Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is a political anthropologist who studies kinship, customary land tenure, and the mining and petroleum industry in Papua New Guinea. He also studies the video game World of Warcraft, and is an advocate for open access scholarly communications. His book "Leviathans at the Gold Mine" has been published by Duke University Press.
I have a piece in memory of Marshall Sahlins in the latest issue of the Journal de la Société des Océanistes . This is a more personal piece about Sahlins. Getting it out on a tight deadline resulted in a few typos which are mostly corrected now (although I think the French spelling of ‘Barney’ is used in the article).
It’s hard to talk about the intimate relationship you had with your dissertation advisor. Advisors have a huge impression on you. An impression much larger, I imagine, than you have on them. And of course you never know them as well as their family and close friends, even if you have personal as well as collegial relationship. I hope I struck the right balance, especially since I try to be honest about my (minor) disagreements with Sahlins rather than merely produce a piece full of hero worship.
Very proud to have a new chapter out in the new edited volume The Absent Presence of the State in Large-Scale Resource Extraction Projects edited by Nick Bainton and Emilka Skrzypek. This is another great open access book from ANU Press. Nick and Emilka were excellent editors — real role models as I push to improve my own editing. I worked hard for them and took changes in this article, which is a main piece of research for me. It is also outside my usual boundaries since it deal with history, law and order issues, and Enga province as a whole so… I hope others like it!
Alex Golub Hello, everybody and welcome back to new books in anthropology, a podcast channel of the new books network. I’m Alex Golub, a pr’re going to be talking to Nicholas Thomas, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge. And he is the author of the new book, Voyagers: The Settlement of the Pacific. I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s a wonderful introduction for non specialists to the settlement of the Pacific, hence the title. So, Nick, thank you so much for being on the show today. It’s it’s great to have you here.
Nicholas Thomas Greetings, and it’s really nice to be in conversation with someone in Honolulu, it makes me feel as though I’m back in the Pacific rather than in North London.
Alex Golub Hmm. Well, you are certainly a scholar who, although you’re based in the UK, you have a long history of working in the Pacific. And I you’ve probably spent more time in more places in the Pacific than I have I know. I think you began originally as a historian of the Pacific, is that right? Can you tell me a little bit about your early training and how you got interested in the Pacific, and then maybe we can move on to where this book sits in the larger arc of your career?
Nicholas Thomas Well, in fact, it’s a somewhat longer story than that. I grew up in Sydney, in Australia. But after I finished secondary school, I spent time in Europe. And while I was in Britain, I volunteered on a number of archaeological excavations and became very enthusiastic, completely entranced by that discipline. Back in Australia, I went to the Australian National University, and I ended up doing a joint degree in anthropology and archaeology. I think I drifted away a little from archaeology, which seemed very science-oriented, I was more interested in people, and how cultures and societies developed over time. And that actually drew me to to Pacific history, but always very much in dialogue with archaeology, anthropology, thinking about the deeper past thinking about anthropological theory, thinking about culture and politics.
Alex Golub And it seems to me like one of the hallmarks of your career is your keen appreciation of material culture. My wife is an art historian. And I know she just she loves things, she is fascinated by material culture, and its beauty, the techniques that go into to produce it, the social relations embedded within it, the aesthetic value. That’s I think that’s been part of your career as well, the history of the culture and then also the, the material aspect. Is that right?
Nicholas Thomas That is right. In fact, I didn’t do anything art or artifact related for my doctorate that was focused more on the local political formations in the Marquesas in eastern Polynesia at the time of early contact, early colonial experience. I was also actually very engaged by feminist theory and feminist anthropology at that time, partly because that was a very live area of debate around th e ANU at the time I was a graduate student. So all those wider themes were important. But after I finished my PhD, I wanted to work in a more contemporary Pacific setting, so I left the archive behind for a little while, and did some research in Fiji and at the same time, got very interested in material culture, in the European art made in the Pacific over the colonial period, but also then subsequently in contemporary indigenous art. And I guess I’ve always found it very rewarding to tack between these different areas. In some ways, the archaeology seems a totally different subject to the art being made by Pacific Islander migrants in New Zealand, but in fact, some of those migrant painters and sculptors are very interested in the archaeology and bring their own perspectives to the Pacific paths, to that deeper history. So all of these issues have been connected through conversations I’ve had with artists in New Zealand and elsewhere.
Alex Golub Yes, and I think one of the interesting things about this book is that people get images of the canoes and Tupaia’s chart which we’ll talk a little bit about in the future. We, we see the objects which were part of this process of voyaging and settlement of the Pacific.
