Historical Mysteries: Does Tripartite Division of Pacific Islands Exist?

Historical Mysteries: Does Tripartite Division of Pacific Islands Exist?

  28 Sep 2018

The Pacific Ocean geographical dimension is roughly one third of the earth’s surface, the homeland for thousands of large and small islands. The early European tried to comprehend the structures and institutions of the Pacific Islands, thus, categorized them in three groupings.  This article tries to review the debate of the division of Pacific Islands into tripartite division and criticism of this idea who reject Western nomenclature in the Pacific. Yet these names are still persistent in demarcating regional and cultural distinctions in order to explain the history of many centuries of Pacific Islands.

Idea of division of Pacific islands

Jules Sebastien César Dumond d’Urville, a French explorer in 1820, after considering the differences in the Pacific societies, divided them in three (possible fourth) broad categories of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, on the basis of inhabitants’ cultural and racial characteristics. Other sources divided them in three grouping based on physical geography, local inhabitants and location. The largest division naming Polynesia (Poly means many and nesos mean island), consisted of Kiribati, Cook Islands, French Hawaii, Samoa, American Samoa, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, Tonga, Eastern Polynesia; next division is Melanesia (Melas meaning black) consisted of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Western Papua and others; and lastly, Micronesia (Micro/mikros means small) constitute Palau, FSM, Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Western Kiribati, Guam and others.

I.C. Campbell’ A History of the Pacific Islands gave a brief overview of cultural traits of these three areas and showed their differences in terms of social organization, political organization, law, social rituals, religion, territory and land tenure, settlement, economy, trade, navigation and mobility and values. The author stated that this division has been under the scrutiny of many anthropologists “because of its apparent neatness with which the population of the Pacific fall into one of three categories”. Although author acknowledges the presence of division extending over the great cultural divides.

 Scholars Review

Paul D’Archy’ work Cultural Divisions and Island Environments since the Time of Dumont d’Urville has shown the dissatisfaction of this tripartite classification of Pacific Islands by the scholars in 1980s, but no clear alternative had emerged. This work stated ‘Dumont d’Urville’s association of four cultural regions (including the Island of Southeast Asia named as Malaysia) with two racial types had a profound influence on subsequent scholarship…. [author raised concern that] general preoccupation with race and culture, combined with consideration of environmental influences that is either too narrowly focused or too generalized, has resulted in failure to explore fully how environmental and cultural influences have interacted to shape Oceania’s culture and history”. Furthermore, author stated the division based on cultural entities was criticized between 1970s-1990s, stating “cultural diversity within each weakened their efficacy as cultural units, and the archeological, linguistic and genetic evidence had genetic evidence had now given intellectual substance to contemporary ideological objections to the association of culture with race and physical appearance”. Although, this tripartite division continues to be accepted in the absence of alternative on the bases of broad cultural similarities.

Moreover, Paul D’Archy discussed about different ethnologist, anthropologist, linguistic, geographers, historians and other scholars who  have put forward varied hypotheses of the similarities in physical, cultural, traditional linguistic among of these regions; they also showed diffusion of waves of races to their current location; individual cultural traits of particular island may differ from the common cultural traits; others questioned that due to the cultural diversity of Melanesia it is difficult to make generalizations of this division; political organizations of different regions were also questioned in making distinctions; cultural change was prevalent and open to influences beyond their boundaries and possibly by internal generated transformations and divisions; cultural changes with the interaction between Europeans and Islanders; environment influence based explanations; regional exchange of commodities led to interaction of communities; and other explanations. These hypotheses make the vacillation among scholars to give a single explanation an approach to substantiate their position in contrary to Dumont’ tripartite division argument.

Geoffrey Clark’ work Dumont d’Urville’s Oceania analysed the prevalence of Dumont D’Urville’ tripartite division of the Pacific is unlikely to be replaced in near future because these islands have some broad commonality based on differing geological origin and processes of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia; as this idea is based on physical commonalities  and racial differences can be seen as a “part of a larger schema which divided the dark-skinned peoples of Australasia in the west from the light-skinned Polynesians and the New World Indians in the east… It is necessary, therefore, to periodically re-examine the historical development of his three geo-cultural areas and the conceptual issues that arises from their deployment in modern contexts”.


Margaret Jolly’ writing Imagining Oceania: Indigenous and Foreign Representations of the Sea of Islands stating these ethnological labels have persisted, “although the meanings of the words have changed but the way in which the ethnic differences are connected with geographic location and with political and moral cartographies is more constant”. Whereas Clark stated “Dumont d’Urville’s divisions contain racist, essentialist and socio-evolutionary elements which are now submerged and seldom obvious due to entrenchment of the term resulting from their frequent use over 170 years”. Thus, supporting one critique over the other to counter the Dumont d’Urville’ division of Oceania will be unjust, but this idea persisted in broadest sense in the world of academia which need to be understood with holistic approach after taking into considerations several critiques.


  • Disclaimer: Dr. Sakul Kundra is an assistant professor in history, at the College of Humanities and Education of the Fiji National University. PhD History (JNU, India), M.Phil History, MA History, PGD Journalism, PGD Book Publishing and PGD Education (Dec, 2018). The views expressed are his own and not of this newspaper or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email. dr.sakulkundra@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: