Short Teaching Module: History of the Pacific Ocean

Sean Fraga
Chart with curved sticks emanating from pebbles on either side


Scholars of Pacific history explore how people build lives dependent on the ocean, how maritime connections create communities, and how humans and the environment shape each other. As a subfield of oceanic history, the Pacific offers a particularly rich setting for studying intersections between the local and global, and for charting postcolonial futures. In this essay, Sean Fraga lays out the Pacific Ocean’s major geographies and shows how Pacific approaches can send us on new voyages.


The Pacific Ocean is enormous. It touches five continents, contains 25,000 islands, and covers a larger area than all the land on Earth combined. How can historians best understand this vast region, its peoples, and its stories? While contemporary Pacific historiographies emerged from several different academic traditions, scholars studying the Pacific often adopt similar methodological approaches, drawing on diverse sources to investigate the expansive circulations and deep histories—what the Chamoru poet Craig Santos Perez calls "our migrant routes/& submarine roots"— that intertwine through the ocean’s history.

For decades, scholars have used oceans and seas to transcend national or regional containers. Fernand Braudel’s 1949 The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II showed how, over centuries, the Mediterranean Sea connected rather than divided European, North African, and Middle Eastern lands surrounding it. Scholars have usefully adapted Braudel’s connective framework to understand East Asian seas and the Indian and Atlantic oceans, seeing each as a basin facilitating the circulation and exchange of people, ideas, money, commodities, and germs. The Atlantic Ocean, for example, was shaped by centuries of intercontinental exchanges, colonization projects, and migrations, particularly the forced movements of enslaved people. These links—around, across, and within the ocean—served to create a connected Atlantic World, albeit one often bound together by force and violence. 

But the Pacific is different. Its sheer size and diverse histories make a unitary "Pacific World" approach untenable. David Igler notes that this phrase ignores the ocean’s "multiplicity of seas and cultural systems," and instead "reflects the extent to which European and American outsiders rationalized the ocean—as one Pacific Ocean."1 Instead, Pacific scholars embrace multiple overlapping Pacific Worlds, each with diverse  histories and linkages. Scholars have tended to focus on two major geographies, connected yet distinct. 

First is the island Pacific, the ocean’s heart. This encompasses three broad cultural areas: Micronesia (roughly from Palau east to Kiribati), Melanesia (from New Guinea east to Fiji), and Polynesia (formed by the triangle between Aotearoa/New Zealand, Hawaiʻi, and Rapa Nui/Easter Island). Together with Australasia, these form Oceania. Human maritime migrations out of Asia to settle these islands started at least 35,000 years ago, with voyagers reaching the eastern-most islands about 800 years ago. "In what is the major theme of Pacific history," writes Damon Salesa, "Pacific peoples were voyaging earlier, and much further than anyone else."2 Amid decolonization in the 1960s, scholars writing from Oceania articulated a postcolonial scholarly agenda centered on the islands and their peoples.3 Today, political, economic, cultural, and kinship ties continue to link islanders to each other and to the wider world.

Second is the Pacific Rim. Although the phrase itself is recent, originating in the late twentieth century, it evokes a longer history of European imperialism in the Pacific, which initially concentrated on the ocean’s shores.4 Transpacific connections define this geography. Starting in the late fifteenth century, European nations sought new maritime trade routes with Asia, especially China.5 In the nineteenth century, steam power accelerated flows of people, capital, and goods across the Pacific Ocean, deepening links between long-established Asian polities and settler societies in the Americas and Australasia, while often bypassing Pacific islands.6 Scholars writing from the rim tend to position national histories in a Pacific context—in the ocean but not quite of it—and the field continues to grapple with how a transpacific framework, in Lisa Yoneyama’s words, "inherits problematic cartographic legacies of militarized global capitalism and its political rationality that have long vacated the people and histories of the Pacific Islands."7 