Nicholas Thomas Voyaging was not just about navigation or vessels, those canoes were art forms in themselves, and many of the things that came with them their accoutrements, the paddles, the sails, the fiber, were all aesthetic objects in themselves.
Alex Golub Yes, and you, for people who do not know, I should say, Nick is a very humble person as a scholar. And wears his learning very lightly. But he’s written over 50 books, and is remarkably well read in this history. So one of the things that I thought was interesting, when it came to this current book was that you’re able to bring a lot of this knowledge, both of material culture, of history, of archaeology, to telling a story for people of the settlement of the Pacific. I imagine, some people might think of the Pacific and the settlement of the Pacific as a haphazard process, they might look at that map with the vast expanse of blue and the small specks of land and say, you know, how could anyone have ever settled that? But in this book, you show us that the settlement of these islands was an incredible human achievement, and that it it demonstrated incredible skill. Can you tell us a little bit about why that was and and what the story of this voyage voyaging and settlement was?
Nicholas Thomas Yes. And I think one point I’d just like to make first is that I’m not a professional archaeologist. And I’m actually full of admiration for some books I drew upon by archaeologists who’ve literally spent decades investigating sites and other traces of human settlement in the Pacific, scholars like Patrick Kirch. And Matthew Spriggs, and their works are extraordinarily rich for the detail, the complexities of that archaeological record.
But I think what I wanted to do in a way was step back from some of that technical complexity, and try and offer a broader brush view of this incredible chapter in human history, which is one that I guess I’ve been aware of ever since I was a student of archaeology in Canberra in the late 70s, and early 1980s. But I suppose I felt the more that I reflected, the more absolutely extraordinary this part of the human stories seem to be, particularly because if we think more broadly about the history of our species and the longer term history of humanity in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, people have, throughout that history, been continent based, and they reached those different parts of the world, basically, by walking over land. So the story of the Pacific is something that is fundamentally different in human history and human experience.
The Pacific Islands are really the only parts of the world that people settled by making long distance voyages in boats, they started making those voyages at a time when we have no real archaeological records for boats from any part of the world. We presumed that people going back 30, 40,000 years maybe earlier, who lived around coasts, probably made small vessels of some kind, so that they could fish. But the sense that people would make bigger boats that they could use to deliberately traverse a wider sea passage in order to establish themselves somewhere new seems really to have been completely unprecedented. Yet, that is what people did about 30,000 years ago, when they moved away from the landmass of New Guinea and started settling the islands we refer to as the Bismarck islands, New Britain, New Ireland, to the north and east of New Guinea at that time. And what they did, involved, venturing out into the sea, and traversing passages that were so broad that at certain points in their voyage, they could see neither the land behind them, nor the land ahead. So that was an extraordinary unprecedented thing in the way people anywhere in the world had engaged with environment, and taken themselves into a new realm.
And that kept on happening and happened in a more intense way, a more accelerated way from 5000 or so years ago, when the people we call Lapita people after a distinctive pottery style, moved from Formosa from Taiwan, down into that same area to the north and east of New Guinea, and then moved very rapidly east and out into the Pacific. And they made voyages of hundreds of kilometers, in some cases thousands, across open ocean over an extraordinarily short time frame, relatively few generations. And the question of quite why they did that, and how has been debated, it has puzzled people, European mariners and others who encountered the evidence for these voyages, the evidence being the fact that people who were clearly related had reached those islands. It’s puzzled those outsiders for centuries, and also been much debated by islanders themselves, who are, I guess, increasingly proud, and very understandably so, of the extraordinary knowledge, navigational knowledge of their ancestors, and of the incredible achievements that those maritime voyages represented.
Alex Golub And in the book you quote from several journals and reports of early European explorers who are immediately struck by the incredible capacity for sailing and the incredible knowledge that Pacific Islanders have they… it seems that somehow people in the 1950s and 60s in social sciences, who proposed that Pacific settlement must have happened by accidental people catching on logs or something in a storm and being washed on to Hawaii, people who made those kinds of claims weren’t aware or forgot about these early historical reports where people like Captain Cook and others say very clearly Pacific Islanders have an incredible knowledge of the sea and are incredible at sailing. And this was something that Europeans noticed very, very early on.
