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Storia dell’Oceania: l’ultimo continente

Francesca Giusti, Vincenzo Sommella, Santa Cigliano

Roma, Donzelli, VIII-232 pp., euro 17,00 2009

This is a lively and informative history of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia). Their histories are told in parallel fashion and in three time periods: prehistory, the European «discoveries» of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and modern times.For Italians and French-speaking people this region constitutes «Oceania», the fifth continent (and the last continent to be discovered by the Europeans). In the Anglophone world, the «continent» in question is «Australia» (to which New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are merely an appendage). In 1901, when their six colonies were federated, the white Australians declared proudly that they had found «a continent for a nation» and had created «a nation for a continent» - thereby excluding New Zealand and the other Pacific Ocean islands from their reckoning.For centuries, at least since Pythagoras, Europeans had speculated on the existence of a southern land, often called Terra Australia Incognita. But only at the end of the 18th century, with the voyages of James Cook, did the Europeans have an exact sense of this new continent. What they discovered in some ways did not quite match their expectations, and in other respects wildly exceeded their imaginings.With the discovery of Oceania there was enormous interest in this vast area cut off from history and western civilisation. American textbooks teach that this globalising moment came in 1516, with the fateful meeting of Montezuma and Cortes, but Giusti and her colleagues point out that Oceania was still largely unknown to the Europeans at that point. For the young discipline of Anthropology this seemed to offer insights into an Edenic world. Anthropology as practised in Australian universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was at the service of British imperial interests.The imperial interests of the British, the French and the Germans are woven through this account and give some unity to the three parallel histories. The Americans in their treatment of Hawaii emerge as comparatively benign masters.This book will be a useful vademecum for Italian tourists in the region. There are some factual errors. For example, the transportation of convicts to Australia ended in 1868, not 1850 (both dates are given); Perth is older than Adelaide and Melbourne; the treaty with the Kulin took place in Melbourne, not in Tasmania, where the indigenes were massacred; and there were two conscription referenda during the Great War, not one. Mostly the emphasis and selection of detail is excellent, although in overlooking Australia’s leader in the Second World War (John Curtin) the authors have missed probably Oceania’s greatest politician ever. On balance, the book can be recommended as an enthusiastic and topical guide to a part of the world that Italian travellers always find interesting, if only to see the impact of Italian migration in the post-war period on what had been a starchy British outpost.


Robert Pascoe