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The Decolonisation of the Pacific Islands

  • Robert Aldrich


At the end of the Second World War, the islands of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia were all under foreign control. The Netherlands retained West New Guinea even while control of the rest of the Dutch East Indies slipped away, while on the other side of the South Pacific, Chile held Easter Island. Pitcairn, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Fiji and the Solomon Islands comprised Britain's Oceanic empire, in addition to informal overlordship of Tonga. France claimed New Caledonia, the French Establishments in Oceania (soon renamed French Polynesia) and Wallis and Futuna. The New Hebrides remained an Anglo-French condominium; Britain, Australia and New Zealand jointly administered Nauru. The United States' territories included older possessions – the Hawaiian islands, American Samoa and Guam – and the former Japanese colonies of the Northern Marianas, Mar-shall Islands and Caroline Islands administered as a United Nations trust territory. Australia controlled Papua and New Guinea (PNG), as well as islands in the Torres Strait and Norfolk Island; New Zealand had Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. No island group in Oceania, other than New Zealand, was independent.



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1 Recent British writers give short shrift to independence of Oceania, which is not mentioned in Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G., British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914–1990 (London 1993), or Lapping, B., End of Empire (London 1989).Judd, D., Empire (London 1996), mentions in passing only Fiji and Tonga (p. 385), while James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London 1994), discusses them not at all. Porter, B., The Lion's Share (London 1984), after covering decolonisation elsewhere, adds, ‘And so it went on into the “seventies” […]’ naming Fiji (but no other South Pacific possessions) among small colonies. Studies of France are seldom more detailed; Betts, R.F., France and Decolonisation, 1900–1962 (Macmillan 1991), and Bouvier, J., Girault, R. and Thobie, J., Imperialisme a la francaise (Paris 1986), end the story with Algeria. Recent histories give cursory attention to the post-war decades, appending a few pages on the remaining territories and events in New Caledonia; see, e.g., Thobie, J. et al., Histoire de la France coloniale, 1914–1990 (Paris 1990), and Binoche-Guedra, J., La France d'outre-mer, 1815–1962 (Paris 1992).

2 Campbell, I.C., A History of the Pacific Islands (St Lucia, Qld, 1989) chapter 15; Howe, K.R., Kiste, R. and Lai, B. V. eds, Tides of History: The Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century (Canberra 1994).

3 An exception is Denoon, D. ed., Emerging from Empire? Decolonisation in the Pacific (Canberra 1997), where Firth, S., ‘The Rise and Fall of Decolonisation in the Pacific’ in: ibid., 10–21, provides a summary.

4 Larmour, P., e.g., examines negotiations on status, separatism and free association in ‘The Decolonisation of the Pacific’ and focusses, Y. Ghai on ‘Constitutional Issues in the Transition to Independence’ in: Crocombe, R. and Ali, A. eds, Foreign Forces in Pacific Politics (Suva 1983) 123 and 24–65, respectively.

5 Exceptions include P. Hasluck, L.W. Johnson, K. Mara, A.D. Patel, and M. Somare. On Hasluck, minister in charge of Australia's external territories, see Porter, R., Paul Hasluck: A Political Biography (Perth 1993); on Mara and Patel, Johnson and Somare, see notes 23, 29 and 30, below.

6 Spate, O.H.K., author of a masterful three-volume study of The Pacific since Magellan (Canberra 19791988), was a government consultant during the decolonisation of Fiji; J.L. Davidson, one of the founders of a new ‘school’ of Pacific island history in the 1940s, was involved in the decolonisation of Western Samoa.

7 For an exploration of alternatives to independence, see Aldrich, R. and Connell, J., The Last Colonies (Cambridge 1998).

8 Larmour, P., ‘Whose Initiative: Getting Out or Pushing Out?’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 204208.

9 Darwin, John, The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate (Oxford 1991).

10 Aldrich, R. and Connell, J.,France's Overseas Frontier: Departements et Territoires d'Outre-Mer (Cambridge 1992).

11 Macdonald, B., ‘Decolonisation and “Good” Governance: Precedents and Continuities’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 19.

12 Quoted in Bedford, R., Perceptions of a Future for Melanesia (Christchurch 1980) 42, 40.

13 Quoted in ibid., 34.

14 The Brazzaville declaration of 1943 stated: ‘The goals of […] colonisation accomplished by France […] preclude any idea of autonomy’ (Quoted in Aldrich, R., Greater France (London 1996) 280.)

15 West, F., Political Advancement in the South Pacific (Oxford 1961), compares Fiji, French Polynesia and American Samoa.

16 Brookfield, H.C., Colonialism, Development and Independence: The Case of the Melanesian Islands in the South Pacific (Cambridge 1972) 110.

17 Lenormand, M., ‘Decolonisation ratee — Independance avorteefournal de la Societe des Oceanistes 9293 (1991) 141155.

18 Regnault, J.-M., Te Metua: L'Echec d'un nationalisme tahitien (Papeete 1996).

19 Bell, R., Last Among Equals: Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics (Honolulu 1984). Cf. Kiste, R.C., ‘United States’ in: Howe, Kiste and Lai, eds, Tides of History, 227257.