Nicholas Thomas Yes, and it’s often assumed now that those early European travelers and explorers were ethnocentric and blinkered and, you know, often racist in their responses to indigenous culture, and many of them were and people like Captain Cook and William Dampier had certainly stereotypic views of Pacific cultures in some respects. But of course, in this context, because they were sailors themselves, because Cook for example, had basically spent most of his life on water, he had an intimate sense of what travel over water involved. He was absolutely prepared to be astonished by the the double canoes that he witnessed in Tonga, canoes, sailing canoes that he witnessed elsewhere. He could admire the way they were handled. He could admire their versatility. And he was also of course interested in understanding what the islanders he encountered knew about navigation, what they knew about the locations of other islands in that part of the ocean, how they thought they could be reached, how they traveled back and forth. Similarly, Dampier much earlier at the, in the late 17th century, had far less experience of the Pacific than Cook. But did at Guam study sailing canoes very closely and declared them the best made boats of any in the world. He was also interested in the speed in which they could be sailed and recorded that a passage could be made to Manila or to a neighboring island in a in a period of time that appeared remarkably short. So because they were sailors themselves, they were attuned to observe boats closely and inquire after the ways they were navigated.
Alex Golub You mentioned cultural connection between islands that these early European explorers noted it’s it’s remarkable Captain Cook takes a passenger on his boat, who is originally from Tahiti, and then they land in New Zealand and the Tahitian guy gets off the boat and just begin speaking to people and they can understand him and this, this is absolutely gobsmacking to Cook who is imagining being in England and then you know, moving 1000 miles away to Moscow or something like that and of course, he would not be able to understand the language. So, they also saw this intercultural connection that, that we may have forgotten about or that commentator since then might not have noticed as well, is that right?
Nicholas Thomas Yes. And the relative proximity of the cultures and languages itself reflects the comparatively short history of human settlement in eastern Polynesia. People left the the western Polynesia Fiji area, relatively late, close to 500–900 AD, and they settled places like the Cook Islands, the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui, and later Hawai‘i in a relatively short time frame. So that the Polynesians who live on those islands now were all in a sense, you know, one people in emerging from that Western Polynesian region less than 2000 years ago, and consequently, their languages remained relatively close. They remain mutually intelligible, they’re they’re as close for example, as Dutch and German, maybe even a bit closer in some cases. So, of course, when an islander traveled from one place to another, they could be readily understood.
And there were also cultural traits like Polynesian tattoo that Cook and others recognized as they went from one island to the next. It was clear to them that these people were closely related. And in particular, when Cook reached Rapa Nui, Easter Island in 1774. Rapa Nui is much further from the Society Islands, and that in a sense core area in eastern Polynesia. It is located at a great distance. And that, I think, was a moment of complete astonishment for him. And he wrote in his journal that he was baffled, but people had somehow traversed what he called almost a quarter of the globe, he was aware that they did not have iron tools but somehow they made these canoes that what were what he called ‘fit for distant navigation’. And I’m not sure exactly what he meant by distant navigation, but it was clearly a voyage of something like the extent that British navigators might undertake at that time that would circle round continents. So he had a very profound sense of those cultural affinities and their significance.
Alex Golub Yes, this is the concept that you call in, in your book, ‘inter-islanders’, that people are not merely islanders connected to a single place or Pacific Islanders, but they’re part of a larger community of inter-islanders. Can you tell me a little bit about that concept and what it means?
Nicholas Thomas Well, I think one of my inspirations has been the work of Epeli Hau‘ofa, who is, who was really a remarkable man, an anthropologist, a novelist, a cultural leader, an extraordinary Pacific intellectual. And he developed a particular perspective, which I think owed a good deal to his own biography. His parents were Tongan Methodists, and they were missionaries, Methodist missionaries in the small islands off the tip of Papua New Guinea, place called Misima. That’s where he was born. So he grew up as a Tongan among Papuans and spoke the local language, and was relocated after the wear to Australia and then to Fiji. When he went to school, he was subsequently trained as an anthropologist and undertook fieldwork in New Guinea and then did all sorts of positions before becoming a professor at the University of the South Pacific. But I think it’s very significant that his experience of the Pacific was as cosmopolitan as that.
He has famously talked about how he became depressed by the sense of the Pacific he got through disciplines like development economics, there was this sort of vast, watery void with these tiny dots on it, those dots were islands, they were economically unsustainable. It made the Pacific look hopeless. And somehow, in thinking through that, he produced a far more affirmative view. He used the term ‘the sea of islands’, to get away from this sense of a watery void, and evoke, rather, interconnected islands that people regularly traveled between. He overtly acknowledged that, to some extent, that was a romantic vision. But it was also a vision grounded in the history of the Pacific, the experience of people in the Pacific, the very dense networks of exchange and sociality that connected archipelagos like those of North Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or a set of islands like the Marquesas or the Societies in eastern Polynesia. What we know about the lives of Pacific Islanders in the period leading up to European contact and subsequently, is that people were very frequently traveling for trade, for exchange, for political alliance, for ritual, for ceremony. So most groups, on most islands were somehow constantly connected with people on other islands. And that seemed to me to be a critical theme. Pacific life was about building these relationships that extended beyond and between islands that extended even beyond archipelagos and that constantly involved voyaging and interaction.
