Tuesday, October 21, 2008

West-Newman lauds Banner, Possessing the Pacific

Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska by Stuart Banner (Harvard University Press, 2007) is reviewed by Catherine Lane West-Newman, Department of Sociology, The University of Auckland, New Zealand in the Law and Politics Book Review. West-Newman writes:
POSSESSING THE PACIFIC undertakes a comparative historical study of colonial land policy and practice in what became Anglophone states and nations which either border on, or are located within the Pacific Ocean. Although the idea of taking the Pacific as a focal point for such an examination, once posed, seems obvious, no one to my knowledge has previously taken such an explicitly spatial orienting approach. So while there are, for example, comparative studies of land issues in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Haverman 1999) and many books that focus on a single nation state (see the multiple citations in this volume) all these encompass events and policies affecting the whole nation, which in the case of Canada and the United States at least tends to much generalization. In consequence the possibility of finer grained analysis through the explication and dissection of strictly local circumstances is lost. But here, rather than policy in the US or in Canada being the unit of analysis, the discussion of North America, for example, is focused on the specifics of California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, Hawai’i and British Columbia. In addition, past descriptions of land issues in, for example, the smaller Pacific nations of Fiji and Tonga have been largely found in anthropological studies where they are not necessarily a central concern. Given the quite intensive circulation of explorers, settlers, colonial officials, and policy ideas within the regions, the present approach is illuminating and effective. For these reasons alone the book would be a most welcome addition to the literature on land, settlers, and indigenous peoples.

But there is more in the shape of a scrupulous attention to local historical accounts which allows Stuart Banner to capture a very real flavour of specificity and difference in a range of geographical spaces. I have frequently noticed with regret (and sometimes noted in this Review) that accounts of Antipodean histories which originate in the United States often seem to be filtered through a peculiarly American sensibility and set of assumptions about the nature of law, for example, that render their own histories all but unrecognizable to the subjects of such discussions. Banner, on the other hand, clearly writes from within the particular local knowledge of the places he describes, the result of scrupulous research and excellently chosen sources. Both the acknowledgements and bibliography in this book attest to an intimate knowledge of local research materials on the places examined and to consultation with local scholars and other experts. Or, as he puts it: ‘The research for this book required travel to some very nice places’ (p.i). And it is ultimately that, I think, which makes this such a satisfying book.
For all the above reasons, I found this account exciting and original in its historiography and in the political economy of colonization and land that it presents....There is no way in a short review to do justice to the richness of detail within this book. I shall use it as a teaching resource on culture, colonization, and land, but would also recommend it as a fascinating account of a significant foundational period in the history of each of these places. Above all it is a book that enables us to understand better the interconnectedness of our geo-political world.

Read the rest here.