ESfO conference: Europe and the Pacific

The Pacific was long viewed as a remote, isolated region condemned to dependency on larger countries because of a paucity of natural resources and a small, dispersed population. Pacific Islanders themselves, however, view spatial separation also as promoting proximity and connections. The Oceanic perspective of connectedness characterizes social relations across the region, and remains important also to those islanders who now belong to diasporic communities on the Pacific Rim. Such a vision may also suggest that Europe’s geographical distance from the Pacific needs not necessarily place it at a relational disadvantage. For European scholarship, the distance from the region might even be a virtue, as shown by the strength of the European Society for Oceanists (ESfO).

The colonial history of Europe in the Pacific is diverse and multi-stranded, while the Pacific had its own distinctive influences on the varied trajectories of European history and thought. These exchanges have left a legacy of historical and cultural connections that, to some extent, provide a basis for distinctive forms of ongoing relationships between the two regions. Current European engagements in the Pacific are taking place especially through connections in trade relations, sustainable development programmes, tourism, humanitarian aid, legal-political relations, new migration patterns, and concerns about the impacts of global climate change.

In some respects, however, European connections to the Oceanic region relate uncomfortably to the aspirations and ambitions of Pacific peoples themselves. The peoples of the Pacific Islands have a long and distinguished history of engaging with people from other regions of the world on their own social and cultural terms, and on the basis of their own economic and political interests. In recent times, the spirit of Ratu Mara’s ‘Pacific Way’ and Hau’ofa’s ‘Sea of Islands’ has come to characterize the Pacific’s vision for its future, indicating also that Pacific Islanders increasingly demand to define priorities in their connections with Europe from their own perspective. These calls from the Pacific for a new kind of relationship with Europe – in whatever shape or form Europe may be perceived as a region – require further reflection.

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