Alex Golub Yes, his distinction I think, is between ‘islands in a far sea’, which is a vision of the ocean separating islands which are isolated, versus what he calls ‘our sea of islands’, where the the ocean connects people, and it enables travel, it enables voyaging and connection. So if people are interested in looking more into this work, they can Google ‘our sea of islands’. It’s available online, and in many places for free. Yeah. Did you have a… you must have known how far I’ve never had a chance to meet him. I always like to ask people who have had a chance to meet these famous people what was he like as a person? You know, so many of us have read his work. What were your impressions of him if you had a chance to meet him?
Nicholas Thomas Yes. I can’t say that I knew him well, but I’d encountered him a number of times that, well, I think very memorably, at an anthropology conference at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii in the 90s. But in fact, I spent most time with him when he brought a group of artists from the Oceania Center at the University of South Pacific, a center that he’d established and that very much exemplified and built that vision of the sea of islands. He brought a group of artists called the Red Wave Collective to London. They had an exhibition, he’d actually invited me to speak at the opening of that exhibition and it was a huge honor actually, to be able to celebrate those painters whose work was I think, really saying that the future of the Pacific will be defined by Pacific people themselves. It was imaginative and compelling. But we had very interesting conversations over the couple of weeks that he was in London. At that time, he knew about Tupaia’s map, of course, but he actually didn’t know that Tupaia had also produced a set of drawings during Cook’s first voyage, remarkable drawings of marae, of musical performers, of people interacting. And it was a huge privilege for me, actually, to be able to take him into the British Library and show him that group of drawings. I had the chance also to interview him at that time and it was really fascinating, actually, talking to him about his earlier life and study, one of the things he talked about in a fascinating way was how some of the teachers at the school he attended in Fiji brought together Western education with a kind of Pacific storytelling tradition. And I think that’s actually the point at which an English teacher introduced him to V.S. Naipaul, who’s I think sort of rather satiric kind of aesthetic, Hau‘ofa enjoyed and absorbed, that he also actually said that they, they were exposed to Conrad and Melville and I think he loved those writers, he really enjoyed that take on the sea, and the drama of maritime experience. So he was an extraordinarily imaginative and wide ranging intellectual and an immensely generous person. It’s a huge loss to the Pacific Studies community that he died as young as he did, I must admit, I can’t recall his age. But when he was only in his mid 60s, I think,
Alex Golub You know, I do remember now, reading that interview that you did with him, he said that he fell in love with literature at that school because the teacher read Moby Dick out loud, that that that was the mode of literature was that he, they would sit there and listen to him read Moby Dick out loud in its entirety in the course of a term. It’s remarkable.
Nicholas Thomas Yeah, yeah, remarkable.
Alex Golub Yeah. So on the one hand, we have some of this prehistory that shows that there are common linguistic and cultural connections across the Pacific. And the people were, in some sense, not merely islanders connected to a single island, but inter-islanders. But one of the things about Hau‘ofa that you point out is that he was not interested in a kind of a politics of primordial ism. He didn’t see the Pacific as united by common culture and heritage which had to be preserved and should not change. He saw the Pacific as quite dynamic and also open to novel influences, something that could be expansive and incorporate new influences. And I think that’s got to be part of the story of the peopling of the Pacific as well in terms of how Pacific Islanders, like Tupaia became part of the projects, became entangled in the biographical projects of the first explorers as well. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Nicholas Thomas Yes, I think there’s a particular story that’s really quite important here. And it is that although Cook’s voyages are the really famous ones of that period in the late 18th century, in fact there were two navigators came before him: Carteret who sailed through the theTuamotus, and Wallis who was actually the first European to encounter people on Tahiti. And they’re important in part because some of the crew on Cook’s first voyage had sailed either with Carteret or Wallis or in fact, with both, and so even when Cook first arrived in Tahiti he had some men on that ship who had a sort of smattering of basic Tahitian, they’d collected vocabularies, they had some, you know, rudimentary capacity to communicate. Because on that first voyage, Cook was there to observe the transit of Venus, the the state was extended, they had to set up a camp, set up the context for their astronomical observations, and so on. They were there for three months. And that meant that there was actually a great deal of interaction. There was a great deal of curiosity. Notoriously, there was a lot of sexual interaction. After the astronomical observations were out of the way, Cook and Banks made a tour of the island, they walked right around it over a number of days, they really became comparatively intimate with the local people. And the other famous part of this story is that Tupaia, who was from another island, from Raiateia, but has relocated owing to various political alliances, he had relocated to Tahiti, he was clearly an intellectual, a priest, a navigator, a prominent individual. He was interested in what Banks and Cook were doing, he spent a good deal of time with them, he clearly shared a great deal of information. So there was a sort of quasi-ethnographic exchange of knowledge and understanding at that moment, at the very beginnings of European contact with that part of the Pacific. And that process of interaction and knowledge exchange continued in fits and starts. And there were times when islanders were extraordinarily generous with their understanding of traditional histories, navigational routes, navigational techniques, and so that information was gradually drawn into European commentary on the Pacific, often sometimes in somewhat scrambled expression. But it nevertheless entered that archive and can be recovered and reflected upon today.
