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International Conference: The Peoples of the South Pacific (Oceania) in the First World War: Nation, Nationalism and the Sense of Belonging

La république des lettres —

Amiens (France) 17-19 April 2014

Rochefort (France) 27-29 May 2014

“Somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme, New Zealand very definitively became a nation."

Ormond Burton (1893-1974), professor, minister and pacifist

The research programme Overseas and South Pacific (Oceania) Destinies, 1914–2018: Nation, Nationalism and the Sense of Belonging (DOMO 14–18), which aims to explore in greater depth the theme of the sense of belonging as a follow-up to the March 2011 conference on Destinies of Pacific Commonwealths, is currently organizing an international conference under the title The Peoples of the South Pacific (Oceania) in the First World War. This project is linked to the approaching centenary of the First World War.

This essentially maritime space, which justifies the use of the traditional French name “Oceania”, so different from the other continents, and so unique, is defined above all by its size, its immensity. Oceania, a region which is at the core of this investigation, includes[1] Australia and New Zealand as well as the group of archipelagoes which, following the traditional name inherited from Jules Dumont d’Urville, make up Melanesia[2], Polynesia[3] and Micronesia[4], all South of the Equator. The island States prefer the name “South Pacific”, a name which also includes the archipelago of Hawai, even though in many ways the latter forms a separate entity. Made up of only modest surface acres which vary from a few square kilometers to a few thousand square kilometers (except Australia and New Zealand), the islands and archipelagoes dispersed throughout these solitary oceanic spaces have not been spared by major international stakeholders. On the eve of 1914, all of them except Tonga were administered by Western powers, which exposed them rapidly and brutally to the reality and the consequences of the first planetary conflict.

The bombing of the town of Papeete[5] by two German vessels on 22 September 1914 plunged Oceania into the war in the very first weeks of the conflict. Extending to the islands of the antipodes, where in the words the poet Lamartine “time’ was supposed to “suspend its flight”, this war took on a global dimension. The involvement of overseas contingents, often massive compared with the size of the local populations, is generally unknown or even totally ignored by the history of a war which has been carefully and widely researched, although that involvement could “make up a large part of that history”, according to historian Jacques Frémeaux, who reminds us of “Clémenceau's determination to mobilize the colonial contingents in 1917 and 1918”[6]. The figures, signs, symbols and representations of this Oceanian commitment are often neglected, scattered or lost in the midst of other involvements, other consequences, other signs. For this reason, the participation of the South Pacific in the Great War and its consequences, rather the Great War itself, is the object of a long-term project which is part of a four-year programme called Overseas and South Pacific (Oceania) Destinies, 1914–2018: Nation, Nationalism and the Sense of Belonging. This call for papers which relates to a first international conference in Amiens (France) from 17 to 20 April 2014, and then at Rochefort (France) a month later, aims at establishing the present state of a question, which, according Jacques Frémeaux (p. 220), “is only apparently ‘exotic’: the issues of recent historiography are entirely relevant to it”.

The commitment and the conditions surrounding it: In the first instance it is essential to re-assess the role of the South Pacific in the conflict, taking into account both the indigenous populations of the islands and the migrants and colonists, some of whom left this geographical space only for the period of the war. It is a matter of recruitment, recruitment methods (agents, means, legal framework, etc.), status and roles (labourers[7], soldiers, auxiliary personnel, forced labor), and, of course, of the demographic magnitude of the mobilization/requisition considering the size of the populations of the islands. Thus approximately 2,300 New Caledonians and 900 Tahitians[8] joined the battalion of the Infantrymen of the Pacific (Tirailleurs du Pacifique). Is it possible to estimate the total of men from the French and British Empires: enlisted men (killed, missing, prisoners, wounded), their journey, tasks carried out, where they were stationed, where they fought, etc.?