Across these geographies, three primary approaches characterize Pacific histories. First is a focus on connections, circulation, and exchange. Epeli Hauʻofa, the influential Tongan and Fijian scholar, sees the  Pacific not  as "islands in a sea," separated by waters between them, but as a "sea of islands," full of places connected by the ocean.8 Scholars have adopted this archipelagic approach with productive results.. Second is a desire to trace these connections between geographic scales of analysis. Matt Matsuda describes this "trans-localism" as investigating "specific linked places" across the Pacific "where direct engagements took place […] tied to histories dependent on the ocean." Trans-local stories, Matsuda argues, "take on full meanings only when linked to other stories and places."9 Third is a curiosity about how the Pacific’s environments (terrestrial, coastal, oceanic); natural forces (winds, waves, weather, earthquakes); and more-than-human inhabitants (including fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and plants) have shaped (and been shaped by) human goals and decisions.

Individually and in combination, these approaches offer different entry points to Pacific Worlds. The beach and the ship both  loom large in Pacific scholarship as sites where the local and global converge, and attention to linkages between geographic scales often leads scholars to what Alison Bashford describes as terraqueous places, where land and water meet—shorelines, reefs, coasts; vessels, harbors, wharves.10 As Igler summarizes, Pacific methods broadly emphasize "an oceanic rather than terrestrial approach, a peopled rather than a vacant waterscape, a place of movement and transits, and a methodology that searches for the vital interplay between global, oceanic, and local scales of history."11 In short: Start with people and follow them through the waters.

To tell these stories, Pacific scholars engage with diverse sources. Native Pacific Islanders have long carried and communicated their histories, Matsuda writes, "through ritual, image, dance, and oral tradition." Initially seen as timeless by Western anthropologists, scholars have come to recognize these as "categorical forms of historical knowledge production," socially constructed and culturally dynamic.12 Broadly, scholarly interest in non-archival and non-textual sources extends to archeological investigations, ethnographic evidence, material cultures, and visual representations, to name a few. Pacific historians often leverage these kinds of sources to reassess and complicate European and American imperial and colonial records. Perspective and positionality also informs authorship. Many Pacific scholars link oceanic histories with postcolonial futures by integrating academic work into political and creative practices, and non-Native scholars often find collaborations with Native communities fruitful (if sometimes fraught).

Ultimately, while the Pacific Ocean’s scale can seem intimidating, its vastness also offers myriad opportunities to plot one’s own scholarly voyage—to plunge deep into the waters and carry fresh insights toward shore.

1David Igler, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10–11
2Damon Salesa, "The Pacific in Indigenous Time," in Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People, ed. David Armitage and Alison Bashford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 32–35. The '-nesia' divisions, originally racialized names created by Europeans, have since been adopted by islanders themselves. Salesa, "The Pacific in Indigenous Time," 32.
3David Armitage and Alison Bashford, "Introduction: The Pacific and its Histories," in Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People, ed. David Armitage and Alison Bashford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 12–13.
4 Bruce Cumings, "Rimspeak; or, the Discourse of the 'Pacific Rim,'" in What is in a Rim?: Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea, ed. Arif Dirlik (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993).
5Joyce Chaplin, "The Pacific before Empire,
c.1500–1800" in Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People, ed. David Armitage and Alison Bashford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 53–74.
6Sean Fraga, "'An Outlet to the Western Sea': Puget Sound, Terraqueous Mobility, and  Northern Pacific Railroad’s Pursuit of Trade with Asia, 1864–1892,"
Western Historical Quarterly 51, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 439–458, DOI:10.1093/whq/whaa114. Frances Steel, Oceania under Steam: Sea Transport and the Cultures of Colonialism, c.1870–1914 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2017.
7Armitage and Bashford, "Introduction," 11–13. Lisa Yoneyama, "Toward a Decolonial Genealogy of the Transpacific,"
American Quarterly 69, no. 3 (Sept. 2017): 471-482. DOI:10.1353/aq.2017.0041
8Epeli Hau
ʻofa, "Our Sea of Islands," The Contemporary Pacific 6 no. 1 (Spring 1994): 148–161.
9Matt K. Matsuda,
Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5.
10Alison Bashford, "Terraqueous Histories,"
The Historical Journal 60, no. 2 (June 2017): 253–272. doi:10.1017/S0018246X16000431.
Great Ocean, 11.
12Matt K. Matsuda, "The Pacific,"
American Historical Review 111 no. 3 (June 2006), 764.


