Despite the sheer magnitude of the oceans, we are among a minute proportion of Earth’s total human population which can truly be referred to as ‘oceanic peoples’. All our cultures have been shaped in fundamental ways by the adaptive interactions between our people and the sea that surrounds our island communities. In general, the smaller the island the more intensive the interactions with the sea, and the more pronounced are its influences on the culture of the island. However one does not have to be in direct interaction with the sea to be influenced by it. Regular climatic patterns, together with such unpredictable natural phenomena as droughts, prolonged rains, floods, and cyclones that influence the systems of terrestrial activities are largely determined by the ocean. On the largest island of Oceania, Papua New Guinea, products of the sea, especially the much-valued shells, reached the most remote highlands societies, shaping their ceremonial and political systems. More importantly, inland people of our large islands are now citizens of Oceanic countries whose capitals and other urban centres are located on coastal areas, to where they are moving in large numbers to seek advancement. The sea is already part of their lives. Many of us today are not directly or personally dependent on the sea for our livelihood; and would probably get sea-sick as soon as we set foot on a rocking boat. This means only that we are no longer sea travellers or fisherfolk, but as long as we live on our islands we remain very much under the spell of the sea; we cannot avoid it.

Before the advent of Europeans into the Pacific, our cultures were truly oceanic, in the sense that the sea barrier shielded us for millennia from the great cultural influences that raged through continental land masses and adjacent islands. This prolonged period of isolation allowed for the emergence of distinctive oceanic cultures with the only non-oceanic influences being the original cultures that the earliest settlers brought with them when they entered the vast, uninhabited region. Scholars of antiquity may raise the issue of continental cultural influences on the western and northwestern border islands of Oceania, but these are exceptions, and the Asian mainland influences were largely absent until the modern era. On the eastern extremity of the region there were some influences from the Americas, but these were minimal. It is for these reasons that Pacific Ocean islands from Japan, through the Philippines and Indonesia, which are adjacent to the Asian mainland, do not have oceanic cultures, and are therefore not part of Oceania. This definition of our region delineates us clearly from Asia and the pre-Columbian Americas and is based on our own historical developments, rather than on other people’s perceptions of us.

Although the sea shielded us from Asian and American influences, the nature of the spread of our islands allowed a great deal of mobility within the region. The sea provided waterways that connected neighbouring islands into regional exchange groups that tended to merge into one another, allowing the diffusion of cultural traits through most of Oceania. These common traits of bygone and changing traditions have so far provided many of the elements for the construction of regional identities. However, there are many people on our islands who do not share these common traits as part of their heritage, and there is an increasing number of true urbanities who are alienated from their ancient histories. In other words although our historical and cultural traditions are important elements of a regional identity, they are not in themselves sufficient to sustain that identity, for they exclude those whose ancestral heritage is elsewhere, and those who are growing up in non-traditional environments.

The ocean that surrounds us is the one physical entity that all of us in Oceania share. It is the inescapable fact of our lives. What we lack is the conscious awareness of it, its implications, and what we could do with it. The potential is enormous, exciting—as it has always been. When our leaders and planners say that our future lies in the sea, they are thinking only in economic terms, about the development of marine and sea-bed resources. When people talk of the importance of the oceans for the continuity of life on Earth, they are making scientific statements. But for the people of Oceania, the sea defines us, what we are and have always been. As the great Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, puts it, the sea is history. This realisation could be the beginning of a very important chapter in our history. We could open it as we enter the third millennium.

All of us in Oceania today, whether indigenous or otherwise, can truly assert that the sea is our single common heritage. Because the ocean is ever-flowing, the sea that laps the coastlines of Fiji, is the same water that washes the shores of all the other countries of our region. Most of the dry land surfaces on our islands have been divided and allocated, and conflicting claims to land rights are at the root of some of the most intractable problems in virtually all our communities. Until recently, the sea beyond the horizon and the reefs that skirt our islands was open water that belonged to no one and everyone. Much of the conflict between the major ethnic groups in Fiji for example, is rooted in the issue of land rights, but the open sea beyond the near-shore areas is open to every Fiji citizen and free of disputes. Similarly, as far as ordinary people of Oceania are concerned, there are no national boundaries drawn across the sea between our countries. Just about every year, for example, lost Tongan fishermen, who might well have been fishing in the Fijian waters, wash up in their frail vessels on the shores of Fiji. So far they have always been taken very good care of, then flown back home loaded with tinned fish.

It is one of the great ironies of the Law of the Sea Convention, which enlarged our national boundaries, that it also extended the territorial instinct to where there was none before. Territoriality is probably the strongest spur for some of the most brutal acts of aggression and because of the resource potentials of the open sea and the ocean-bed, the water that has united subregions of Oceania in the past may become a major divisive factor in the future relationships between our countries. It is therefore essential that we ground any new regional identity in a belief in the common heritage of the sea. Realisation of the fact that the ocean is uncontainable and pays no respect to territoriality should spur us to advance the notion based on physical reality and practices that date back to the initial settlements of Oceania—that the sea must remain open to all of us.

A regional identity anchored in our common heritage of the ocean does not mean an assertion of exclusive regional territorial rights, for the same water that washes and crashes on our shores does so on the coastlines of the whole Pacific rim from Antarctica, to New Zealand, Australia, Southeast and East Asia, and right around to the Americas. The Pacific Ocean also merges into the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans to encircle the entire planet. As the sea is an open and ever flowing reality, so should our oceanic identity transcend all forms of insularity, to become one that is openly searching, inventive, and welcoming. In a metaphorical sense the ocean that has been our waterway to each other should also be our route to the rest of the world. Our most important role should be that of custodians of the ocean, and as such we must reach out to similar people elsewhere for the common task of protecting the seas for the general welfare of all living things. This is no more grandiose than the growing international movements to implement the most urgent projects in the global environmental agenda: the protection of the ozone layer, the forests and the oceans. The formation of an oceanic identity is really an aspect of our awaking to things that are already happening around us.

