Review: “Grass Huts and Warehouses, Pacific Beach Communities of the Nineteenth Century”

With this new blogpost, I would like to introduce you a new format of postings. During my research, I regularly encounter fascinating journal articles and monographs, which I consider as very relevant or useful, but sometimes I approach also titles, which will not find their way into my dissertation manuscript at the end of the day.

In future similar posts, I will give selected topics, research questions and titles a platform in order to introduce them and to approach the topic from my point of view. It might be important to mention here, that I do not have any experience with reviewing titles yet, and therefore, I consider it as an opportunity for myself to learn this too. Thus, if you have comments, useful advices or instructions on reviewing academic monographs for me, I am happy to read your comment or E-Mail.

For this blogpost, I decided to begin with the following monograph: Caroline Ralston (1977):”Grass Huts and Warehouses, Pacific Beach Communities of the Nineteenth Century”, Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Ralston analyzes specifically the background, the role, the influence and the impact of individual Beachcombers on a set of five different places and Indigenous communities across the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the 19th century, the vivid Pacific islands and cities of Honolulu (Hawai’i), Pape’ete (Tahiti) , Apia (Samoa), Levuka (Fiji) and Kororareka at the Bay of Islands (Aotearoa/ New Zealand) gained increasing interest and attention of various regional, European and American agencies due to their geographical locality, their harbour or the abundance of or their proximity to natural resources.

In eight chapters and an Epilogue (chapter 9), she structures her monograph from the first “Contact and Early Trade” (1), then she jumps to “Beachcombers” (2),”First Pacific Beach Communities” (3) , “Early Beach Community Development” (4), before she devotes a general chapter on the “Consuls, Missionaries and Company Traders” (5), followed by “The Pattern of Daily Life”, (6); “Later Years” (7), and “Race Relations in the Beach Communities” (8).

The publication of the journals of Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific, together with those of his forerunners, nevertheless revealed trading and whaling resources awaiting development, and the explorers’ own experiences proved that the basic pre-rerequisites for establishing commercial relations with some groups of islanders did exist.

Ralston 1977, p. 8.

As you can imagine, I have read and scanned the publication with a specific focus on two pre-dominant aspects: on the development of the whaling industry in the Pacific Ocean as well as on Kororareka as a famous harbour for whaling ships. In her first chapter, Ralston summarizes the rise of the whaling industry. She describes the migration patterns of whales and the areas, which became increasingly famous for whaling ships.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century whaling activities were concentrated on the western coasts of North and South America and the eastern coast of Australia, but with the discovery of the Japanese and equatorial whaling grounds in the early 1820s, whaling vessels were drawn into the midst of the island world and were eager to find places to refresh and refit there.

In the northern Pacific Honolulu became the unchallenged centre for the whaling industry, while in the south whaling captains could choose between Papeete, Kororareka, Apia, the southern islands of Fiji, or the Marquesas to refresh and refit at, depending on which was most convenient.

Despite their seeming aimlessness whalers did not roam casually round the Pacific, but worked through the different whaling grounds systematically according to the migration patterns of the whales, and their arrival at different port towns could be estimated fairly accurately.

Ralston 1977, p. 16.

Today, over 50 years later, we can read studies, who have analyzed hundreds of whaling logbooks in order to visualize their migration patterns, but also to show the favoured ports and islands for stopovers. With these technical skills, the study confirmed many research results of Ralston.1

Due to the hard-working conditions and danger of the whaling industry or due to conflicts on board, seamen did regularly leave ships during these long voyages. Today, one considers them as Beachcombers. Beachcombers, who left the ships and tried to seek safety among Indigenous communities, are defined by Ralston as “being temporarily of permanently detached from one group, enters the web of social relations that constitutes another society and comes under the influcence of its customs, ideas and values to a greater of lesser extent.”2 The total dependency on hospitality and goodwill shaped their interaction with Indigenous communities. When it came to contact situations, beachcombers formed as important translators and mediators and so were able to demonstrate their importance towards both sides.

Campbell, however, criticized this aspect in a review of 1978:

“By overestimating the quality of the communication between beachcombers and islanders over aspects of European culture (p 33) Ralston makes the exaggerated claim that ‘the beachcombers were largely instrumental in the early processes of island acculturation’ (p 42); and surely the beachcomber era was too early, and the beachcombers themselves too few and too sparse for one to be able to speak of ‘race relations’, far less to claim for them credit in establishing egalitarian race relations (p 45).”3

For each of the mentioned Pacific ports, Ralston explains the economic activities, but also the land-transactions of individuals with Indigenous communities. She reminds that Māori did understand that they sell their land, as the early deed of sales of land demonstrate. Ralston is impressed about the fact that these deeds “contained surprisingly detailed descriptions of the land to be transferred and emphasise[…] that the Māori had relinquished all rights to the land. It is impossible to know how much the Māori understood of these transactions, but few of the Kororareka sales were later disputed. Perhaps twenty years’ experience of the missionaries’ insistence on private property had had some effect.”4

In these land transactions, she notices a high degree of Māori agency, when it came to the price of land throughout the 1830s:

“With the growing number of foreigners moving into Kororareka, the Māori were quick to appreciate the rising value of land and put up their prices accordingly. However, they would at no time (not even just after annexation when prices were sky-high) contemplate selling the land on which their pa was built.”4

  1. Smith, Tim; Lund, Judith; Reeves, Randall; Josephson, Elizabeth (2012): Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail. In: PLoS One 7 (4), pp. 1-25.; Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail [Last Access: 13.04.2022.] []
  2. Ralston 1977, p. 20. []
  3. Alan Frost , Roderic Lacey & I. C. Campbell (1978) Book reviews, The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 13,3, pp. 188-192, p. 191. []
  4. Ralston 1977, p. 91. [] []
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