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Cover: The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean: Volume 1 & 2, The Pacific Ocean since 1800

The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean: Volume 1 & 2, The Pacific Ocean since 1800

By Edited by Ryan Tucker Jones and Matt K. Matsuda | Anne Perez Hattori and Jane Samson

Review By Sean Fraga

December 14, 2023

BC Studies no. 219 Autumn 2023  | p. 145-147

The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest geographic feature. Its waves lap the shores of more than twenty-five thousand islands and five continents (Asia, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia). How to understand this vast ocean, the worlds it contains, and the myriad human societies who have long lived with it?

The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean offers both an introduction and a state-of-the-field snapshot. This expansive two-volume work contains sixty-four essays by seventy-seven contributors, who represent twenty-three nations and four territories. Together, these essays trace the ocean’s deep history to its present day and near future, synthesizing insights from anthropology, archaeology, biology, environmental studies, history, linguistics, literature, and politics (among other disciplines), as well as from traditional knowledge holders. The result is a rich, fascinating polyvocal conversation.

The project covers what Paul D’Arcy, its general editor, terms “three great phases of Pacific Ocean history” (1, 6). The first phase is how humans colonized the Pacific over thousands of years, with some migrating north through Asia and then south along the coast of the Americas, and others voyaging from island to island to spread throughout Oceania. The second phase is European imperialism, often limited by distance and lack of resources, but still significantly impactful over the past several centuries. Third is what we might call the rising Pacific: The current post-World War II era of decolonization, political independence movements, and reassertions of cultural sovereignty, simultaneously threatened by rising seas. Even as several major currents emerge, the collection usefully resists clean definitions or conclusions.

There have been few general, comprehensive Pacific Ocean histories, perhaps because of the ocean’s daunting combination of geographic size and human diversity. Most of these histories start with the arrival of Europeans and seek to explain the ocean’s integration into a globalizing economy. More generally, a long-running tension in the field is how Pacific scholars have tended to focus either on Oceania (Epeli Hauʻofa’s “sea of islands”) or on the Pacific Rim (particularly East Asia or the United States). This collection answers both challenges. First, it starts in deep time and closely follows the development of human societies in and across the Pacific; European explorers and colonizers don’t arrive until the first volume’s final section. Second, even as contributors foreground the Indigenous Pacific, they also aim to integrate the Pacific’s many geographies, seeking connections between the islands and the rim, and attending to regions (like Latin America, or North America’s Northwest Coast) that are sometimes overlooked in Pacific histories. Finally, and importantly, the editors are explicit about their ambitions to decolonize Pacific history. Like all history, Pacific histories have always been political: about who can speak, what counts as knowledge, and how interpretations of past events challenge (or buttress) contemporary power relations. Both volumes open with Indigenous voices and draw from what D’Arcy terms “non-academic reservoirs of knowledge,” including “oral traditions, poetry, navigational lore, and chants evoking elements of the natural world and ancestral spirits” (1, 8-9). The project’s long chronology and its geographic integrations are means toward this decolonial end.

Volume 1, edited by Ryan Tucker Jones and Matt K. Matsuda, covers the Pacific Ocean’s history to circa 1800. The volume’s “critical observation” Jones and Matsuda write, is that from a deep-history view, Europeans “arrive late,” well after “Indigenous societies have staked their claims to land and sea, and have developed abiding practices grown from deep connections to local worlds” (1, 18). Many of this volume’s authors engage deeply with the natural world to explain how the Pacific basin and the ocean’s many islands formed. Contributors detail how humans colonized these environments, drew upon coastal and oceanic resources, and built complex, thriving societies. Across diverse Pacific geographies, these authors trace webs of movement, trade, exchange, and connection. This vantage emphasizes an Indigenous Pacific.

Volume 2, edited by Anne Perez Hattori and Jane Samson, covers the ocean’s history between roughly 1800 and present, with a final section looking ahead to Pacific futures. This volume’s authors grapple with European colonization, increasing mobility, and the ways Pacific peoples hold together an Indigenous ocean. One section reflects on historical preservation (through archives, community memory, and language) and on cultural output (Pacific literature, film, visual arts, and performing arts). The second half of the twentieth century looms large: World War II and the nuclear Pacific (“from Hiroshima to Fukushima” in the subtitle of one essay), the rapid industrialization of East Asian economies, the successful push by many Pacific nations for independence from Western colonizers, and the rewarding (if difficult) post-colonial work of self-determination. The closing section, “Pacific Futures,” grapples with the climate crisis and the surprisingly intertwined work of decolonization and decarbonization.

With any collection as deliberately capacious as this one, there will be lacunae. The first volume’s bright spotlight on human relationships with the environment is dimmer in the second volume, which focuses more on societies, cultures, economies, and politics. Absent, for example, are discussions of overfishing, conservation, and the recent emergence of marine protected areas, many of the largest of which are in the Pacific. For scholars of British Columbia and the Northwest Coast, the collection includes few focused discussions of the region (a chapter on Northwest Coast Indigenous maritime cultures is a notable exception). At the same time, though, the collection offers many points of connection and comparison for scholars to contextualize their geographic areas of interest within the larger Pacific.

The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean will be an authoritative resource for students and scholars. Each chapter functions both as a concise overview (useful for quickly getting up to speed, or to assign for course readings) and as a point of departure, brimming with relevant footnotes and possibilities for further reading and research. Readers interested in a particular theme, time period, or geography will be able to assemble rewarding itineraries through multiple essays. Ultimately, these volumes are like a set of charts, inviting readers to plot their own voyages through the Pacific Ocean’s many histories and into its onrushing future.



Hauʻofa, Epeli “Our Sea of Islands,” The Contemporary Pacific 6 no. 1 (Spring 1994): 148–161.

Publication Information

Jones, Ryan Tucker and Matt K. Matsuda. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean: Volume 1, The Pacific Ocean since 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2023. 800 pp. $177.95 hardcover.

Hattori, Anne Perez and Jane Samson. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean: Volume 2, The Pacific Ocean since 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2023. 800 pp. $177.95 hardcover.