Primary Sources

Marshall Islands stick chart

Chart with curved sticks emanating from pebbles on either side

Across millennia, Pacific people voyaged out to sea and settled the ocean’s thousands islands and atolls, linking new discoveries back to existing territories. Opening and sustaining these links was fundamentally a spatial project, requiring the development, refinement, and repeated mobilization of oceanic geographic knowledge. This navigation chart, produced by a Marshall Islander whose name was not recorded, likely in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, is a material encapsulation of the knowledge that enabled generations of these voyages.

Voyaging from island to island frequently involves sailing beyond the horizon. The Marshall Islands, for example, spread across more than six hundred miles, and each island or atoll is only visible for a few miles out to sea. Marshallese pilots navigate across open water by reading the presence of islands in the movements of waves. Specifically, they observe and interpret the ways that islands and atolls refract, reflect, and diffract wave action. As a wave approaches an island, the increasingly shallow shoreline refracts the wave, bending it around the island and changing its direction. The shoreline also reflects some energy back towards the wave’s direction of origin. Where two islands are close together, waves passing through the aperture between them will diffract, spreading out on the other side. Together, these wave movements produce distinctive oceanic patterns that indicate an island’s presence to a person trained in reading the waves, even when the island itself is hidden beyond the horizon. This particular chart is a mattang, a general representation of how waves refract around islands. In this chart, the shells represent islands, and the curved pieces represent oceanic currents. (Meddo, or sea, charts show specific islands and currents. Rebbelith charts are similar to meddo, but generally cover a wider geographic area and include less hydrographic data.) While these charts use similar display conventions, they are more personal than universal: Different chart-makers may represent the same information differently, and not all charts are equally legible to all navigators. Unlike Western charts, Marshallese charts are primarily teaching tools and are not typically used for planning a voyage or navigating while at sea. Marshallese pilots navigate by combining wave perception with other oceanic wayfinding techniques, including celestial navigation, dead reckoning, and watching for natural signs like the presence of specific plants and animals. Ultimately, these charts vividly illustrate Epeli Hauʻofa’s description of the Pacific Ocean as a "sea of islands," linked by voyages through the waters between them.


This source is part of the History of the Pacific Ocean teaching module.


Heading of east portal Tunnel No. 8

Photo of a man carrying some debris from a tunnel

In the late nineteenth century, multiple transcontinental railroads were built across the United States and Canada. These were Pacific projects twice over: Each railroad aimed to open new routes for global trade with Asia, and each depended heavily on Asian laborers for their construction. This photograph, taken by Central Pacific Railroad’s official photographer, shows a Chinese railroad worker near the mouth of a tunnel, carrying tools or debris on a shoulder pole.

Central Pacific, completed in 1869, built the western half of the first North American transcontinental railroad and relied on a construction workforce that was about 90% Chinese, employing roughly twenty thousand Chinese men. These men came largely from Guangdong province in southern China. Poverty and instability pushed many to seek employment abroad, and nearby Hong Kong provided an easy transpacific portal to North America. The next several North American railroads—including Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Canadian Pacific—similarly relied heavily on workers from China (and later Japan) for their construction. 

These men undertook grueling and dangerous work. Chinese workers carved fifteen tunnels for the Central Pacific through the Sierra Nevada Mountains with chisels and blasting powder, carrying debris away in buckets. Many died: At least twelve hundred Chinese workers were killed while building the Central Pacific.