Having said that, history, a product of the memory of a given community, does not necessarily coincide with the memory of others communities. Thus, the obverse of this first section deals with what the inhabitants of the South Pacific remember of their share of the war, its global, vital character, the elites’ attitudes, the local (Oceanian) values which justify (or otherwise) their participation (mobility, submission, sense of sacrifice, loss of their blood, martial tradition, the stake of prestige), their vision and the reality of the experience of the Front (journey to the Front, strangeness of the experience, tribal solidarity, etc.) through their correspondence, their personal diaries and narratives, and subsequent studies. The possible investigation of individual journeys aimed at providing information on collective itineraries will, preferably, be consistent with appropriate historical methodologies, such as, for instance, the historiography of post-colonial studies which seeks to avoid Western shortcuts and the often condemned Euro-centrism.

The First global conflict as a nation-creating event: The second section of the project deals with the impact and also the use of the Great War for the construction of the identity of the above islands and societies during the period from 1914 to 2014. Can the Great War be seen as a historical anchorage signalling the beginning of a new era? Is it the cause of the fracture of a culturally homogeneous and serene society or, on the contrary, does it mark the end of a backward society, despised and forgotten by the colonial powers? Does World War One open up onto an era of modernity, or, on the contrary (if not simultaneously), does it lead to a period of instability or even of conflicts, as a result of, for instance, a society that has become (or is seen as having become) multicultural and polyethnic? Is this the beginning of a social/political era of recognition and acknowledgement, arising from the sacrifices of the war, or from the support provided? The role of the First World War in the establishment of a sense of belonging and the nationalism of the islands are of special interest at this point. If one goes by the example of Pouvana a Oopa[9] of the Pacific Batallion viewed as the father of nationalism in French Polynesia, the experience of Metropolitan France and of the Front seems to nurture the later struggles of some poilus for the institutional progress of their archipelago. While Tahitians and Neo-Caledonians discovered that their ties to France imposed an obligation on them to defend her on her soil, for New Zealanders and Australians, on the contrary, the conflict was the concrete proof of their existence on the international scene. Did the Great War become their foundation myth, a reason for national pride and self-esteem, in other words, the underpinning of the identity of these new nations? To the local cemeteries established during the battles (since repatriation of the bodies was impossible at the time), municipalities and governments have added war memorials and other memorial objects. A significant “memorial diplomacy”, especially Australian and New-Zealander, has taken root in Belgium, Greece and Turkey, but also and mainly in the region of the Somme in France. This section is devoted to the heritage of the First World War in Oceania, its importance in the changes the region underwent and the meaning attributed to that event as well as the variations in the construction of national identity. Samples, by no means exclusive, of the theme could be: pilgrimages to the Front as early as 1919, signs and symbols and symbolic representations associated with Oceania, the politics of the memorial image and the “political use of the past”, the aesthetics of physical memory and of the construction of identity and memory-based tourism.

The place of the South Pacific in the Great War can also be observed in cultural productions between 1914 and 2018. Literature, animated pictures or fixed images or language phenomena also help to describe the war effort of the South Pacific in its cultural manifestations. Fictions, autobiographies, comics, private photos, national and international illustrated magazines, propaganda publications, works of art, popular images or the argot of the trenches may be used to expose the specificity of the South Pacific participants from their viewpoint: showing solidarity and loyal, or denied leave, or having deserted, ill adapted to the cold climate, victims of racism, suffering from distance from home or from excessive sacrifices. The Western point of view may also be apprehended: the myth of colonial barbarity, colonial men assigned to fighting or support battalions, publication of special newspapers or mail to overcome the distance, etc. The social representations of the South Pacific and of South Pacific participants in the war before, during or after the event, according to time and space, help to describe the perception of South Pacific people during the Great War. It might be desirable if some papers followed the historiographical model of “visual studies”, concentrating on representations (literary, historical, cinematographic, iconographical) of the Other.

