To go out in a Hong Kong typhoon is to experience an almost pleasurable madness. The banshee-like wail of the wind is majestic. It is almost impossible to stand up, and you haul yourself from building to building, from stanchion to stanchion as of on board a ship rounding the Horn in a nor'wester. The air is dangerously alive with the objects - pieces of tin, small stones, branches, tiles - being hurled along by the wind. The horizontal rain stings like grazing bullets. You only venture outside once. Most people who have been seasoned by these violent irruptions stay indoors, where they hold typhoon parties, or watch the progress of the storm on the television. On every channel earnest-looking men with maps and pointers, looking like war-gamers in some fiendish Pentagon basement, demonstrate - predict, even - the inch-by-inch path that the storm is taking, noting that it usually passes off to the north, but may perhaps curve back upon itself and go in for a second strike. But then, with a final burst of rain and a final howl of the gale, it is all over - the only cyclonic visitation of the year, perhaps. The storm signals are reduced in urgency, from No. 8 to 3, to 1, and then the last is taken away.


The dead and injured - and often there are casualties, particularly in the poorer areas, or the more remote parts of the New Territories countryside - are taken away; the power lines and landslips are repaired; the beached ships are tugged off the reefs; the cost is counted; and the colonials take to watching, with a curious mixture of pride and nostalgia, as the storm - 'our Agnes' they'll call it - wanders away, does some more smashing and battering in Taiwan or the Yangtze valley before petering out, quite spent, and becomes just another statistic for the record books. The truly mighty storms are remembered for years, though the frequently of destructive typhoon is depressingly high in some corners of the Pacific - the Philippines, for instance, and Japan. In 1979 alone, for instance, devastating storms named Cecil, Irving, Mac, Sarah and Vera struck the Philippines: three in Luzon, one in Leyte, one off  Samar. In one storm, 46 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. And unlike Hong Kong, the Philippines is ill prepared* for floods, high winds and landslips, and there is invariably much loss of life, generally ignored by the rest of the uninterested world.  

There is one final and decidedly non-pacific phenomenon that occurs only in the ocean - the tsunami. This tidal wave is a product of the combined efforts of the jostling of the crustal plates and the behaviour of the deep Ocean through which the resulting shock waves are transmitted: a small nudge in southern Chile can set up a wave that streaks across the entire Pacific in a matter of hours, with unimaginably enormous force. In deep water the travelling wave may be only a few feet high: but in those rare occasions when such waves reach shallow water, or coastlines, they can rear up and explode with fearful consequences. The infamous Chilean case, in May 1960, began with an earthquake deep in the subduction zone between the Nazca and the south American Plates: scores of people died near the town of Puerto Montt. But it was the resulting tsunami that did the greater damage: it lumbered away to the north-west, speeding up and gathering energy as it did so. It hit Hawaii fifteen hours later, wrecking boats and beaches, ruining the Waikiki tourist trade; and twenty-four hours after being triggered in southern Chile, it hit Japan, 10,000 miles north. When it hit it was travelling at more than 400 miles an hour: no one expected it, and hundreds of Japanese living along the coasts of Hokkaido and Honshu were drowned. Warning stations were then established all over the Ocean, and a big 'tsunami early warning system' was set up in Hawaii, an island chain through which all major long-haul waves, it is reckoned, were bound to pass. 

The almost ceaseless trade winds of the central Pacific propel the Ocean's surface waters westward on both sides of the equator, forming the basis of the two enormous - but essentially very simple, circulatory currents, interleaved by the equatorial counter-current, take waters from the American coast across to New Guinea and Mindanao, then one heads north, taking warm water to the Japanese coast as the Kuro Shio. This warm water collides, at around 36N, with the southbound cold Oya Shio - part of the small, anti-clockwise current system in the Bering Sea - causing huge and navigationally hazardous fog banks to form, four days out of ten. The main north Pacific current system continuous in a clockwise direction - the mixed, cooling waters of the Bering Sea and the Kuro current turning east and then, when they reach the coast in the region of Seattle, turning south to form the cold California current, source of all the San Francisco fogs and a challenge for the more courageous of Oregon sea-swimmers. Much the same takes place, though in mirror-image, in the south Pacific. The southern equatorial current is diverted south past the Solomon Islands, and goes on to bathe the Great Barrier reef - and, indeed, much of the Australian coastline down past Sydney - in the tropical water of the east Australian current. It then turns east, joining the endless eastern drift of the southern Ocean current, before heading back up north once again along the coast of Chile and Peru, as the Peru current.

Although there is no south Pacific equivalent of the foggy collision of the Kuro Shio and the Oya Shio, there is one crucially important peculiarity about the currents off the South American coast which has a bearing on the economic livelihood of tens of thousands of people. It is associated with a phenomenon  known, somewhat inelegantly, as upwelling. Upwelling occurs when offshore winds - like, in this case, the south-easterly trades - persistently drive water away from the land, and the sea replaces the water by allowing cold bottom water to well up from below. The effect off the coast of Ecuador is twofold: first, the waters off the Ecuadorian coast (a few degrees north and south of the equator) are unusually cold - indeed, so powerful is the upwelling that a belt of this oddly cold water extends west from Ecuador for nearly 3,000 miles.

