Empire and Labor in the Pacific
Labor and Working Class History Association 5
After a wave of cultural approaches to imperialism, historians have turned their attention to empire’s more material dimensions, in the Pacific and elsewhere. Building on the pioneering work by historians such as Doug Munro, Brij Lal, and Dorothy Shineberg, a new generation of scholars is again interested in the intersection of labor and empire in the Pacific.
Approaching the imperial histories of the Pacific from the bottom up represents not only a shift in perspective from the still dominant view from the metropolitan centers, especially the North Atlantic. More importantly, this new labor history of the Pacific also engages directly with pressing concerns in today’s Pacific societies which continue to grapple with the colonial legacies of labor migration, resource extraction, tourism, and militarization from Samoa and Fiji to the Philippines and Guam.
Our panel will bring together historians from the United States and Australia to create a truly trans-Pacific conversation. We are thus ideally placed to examine the struggles, negotiations, and accommodations on the ground in a range of labor sites around the Pacific World.
In the panel’s first presentation, HOLGER DROESSLER (Harvard University) traces the rise of the copra plantation economy in Samoa at the turn of the twentieth century. He argues that Samoans forged lasting bonds of affection and solidarity with the thousands of migrant workers from Melanesia and China in the crucible of plantation labor. Ultimately, Droessler concludes, cross-racial solidarity among workers would prove critical for the more direct challenge to colonial rule that shook Samoan society after World War One.
The panel’s second presentation by FRANCES STEEL (University of Wollongong, Australia) focuses on the urban labor history of another Polynesian archipelago: Fiji. Taking the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva as a case study, Steel investigates encounters between Indian hotel servants and their expatriate employers and Euro-American guests to highlight influences imported from the Asian colonial experience into the Pacific Islands.
In the panel’s third presentation, ALAN LUMBA (Harvard University) explores how the increasing financialization of plantations across the Pacific dispossessed and dislocated agricultural workers in the Philippines. In particular, he analyzes the ways in which the political and legal status of Filipinos shaped and was shaped by changing modes of agricultural production in the interwar period. Lumba argues that Filipino workers struggled against the newly precarious and transient work conditions through increasingly militant and affective modes of resistance.
In the panel’s final presentation, COLLEEN WOODS (University of Maryland, College Park) riffs on Epeli Hau’ofa’s seminal 1993 essay “Our Sea of Islands” to explore what she refers to as the “building of a sea of bases” by the U.S. military after World War Two. While most scholars locate the rise of a Filipino “culture of migration” around the 1973 oil shocks, Woods seeks to predate the militarized migration of Filipino laborers in the context of U.S. military expansion in Guam in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Our panel will conclude with a comment by chair MATT MATSUDA (Rutgers University) and a conversation with the audience.