Review of Greg Dening's Beach Crossings, Voyaging across Times, Cultures and Self

Dennis Kawaharada

[Published in The Great Circle: Journal of the Australian Associaton for Maritime History. Vol. 27, No. 1, 2005.]

On Crossing Beaches

Back in 1993, I was working as an education specialist for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which was planning to sail the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hawai‘iloa from Hawai‘i to Tahiti and the Marquesas and back. Before writing anything on the Marquesas for students following the voyage, I wanted to have “been there.”

By luck, I was able to tag along on an expedition: that summer, archaeologists Barry Rolett and Robert Suggs were headed for Ha‘atuatua on Nukuhiva, where, along with a half-dozen graduate students, they planned to reexamine the site where Suggs had found pottery shards in the mid-50s connecting settlers in the Marquesas to a Polynesian homeland in the Western Pacific. After returning to Hawai‘i, I began my scholarly research and, among other works, read Greg Dening’s Islands and Beaches. It was interesting not just because it was well-written and informative, but because of the way Dening interwove his personal experiences and reflections into the text and because he included figures from “both sides of the beach.”

In Beach Crossings, published 24 years after Islands and Beaches, Dening includes even more autobiography in order to draw parallels between his crossings from priesthood to career as a scholar-educator and the crossings of his subjects – Polynesian voyagers and the European beachcombers, artists, and writers. He is apologetic: “Perhaps it might seem intrusive to present my believing self in the stories of others’ crossing, but there is a nakedness on beaches that I would share.” And his life-crossings illuminate his fascination with his subject.

Beach Crossing is addressed to those younger than Dening who are starting out on their life-journeys, in particular, student-historians. In his last paragraph, he summarizes: “Dare to voyage across times, cultures, and self. Especially self.”  The message is familiar to me from my upbringing in Hawai‘i, where so many have crossed beaches through migrations and interethnic marriages. Young islanders are encouraged to go beyond their literal and metaphorical “rocks,” expand their horizons through time and space. But this is only half of book’s message: in his autobiographical reflections and in the tragic stories of homeless beachcombers, another message is conveyed: the importance of staying rooted in one’s land, history, and community.

In Beach Crossings, moreso than in Islands and Beaches, Dening expresses an awareness of the limitations of the storytelling he has spent his career honing through practice and teaching. He would like his stories to represent a way of “being there,” but acknowledges that they are recreations based on the accounts of outsiders, and that his sources may be “skewed,” tending “to turn the storyteller to where the dramatics are explicit in the journals and papers of those who are literate.” He hopes that he can “turn that around,” but realizes that not everyone might agree that he has done so: “A ‘map’ is not necessarily true to an insider’s understanding of how things actually are. Who among us does not feel that every effort of somebody else’s to describe who we are is not a caricature?”

Dening’s map and “Brueghelesque painting” describe the Marquesas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Between the initial voyage of settlement two millennia ago and the arrival of Strangers from Europe, changes would have occurred. Assuming the accounts of fishing for sacrifices are true, was this a practice that the original settlers brought with them? Or did it develop from conditions in their islands? Or was it introduced by outsiders? It’s hard to say. Whatever the case, Dening notes that the Western system that replaced the Marquesan one he describes is not “greatly different” in its justification of “the banality of evil.”

The recreations require “stage-props.” Dening distinguishes his props from what “Roland Barthes used to berate historians and novelists about”—‘reality effects,’ superfluous factual details that gave the illusion of reality to a story.” Yet stage-props, when they include attributions of what others are seeing, thinking, and feeling or interpretations of motivation and intentions to enhance the stories are less trustworthy than superfluous reality effects in historical writing. Language is notoriously prone to stereotyping (“frenetic energy,” “thirsting for blood,” “doing what they knew best – feasting, dancing, singing”).

Dening aims for a “double-visioned” story, representing the perspectives of both Natives and the Strangers. But his sources are primarily Western, so while there are Native characters, there are almost no Native perspectives, and perhaps, no audience of Natives, except for those trained in Western scholarship.

He predicts that native storytellers will emerge, then acknowledges that they already have:  “I know that there is a time coming when the descendants of the Sea People in their Sea of Islands will call on the deep time within them and write their histories with the proper priorities. That writing of a Native’s rather than a Stranger’s history has already begun.” An early work from a native perspective was Peter Buck / Te Rangi Hiroa’s Vikings of the Sunrise (1938), the reading of which had the same effect on me as reading Robarts’ journal had on Dening. Much earlier, in nineteenth century Hawai‘i, there were numerous native scholars and historians writing and publishing in their native language, and chants and other oral traditions were recorded by both natives and westerners. A new generation of native scholars and artists emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s. Dening notes that Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson and his fellow seafarers have chosen to recreate the past not by writing but by voyaging in replicas of ancient canoes like Hokule‘a.

My most memorable lesson in Marquesan history from a native perspective came in 1999. Hokule‘a was in Taiohae in Nukuhiva, on her way to Rapanui to reestablish a link with the people who settled the southeast corner of Polynesia.

The voyage began with Hokule‘a sailing SE against the ENE trades from Hawai’i to the Marquesas under captain-navigator Bruce Blankenfeld.  The success of this leg suggests the possibility of return voyages to this southern homeland, something which Dening deemed doubtful.  (“We have to think that there was no return voyage from Hawai‘i. The contrary forces of wind, weather and ocean were against the possibility of such a voyage.”)

Before heading to Mangareva, Chad Baybayan,  the captain-navigator of the second leg, visited the six main Marquesan  islands. I was on that inter-island crew; so was Tava Taupu, a Hokule‘a veteran and a native of Taiohae who had settled in Hawai‘i. Tava is a carver of wood and stone, and one of the few Nainoa trusts to train the crew in canoe work and sailing. At a Honolulu drydock in preparation for one of Hokule‘a’s earlier voyages south, I told Tava that I had been to Taiohae. I mentioned Pakoko, whom I had read about in Islands and Beaches. To my astonishment, Tava asserted “Pakoko is my ancestor” and began telling me Pakoko’s story, which differed from Dening’s account. I was frustrated that I couldn’t hear the story in Tava’s native tongue and that he was forced by my ignorance to speak in my language.

In Taiohae in 1999, Tava invited some of the crew on a walk up Pakiu, his ancestral valley, where he told the story of Pakoko again, this time in the setting where it took place. The emotion in his voice, the bitterness toward the French for putting Pakoko to death, have carried across over a century and a half via his family oral tradition. We climbed as far as Pakoko’s me‘ae, which was being restored, in part, as a tourist destination. On the way back we stopped at a rock overlooking the stream that runs down the valley, and “Here,” Tava indicated, under a waterfall that was no longer there, was where Pakoko’s daughter, who had been raped by a French sailor, bathed herself in the blood of the one of the sailors that Pakoko had slain. For Tava, Marquesan history was set not in a metaphorical theater, but in the valley of his ancestors and it is connected to his family and community. His children, Hawaiian-Marquesan, would not know that history in the same way he did, having been raised in Hawai‘i.

It goes without saying, no one has told, or could ever tell, the whole story, however multi-visioned one might try to be. Yet so many, through research and archaeology, conversations and writings, have worked diligently to put together pieces of it, each with his or her own unique perspective. Dening’s passionate commitment to his sources, the artfulness of his storytelling, the compassion of his voice have made his works among the more engaging of these pieces and a pleasure to read.