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Review

Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific

By Tom Koppel

November 4, 2013

Review By Chris Arnett

Drawing on experience gained from travel writing assignments, Salt Spring author Tom Koppel tackles an ambitious subject, the peopling of the Pacific Ocean, with a book of interesting anecdotes and information set within a larger, less successful narrative culled from his study of the archaeological and historical literature on the South Pacific. While he does an admirable job of sketching out the parameters of current archaeological knowledge, the text frequently wanders from its subject into areas where a better grounding in the anthropological and historical literature, particularly the work of Marshall Sahlins, Ranginui Walker, Rawiri Te Maire Tau, and numerous others would have helped him avoid some of the unfortunate stereotypes of Polynesian culture that surface with jarring regularity throughout the text. The great body of Polynesian oral traditions is all but ignored and Polynesian whakapapa (genealogies), the fabric that unites the Polynesian universe, are barely mentioned.

Koppel’s interest in the South Pacific was sparked by his first book, Kanaka: The Untold Story of the Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest (1995), an important contribution to the historiography of British Columbia that drew upon archival research and interviews with community members. Unfortunately, in his latest work, Koppel explores the peopling of the Pacific Ocean from the essentialized perspective of cultural tourism, in which indigenous culture is crafted for the consumer. The reader of course is not told this directly (except in the acknowledgements) but soon surmises. Typically, clients observe and participate in activities associated with the tour that may be “traditional,” but only in the context of what these tour companies actually are: local businesses that cater to the demands of twenty-first century tourists. The tour guides, as in the New Zealand example recounted by Koppel, are authentic natives; they dress in early nineteenth century native style for the tourists, and their stories are locally authoritative and culturally specific. But a three-hour tour is not good cultural data outside of its twenty-first century localized representation, no matter how emotionally engaged one is with the guide.

Koppel’s brief encounters with contemporary Christian elements of Polynesian society predispose him to think that indigenous people adopted the religion without any coercion, but he ignores the insidious, pervasive effects of colonialism articulated by Hawaiian scholars such as Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa. Force was not always overt (if one can say the effects of demographic collapse are not overt), but to understand how people would accept such change requires an explanation more nuanced than fickleness or the desire to be free of the “routine savagery” (235) that Koppel believes characterized daily life in the ancient Pacific, contrary to other received versions of history. Gross generalizations are inappropriate for such a culturally diverse area.

Anthropological fieldwork, which includes archaeology, seeks to understand and disentangle the outward appearance of culture to reveal something of its moment in historical process. Travel literature/writing is not anthropology, but this is not to say that it shouldn’t aspire to a similar rigour.

Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific
By Ted Koppel 
University of the South Pacific Press, 2012. 373 pp. $25.00 paper