Alex Golub I suppose one narrative that’s out there in popular opinion would be that Pacific Islanders were discovered by Europeans, or that Europeans discovered Pacific Islanders and that narrative could take a triumphalist form emphasizing the amazing ability of Europeans to gain enlightenment and knowledge of the world. Or it could take a tragic form as a sort of a critique of colonialism or expansion, you know, at the expense of Islanders. But the story you’re telling is one in which the Europeans’ agency is just part of the picture, that the agency of Pacific Islanders was entangled from the very beginning with these European attempts at exploration. And we can now go and find proof of that by revisiting logs, revisiting journals, revisiting museum collections, and seeing the way in which this knowledge about the Pacific that Europeans had was not just the result of European efforts, for good or for ill, but deeply deeply entangled with sophisticated knowledge with Pacific Islanders like Tupaia had,
Nicholas Thomas yes. And in other books like a comparative history of empire in the Pacific I wrote about 10 years ago, “Islanders”, I’ve tried to foreground the sense in which the colonial encounter was not just a sort of collision between globalizing Europeans and islanders who were sort of bound in a kind of customary regime. I think it’s rather extraordinary that islanders were themselves extraordinarily cosmopolitan at a very early stage in that whole sequence of interactions. You had islanders traveling to Europe as early as 1800. And before. In fact, the business of missionizing the Pacific, converting Pacific Islanders, so to speak, to Christianity was something that was actually largely undertaken by islanders themselves not by white missionaries. So this was very much an interactive process. And in the same sense, the kind of knowledge of the Pacific that emerged in disciplines like folklore, and more particularly subsequently in anthropology was actually a body of knowledge that islanders actively contributed to.
Alex Golub Yes, we see that in the example you mentioned earlier of how Hau‘ofa’s parents who were missionaries are, I guess, missionary teachers, they were known as, who are responsible for bringing Christianity and being very active in Misima. So we already see that in some of the examples of the things that we’ve talked about earlier. I also, remember at the recent Pacific history conference, which you helped organize in Cambridge in… was it 2019?
Nicholas Thomas 2018.
Alex Golub 2018. Boy, it’s in the COVID. World, these things seem like they happened quite a long time ago – or maybe more recently, because I said 2019 – one of the sort of things that you always do when you go to these conferences is try to see what the the hot new thinker is, or the hot new approach. And I remember at that conference, thinking that the hot new theoretical thinker for the Pacific was Tupaia man who’d been dead for a century, because people found his work so stimulating, and there had been new work attempting to understand his chart, his remarkable map of the Pacific. And you talk about a recent paper showing that if we look at this famous map, which has many, many islands on it, which demonstrates the incredible geographical knowledge of Pacific Islanders, and we read that map, and we imagine ourselves in the room where Tupaia is trying to explain the map and how it works, then we can get a better sense of the map and what it means and we can interpret it. I don’t want you to go into more detail than you’d like to because the act of interpreting this map is extremely technical. But can you just maybe tell us a little bit about how that map is an example of the coproduction that you’re talking about?
Nicholas Thomas Yes, we know that Tupaia of course wanted to join the Endeavour’s voyage, he hoped to go to Britain to visit the places that Cook and Banks and the others he had encountered came from. Tragically, he died in Batavia, what’s now more or less Jakarta, on the passage home with a lot of other people on the voyage. They they suffered fevers. But he did sail with Cook to New Zealand arouey clearly discussed navigational matters intensively. He talked about islands he knew he talked about how far away they were, how long it took to reach them. And at some point, he created a diagram, a map-like diagram, that showed a considerable number of islands. Some of those islands have names that are readily recognizable like islands in the Marquesas which, Tupaia certainly knew of. There are other islands where the names may be inferentially identified with known islands. And there are others where the identification of the islands on the map is is complete speculation. I suppose one thing I’d say about this is that there are some real enigmas in this whole story, there are enigmas about the motivations of why people voyaged early in the history of the settlement of the Pacific. And even though I think we’ll know more about but the timing of those movements, I don’t know that we’ll ever really understand the motivations of people a couple of thousand years ago who got into canoes and ventured into open ocean to try and establish a new homeland, a new settlement somewhere that they didn’t even really know for sure existed. And I think similarly, I have to say that I find Tupaia’s chart, fundamentally, deeply enigmatic. It is an icon of the cross-cultural sharing of knowledge. It is an icon of indigenous generosity in the context of those early encounters. It certainly exhibits profound an extensive geographic knowledge on the part of Society islanders at that time in the late 18th century, I tend to be a little skeptical that we can extract the information from it, that we can extract the intelligence that Tupaia brought to its composition from the document itself.
