Chapter 2. The Ocean in us

Epeli Hau'ofa


In this chapter Hau’ofa suggests the development of a strong regional identity through the common inheritance of a very considerable portion of Earth’s largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean.

His ideas for a regional identity relate to his many years’ involvement with the University of the South Pacific and with the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture. This relationship provides an opportunity for the university to realise its dreams through the central concept of the ocean and the region’s historic relationship with it.

The basis for this identity is that the sea shapes the character of the planet, it is a major source of our sustenance and it is something shared by all the inhabitants.

Table of Contents

A regional identity
The Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture

We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood Teresia Teaiwa

I have advanced the notion of a much enlarged world of Oceania that has emerged through the astounding mobility of Pacific peoples in the last fifty years (Hau’ofa 1993). Most of us are part of this mobility whether personally or through the movements of our relatives. This expanded Oceania is a world of social networks that criss-cross the ocean, all the way from Australia and New Zealand in the southwest, to the United 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 island world of official diplomacy and neocolonial dependency. 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; and through much of the latter half of this century people have tried to instil a strong sense of belonging for the sake of sustained regional cooperation. So far these attempts have foundered on the reef of our diversity, on the requirements of international geopolitics, combined with assertions of narrow national self-interests on the part of our individual countries. I believe that a solid and effective regional identity can be forged and fostered. We have not been successful in our attempts so far because, while fishing for the elusive school of tuna, we have lost sight of the ocean that surrounds and sustains us.

A common identity that would help us act together for the advancement 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 important developments in the global economy will be concentrated in huge regions that encircle us. As individual, tiny countries created by colonial powers and acting alone, we could indeed ‘fall off the map’ or disappear into the black hole of a gigantic Pan-Pacific doughnut. 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 of 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 generous, 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 if we are to retain our sense of humanity and of community.

An identity that is grounded on something so vast as the sea is, 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 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 to be erased by a regional identity and our diversity is necessary for the struggle against the homogenising forces of the global juggernaut. It is even more necessary for those of us who must focus on strengthening their ancestral cultures against seemingly overwhelming forces, to regain their lost sovereignty. This regional identity is supplementary to other identities that we already have, or will develop in the future, something that should serve to enrich our other selves.

A regional identity

The ideas for a regional identity that I express here have emerged from nearly twenty years of direct involvement with the University of the South Pacific (USP), an institution that caters for much of the tertiary education of the South Pacific islands region, and increasingly of countries north of the equator. Its size, its on-campus staff and student residential arrangements and its spread make the USP the premier hatchery for the regional identity. Nevertheless the sense of diversity there is much more palpable and tangible than that of a larger common identity. Not surprisingly students identify themselves more with their nationality, race and personal friendships across the cultural divide, than with a common Pacific Islander identity. Apart from primordial loyalties, students go to the university to obtain certificates for returning home to work for their respective countries. Ultimately they do not come to the USP in order to serve the region as such.

In the earliest stage of our interactions with the outside world, we were the South Sea paradise of noble savages living in harmony with a bountiful nature; we were simultaneously the lost and degraded souls to be pacified, Christianised, colonised and civilised. Then we became the South Pacific region of much importance for the security of Western interests in Asia. We were pampered by those whose real interests lay elsewhere, and those who conducted dangerous experiments on our islands. We have passed through that stage into the Pacific Islands Region of naked, neocolonial dependency. Our erstwhile suitors are now creating a new set of relationships along the rim of our ocean that excludes us totally. Had this been happening elsewhere, our exclusion would not have mattered much, however in this instance we are physically located at the centre of what is occurring. The development of APEC will affect our existence in fundamental ways whether we like it or not. We cannot afford to ignore our exclusion because what is involved here is our very survival.

The time has come for us to wake up to our modern history as a region. We cannot confront the issues of the Pacific Century individually as tiny countries, nor as the Pacific Islands Region of bogus independence. We must develop a stronger and genuinely independent regionalism than exists today. A new sense of the region that is our own creation, based on our perceptions of our realities, is necessary for our survival in the dawning era.

In the few instances when the region has stood united, we have been successful in achieving our common aims. It is of utmost significance for the strengthening of a regional identity to know that our region has achieved its greatest unity on threats to our common environment: the ocean. It should be noted that on these issues Australia and New Zealand often assumed the necessary leading role because of our common sharing of the ocean. It is on issues of this kind that the sense of a regional identity, of being Pacific Islanders, is felt most acutely. The movement toward a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific, the protests against the wall-of-death driftnetting, against plans to dispose of nuclear waste in the ocean, the incineration of chemical weapons on Johnston Island, and the 1995 resumption of nuclear tests on Mururoa, and most ominously, the spectre of our atoll islands and low-lying coastal regions disappearing under the rising sea-level, are instances of a regional united front against threats to our environment. As these issues come to the fore only occasionally, and as success in protests has dissipated the immediate sense of threat, we have generally reverted to our normal state of disunity and the pursuit of national self-indulgence. The problems, especially of toxic waste disposal and destructive exploitation of ocean resources, still remain to haunt us. Nuclear powered ships and vessels carrying radioactive materials still ply the ocean; international business concerns are still looking for islands for the disposal of toxic industrial wastes; activities that contribute to the depletion of the ozone still continue; driftnetting has abated but not stopped, and the reefs of the Mururoa atoll may still crack and release radioactive materials. People who are concerned with these threats are trying hard to enlist region-wide support, but the level of their success is low as far as the general public is concerned. Witness the present region-wide silence while the plutonium laden Pacific Teal is about to sail or is already sailing through our territorial waters. There is, however, a trend in the region to move from mere protests to the stage of active protection of the environment. For this to succeed, regionalism has to be strengthened. No single country in the Pacific can, by itself, protect its own slice of the oceanic environment: the very nature of that environment prescribes regional effort. To develop the ocean resources sustainably, regional unity is also required.

A Pacific islands regional identity means a Pacific Islander identity. But what or who is a Pacific Islander? The issue should not arise if we consider Oceania as comprising human beings with a common heritage and commitment, rather than as members of diverse nationalities and races. Oceania refers to a world of people connected to each other. The term Pacific Islands Region refers to an official world of states and nationalities. John and Mary cannot just be Pacific Islanders; they must first be Ni Vanuatu, or Tuvaluan, or Samoan. For my part, anyone who has lived in our region and is committed to Oceania, is an Oceanian. This view opens up the possibility of expanding Oceania progressively to cover larger areas and more peoples than is possible under the term Pacific Islands Region. Under this formulation the concepts Pacific Islands Region and Pacific Islanders are as redundant as South Seas and South Sea Islanders. We have to search for appropriate names for common identities that are more accommodating, inclusive and flexible than what we have today.