It’s not hard to see how and why the Pacific was romanticised so eagerly throughout history. The environment lends itself well to stories of high melodrama – lush beaches, clear waters and promise of the unknown. In fact, the region has had a long history punctuated by tales of fancy from across the ocean.
Early seafaring explorers and merchants would often return home with overblown stories of exotica. Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame, amongst many other writers, travelled extensively through the Pacific islands just before the beginning of the 20th Century.
Almost half a century later, the real-life horrors of the Second World War were also of great benefit to fiction writers, perhaps seeking to escape the confronting truth of what was really happening in the jungles of the South Pacific.
You can see this in the numerous works that followed the war’s completion in the Pacific theatre. Of these works South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based off a book by American James A. Michener, best exemplifies this. It’s a story of forbidden love in a time of war and addresses the issue of interracial relationships – considered a taboo at the time.
But the tone remains thoroughly light throughout, accompanied by jaunty musical numbers all the while, with the Allies overcoming the Japanese forces in a victory that feels bloodless – something to service the story.
The Pacific theatre was anything but. It was devastating, vicious and draining on both sides, with the mountainous, humid and dense jungle environments creating a wearying battlefield. Nearly seven million soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the conflict, culminating in the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities in 1945. It was anything but romantic.
On the Kokoda Trail
Closer to home, and Australia’s efforts during the war were exemplified during the Kokoda Trail campaign in Papua New Guinea, which pitted Allied forces against the Japanese army in some of the most unforgiving terrain experienced during the conflict. Again, both sides experienced heavy casualties, with over 7000 soldiers losing their lives.
Australian and PNG relations were strengthened during the campaign by the actions of Papua New Guineans who used their knowledge of the terrain to assist Allied forces and escort the injured away from the battlefield. Dubbed the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, their efforts were applauded by Australian diggers and military forces, which claimed Allied casualties would have been much higher had they not been there.
It was a defining moment of the Australian campaign, and solidified a tie between Pacific nations. But a 2007 report by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program revealed a darker side to the story, one that revealed some harsh realities surrounding the Kokoda campaign.
It detailed the hangings of nearly 100 Papua New Guineans by Australian soldiers in an attempt to dissuade further cooperation with Japanese forces. The hangings were kept quiet by officials, amidst other reports of intimidation or coercion from the Allies.
The Modern Day
This romanticised view of the South Pacific: that of a far-flung tropical paradise is one many island nations continue to promote. It also serves to distract from the often-tumultuous history of the region.
The shadow of colonialism, numerous military coups (both successful and failed), an economy which can fluctuate wildly due to external factors, a history of violence due to gender, ethnic background and class divisions, and heavy restrictions on media and reporting can all be found within the South Pacific currently.
These are nations that are heavily dependent on foreign investment. The region depends on foreign aid more than anywhere else in the world. Tourism remains an integral part of many pacific economies, accounting for a large part of national revenue.
Despite this, the South Pacific doesn’t need romanticising. Even with its turbulent past and present, it remains an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world. Foreign investors continue to express interest and make plans for expansion in Pacific nations, and tourism of these areas continues unabated.
The rose-tinted view of the South Pacific is of a place that doesn’t really exist outside of paperbacks, stage musicals and cruise ship ads. As a marketing tactic, it’s certainly valuable, and it’s certainly effective. But the truth doesn’t always sell, even if it reveals something far more complicated than melodrama, something darker. The South Pacific, the real version populated by real people and real history, will always be infinitely more intriguing.