Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Patriarchal Colonization in the Pacific

Over on The Global Sociology Blog, SocProf had a post explaining how the oppression of women (or other minorities) can be extended when government fails to intervene, and that a lack of governmental oversight – that some argue is too paternalistic – is frequently necessary to stop such obvious forms of oppression. The post reminded me of an NPR story about a very isolated colonial project, also rooted in extreme patriarchy.

I suppose most colonial projects are patriarchal, but the case of Pitcairn Island, hidden for many years in the South Pacific, now revealed, is particularly overt. Outside of Tonga, Pacific Island history was characterized heavily by colonization since the late 18th century.

Tahiti’s colonial history came at the hands of the French. However, Pitcairn Island, though close in proximity to French Polynesia, was colonized by the British, and holds a strong Tahitian tie. According to the book
Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed, by Kathy Marks, a small number of Tahitian women were kidnapped by British explorers and taken to Pitcairn Island, where for literally centuries, systemic sexual abuse transpired.

The story was covered by NPR in April via an
interview with the book’s author.

According to Marks, sexual abuse was inflicted upon the Tahitian women and girls by the British men to such a consistent degree that over the decades, the assaults became a normalized part of Pitcairn culture. In fact, Marks’s interviews with Polynesian women on Pitcairn Island found that some of them justified the abuse – including the abuse of minors – arguing that the girls were promiscuous and seduced the older British men, noting further that youthful promiscuity was a typical aspect of Polynesian culture.

However, as Marks notes, this shouldn’t be especially surprising since the island culture was established such that men held all the power, in terms of work, politics, and ties to the colonial powerhouse, Great Britain. It was an extremely male dominated society that limited female resistance for many years. Also, internalizing blame is not uncommon among the chronically oppressed, reflecting socialization into socio-political norms.

On another note, the expressed racialized and gendered stereotype of youthful promiscuity among Polynesians falls in line with the writings of Margaret Mead, seen most blatantly in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa. It was later made known that the Samoans Mead interviewed had a fun time lying to her about their culture. Still, the stereotypes persisted among early western readers (probably among many contemporary ones as well). As seen through the Pitcairn case, the same stereotypes were utilized in a very separate space to systemically exploit Polynesian women and justify that exploitation.

This case illustrates, like local patriarchal cultures, highly isolated colonial projects require international intervention that confronts the racialized and gendered dimensions of domination.

(Photo courtesy of
Pictairan News).

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