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The History of Pacific Islanders

Writer: Harry Zhao

Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta

Pacific Islanders are a group of indigenous people inhabiting various island nations in the Pacific Ocean. They can be classified geographically as Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians. Melanesia includes Fiji and Papua New Guinea; Micronesia includes Guam and the Mariana Islands; and Polynesia includes Hawaii, New Zealand, and Samoa. Anthropologists claim that Polynesians are a sub-branch of the Austronesian people, who settled in a region from Taiwan to Indonesia. Pacific Islanders have lived in the region for thousands of years as they settled on various islands through seaborne migration. Over the years they have come into contact with other groups of people, including other Pacific Islanders and European imperialists, which caused huge changes in their societies.

As Pacific Islanders first inhabited the islands around 2-3 thousand years ago, the islands did not provide necessities for human survival but instead presented challenges for the Pacific Islanders. This meant that early settlers had to import commodities such as useful herbs and livestock to survive. Islanders often traded luxury items with each other, including basalt adze blades and red feathers that were important in their traditional culture. As seafaring nations, they often went on voyages that spanned the Pacific Ocean, thus being well known as great mariners and shipbuilders. Although they spread all over the ocean, they faithfully preserved their culture and beliefs. Islands separated by vast distances are shown to still maintain very similar linguistic and cultural elements.

Upon the first contact with Europeans, an idealized image of the Polynesian paradise was created in Europe, largely inspired by accounts of voyagers such as Captain James Cook that depicted Pacific Islanders as carefree and idyllic people living on beautiful islands. The islands' abundant resources and vast trade network attracted European settlers and traders by the turn of the 19th century. Soon, Christian missionaries arrived on these islands intending to alter and replace indigenous culture and societies, trying to convert local chiefs in hopes that the rest would follow.

By 1842, all islands except Tonga were governed by European powers. Britain tried to maintain the traditional roles of chiefs as best as they could, Germany used corporations to control the islands, and France replicated their form of government in the islands. Following World War I, resources from the Australian government to assist native Papua New Guineans and Fijians were limited, whereas native Samoans resisted foreign influences from the New Zealand administration. Proceeding World War II, colonial powers agreed to restore independence and self-governance to the islands and to help them develop as the islands come into extensive contact with the outside world. Pacific Islanders slowly gained the right to participate in government, leading to independence movements throughout Oceania. In regions such as French Polynesia, conflict arose between colonial supporters and separatists after protests against France using the island for nuclear weapon testing, and in Papua New Guinea violence broke out on Bougainville island.

Nowadays, the islands still contend with foreign presences such as China, Australia, and New Zealand seeking to secure naval bases and passages. Additionally, climate change and rising sea levels have caused areas like Tuvalu and Kiribati to experience gradual submersion, threatening to make the area inhabitable. With a history of adapting to external pressures, Pacific Islanders still need to face the ongoing challenges of the modern world.




This article is in collaboration between Stick to Change (@stick.tochange) and The Curious Mind (@tcuriousmind)! Our organizations are uniting to celebrate World Indigenous Day on 9th August. We will have a week of collaborative content about the history of the indigenous people, their culture, their communities and show proper and respectful media representation of these people. We will be uploading posts, reels and stories so keep a lookout for them!


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