Alex Golub Yeah, I like that image of it as an icon. It’s one of these images or one of these emblems, when we’re trying to understand the history of the Pacific and the history of Pacific Islanders interaction with the wider world, that we return to again, and again as we try to understand our own situation. As me living in the Pacific, and you who studies the Pacific so much where we return to it as a symbol of the ongoing work that we’re trying to do in our relationships in the Pacific, I think. You know, one of the other key figures who features in your book and gets a little bit of attention is Peter Buck, also known, I hope I get the Maori writers Te Rangi Hiroa. I tend to pronounce the Maori in the way I try to pronounce Hawaiian. And he was another one of these Pacific Islanders who was entangled with Western knowledge and did some of the coproduction cutting across these different categories for people who have not heard about him can you tell us a bit about him and his career? He’s, he’s much later on in histories, he’s in the 20th century. Is that correct?
Nicholas Thomas Yeah, he was born in 1877 or just around then there’s some uncertainty about the exact date. And he was a remarkable political actor and scholar. He was of mixed ancestry. His mother was of Maori people of the group on the on the west coast near Taranaki. He was an extremely able student, he undertook medical training, but quite early in life entered parliament. At that time, as is still the case, there are certain Maori seats in the New Zealand parliament and he was elected to one of those seats in the years just before the First World War. He then served in the war as a medical officer, and, on his return, assumed a senior appointment in the New Zealand medical service. But over that same period, was developing great interests in anthropology, in research on Maori tradition and material culture. And he at first won a fellowship to join the staff of Bishop Museum in Honolulu and went on to become director there. So he actually worked there in one capacity or another from 1927 until 1951, and he had an appointment with Yale University at the same time, and was extraordinarily energetic in securing funding to undertake Research across the Pacific, in the Tuamotus in the Cook Islands in the Society Islands. He was to some extent traditional as an anthropologist, he looked very closely at technology and analyzed the ways things were made, the knowledge associated with them. He, I think, in the history of the discipline maybe gets somewhat marginalized. Because, of course, it was the debate in political anthropology, in kinship around functionalism, around structuralism later, that that is seen as the dynamic of the discipline through the 20th century. And in that context, his artifact studies look a little bit closer to the late 19th century and early 20th century work of others who focused on material culture. But in hindsight, given the enormous interest in so many parts of the Pacific, in customary art forms, in taonga, in ancestral treasures, in maintaining the making, recreating forms and the genealogical knowledge that goes with them, his efforts to document those traditions have, I think, steadily greater importance because of the interest of so many Pacific constituencies in those forms.
Alex Golub Yes, if you go to the Bishop Museum, there is a display, with the Bishop Museum being that museum here in Honolulu, where I live. There’s a display which has an example of one of his notebooks, which is open, and you can see the sketches. And he was an incredibly rigorous person with a tremendous eye for detail. And a very, very accurate hand. This was this was real documentation. extremely, extremely detailed and specific. I have a slightly random question for you about this. You know, it was suggested to me at one point that it was his medical training and his training in anatomy that oriented him to spatial awareness and his ability to sort of see schematically the way in which different things are constructed. As someone who’s worked with so many of these museum collections, do you think that could be possibly true, that perhaps his early training in medicine had allowed him to do this quality of work? I don’t think he had any training as a draftsman or anything like that. Maybe I’m wrong about that.
Nicholas Thomas Um, I think that may well be right. He certainly had a visual intelligence and an aptitude to look closely at the artifact. And I think he saw the artifact, a woven cloak, a paddle, a basket, as something that one could, in some sense, listen to and learn from. He had an interest in the, in a sense of the capacity of an artifact to to relay knowledge. I don’t know whether it was because he was trained medically, or simply because he had that sort of intelligence as a person.
