Conference paper

Beginning a conversation: writing a history about Mangaia

11 Mar 2009

Imagine the following scene: Rarotonga International Airport, the date 26 April 1988. A young Pacific historian is standing in front of a weighing machine at the domestic check in. About to place his bags on the tray, he is told that the counter staff must first weigh him. Has he heard right? But they insist and reluctantly, in front of the other passengers, his weight is carefully recorded, before his bags are checked through. The plane is finally called, and being impatient to be off he is the first passenger to arrive at the plane. But he is told off to the side by the crew, so that two students from the local theological college can enter first. Finally, after the other passengers board, he is allowed on. Forty minutes in a small two engined turbo prop high above the dark blue green sea of the Pacific, and he cannot see an island in sight. Then as the plane banks, there to the right a solid triangle of land suddenly emerges on the horizon, its coastline lapped by the rolling waves of the ocean. As the plane descends the young Pacific historian looks out of the window at the land. This is the island of Mangaia, famed amongst Pacific scholars for the learned ethnographies written about it since the nineteenth century. But the island fails to impress the historian: the land seems to comprise barren grey rocks rising up from the seas; there are no sandy inviting beaches, no coconut trees bathed by the waters in the lagoon, not even a sign of life, no habitations, no houses, nothing. Just bush and rock. Amongst the anxieties of arrival, he also experiences disappointment: the land seems desolate and forbidding.

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