20 Lijphart, A., The Trauma of Decolonization: The Dutch and West New Guinea (New Haven 1966), and on subsequent Indonesian policy, Gietzelt, D., ‘The Indonesianization of West PapuaOceania 59 (1989) 201221.

21 Davidson, J.W., Samoa Mo Samoa: The Emergence of the Independent State of Western Samoa (Melbourne 1967) 410; Liua'ana, B., ‘Who Made Samoa Independent?’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 4046.

22 Pollock, N., ‘Nauru: Decolonising, Recolonising — but Never a Colony’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 102106 and, on British policy generally, Macdonald, B., ‘Britain’ in: Howe, Kiste and Lai, eds, Tides of History, 170194.

23 See Lai, B.V., Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century (Honolulu 1992), and A Vision for Change: AD Patel and the Politics of Fiji (Canberra 1997); Mara, K., The Pacific Way: A Memoir (Honolulu 1997).

24 Macdonald, B., Cinderellas of the Empire: Towards a History of Kiribati and Tuvalu (Canberra 1982).

25 Bennett, J.A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800–1973 (Honolulu 1987).

26 ‘Anglophone’ and ‘Francophone’ refer to cultural identification rather than linguistic training; see Miles, W.F.S., Bridging Mental Boundaries in a Postcolonial Microcosm: Identity and Development in Vanuatu (Honolulu 1998).

27 Macdonald, , Cinderellas, 222.

28 Bennett, , Wealth of the Solomons, 321.

29 Quoted in Johnson, L.W., Colonial Sunset: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1970–74 (St Lucia, Qld 1983) 5253.

30 Waiko, J.D., A Short History of Papua New Guinea (Melbourne 1993); Downs, I., The Australian Trusteeship: Papua New Guinea 1945–1975 (Canberra 1980); Wesley-Smith, T., ‘Australia and New Zealand’ in: Howe, Kiste and Lai, eds, Tides of History, 195226. Cf. Somare, Michael, Sana (Port Moresby 1975).

31 Aldrich, R., France and the South Pacific since 1940 (London 1993).

32 Toullelan, P.-Y. and Gille, B., Le Manage franco-tahitien: Histoire de Tahiti du XVIIIe si'ecle a nos jours (Papeete 1992); Sem, G., Introduction au statut juridique de la Polynesie francaise (Papeete 1996).

33 Aldrich, France and the South Pacific since 1940.

34 Hezel, F.X., Strangers in Their Own Land: A Century of Colonial Rule in the Caroline and Marshall Islands (Honolulu 1995); McPhetres, A., ‘Northern Mariana Islands: US Common-wealth’ in: Crocombe, and Ali, eds, ForeignForces in Pacific Politics, 146160;Statham, Robert, ‘The US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: A Paradox of “Independent” Dependency’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 90101;Roff, S.R., Overreaching in Paradise: United States Policy in Palau since 1945 (Juneau 1991).

35 Ada, J.F., ‘Time for Change’ and Guerrero, W.P. Leon and Salas, J.C., ‘Issues for the United States Pacific Insular Areas: The Case of Guam’ Isla 3 (1995) 129137 and 139–145, respectively.

36 Michal, E.J., ‘American Samoa or Eastern Samoa? The Potential for American Samoa to Become Freely Associated with the United StatesThe Contemporary Pacific 4 (1992) 137160;Faleomavaega, E.F.H., Navigating the Future: A Samoan Perspective on U.S.-Pacific Relations (Suva 1995).

37 Boyd, M., ‘New Zealand and the Other Pacific Islands’ in: Sinclair, K. ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand (Oxford 1996) 295322;Henderson, J., ‘Micro-states and the Politics of Association: The Future of New Zealand's Constitutional Links with the Cook Islands and Tokelau’ in: Institute of Pacific Studies ed., New Politics in the South Pacific (Suva 1994) 99112.

38 Chapman, T.M., The Decolonisation of Nine (Wellington 1976).

39 McCall, G., Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island (Honolulu 1994).

40 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Islands in the Sun: The Legal Regimes of Australia's External Territories and the Jervis Bay Territory (Canberra 1991).

41 Mullins, S., ‘Decolonising Torres Strait: A Moderate Proposal for 2001’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 142150.

42 Connell, J., Sovereignty and Survival: Island Microstales in the Third World (Sydney 1988).

43 Petersen, G., ‘Decolonisation: The HighestForm of Imperialism’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 7389.

44 Macdonald, , Cinderellas, 260.

45 Quoted in Lai, , Broken Waves, 195.

46 Quoted in Chapman, , The Decolonisation of Niue, 56.

47 Goldsworthy, D., ‘British Territories and Australian Mini-Imperialism in the 1950sAustralian Journal of Politics and History 41 (1995) 356372.

48 Quentin-Baxter, A., ‘Sustained Autonomy — An Alternative Political Status for Small Islands?Victoria University of'Wellington Law Review 24 (1994) 118.

49 Nadile, R.N., ‘Decolonising the Intellectual Mind-Set: The Case of Papua New Guinea’ in: Denoon, ed., Emerging from Empire?, 176.

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The Decolonisation of the Pacific Islands

  • Robert Aldrich


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