Alex Golub Yes, it’s remarkable. When you see many of the people who you discuss in this book, and in your other works, who have that ability to, as you say, listen to objects by by looking at them it’s a skill, which I think many academics might not be attuned to, because they’re so focused on the text. And in the case of the kind of anthropology that I do, they’re thinking about listening to people. They’re thinking about abstractions, like social structure. That ability to have and value visual intelligence, to produce material culture, I think is something that for academics, at least such as such as myself, we tend to discount and we might not recognize the value of that, both for people who are making and dealing with material culture, but also for those who study it. It’s a unique capacity that that we should learn to respect. Well, thank you very much for this interview, it’s wonderful to cover all of these these topics with someone who is so knowledgeable. But I don’t want to keep you for too long. I know that you have other projects. Before you go, can you tell us about what we might look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Nicholas Thomas What I might mention is something that I’ve just finished very recently. It’s not a big book. It’s a short catalogue essay about the work of a Niuean painter who has been a great friend of mine for almost 30 years, John Pule, who lives in Auckland, when he doesn’t live in Niue. He’s also a novelist. And he’s just recently had a new exhibition at the gallery that represents him, Gow Langsford in Auckland. And we decided to do a short catalog and I wrote a text for that catalogue about paintings that are actually about the settlement of Niue and the issues of movement, migration, and loss. John sees resonances between those ancestral voyages, and the voyages that Pacific Islanders are making now and have made over the last fifty years and he’s very conscious of, in a sense, the gain and the loss that comes with movement. Even if you have the opportunity to revisit the place you come from, you can’t quite redress the loss of having left that homeland. So I think the longer dynamic of population movement of peoples, voyages in the Pacific has all sorts of resonances now that are being explored in these extraordinarily powerful and evocative ways as his recent paintings really exemplify.
Alex Golub Perhaps that’s a good way to end the interview, you know, so often when we discuss voyaging, and the work of Epeli Hau‘ofa and others it’s it’s in a triumphalist mode that points out the power and positivity of voyaging. But of course, we shouldn’t underplay the fact that, you know, it is possible to leave and to look back and regret and there’s there’s always ambivalence in this ongoing process of voyaging and expansion as Pacific Islanders move across the region and across the world.
Nicholas Thomas That’s right. And I’d have to say that my own thinking has really been very much enriched by conversations, in some ways, the most important conversations of my adult life with artists like John, others in in the Pacific today, the people who are making a new culture in Oceania.
Alex Golub Hmm. Well, Nick Thomas, thank you very much for being on the podcast today. I appreciate it. This was a very informative interview for me, and I hope it will be for the listeners as well.
Nicholas Thomas Thank you very much.
Alex Golub So once again, that was Nicholas Thomas. And we have been discussing his book, the settlement of the Pacific, “Voyagers”, and I would encourage you all to take a look at the book, and to subscribe and listen to more podcasts both on the anthropology channel and on the New Books Network more generally. Thanks very much, folks, and we’ll see you again.
JSTOR books is an incredible resource. However, finding your way around can be a bit tricky. Here is a guide to book series which feature Pacific anthropology which may be useful for navigating the site:
I would like to thank the AJEC blog for inviting me to remember my mentor and dissertation supervisor Marshall Sahlins, and particularly his connection to Europe. Famously, Sahlins spent two years in Paris in the late 1960s. He arrived just in time for May ’68 — he told me once that he held his first seminar and then, after that, no one came for the duration of the seminar because they were all out on the street!
During his time in Paris Sahlins was, of course, deeply influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Some Americans see Sahlins as having ‘converted’ to structuralism, but this is far too simple. Sahlins read not just Lévi-Strauss, but the Sartre-Lévi-Strauss debate. Sahlins’s latter work on the ‘structure of the conjuncture’ was intended as a criticism of Lévi-Strauss. Close readers will notice that Sartre’s Question de Méthode often appears in Sahlins’s bibliographies.
Beyond these intellectual influences, Sahlins also treasured the personal networks which connected him to Europe. He helped bring Valerio Valeri — a great Italian student of Lévi-Strauss — to Chicago, as well as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, who carries the great tradition of Francophone Brazilian social thought. These connections went both ways. I spent a summer at the EHESS thanks to the initiative of Marie Salaun, who managed my invitation from Albin Bensa and Jonathan Friedman. Having a chance to meet great scholars such as Maurice Godelier made me feel very much like a node in what Lévi-Strauss called “restricted exchange” between Paris and Chicago! More recently in 2013 Sahlins was one of the discussants at the American Anthropological Association panel “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology” featuring Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola.
Finally, it should never be forgotten that above all Sahlins was an ethnographer of the Pacific. His connections extended to CREDO, a centre for the study of the Pacific in Europe, in Marseilles, and to the long-running Journal de la Société des Océanistes.
There is much more to say about Sahlins’s relationship to France and the Europe. It was during his time at Chicago that the anthropology department welcomed many European scholars. Marianne Gullestad, for instance, helped strengthen ties between Norwegian anthropology and American anthropology which had originally been made by Frederik Barth. The full history of these cross-continent relationships is yet to be written.
