I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific

Nicholas Thomas

  • Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).

Nicholas Thomas is the director of Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a professor of historical anthropology at Cambridge University. In Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Thomas examines a number of Pacific indigenous communities, including Fiji and Melanesia, and their participation in the colonial process by way of material trade. Thomas analyses the ways in which these indigenous peoples interacted with European colonial powers by way of transactional relations. Thomas pays particular attention to the ways in which natives came into contact with European goods and the ways in which they adopted these goods and adapted them to their own cultural proclivities. These transactions went both ways and by looking at primary sources from the time period he attempts to trace the ways in which both Europeans and Pacific islanders interacted with one another and acclimatized to changing dynamics.

Thomas aims to argue against the negative portrayal of the influx of European material goods into indigenous communities. Typically, this influx is portrayed as indicative of the inevitable disintegration of indigenous communities in the face of European expansion. This debate has focused on the inherent differences of indigenous and European economic systems. Most anthropological accounts treat indigenous societies as tellingly stable and genuine “other,” which has been marred by the damaging, greedy hands of European colonialist societies. However, Thomas demonstrates that just as Europeans were dynamic and varied, as Patricia Seed shows, so too were indigenous societies. Indigenous peoples were involved in contacts, peaceful relationships, and disputes with outsiders and with those within their own borders. In the midst of these complicated encounters, both natives and Europeans exchanged and adopted cultural items, leading to a tangled web of interaction, some pieces of the web being larger than others as exchange was often asymmetrical. Thomas rejects the idea that indigenous cultures can be defined simply as “gift” economies; rather, they had complex economies which enabled them to interact with European economies. Thomas also asserts that one must not simply consider an object for what it was originally meant to be or the job it was originally meant to perform, as is the case in many museums, but for what the object became when it was appropriated by another culture.

Thomas argues that there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that interactions with European outsiders, such as traders and planters, resulted in the internalization of European forms of economic relations, such as wages, which were then adapted to local forms of cultural conduct. This argument is similar to the one given by James R. Gibson in Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods. Gibson demonstrates the fact that the fur trade had occurred between different tribes before the arrival of the Europeans and that the native peoples simply expanded their own fur trade to European markets and incorporated European ways of trade into an already existing system. Thomas gives a similar example with the embracement of guns for use in the whale tooth trade by Fijians. Thomas also emphasizes the fact that western goods were not innately irresistible to indigenous populations as many traditional accounts would have one believe. In fact, natives were often cautious and unenthused about adopting some items. Thomas’ argument brings forth images of Francis Parkman’s description of Native Americans fawning over European jewels in The Oregon Trail.

Feature Photo: Sperm Whale Tooth, Ryan Somma, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences: Naturalist Center, Flickr Commons

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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