A selection of my favourite books which dive into the history and culture of the Pacific Islands.
Armchair Travel this season brings you my favourite books which explore the fascinating cultures of the islands and archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean. Included in the selection are histories and ethnographies, travelogues and tales of adventure which will deepen your knowledge and understanding of the region. I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these books, and if you have any recommendations for me, especially any fiction by Pasifika writers. Leave me a message in the comments below.
But first, read on to find a wee bit of tropical island inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or set sail on a Pacific voyage of discovery without leaving the sofa.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific – Paul Theroux
Over the course of a year and a half in the early 1990s, Theroux spent time on fifty-one islands across the Pacific, equipped with little more than a folding kayak, a small tent, and his sleeping bag. Attempting to reconcile with his separation and impending divorce from his wife, a level of personal reflection filters into superbly written vignettes of encounters with locals, informed by thorough research into the history and culture of the region. Get it here.
I paddled away thinking how I had once seen these islands as idyllic. I had been wrong. An island of traditional culture cannot be idyllic. It is, instead, completely itself: riddled with magic, superstition, myths, dangers, rivalries, and its old routines. You had to take it as you found it.Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania
Hawaii – James A. Mitchener
A classic work of historical fiction on an epic scale (complete with the maps and genealogical charts essential to follow the narrative), which spans from the formation of the archipelago itself through to the most recent wave of immigration to reach the islands by the time of the book’s publication in the late 1950s, weaving in inspiration from notable characters and events from the island’s story on the way. Michener is obsessive about the granular detail, the minutiae of everyday life that underlie the big events in the story, and the scene-setting building blocks which place the narrative, which makes this read feel much more like non-fiction. Find it here.
The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty – Caroline Alexander
We may think we are familiar with the story of Bounty, captained by the tyrannical and dogmatic William Bligh, and the heroic mutineers, headed by Fletcher Christian, who overthrew the oppressive rule on the ship in the pursuit of freedom, but over the intervening years numerous folk tales and the gloss of Hollywood romance have revised and shaped our perceptions. In an attempt to redress the record, Alexander dives deeply into the events leading up to the mutiny, the astonishing feat of navigation in which Bligh was able to rescue loyal crew in an open-boat voyage over 3,500 nautical miles, and the subsequent capture and courts-martial of the mutineers. The book is a dense and detailed historical text, but this does not detract from the remarkable story and the quality of the research and writing. Find it here.
Six Months in the Sandwich Islands: Among Hawaii’s Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes – Isabella Lucy Bird
Encouraged to travel and spend time outdoors and at sea for a “nervous disposition”, Bird was a pioneer of travel and exploration in the 19th century, becoming the first woman to be elected to the Royal Geographical Society for her writings. Most of her travels were undertaken in her 40s, 50s and 60s, and to areas often overlooked or previously out of reach to westerners. Despite showing some of the biases of her era, her second book detailing her time exploring the islands of Hilo and Kilauea on horseback is immensely readable, filled with descriptions as lush as the landscape she travelled through.
Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature – Thor Heyerdahl
Long before the era of Kon-Tiki, not long after their graduation and wedding, Heyerdahl and his first wife, Liv Torp, relocated from Oslo to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia in 1937 in search of a simple life living close to nature. Fatu-Hiva, the island where they settled for eight months, is the most remote of the archipelago, formed from two interlocking volcanoes and blanketed in lush rainforest and montane cloud forest and a seeming paradise setting for their self-imposed robinsonade. Though written later (adapted from an earlier version with limited reach in Norway), the seeds of Heyerdahl’s theories and more famous adventures can be seen to germinate as they negotiate interactions with islanders and the challenges of life in basic conditions. Heyerdahl also illustrates the dilemma of ethnography; how does one observe another culture at close quarters without both influencing, and being influenced by it, when interaction is essential for daily life.
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life – Herman Melville
A compelling blend of travel memoir, embellished ethnographic study, and ripping yarns-style adventure story inspired by the time Melville and a crewmate jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and spent a month on the island of Nuku Hiva in 1842. The book is filled with descriptions of lush landscapes and evocations of an Eden, but also challenges the notions of paradise and the noble savage outwith the realms of civilisation prevalent in western views of the region. This was Melville’s first book, published when he was 26, and became wildly successful amongst audiences in New York and London, and enabled him to go on to write further works including the masterpiece Moby Dick. Get it here.
The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific – Charles Montgomery
An interesting travelogue in the following footsteps vein which just tips into an ethnographic work at points. Sparked by a found photograph, Montgomery retraces the journeys of his great-grandfather, a missionary deployed to Melanesia, through the archipelagos of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Aiming to explore the impact of Christian religion brought by the missionaries against the relicts of the traditional beliefs that came before, he dives deeply into the history, mythology and customs of the region, becoming enraptured by the idea of witnessing magic. He captures the essence of the places and the people he meets in fine detail, while managing not to fall into the trap of judging the past against the present. Buy it here.
Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of Polynesia – Christina Thompson
The Polynesian Triangle is the vast area of the Pacific Ocean, over 10 million square miles, between the archipelagos of Hawai’i, at the northern apex, Rapa Nui / Easter Island in the southeast, and Aotearoa / New Zealand in the southwest. It includes more than 1,000 scattered islands, reefs and atolls, though within its boundaries the ratio of ocean to land is almost one thousand square miles of water to one square mile of land. The indigenous people of the islands are connected by kinship which spans the ocean, but were pre-literate on the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s leading to much speculation on their origins. Thompson traces the changes in understanding over the centuries, as theories were supported or refuted by increasing scientific understanding, with a depth of knowledge and sensitivity to the various cultures. The writing also captures the beauty of the islands of Oceania and the captivation of the ocean. Get it here.
Blue Latitudes: Going Boldly Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before – Tony Horowitz
Horwitz is a former war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, and that heavyweight journalist pedigree is evident in the depth of the research which lies behind this entertaining travelogue following in the wake of Captain James Cook’s voyages of exploration in the Pacific in the late 1760s and 1770s. He examines the legacy of Cook, not just as a renowned navigator and geographer (some sailing charts of Pacific islands still draw heavily from the data gathered by Cook’s voyages) but also on the culture and heritage of the indigenous people of the islands, and on his role in precipitating the wave of European colonisation which followed him. Find it here.
We, The Navigators – David Lewis
In the early 1970s New Zealander Lewis sailed with some of the few remaining traditional navigators in Polynesia and Melanesia, observing their techniques and documenting the methods shown to him over long ocean voyages. His research captured knowledge that inspired new interest in traditional navigation, and supported a cultural revival across the Pacific, with the formation of voyaging societies and the construction of traditional voyaging canoes like Hōkūleʻa of Hawai’i. The subject matter is fairly technical, taking on concepts like sidereal star charts, land projection and dead reckoning, and will appeal most to readers with first-hand experience out on the water and on the wind, but the narrative is well-paced and peppered with sufficient anecdotes to fascinate and entertain non-sailors too.
Do you dream of visiting the islands of the Pacific Ocean? Which books about the region would you recommend to me?
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