Analysis | Colonisation in the Pacific

Analysis | Colonisation in the Pacific

By Thomas Li

Colonialism is an aggressive doctrine that derives its inherent roots from imperialism. The purpose of colonialism is geostrategic, as it involves establishing control of a country, invading and occupying it with settlers, and exploiting its resources for the benefit of colonisers. It has been argued that colonisation in the Pacific did not significantly tamper with the region’s development. However,  colonialism played an integral role in changing Pacific people’s lifestyle culturally, economically, politically and socially.

Throughout the colonisation process, colonisers heavily relied upon an appalling worldview that encompassed racial ideologies to undermine Pacific peoples. Colonisers utilised a colonial binary that exercised biased and unethical assumptions to position themselves as ‘modern’ and ‘intelligent’ whilst branding Pacific peoples as ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’. In this manner, colonisers infected Pacific society with their epistemological perspectives, particularly through the practice of Eurocentrism. Consequently, hegemonic European values drastically altered Pacific peoples’ social and cultural experience.  This drastic change is evident in the way that colonisers dictated gender roles within society. Colonisers asserted that women should undertake domestic roles, a practice that significantly mirrored their own patriarchal society in which women were not emancipated.  In 1899, European women embarked on a ‘hygiene’ mission in Fiji; the result of this mission was the indoctrination of Indigenous women and girls in institutions promoting motherhood and childcare. The Spanish Influenza crisis in Samoa in 1918 is another example of the devastating societal consequences of racial ideologies employed by colonisers.  The influenza virus was a foreign disease in Samoan society, introduced through contact with New Zealand. The virus resulted in the death of a staggering 22 per cent of the overall Samoan population, a fatal statistic that could have been prevented by medical assistance.  However, New Zealand, as the coloniser, ignored the needs of this population. This injustice led to political developments within society, such as the foundation of the Mau Movement, which aimed to achieve Pacific recognition and self-sovereignty. Overall, racial ideologies had extensive social and political ramifications. The well-being of Pacific peoples was marginalised in favour of European interests, a form of cultural hegemony.

Colonialism in the Pacific was undoubtedly an act of violence against the territorial integrity of Pacific peoples. In the 18th and 19th centuries, colonisation was used as a form of economic aggrandisement to extract and exploit indigenous resources, including human resources.  In addition to prioritising European welfare, colonial rule also protected European economic and political interests.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, the First World War occurred amidst volatile global tensions. Colonisation remained prominent despite the outbreak of war, and a turbulent new wave of colonial activity occurred, characterised by global violence. This turbulent period of colonisation was evident within the Pacific. For example, prior to World War I, Samoa had been controlled by Germany.  However, in 1914, New Zealand invaded German Samoa and reaffirmed imperial superiority through anti-German eradication.  This counter-invasion dramatically transformed Samoans’ lives. Not only did they experience another annexation, but they were also unwillingly involved in a war caused by European statesmen. The era of Nuclear colonialism further exacerbated changes to the Pacific political landscape, surpassing the brutality of orthodox colonialism. Colonial tensions thickened, particularly within the drastically varied nature of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. The nuclear arms race was positioned as a means of preserving national security at the expense of Pacific national interests. Essentially, the Pacific became a scapegoat for nuclear testing endeavours by nations unconcerned about the well-being of the region and its inhabitants. In 1957 and 1958, the British carried out Operation Grapple, testing the development of atomic bombs as a countermeasure against Russian activity.  This campaign had devastating consequences on the lives of Pacific people. For example, individuals such as Paul Ah Poy and Tere Tahi experienced lingering psychological trauma, genetic malfunction and disease in the years following. In summation, colonisation was used to violate the state integrity of Pacific nations throughout a range of contexts, such as global warfare and nuclear tensions. This had devastating impacts on the well-being of Pacific people’s quality of life.

Colonisation also drove cultural developments, spreading Eurocentral religious and literary idealisms within Pacific society. Europeans justified colonialism by arguing that traditional religious beliefs were heathen and that the colonised themselves were ‘savages’ who needed to be ‘cleansed.’ Pacific peoples believed in an otherwordly spiritual realm that held polytheistic beliefs and values. Missionaries sought to instil Christian theology within society to alter these traditional customs, driving cultural change. Missionary schools and faith were employed as tools through which missionaries attempted to indoctrinate and permeate Christianity within society. Missionaries asserted the abolition of war, theft, adultery, infanticide and suicide. As George Lawes, a European missionary, detailed in an empirical anecdote regarding the religious environment of Niue in 1861, there was “not an outward vestige of heathenism remaining” (Chapman, 1982, p. 117). It has been argued that an increase in Christian-based morals did reduce instances of crime within society. Furthermore, the global demand for literary skills meant that many individuals benefitted from learning to read and write. However, the colonial campaign asserted written language and Christianity as dominant at the expense of traditional practices and customs, such as orally recorded history. This campaign drove widespread societal acceptance of these European values, causing a drastic alteration in Pacific culture. The implementation of literacy skills fundamentally transformed local knowledge systems. Despite this, traditional methods of language and literature have not been entirely displaced.

Overall, colonialism played an integral role in changing Pacific society.  Colonising nations employed racial ideologies to severely inflict prejudice upon Indigenous populations, with disastrous societal consequences. Colonisers also infringed on colonised nations’ environmental and spatial territories, exploiting their natural and economic resources to benefit their own states. These acts further altered the economic and political landscapes of the Pacific region. Although it has traditionally been argued that the introduction of Christianity and literacy were acts of ‘goodwill’ that carried societal benefits, these were developed at the expense of, and positioned as superior to, existing literacy and religious practices. Overall, the changes in Pacific society have inevitably and inexorably altered the region’s social, economic, political and cultural landscape. 



Chapman, T. M. (1982). Niue: a history of the island. University of the South Pacific, Institute of Pacific Studies: Government of Niue.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


We’re Recruiting!

  – APPLICATIONS FOR EXEC POSITIONS FOR 2016 HAVE NOW CLOSED –   If you care about politics and want to do something meaningful, apply

Re-Orientation Week

We are incredibly excited to host our very first orientation week from the 18th-22nd of July! Visit our PPC stall at the city campus recreation