The First Taint of Civilization: A History of the Caroline and Marshall Islands in Pre-Colonial Days, 1521–1885 by Francs X. Hezel, SJ. Pacific Islands Monograph Series, No. 1. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1983. 371 pp., $29.00.
Continuing in my North Pacific concentration, I decided to take a step back from recent events and delve a little deeper into the history of the region. Very little has been written on the subject; thankfully, the State Department Library has a remarkably comprehensive collection, including a number of original monographs and field manuals used and created as early as 1942 for the incoming American soldiers who were to become the new colonists in the islands. I skimmed a number of those early books and gained some valuable insights into the culture of the region, though most authors adopted a condescending attitude towards the islanders. In the end, I settled on this well-documented account of what is essentially the entire known early history for Micronesia.
The author's account details the earliest encounters between the western world and the small islands of Micronesia, beginning with the sightings by the first Spanish ships through the colonial annexation by Germany and Spain of the entire region. The 360 years in between these events are filled with accounts of resistance, annihilation, and adaptation by the native islanders. While the boatloads of explorers, businessmen, whalemen, missionaries, and buccaneers invariably brought both the good and bad kinds of "civilization" with them, the peoples of Micronesia never fully succumbed. Part of the reason lies with Europeans; the region was simply too vast, dangerous, and of modest commercial value to ever necessitate a massive colonization of the region. Another part of the reason rests with the islanders themselves; surviving in such an uncertain environment requires the utmost adaptability. Hence the author's title. The Marshall Islands and other parts of Micronesia certainly became tainted with civilization. They just never became "civilized." We should be grateful for that.
It is somewhat shocking to realize how little the modern world knew and knows about Micronesia, its history, and its people. Hezel does a superb job piecing together the earliest known documents from captain's logs to early ethnographic surveys. But this collection is remarkably sparse, when compared with other regions of the world. I give the author a lot of credit for compiling almost 400 pages on the history of the region, and I understand why there are few—if any—other books on the history of the region. We simply know so little about the cultures in the region.
And what a rude awakening to the world these peoples had. Consider for a moment that the first white settlers in the Marshall Islands arrived in the 1870s. Only seventy years later, the islands would witness the fourth atomic bomb ever made, thereby ensuring that the taint of civilization will remain for a long time to come.