The Project will focus on Oceania in the war and the papers will deal with the war itself only marginally. This first conference, aiming at measuring the importance of the First World War, without neglecting the internal problems created by it (indigenous rebellions, assimilation to French traditions, maintenance of order by Governors, social problems, tensions and adaptation of such small populations to the massive departure of young men), will seek to establish an inventory of existing studies, to fill historiographical gaps but also to create a truly comparatist perspective through time and space so that the monographical and, mainly, the descriptive studies are replaced by a global approach in a to-and-fro movement between history and memory, the global and the local. It is less a matter of setting up a typology of the different islands and societies of the Pacific in their individual diversity, than of reflecting on the manner in which these islands collectively became involved in the Great War, how the “mental atlas” of this involvement developed, both in the South Pacific and in the West, and what their heritage is. The focus of this narrative is the construction of national identities and national myths (political, social, cultural and even economic) and the contribution the intellectual (literary, artistic) and political fields might have made to it. In the words of Françoise Vergès[10], the purpose is not the “pious invocation of memory but a writing of history open to reinterpretations, rediscoveries, re-readings”.

Modes of participation

In Picardy, a tour to visit some memorials is planned on Sunday 20 April 2014.

Papers can be delivered in French or in English. Simultaneous translation will be available (to be confirmed). This conference seeks to bring together researchers (both established scholars and doctoral students) around new approaches to the South Pacific and to contribute to interdisciplinary cooperation and exchanges.

There is no registration fee. Accommodation costs and meals will be covered by the organisers. Researchers whose travelling expenses are not covered by their home institution can apply for support to regnaultjm[at]yahoo[dot]fr

Call for texts for publication

15 June 2013: deadline for the submission of papers and articles

1 July 2013: authors to be informed as to whether their submission has been accepted

15 March 2014: deadline for the submission of papers to be circulated to speakers and articles to the Scientific Committee

1 July 2014: deadline for the submission of the final versions of papers to be published in the proceedings

Scientific Committee

Jacques Frémeaux, professeur des universités en histoire contemporaine, Université de Paris Sorbonne (Paris IV).

Philippe Nivet, professeur des universités en histoire contemporaine et vice-président de l'Université de Picardie JulesVerne, Directeur du Centre d'Histoire des Sociétés, des Sciences et des Conflits (CHSSC).

Jean-Marc Regnault, maître de conférences honoraire, chercheur associé du GDI de l’Université de la Polynésie française.

Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History, University of Sydney.

Louise Dessaivre, Conservateur et directrice de la Bibliothèque universitaire, Université de Picardie JulesVerne.

Viviane Fayaud, Dr en histoire contemporaine et histoire de l’art, chercheure associée du Centre d’histoire des sociétés, des sciences et des conflits, Université de Picardie Jules Verne, et du Centre d’Histoire Culturelle des Sociétés Contemporaines, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin en Yvelines.

[1] Luc Vacher, Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard, Fabrice Argounès, Atlas de l’Océanie, Paris, Autrement, 2011.

[2] Melanesia, which is also called the space of black islands with reference to the large volcanic formations which make it up, comprises New Caledonia, Vanuatu (previously the New Hebrides), Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

[3] Polynesia is a space of numerous scattered islands. The Polynesian triangle, which extends in the North to Hawaii, in the South-East to Rapa Nui and in the South-West to New Zealand, comprises French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, the Cook Islands, Niue, Pitcairn, Samoa, American Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu (the former Ellice Islands).

[4] Micronesia or the area of small strewn islands comprises Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati, the former Gilbert Islands.

[5] See the photos of Lucien Gauthier, Bombardement de Tahiti, 1914.

[6] Jacques Frémeaux, « Les contingents impériaux au cœur de la guerre », Histoire, économie et sociétés, 2004, n°2, p. 215-233, p. 215.

[7] The enlistment of Chinese labour as illustrated in the Nolette cemetery in Picardy.

[8] Sylvette Boubin-Boyer, « Communautés calédoniennes et guerres mondiales », in J.-Y. Faberon, V. Fayaud, J-M Regnault, Destins des collectivités politiques d’Océanie, Aix-en-Provence, PUAM, 2011, p. 593-603 [soon to be released in English]; Corinne Raybaud, Les EFO pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, Papeete, 2011.

[9] Catherine Vannier, Jean-Marc Regnault, Le Metua et le Général, un combat inégal, Éditions de Tahiti, 2009.

[10] Les Guerres de Mémoire, Paris, éd. La Découverte, 2008.

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