For many readers of this text, mentions of Maurice Godelier or Claude Lévi-Strauss will seem hopelessly old-fashioned, so I’d like to end this piece by stressing how important it is not only to look back but to look forward. Sahlins emphasized how structures maintain their identity through transformation, not stasis. I hope that younger scholars working today will renew and strengthen ties between Europe and the United States. The best way to honor Sahlins’s memory is not to canonize him or dogmatically insist on the importance of his insights, but to find the themes in his work which are the most important to us today, and draw on them in our own work in the future. This is the only way to ensure that a scholarly legacy will endure.
(While I have been active on Twitter posting links to memorials and obituaries of Marshall Sahlins, I have not written very much on my blog. In the next couple of months (or years) I am sure I will have more to say about him. However, I wanted to take the time to make public here the statement I’ve circulated over email. For more of my thoughts on Sahlins’s life and work, see the festschrift I edited in honor of him, A Practice of Anthropology.)
I owe Marshall a tremendous amount. The day he accepted me to work with him at Chicago my life’s path changed fundamentally. Every day I spend in Hawai‘i and every paycheck I receive as a tenured professor I owe, at least a little bit, to him.
Marshall was a great thinker, as many people on this list have mentioned. But he was also a role model. Unlike many superstars at Chicago he had a healthy and happy family life. Even his dogs were happy. As a result I never came of age — as many people do these days, judging from social media — believing that the price of academic success was a barren private life. If anything, the challenge was to find someone to share my life with as remarkable as Barbara!
He was also a person of absolute integrity who said what he meant and meant what he said. He met all of the deadlines I gave him for letters of recommendations, commenting on draft chapters, etc. He also insisted that I meet all of mine. He was not inflexible or inhumane in this, he just thought people should be committed to their commitments, or else not make them. I think this viewpoint drove a lot of his politics. He wanted people to do the right thing — something which is actually incredibly exhausting, but also a very good habit to learn and leads to a virtuous life.
Egalitarianism was another key traits of his personality. He treated everyone the same way, regardless of rank or position. It was a very Chicago (the city, not the university) way of being. I always found this pretty terrifying since he was a Famous and I was a not. But it ended up being valuable. He never told me I was not good enough, or that I would not be pushed to succeed because he had already decided I could not. If Marshall’s books could win awards, why not mine? And you know what, at the end of the day my first book _did_ win an award. It would not have if I had been taught to set my sights low.
Alan Rumsey has rightly pointed out that competition was important for Marshall. He was probably one of the few members of the national academy of science who regreted not being a college football star. His egalitarianism was, as we say in the business, ‘agonistic’. He loved what we call in Hebrew ‘machloket’ — disputation. Arguing with him was an intense, no-holds barred experience, but it never became personal and was always based on reason and evidence. You had to go for the jugular. One particularly important moment in my graduate education was watching his wife (a great bridge player) quietly, carefully, and relentlessly explain to him why he should have been bidding hearts. If you were right and he was wrong, his first move was to become extremely charming and change the subject. But if you kept at him he would admit he was wrong.
One reason his work was so good was that he did this to himself constantly. He had the ability to be self-critical without beating himself up emotionally. He also had a regular and healthy work habit. Both of these are key to academic success or, I would argue, any kind of success. If only we all had a Marshall in our heads to argue with the way he did, all of our work would be much stronger.
Given this, it’s no surprise that Marshall helped mentor an activist scholar like Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa or would support the tenure of Haunani-Kay Trask — nor is it surprising that these people would later have their disputes with him.
Much of the academic world has already forgotten many of Marshall’s intellectual contributions — his dissolution of the structure-agency binary seems not to have taken, for instance, outside of anyone who is not Webb Keane. But I think his greatest contribution which we must carry forward is the recognition that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. Certainly in the United States today too many people have forgotten how to disagree with each other and indeed, can only understand disagreement as pathological.
When I think of Marshall the impression I get is one of clarity: Clarity of thought, of action, and of ethics. To this day I walk through the world constantly noticing how many people believe arguments that are not true because they are emotionally comforting, or who use their power and privilege every day to opt out of integrity and responsibility in ways large and small. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had Marshall’s clarity and integrity.
Marshall and I were very different people. I couldn’t connect with him over sports and he had no interest in sacred choral music of the baroque and renaissance, which was my love in graduate school. But he took me seriously and I learned a lot from him. Probably one of my proudest moments came when I was sitting at his kitchen table, listening to his feedback on a dissertation chapter. In despair, I asked him whether he thought my dissertation was any good at all. His looked me right in the eye and told me that it was “better than ok.”