But the railroads’ dependence on Chinese workers coexisted uncomfortably with racist fears in the United States and Canada that Chinese migrants would undercut white workers’ wages. These anxieties grew only more acute as Chinese migrants finished railroad construction and found other work. Less than fifteen years after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act severely curtailed Chinese immigration to the United States; three years later, Canada similarly limited Chinese immigration.

Except for the rails and tunnels these workers built, they left few direct records. Payroll books and documentary photographs, like this one, record their presence and testify to their labor. But these sources tend to lack specific details about the men themselves, treating them as abstractions, as little more than productive hands. Understanding these men as people—how they lived while in the United States, the communities they formed, what they made of their experiences—is more difficult. Scholars have recently turned to archaeological evidence and family oral histories to more fully reconstruct Chinese railroad workers’ lives and stories.

This source is part of the History of the Pacific Ocean teaching module.


"We can stop this Makapuu madness!"

Poster with text "We can stop X"

After World War II, the rise of jet travel and mass tourism brought new visitors—and new pressures—to many places within the Pacific Ocean. Hawaiʻi is a prime example of how tourism-driven development and activist responses have shaped local environments. This flyer, created by the grassroots environmental organization Save Our Surf, mobilized community opposition to resort construction at Awāwamalu, also known as Wāwāmalu Beach or Sandy Beach, at Oahu’s southeastern corner.

Native Hawaiians recount how Pele, deity of fire and volcanoes, created Oahu and the other Hawaiian islands by digging into the earth as she moved from east to west. On Oahu, Pele dug first at Leʻahi, or Diamond Head, midway between Awāwamalu and Honolulu, Oahu’s largest city. For nineteenth-century sailing ships, the Pacific Ocean’s prevailing winds and currents encouraged voyages via Hawaiʻi, and Honolulu emerged as a central, convenient supply point—a primary reason the United States annexed the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in the late nineteenth century. After World War II and the establishment of Hawaiian statehood in 1959, the Hawaiian islands increasingly became a leisure destination, drawing tourists and outside investment from Japan and the mainland United States. 

But resort construction frequently involved privatizing and industrializing the coastline, and upset residents pushed back. In 1964, John Kelly, a white mainlander who grew up in Honolulu, founded Save Our Surf. "Hawaiʻi’s shoreline—the habitat of many people—was under assault," he later wrote. Surfing, invented by Native Hawaiians and later enthusiastically adopted by outsiders, became a way to unite island residents and cultivate widespread support for coastal protection.

In the early 1970s, mainland developers proposed building a 7,700-room resort at Awāwamalu. Save Our Surf argued that this development would dramatically increase traffic and pollution, raise housing prices, and "destroy the only remaining open space on east Oahu." The rally was just the start. After more than four decades of sustained community organizing, court battles over rezoning and ballot initiatives, and multiple additional development attempts, the State of Hawaii reclassified this shoreline as conservation land. Since 2017, Awāwamalu has been part of the Ka Iwi Coast, a seven-mile stretch of coastline preserved in perpetuity for public benefit. But dependence on tourism continues to roil Hawaiʻi—most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, when locals worried that irresponsible visitors would spread disease and strain hospitals—and environmental activism remains an important part of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Across the Pacific Ocean, tensions over access, use, and benefit continue to structure human engagement with coastal environments. 

This source is part of the History of the Pacific Ocean teaching module.


Sean Fraga is a historian of the North American West and eastern Pacific Ocean. He is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow with the Humanities in a Digital World program at the University of Southern California. His book project, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound, is under contract with Yale University Press, and his research has been published in Western Historical Quarterly and Current Research in Digital History. He holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale and an M.A. and Ph.D., both in history, from Princeton.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: History of the Pacific Ocean," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-history-pacific-ocean [accessed April 17, 2024]