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Encounters in the Pacific

An anecdotal journey doesn’t always do justice to the complexity of the region

Robbie Robertson 1 November 2019 1261 words

Fair and square? A banner supporting former naval officer Frank Bainimarama during the 2014 Fijian election. Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

The Rising Tide: Among the Islands and Atolls of the Pacific Ocean
By Tom Bamforth | Hardie Grant Books | $29.99 | 262 pages

First and foremost, this book is a travelogue, engaging and well written. Tom Bamforth sets out to reveal “complex, ancient and changing societies in their own right” by reporting chance interactions he had as he travelled to eleven countries in the Pacific over ten years, mostly as a disaster-response and aid worker. He sees his book as “a journey into the ocean of the future”:

The more I travelled, the more there was to write about, as each country and each island and each atoll slowly began to reveal its stories, its presents, and its pasts in response to my queries. It was liberating to arrive in a new place with only the intention of asking questions about what seemed interesting.

Bamforth focuses on a wide range of issues — interaction, race, colonisation, climate change, nuclear testing, resistance, cultural preservation, urban life and so on — using, as he admits, “random encounters and points of contact” that are “biased and partisan.” And this is precisely what we get: interesting and potentially insightful commentary garnered during short visits.

“[M]emories, stories and cultural traditions in the region, like the currents of its large ocean states, are longer and stronger still,” Bamforth concludes.

But things are changing, and low-lying island states face an uncertain future… The vast currents of that great ocean are not as immutable as they once were. As the island choirs gather, once more to stand their ground, we must listen to their drumming and their song.

But whose drumming and whose song? Regionality might unite the Pacific but the states it embraces — whether independent or not — are incredibly diverse in terms of their peoples and languages, the size and scope of their lands, their populations (Papua New Guinea has nearly nine million people, Fiji one million, Vanuatu and New Caledonia 300,000 each, Samoa 200,000, Tonga and Kiribati over 100,000 each, while the Cook Islands has 18,000 and Tuvalu only 12,000) and economies, not to mention levels of education and international voice. All experienced colonialism and some still do so. The test for any travel writer in the Pacific is to convey that diversity while seeking to find common ground. The task becomes harder if source material is uncontextualised or is shaped to conform to an author’s concerns.

Elements of this exist in Bamforth’s book. Transiting through Nadi en route to Tuvalu, for instance, we are presented with that well-worn Fiji image of beaming, handsome indigenous Fijians at tourist reception counters while Indo-Fijian clerks and accountants profiteer in backrooms. “Bar the tourists clad in singlets and thongs,” Bamforth reflects, “this must have been what pre-resort Fiji looked like in 1960: an immaculate pre-independence European playground of instantly met needs and exotically pliant locals.” It is an unfortunate date to have chosen as the heyday of colonial privilege. During 1959 and 1960 Fiji was paralysed by anti-colonial turmoil as its transport industry shut down and cane farmers went on strike. Rebellions, civil unrest and strikes were far from new; in fact there has probably never been a time when colonialism was not contested in Fiji.

That image of colonial serenity hangs uneasily over the book whenever the colonial past and the present “lethal mix of postcolonial influences” are contrasted. Bamforth describes the murder in 2001 of the Red Cross’s director-general John Scott, an important go-between during the attempted Fijian coup in 2000 (one of the instigators of which, George Speight, is wrongly described as a former army officer), as that of “a member of a European elite who may never have fully realised that the days of untouchability in Fiji were over.” His mentally unstable homophobic murderer is portrayed also as “a victim of the country’s mutating politics and traditions.”

The restoration of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva provides scope for further reflections on colonial order and postcolonial disorder. Eight years after Fiji’s fourth coup — led by naval officer Frank Bainimarama — at the end of 2006, the hotel has become “a grandly fossilised world” for the new elite of diplomatic missions, development agencies and regional businesses. That was also the year of Bainimarama’s transition from coup leader to elected prime minister. Bamforth describes Bainimarama’s 2014 electoral victory as a result of the exclusion of the admiral’s competitors. Previous coup leaders like general Sitiveni Rabuka had certainly done that after 1987, the year of Fiji’s first two coups, but Bainimarama presented Fiji with a new constitution that removed the gerrymanders that benefited the country’s old elites. A simple proportional electoral system returned him 60 per cent of the vote and 60 per cent of the parliamentary seats, his opponents having run but failed to attract as much support.

Bamforth’s fossilised colonial world continues with the Suva Yacht Club, its old Europeans “decaying together” at the bar, Tonga as a comical miniature Raj of the Pacific, and Vanuatu’s politics presented as unstable and cut-throat. A ni-Vanuatu coup and countercoup in 2015 is described casually and without context — indeed, with no mention that the first “coup” had been an attempt by ministers to evade corruption charges. Fiji’s efforts to deal with the consequences of Cyclone Winston in 2016, for which it earned international praise, are reduced to aggrandisement by the Fijian military and government efforts to make Australian aid workers grovel for the past sins (sanctions) of their nation after 2006. Interspersed are comments about competition between the infrastructure and education ministers for media attention in the wake of the cyclone. Bamford meets the latter unexpectedly on a bus in Levuka, in Fiji’s east, but disappointingly we learn nothing more. I have no doubt these petty plays occurred, but they need contextualising lest they consume the whole story of disaster relief in Fiji.

Not unexpectedly, Levuka is also seen through the eyes of a visitor feasting on colonial relics and decrepitude. In contrast, Noumea is “European colonialism restored to its prelapsarian heyday.” In the Solomon Islands’ Auki, a German guesthouse owner tells Bamforth that “most places have gone to shit.” His local wife has a different perspective: “We have lost so much.”

Fortunately, not all the bones picked here are without flesh. On the Marshall Islands, Bamforth describes the “untold disaster” of urbanisation resulting from nuclear testing, underfunding and US military apartheid. Something of the same message emerges from his description of one of the outer Cook Islands, and of the shanty towns and villages around Port Moresby.

By the time we get to Bougainville, the limitations of a book based on anecdotes and random encounters are obvious. Tales of violence and government ineptitude, the social and environmental impact of colonial and mining towns, and the human cost of rebellion cry out for deeper analysis. Unfortunately, as Bamforth confesses at the start of his book, his purpose is merely to present “background noise,” a goal he finds “liberating.” But its results may mislead. In Tuvalu, for example, we learn that “the solution to rising sea levels, migration, urbanisation, and the decline of outer island life (it seemed) was to drum louder.” He adds: “The effect was of a musical centrifuge whose forces ever magnified and tended inwards — the focus was the disappearing point at the centre.”

Yet appearances can be deceptive, as Bamforth willingly acknowledges when he compliments a Lebanese woman on her tan. He is at pains to acknowledge the dynamic character of the countries he visits, and the fact that most are “viable [and] stable,” have “well-managed finances,” and have preserved their languages and cultures. The Rising Tide might be about casual observations, but they are presented as adventure story and travelogue, with honesty and without pretension. •

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