of our ocean a new set of relationships that excludes
this been happening elsewhere, our exclusion would not h
much. But in this instance we are physically located at the
what is occurring around us. The development of apec
existence in fundamental ways whether we like it or n
afford to ignore our exclusion because what is involved h
The time has come for us to wake up to our modern
region. We cannot confront the issues of the Pacific Centu
as tiny countries, nor as the Pacific Islands region of bogu
We must develop a much stronger and genuinely independ
than what we have today. A new sense of the region th
creation, based on our perceptions of our realities, is nece
survival in the dawning era.
Our present regionalism is a direct creation of colonialism
soon after the Second World War with the establishment
France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, a
States—of the South Pacific Conference and later, its secret
Pacific Commission. The 1950 South Pacific Conference at
was the first occasion ever in which indigenous island
throughout Oceania met in a single forum to discuss prac
common interest to them. Needless to say, the agenda was
nial powers. These authorities dominated the conference a
sion, which they had established to facilitate the pooli
resources and the effective implementation of regional prog
education, agriculture, fisheries, and so forth, and to invol
in the consideration of regional development policies. But
was our rulers’ attempt to present a progressive face to the
decolonization committee, and to unite the region, under t
in the struggle against Marxism and liberation ideologies.
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posed on us. It also came in
Politics was not discussed i
has survived more or less i
the postcolonial period. Al
South Pacific Conferences e
on political discussions, wh
decolonization and commu
of this identity beyond a v
The frustration with external domination of the South Pacific Confer
ence led to the formation of the South Pacific Forum as an exclusive club
by the leaders of the newly independent countries of the region. But the
independence of the South Pacific Forum was compromised from the be
ginning with the inclusion, for financial considerations, of Australia and
New Zealand in its membership. The membership of these countries in
the South Pacific Conference and the South Pacific Forum has brought
about complications in the development of a postcolonial regional iden
tity. Australia and New Zealand are members of these regional bodies,
not as nations but as patron governments. By mutual identification, their
leaders who attend high-level regional meetings, and their representatives
in regional secretariats, do not call themselves nor are they considered
Pacific Islanders. They are, however, our closest neighbors, with whom
we have had historical and cultural connections that date back to the
beginning of the European settlements of their countries. There is already
an identity with these countries based on history, geography, and numer
ous contemporary involvements, but this is fraught with ambivalence.
New Zealand and especially Australia are not infrequently considered by
us to be domineering, exploitative, and in possession of the gentleness
and sensitivity of the proverbial bull in a china shop, while we are often
considered by the other side to be mendicant and mendacious, and our
leading citizens woefully inept. Among ourselves, we do hold and express
mutually uncomplimentary views, and occasionally act violently against
each other, attitudes and conducts that are inimical to the development of
regionalism. The point, however, is that by virtue of their governments’
membership in our premier regional organizations, Australia and New
Zealand exert strong, if not dominant, influences in the conduct of our
regional affairs, and in the shaping of any Pacific Islands identity. At the
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same time these countries display a strong chameleonic te
have a habit of dropping in and out of the South Pacific r
it suits their national self-interests.
National self-interest and pride, the emergence of subr
based on perceived cultural and ethnic affiliations, the tim
lack of foresight on the part of our leaders, are instances
problems that beset Pacific Islands regionalism. Since these
known, I will not discuss them here; suffice it to say that
regional organizations exist today mainly to serve national
than those of the region as such.
Nevertheless, in the few instances when the region s …
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