History: Colonialism

Colonialism in the South Pacific

The first European colonies in Oceania were Australia (1788) and New Zealand (1840). Soon after, the French seized French Polynesia (1842) and New Caledonia (1853). A canal across Central America had already been proposed and Tahiti was seen as a potential port of call on the sea routes to Australia and New Zealand. New Caledonia was used first as a penal colony; nickel mining only began in the 1870s. The French annexed several other island groups near Tahiti in the 1880s.

Not wishing to be burdened with the expense of administering insignificant, far-flung colonies, Britain at first resisted pressure to officially annex other scattered South Pacific island groups, though Fiji was reluctantly taken in 1874 to establish law and order. In 1877 the Western Pacific High Commission was set up to protect British interests in the unclaimed islands.

Then the emergence of imperialist Germany and construction of the Panama Canal led to a sudden rush of annexations by Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. between 1884 and 1900. In 1899 Samoa was partitioned between Germany and the U.S., with Tonga and the Solomon Islands added to the British sphere of influence as compensation. The last island group to be taken over was New Hebrides (Vanuatu), declared a "condominium" by Britain and France in 1906 to forestall German advances.

Around the time of WW I Britain transferred responsibility for many island groups to Australia and New Zealand. The struggle for hegemony in imperialist Europe in 1914-1918 prompted Germany's colonies (New Guinea, Samoa, and Micronesia) to be taken by the British and Japanese empires. The South Pacific had become a British lake, economically dependent on Australia and New Zealand, a situation largely unchanged today.

By the late 19th century, the colonies' tropical produce (copra, sugar, vanilla, cacao, and fruits) had become more valuable and accessible; minerals—such as nickel and phosphates—and guano were also exploited. Total control of these resources passed to large European trading companies, which owned the plantations, ships, and retail stores. This colonial economy stimulated the immigration of Indian laborers to Fiji, the alienation of major tracts of native land in New Caledonia, and a drop in the indigenous populations in general by a third, not to mention the destruction of their cultures.

There were fundamental differences in approach between the British and French colonial administrations in the South Pacific. While the French system installed "direct rule" by French officials appointed by the French government, the British practiced "indirect rule" with the customary chiefs (Fiji) or royalty (Tonga) retaining most of their traditional powers. Not only was this form of government cheaper, but it fostered stability. British colonial officials had more decision-making authority than their French counterparts who had to adhere to instructions received from Paris. And while the French sought to undermine local traditions in the name of assimilation, the British defended the native land tenure on which traditional life was based.

World War II

World War II provided the United States with unparalleled opportunities to project power across the Pacific and grab territory. Although the United States had gained a toehold in the Pacific by annexing Hawaii and the Spanish colonies (Guam and the Philippines) in 1898, further expansion was frustrated by the British and Japanese. Japan had hoped to become the dominant force in Asia and the Pacific by establishing a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." After the Japanese occupation of French Indochina in July 1941, an economic embargo on iron from the United States and oil from the Dutch East Indies presented the Japanese with a choice: strangulation, retreat, or war.

The history of the Pacific War can be found in many books. Half a million Japanese soldiers and civilians died far from their native shores. The only area covered on this website actually occupied by Japanese troops was the Solomon Islands. Large American staging and supply bases were created on Grande Terre, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, and Bora Bora. The Americans built airfields on islands right across the South Pacific, while their ships controlled the southern supply routes to Australia and New Zealand.