Our History

The Pacific Circle: Some Historical Notes

The Pacific Circle was founded in August 1985 at the 17th International Congress of the History of Science, which was held that year in Berkeley. This followed an initiative begun by Fritz Rehbock, of the University of Hawaii, and myself, soon after I arrived in Sydney, when we held a two-day symposium at Berkeley to ‘support and promote scholarship in the history and social studies of Pacific science’. Following this symposium, in March 1986, with the encouragement of at least 70 potential subscribers, we launched the first Pacific Circle Newsletter — an experimental, biannual publication we hoped would soon grow and appear more frequently. We knew there would be an uphill struggle. Our first editorial acknowledged the fact that ‘historians and other scholars whose interests are drawn to science in the Pacific, are widely scattered; …{and that] Many of us are not known to each other, and communication among those who are in touch is often discouragingly slow. The “tyranny of distance” is still with us in the Pacific, even in our age of satellite communication.’ Still, the prospect of refocusing the ‘map of knowledge’ was inviting. We took “Pacific Science” to encompass, in the broadest sense, indigenous, imperial, colonial, national, international and transnational scientific activities in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the study of nature and the accumulation of natural knowledge by and amongst the peoples of the Pacific.

During the following years, our network prospered, and our first book of essays – Nature in its Greatest Extent: Western Science in the Pacific, edited by Fritz Rehbock and Roy MacLeod — was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 1988. This was to have marked the first in a series by UHP, and was to have been supplemented by special issues of the Honolulu-based journal, Pacific Science. In the meantime, what had begun as a bilateral relationship between Honolulu and Sydney blossomed into a network of some 110 scholars across the world, a group having a particularly strong following in North America, but which also included many in Europe, Asia and India. We were especially pleased to receive contributions from the Pacific Islands as well as the Rim.

In 1989, following a successful symposium of 19 speakers at the 18th IUHPS Congress in Hamburg, we were endorsed as a ‘Scientific Commission’ of the Division of the History of Science, and were given the task of promoting the subject through scholarly meetings, the publication of a newsletter, and by such ‘other endeavours as opportunity presents’. Financial support has come from the IUHPS, from dues, and from the Pacific Stern Memorial Trust of Pacific Palisades, California. Professor O.H.K. Space of ANU was our first Honorary President; he was followed by Professor Alison Kay of the University of Hawaii, with Roy MacLeod as Vice President and Fritz Rehbock as Secretary/Treasurer. Subsequently, Professor MacLeod was President for over a decade. Currently, our President is Professor John Gascoigne of the University of New South Wales, and our Secretary/ Treasurer and Editor is Professor Peter Hoffenberg.

Since 1985, our conferences stimulated a number of books and special issues.1 In 1994, we published a second book in the UHP series – Roy MacLeod and P.F. Rehbock (eds.), Darwin’s Laboratory: Evolutionary Theory and Natural History in the Pacific (University of Hawaii Press, 1994). We hope many more will follow.

With the support of the History Department at Honolulu, Fritz Rehbock began and oversaw the publication of the Pacific Circle Newsletter — which, until his untimely death in February 2002, was followed by nine issues of the Pacific Circle Bulletin. Since October 2002, the Bulletin has been edited by Peter Hoffenberg. In 1992, we published our first Pacific Circle Directory, which was updated in 2013, and which is now available to members on request. This year, 2014, we have launched our first website. This includes a link to scanned copies of the back issues of both the Newsletter and the Bulletin. which we have digitized and made available to a far wider readership than we knew in 1985.

In this way, we have also made globally available the useful bibliographies that our Editors have prepared over the years. These have focused on exploration and discovery, and on the Humboldtian sciences of anthropology, natural history, geography, geology, astronomy, environmental history and museum studies; but we have also found space for recent studies of technology transfer, weapons testing, climate change, and Pacific as seen from outer space. In recent years, we have cast our net even more widely, to include not only the traditional narratives of Oceania, and the geographies of Asia-Pacific, but also what is now called the ‘Indo-Pacific’, with its challenging ways of revisting the world and its peoples.

Next year, the Pacific Circle celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since 1985, its goals have remained the same – to serve those who take a broad view of human endeavor in the Pacific from the perspective of the natural and social sciences. Today, we enjoy close working relationships with other Commissions of IUHPS –notably including Oceanography, Anthropology, and ‘Science et Empires’ — and with several sister organisations, such as the Australian Association for Pacific Studies, with which we held a joint session at the University of Sydney in May 2014. We always welcome new members (enquiries please to Professor Hoffenberg) and are always pleased to receive news of appointments, meetings, publications, conferences and other academic activities within our realm.

Roy MacLeod

University of Sydney

1 These included Roy MacLeod, ‘Knowledge and Power in the Pacific’, Towards the Pacific Century: The Challenge of Change,Proceedings of the XVII Pacific Science Congress (Honolulu, 1991), 87-92.; Roy MacLeod, ‘Post-Colonialism and Museum Knowledge: Revisiting the Museums of the Pacific’, Pacific Science, 52 (4), (1998), 308-318.; Roy MacLeod, Guest editor, ‘Discovery, Exploration and Representation: Western Science in the Pacific’, Pacific Science, 52 (4), (1998); Roy MacLeod, ‘Historical Perspectives on Pacific Science’, Pacific Science, 54 (3), (2000), 207-209; Roy MacLeod and P.F. Rehbock, ‘Developing a Sense of the Pacific: The Pan-Pacific Congress in Australia,’ Pacific Science, 54 (3), (2000), 209-226; and Roy MacLeod (ed.), ‘Museums and the Cultivation of Knowledge in the Pacific’, Pacific Science, 55 (4), (2001), ‘Editorial Introduction’, 325-326.