Thursday, 5 May 2011

Epeli Hau'ofa- "Our Sea of Islands"

Epeli Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands", A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, Suva, Fiji: The University of the South Pacific, 1993. pp.2-16
 
In his paper Our Sea of Islands Epeli Hau'ofa appeals for a new idealogical/ linguistic perspective on the economic, migratory and geographic status of the Polynesian islands. He argues that the current attitude towards the islands' societies and territories as being too small, with too few resources and being too far from the economic centres of the world to exist autonomously (and are hence condemned to a perpetual state of wardship to wealthier nations) is a Western imperialist construct which is integral in propagating the very problem it is concerned with (5); that this attitude or 'metaphor' is a belittling language which potentially could lead to a moral paralysis of its people and could effectually lead to an apathy and fatalism symptomatic of those colonialized peoples who have been “herded and confined to reservations.”(6) 
  I found Hau'ofa's concern with language and how it operates around the issue to establish a rhetoric of power and belittlement very interesting. His example of the colonial Christian missionaries of Papua New Guinea referring to local workers and policeman as 'boys' and the Europeans as 'masters' as a means to “...establish[ed] and reinforce social stratification along ethnic divisions”(3) draws an interesting parallel to the imposed language of 'smallness' that is the current prevailing Western attitude to the Pacific Islands. He states “There is a gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific Islands as 'islands in a far sea' (as has been historically constructed by Europeans) to 'a sea of islands'”(7) as was the perspective of the Pacific people who had lived there autonomously for over 2000 years. He identifies the former as emphasizing an idea of powerlessness - tiny remote dots of land distanced from world economic centres, to the latter stressing empowerment- many islands encompassing a huge ocean area rich in marine resources, cultures and people unhindered by boundaries. He alleges the linguistic perspective of 'smallness' fails to recognize the actuality of Pacific economic and geographical enlargement through international immigration, reciprocity and commerce between the homelands and their new settlements and acts as a kind of colonial confinement.
  His paper is an impassioned entreaty to mobilize a more holistic, optimistic metaphor applicable for the Pacific and its people to reclaim autonomy within the globalised westernized world they now live. In this respect what I found myself deeply respecting about the work is that he aligns his writing with his political concerns and the function of language with in them. His style is inclusive and humanistic, almost story-like. He embeds his politics within his means to communicate by avoiding the dense and often difficult prevailing Western academic language and communicates his ideas and knowledge in an inclusive manner - paying homage to the myth, legend and oral traditions of Polynesian peoples whilst defying the exclusivity of the language of the hegemonic imperial systems of knowledge at work. He not only appeals to the “... rarefied circles of national politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and assorted experts”(14)  but the ordinary people it concerns. He expresses this sentiment distinctly when he refers to historical relationships of dominance and subordination in his assertion “Keeping ordinary people in the dark and calling them ignorant made it easier to control and subordinate them”(4)

 

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