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History made accessible to Pacific people without books

Tuesday 15 October 2013 8:06am

An Otago Storeman in Solomon Islands: The Diary of William Crossan, copra trader, 1885-86, Australian National University e-Press.

When seeking a publisher for a history book she has co-edited, Professor Judy Bennett had her heart set on ensuring the manuscript, of importance to the Solomon Islands, was easily accessible to Pacific people with very little access to books.

Published by the Australian National University e-Press, An Otago Storeman in Solomon Islands: The Diary of William Crossan, copra trader, 1885-86 is freely available online and thus accessible to people living in the Pacific.

The book, co-edited by Tim Bayliss-Smith from St John’s College, Cambridge, is based on the interpretation of a very old diary found in a disused desk in Dunedin. The diary was given to staff at the Hocken Library, and some years later Bayliss-Smith examined it, finding the diary dealt with a copra trader's six-month stay on Makira Island in the Solomon Islands between 1885 and 1886.

Aptly, the book was officially launched at a gathering at the Hocken Library last Thursday night (10 October).

In many ways the diary is a brief summary of daily proceedings that may not mean a great deal out of context, but both Bayliss-Smith and Professor Bennett of the History Department aimed to fill out that context to reveal the full worth of such a record.

This is a rare account of one of a handful of Euro-American traders who lived and worked in the Solomons archipelago during the last quarter of the 19th Century.

The small book provides not only details of trader William Crossan's activities in this dangerous island, where he encountered conflicting clans, cannibalism and cheating traders, but also his life in Otago where he spent his childhood and subsequent adult life after he left the islands trade.

Crossan was born on the gold fields of Victoria, Australia and, with his parents, came across to Otago during the rush, not to seek gold but to help feed the farmers and pastoralists around Milton and Berwick.

Professor Bennett says the book has been well received – and she is pleased it is available to people in the Pacific who are interested in their own history.

“Many islands don’t have a bookshop; the Solomon Islands hasn’t got one, and if they try and buy the book, it is very expensive. So to do it this way costs them very little and opens up a new world for them,” she says.

In a review of the book in the Journal of Pacific History (48:2, 241-242), Michael W.Scott writes that William Crossan’s diary provides many glimpses into Makiran society as it encountered new ideas, new employment, and western technology.

“It is a welcome addition to the sparse record of these cryptic copra traders seeking fortunes on the cusp of indigenous tradition and incoming colonialism,” he writes.

The former storeman and copra trader ended his days as the publican of the Waterloo hotel in Caversham, Dunedin, where his diary was later found in an old desk.