The ocean is not merely our omnipresent, empirical reality; equally importantly it is our most wonderful metaphor for just about anything. Contemplation of its vastness and majesty, its allurement and fickleness, its regularities and unpredictability, its shoals and depths—its isolating and linking role in our histories—excites the imagination and kindles a sense of wonderment, curiosity and hope, that could set us on journeys to explore new regions of creative enterprise that we have not dreamt of before.

In short, in order to give substance to a common regional identity and animate it, we must tie history and culture to empirical reality and practical action. In much the same way our ancestors wrote our histories on the landscape and the seascape; carved, stencilled and wove our metaphors on objects of utility; and sang and danced in rituals and ceremonies for the propitiation of the awesome forces of nature and society.

Twenty years ago, Albert Wendt (1976) in his landmark paper, ‘Toward a New Oceania,’ wrote of his vision of the region and its first season of post-colonial cultural flowering.

I belong to Oceania—or, at least, I am rooted in a fertile part of it and it nourishes my spirit, helps to define me, and feeds my imagination. A detached objective analysis I will leave to sociologists and all the other ‘ologists’…Objectivity is for such uncommitted gods. My commitment won’t allow me to confine myself to such a narrow vision. So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain. I will not pretend that I know her in all her manifestations. No one…ever did; no one does…; no one ever will because whenever we think we have captured her she has already assumed new guises—the love affair is endless, even her vital statistics…will change endlessly. In the final instance, our countries, cultures, nations, planets are what we imagine them to be. One human being’s reality is another’s fiction. Perhaps we ourselves exist only in each other’s dreams (1976:49)

At the end of his rumination on the cultural revival in Oceania, partly through the words of the region’s first generation of post-colonial writers and poets, Wendt concluded with this remark,

[t]his artistic renaissance is enriching our cultures further, reinforcing our identities, self-respect and pride, and taking us through a genuine decolonisation; it is also acting as a unifying force in our region. In their individual journeys into the Void, these artists, through their work, are explaining us to ourselves and creating a new Oceania (1976:60).

This is very true. For a new Oceania to take hold it must have a solid dimension of commonality that we can perceive with our senses. Culture and nature are inseparable. The Oceania that I see is a creation of countless people in all walks of life. Artists must work with others, for creativity lies in all fields, and besides, we need each other.

These were the thoughts that went through my mind as I searched for a thematic concept on which to focus a sufficient number of programs to give the Oceania Centre a clear, distinctive and unifying identity. The theme for the Centre and for us to pursue is the ocean—the interactions between us and the sea that have shaped and are shaping so much of our cultures. We begin with what we have in common, and draw inspirations from the diverse patterns that have emerged from the successes and failures of our adaptation to the influences of the sea. From there we can range beyond the tenth horizon, secure in the knowledge of the home-base to which we will always return for replenishment and to revise the purpose and the direction of our journeys. We shall visit our people who have gone to the lands of diaspora, and tell them that we have built something, a new home for all of us. Taking a cue from the ocean’s ever-flowing and encircling nature, we will travel far and wide to connect with oceanic and maritime peoples elsewhere, and swap stories of voyages that we have taken and those yet to be embarked upon. We will show them what we have, and learn from them different kinds of music, dance, art, ceremonies, and other forms of cultural production. Together we may even make new sounds, new rhythms, new choreographies, and new songs and verses about how wonderful and terrible the sea is, and how we cannot live without it. We will talk about the good things the oceans have bestowed upon us, the damaging things that we have done to them, and how we must together try to heal their wounds and protect them forever.

I have said elsewhere that there are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is their home. We seem to have forgotten that we are such a people. Our roots, our origins are embedded in the sea. All our ancestors, including those who came as recently as sixty years ago, were brought here by the sea. Some were driven here by war, famine and pestilence; some were brought by necessity, to toil for others; and some came seeking adventures and perhaps new homes. Some arrived in good health, others barely survived the traumas of passage. For whatever reasons, and through whatever experiences they endured, they came by sea to the Sea, and we have been here since. If we listen attentively to stories of ocean passage to new lands, and of other voyages of yore, our minds would open up to much that is profound in our histories, to much of what we are and what we have in common.

Contemporary developments are taking us away from our sea roots. Most of our modern economic activities are land-based. We travel mostly by air, flying miles above the oceans, completing our journeys in hours instead of days and weeks and months. We rear and educate our young on things that have scant relevance to the sea. Yet we are told that the future of most of our countries lies there. Have we forgotten so much that we will not easily find our way back to the ocean?

As a region, we are floundering because we have forgotten or spurned the study and contemplation of our pasts, even of our recent histories, as irrelevant for the understanding and conduct of our contemporary affairs. We have thereby allowed others who are well-equipped with the so-called objective knowledge of our historical development to continue reconstituting and reshaping our world and our selves with impunity, and in accordance with their shifting interests at any given moment in history. We have tagged along with this for so long that we have kept our silence even though we have been virtually defined out of existence. We have floundered, also, because we have considered regionalism mainly from the point of view of individual national interests rather than those of a wider collectivity; and we have failed to build any clear and enduring regional identity because we have continued to construct edifices with disconnected traits from traditional cultures and passing events, without basing them on concrete foundations.

The regional identity proposed here has been constructed on a base of concrete reality. The sea is as real as you and I, it shapes the character of this planet, it is a major source of our sustenance, and it is something that we all share in common wherever we are in Oceania: these are all statements of fact. Above that level of everyday experience, the sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.