Insider vs outsider – Sakul: Work together rather than against

Girmitya at a banana plantation in Fiji. Pictures from INL Archives

MAY 14 1879 is a landmark day for the Fiji indentured labourers that has been explained in the scholarly book of Brij V. Lal’ Chalo Jahaji: on a journey through indenture in Fiji.

The book stated, Leonidas, the first immigrant ship, cleared port on 4 March, 1879, there were 498 people on board: 273 men, 146 women, 47 boys and 32 girls. 60,945 individuals between 1879 and 1916’ found a new home and became free settlers after indenture emigration ceased.

These immigrant ships made 87 voyages to Fiji carrying more than sixty thousand indentured adults and children to the islands (Lal, 2012). These labourers were known as Girmitiyas and this day is celebrated by many as Girmit Day or Girmit Remembrance Day. The inclusion of these indentured labourers in a new land across the globe has been a contentious issue raised in diaspora studies.

There has been the construction of binaries insider vs outsider to postulate the respective claims. These differences were also noticed in Pacific history writing where the insider-outsider dichotomy divided the intellectuals over claims to write about the Pacific.

The debate revolves around the notion where many considered indigenous or insider as being in a better position to write about the Pacific than an expatriate or outsider, who may not be able to understand the mental world of the Pacific.

This is a part of the ongoing debate of decolonising  the academic imperialism of writing Pacific history. This op-ed sheds some insight on these pressing issues.

Insider/Outsider dichotomy

Imperial history writers in the Pacific claim the Europeans were the prime history writers of the Pacific, whereas, after the liberation/independence movement in the Pacific, there was a demand for decolonisation of this academic imperialism. Indigenous demanded more participation in the writing of their own history.

Ron Crocombe, a supporter of insider claim to write their history suggested “non-islanders should confine themselves to non-islander concerns and that only islanders should write the history of their people”.

In this context, an insider is the one who can better understand its history, whereas an outsider is an expatriate who is incapable of understanding Pacific history.

Munro (1994) work Who Owns’ Pacific history?: Reflections on the Insider/Outsider Dichotomy have taken up this issue by stating the crux behind this dichotomy is not intellectual, but political as the complaints of academic imperialism was raised mostly came from Hawaii and New Zealand.

He indicated, “it was indigenous minority groups who had felt a sense of past oppression, they want to redress this injustice through organised activity after their political influences is  increased” (1994).

Strong allegations were made among both outsider and insider, but as per Munro this is a complicated issue where “no single insider perspective and no single outsider perspective” can be accepted in totality.

He provided a solution of keeping aside this division whereas adopting an open-door policy and work with it rather than against it’. Spake (1978), another scholar, gave another justification of European writing about non-European history is due to natural intellectual curiosity.

In 1950s, decolonisation of imperial history was commenced by J.W. Davidson and H.E. Maude from Canberra (ANU) who laid down the foundation of Island Oriented History writing.

But in due course this Davidson era was diversified due to several causes, as highlighted by Brij V. Lal’s work Pacific History Matters (2007). He stated this happened because of the emergence of other centres of Pacific studies in the islands themselves, such as in New Zealand and Hawaii; because of economic realities, students in Australia, moved towards the subject better than humanities, the priority of research diversified from Pacific to other regions; themes transformed from colonialism to contemporary affairs and development because of higher funding potentials. Another diversification was due to the emerging of new journals in competition with Journal of Pacific Studies, such as Contemporary Pacific and Pacific Studies, both Hawaii based journals that publish scholarly research on the history of the Pacific.

Diversification also happened due to evaporating of the romantic image or paradise of the Pacific into a political disturbance seen in many Pacific Islands. The Pacific began to be studied in present-oriented mode from pre-colonial situations.

Many Pacific Islands have not seen the struggle at the time of independence, but after these problems emerged the focus of study transformed from colonial studies to contemporary studies. New interdisciplinary studies came in to expand the horizon of history writing in the Pacific.

Lal stated another cause was noticed as institutional rivalry between Pacific centres in the Pacific countries, but the solution guided by him as to work together.

Subaltern form of studies also emerged in the Pacific where contestation is shown between the indigenous Pacific Islanders against the coloniser. They highlight the voice of marginalised indigenous people in different forms.

Many scholars have used the famous theory of orientalism laid by Edward Said as a notion to criticise the western narratives in which they misrepresented the non-western world.

The voice of the indigenous was researched by using indigenous sources such as oral records in addition to the archival published research. A new kind of history was written from accessing the indigenous representations and symbols.

Attempts were also made to find the voice of the women who had been entirely forgotten by colonisers as well as male elites of patriarchal society. Visual and artistic forms of indigenous sources were researched.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book Decolonising methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (1999 & 2012, 2021 editions) made attempts to revive the indigenous research and knowledge, explaining the research has been used by Europeans to establish their rule and criticise the indigenous. She highlighted many indigenous research projects and demanded the retrieve the space of the marginalisation.


After the decolonisation of Pacific history writing, one should not restrict insider or outsider to research these themes. Intellectuals should work together for the betterment of the discipline rather than against each other.

  •  Dr Sakul Kundra is the head of the  department of social science at the FNU. The views expressed are his own and not of this newspaper or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email.


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