Exhibition records colonial relationships with Pacific Islands

King George Tupou I of Tonga visited Sydney in 1853.
King George Tupou I of Tonga visited Sydney in 1853.

The stories of eight Pacific voyagers who visited Sydney in the 18th and 19th centuries are told via their descendants and compatriots in a new exhibition at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Through a spoken word soundscape beginning from the Gweagal peoples’ view, each story reveals life in the growing city of Sydney, and the politics and society of the times. Some speak of intrigue, one of a disdain for corsets, others the embrace of Christianity and a fascination with ’European’ objects ranging from wheelbarrows to guns. They demonstrate flourishing relationships with Australia, relationships which eroded as the White Australia Policy took hold in the 20th century.

Tidal Kin: Stories from the Pacific charts the visits of explorers from Tonga, Fiji, Aotearoa-NZ, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Samoa between 1770 and the Federation of Australia in 1901.

The exhibition is illustrated by objects from each of the Pacific nations represented and images of the subjects portrayed:

    Tupaia, a navigator from Ra’iatea, who travelled to Kamay (Botany Bay) on the HMS Endeavour in 1770   Hongi Hika from Aotearoa-New Zealand visited in 1814 and 1821 to forge alliances in Sydney GarryGarry of West New Britain, Papua New Guinea came to Sydney to gain insight into European trade in 1836 New Caledonia’s Bwahrat, from Hienghene, who visited as a business guest in 1848. Puwal of Woodlark Island, Papua New Guinea who joined the Catholic Oceanic mission in Sydney in the 1850s  King George Tupou I of Tonga, who visited in 1853 to discuss affairs of state and see the town Fijian leader Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau, a guest of Governor General Hercules Robinson in 1874, one month after Fiji’s formal cession to Britain Phebe Parkinson from Samoa and New Britain, an enterprising businesswoman who holidayed in Sydney in 1882.

Included in Tidal Kin are heritage items commonly traded in the period including everyday and high status objects. 

"These people’s stories shed light on centuries of travel, trade, communal rivalries, and celebrations," said Chau Chak Wing Museum senior curator Jude Philp.

"Interaction between European Australians and these visiting islanders were often congenial, at least until Federation, when the White Australia policy saw the rise of government-backed racism."

Co-curator Ruth Choulai from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea said: "Too often in Papua New Guinea we were taught that colonial Europeans were ’the explorers’, and the same is true in Australia. Tidal Kin exposes the two sides of exploration, as Pacific Islanders explored the offerings of Sydney based on their own curiosity and needs." 

"Port Jackson was a whole new world of opportunity for a leader and entrepreneur such as Hongi," said Hongi Hika descendant Brent Kerehona. "There were definitely benefits to be had. The question was how to effectively implement them, and at what cost."

A free exhibition, Tidal Kin opens on 8 October in the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s Power Gallery.

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