Pacific Islanders used to lead a pretty peaceful life. Their daily existence was untroubled by the outside world. They were happy. They were content. They lived inside their very own bubble. But then the white man came… And the perfect bubble burst.
This is probably how you could start the story of haole / palagi exploration of the South Seas. It all started in the 1520s. The first westerners to stumble across the islands were European navigators; Spaniards and Portuguese to be exact. The former were keenly interested in new lands, the latter just wanted to find their way to the Moluccas – the famous ‘Spice Islands of the East’.
The inaugural landfall on the Pacific territory was made by Ferdinand Magellan. His ships entered the ocean – which he named Mar Pacifico for its apparent calmness – at the southern tip of the Americas. He sailed northwest until he reached Guam. What happened there? Well, we all know the pattern. The Chamorro people helped themselves to one of the expedition’s boats, Magellan didn’t approve and as a result seven islanders were killed. Foreign relations, ladies and gentleman. Foreign relations.
From the 1520s to 1760s quite a few explorers visited the Blue Continent. But the greatest of them all was James Cook, a British captain who rose to fame after his three voyages to the region. He’s the one who discovered the Hawaiian Archipelago, New Caledonia, Niue and – of course – the Cook Islands. He managed to set foot on most of the Pacific isles, and – thanks to that – he unwittingly started a new era: an era of colonialism.
After Cook’s explorations, white people decided to go one step further. The newly found territories were full of hidden treasures which could be sold to foreign countries. Sandalwood, pearls, sea cucumbers were traded for cheap whiskey, tobacco or guns and then exported to China. For westerners, this proved to be immensely profitable business. There was only one problem: the goods were not unlimited.
When white traders were left without recourses, they turned the finest lands into copra, cotton and sugar cane plantations. Labour force was much needed. And this is how ‘blackbirding’ came into existence.
Blackbirders were contracted to obtain workers, so they travelled from bay to bay and searched for people willing to ‘get a job’. They used both trickery and force to meet the enormous demands. On the friendlier islands, everything went quite smoothly: the villagers were welcomed on board, given some booze and when they finally passed out, the ship simply sailed off. But sometimes the natives didn’t want to cooperate and then the things would get pretty nasty. Westerners raided a particular place, kidnapping not only men but also women and children. From the 1860s till the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of Pacific Islanders were sold into servitude. Few of them returned home.
Somewhere along the way, the Blue Continent was also visited by European and American missionaries, who tried to implement new customs into the ancient traditions. Local inhabitants were quickly converted to Christianity and later – to Mormonism. People were taught hard work, generosity and modesty. Blood and death were replaced by love for Christ and care for others. Cannibalism, polygamy and idolatry – once so typical for the region – faded into oblivion.
When the white man came, he left a clear footprint on the Pacific sand. He took the small nations on a long journey towards modernity, western philosophy and a whole new way of life. He turned cruel savages into kind and gentle human beings. He gave them a wonderful opportunity to discover a better world. But… Is this western world really better? Does it offer more? Does it guarantee endless happiness? Think about it. The answer isn’t so obvious.