The Pacific Ocean ‘in Their Blood’: Pat Kirch’s and Tupaia’s biographies as good reads

Last year I enjoyed  two good Pacific archaeology – related books I was asked to review; both reviews are being published this month, in the Journal of Pacific History and in the Journal de la Société des Océanistes.

Pat Kirch’s archaeological autobiography is of course of great interest for anyone interested in the historiography of Pacific Archaeology: Unearthing the Polynesian Past: explorations and adventures of an island archaeologist – recently published at UH Press, is an entertaining book about the ‘adventures of an island archaeologist’, but it is also rich in information about the recent history of Pacific archaeology – with the added interest of presenting this history within its ‘real-life’ personal context.

The narrative follows a chronological order; from Patrick Kirch’s childhood as a Keiki o ka ‘Aina (‘child of the land’) in 1950s Hawai‘i to his many fieldworks and academic achievements, concluding the book with a chapter that offers his reflections on five decades of rapid changes in the ideas, practices and institutional frameworks of Pacific archaeology. Two important aspects of the book are (i) the apparently effortless rendering of the entwined personal, archaeological and intellectual histories at play and (ii) the records provided in Kirch’s stories of the critical role of encounters and networks in the making of one’s career and access to fieldwork opportunities. In short, this is a great, rich read, instructive and enjoyable, marked by the author’s passion for his work, the Pacific and its people.

The detailed review is published online in JPH with 50 free downloads available here.

Tupaia’s biography by Joan Druett might not seem so directly related to Pacific archaeology and the history of the field – but it is in fact highly relevant: through the importance of Tupaia’s life in the history of encounters between Europeans and Pacific Islanders (and representations of Pacific traditional societies and knowledge); and because it is the first biography of Tupaia, the Master Navigator from what is now French Polynesia, to be published in French.

Indeed, five years after the original publication (Tupaia. Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator. Greenwood Press, 2010), the French translation (Tupaia. Le pilote polynésien du capitaine Cook. Éditions ‘Ura, 2015) is finally exposing to francophone readers, especially of the Pacific, the life of a central historical figure of current French Polynesia. The fact that this biography, like those devoted to the other Tahitian traveler Omai, was written by an Anglophone author seems quite striking. Both these Polynesian diplomats, as was Ahuturu who is more represented in French literature because of his association with Bougainville, have been at the centre of important publications and exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand and England but have remained very rarely mentioned in the francophone sphere. They certainly deserve to be better known in their region of origin, and the French translation of Joan Druett’s book by a Tahitian editing house is a great achievement in this direction.

The book is based on a careful bibliographical research, both on Polynesian traditions and on the European historical and maritime contexts of the end of the eighteenth century. It is still primarily a biography destined at a wide audience – and not an academic monograph. It reads as a fabulous historic adventure novel telling the story of an ‘extraordinary Polynesian’ who sailed away with James Cook and Joseph Banks in July 1769, then played a central role as navigator and interpret during the rest of the expedition, before his sad death less than two years later, as a result of scurvy.
Joan Druett’s book has an undeniable charm, just like its principal character, despite – or perhaps because – of the floating border between historical facts and fiction.

The full review – in French – is published in the latest issue of the JSO (142-143).

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