The second, and economically important, consequence is that the 'new' water from the ocean bottom is dense with phosphate, nitrates and many other nutrients liked by planktonic life - with the result that this belt of water is stiff with plankton. The food chain being what it is, these same waters are alive with fish, and the skies and islands are dense with birds. Fishermen scurry all over the seas catching anchovies; quarrymen have long made a living scraping guano from the bird-rich islands. All told, the upwelling of the cold waters of the south-eastern Pacific has long been s source of considerable economic importance.

But occasionally, and for reasons not quite understood, the upwelling suddenly stops. The trade winds weaken, the waters off the Ecuadorian coast are not pushed relentlessly out to sea, there is no consequent need for any replenishment. In addition the lack of upwelling allows a tongue of the equatorial counter-current (which normally passes into and flails pointlessly about in the Gulf of Panama) so head further south, into the region of the northbound Peru current. In the years when this inexplicable phenomenon occurs - and it usually happens around Christmas, and so is known by the local fisherman as El Nino - the plankton suddenly vanish, the fish die and the birds fly away or are left to starve and rot.

The fishermen come back with their holds empty; the islands have neither birds nor guano; it is said that the strength of the smell of the gases from the millions of tons of decaying fish is such that it can blacken the hull of a passing ship - a phenomenon known as the Aallao Painter. The gallows humour disguises the very real misery that El Nino causes, not only are there no fish to harvest, but the arrival of the rogue current, reaching down all those unfamiliar and unwelcome degrees of latitude, invariably causes heavy rains, soil erosion, landships and added misery to the towns along the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coast. During the last ninety years El Nino, one of the Pacific Ocean's more enigmatic problems, has occurred nine times - in 1891, 1925, 1941, 1953, 1958, 1965, 1973, 1976 and 1983. The mechanisms of the upper atmosphere and the deep sea that cause it to spoil so many Latin Christmas times are still unknown, but there is beguiling evidence that whenever El Nino appears in the Pacific, so the monsoon rains in India are perilously sparse, the winters in the continental USA are unusually harsh, and there is a further episode of drought in that wretched quarter of Africa known as the Sahel. Further study is necessarily being completed, but the evidence of linkage between the simultaneous appearance of climatic phenomena in Kansas, Chad, Bihar and in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean suggests what all geographers have known for many years - that the globe works as one complete system, one vast interactive machine, and that the divisions man has forced upon it are no more than crudely artificial devices for our own intellectual convenience.

The resources presently known to exist on or beneath the land surface of the Pacific are stupendous in their extent and importance. There are few diamonds to be found, nor is there much cocoa; and considering the among of space the Pacific commands it might seem a little odd (unless one remembers the geology) that only a fifth of the world's proven oil reserves are there. (Most of those lie off the minute sheikdom of Brunei and are the personal property of the Sultan, who is in consequence the world's richest man. Brunei is also the world's wealthiest country, with a GNP per inhabitant of $21,000, half as much again as that of the United States.) But just about everything else exists, and in spades. There is more than half the world's coal - much of it in Manchuria; half the world's uranium - much of it in Australia; half the world's natural gas; nine-tenths of the silk, 67 per cent of the cotton, 63 per cent of the wool; huge iron mines, great deposits of silver and, it has lately been found, a girdle of epithermal gold lodged in the volcanic rocks from the Solomon Islands to northern Japan. Lihir Island, off the west coast of New Ireland (itself sitting off the north coast of Papua New Guinea) is said to have the world's largest gold deposit - though as it sits inside a volcano the deeper the miners dig, the hotter they get.

In terms of similarly world-beating deposits, thee is nickel in New Caledonia (the mining establishment once ruled the island in the name of France); aluminium at Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland; iron in the Hamersley Range of Western Australia; lead, zinc and silver at Broken Hill; uranium near Darwin and in the tiny Queensland town called Mary Kathleen; copper and lead at Mount Isa, whose smokestack is the tallest structure in northern Australia. Malaysia has the world's biggest tin deposits, while the south Jianzi and Guangdong provinces of China are rumoured to have the most tungsten. The Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea seeks to reduce to ground zero a massive mountain of copper capped with a summit of gold. There is yet more tungsten in the Yukon, vast deposits of copper and molybdenum in Arizona, still more copper and molybdenum in both northern and central Chile. And dotted in mines and quarries from New Zealand clockwise around to Easter Island, the ocean is littered with cobalt, zirconium, titanium, antimony and almost everything else under the sun.

And with almost every mineral, so also every kind of food and crop. There is rice in abundance, of course: China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Korea produce (and then consume) most of the world's annual crop of 400 million tons of the grain of Oryza sativa. (Of the centres of the world's rice culture, only India and Bangladesh lie outside the region we have defined as the Pacific.) Most of the world's beef, mutton, pork, fish, eggs, wheat, wool, cotton, sugar, groundnuts, palm oil, soya beans, bananas, tea, oranges and pineapples come from Pacific countries: only wine, potatoes, apples, cocoa and milk come predominantly from countries beyond the Pacific pale. However, the distribution of all this food is patch. There is still real malnutrition to be found in islands of the Philippine archipelago. Children have been seen with the classic symptoms of kwashiorkor - distended bellies and rheumy eyes - sitting aimlessly in dingy hospitals outside silent sugar mills on Negros Island, and wondered how such tropic abundance could possibly spawn such misfortune. Nutritionists and cartographers still draw the so-called 'hunger line' through Asia and the Americas; the poorer people who live in those countries that are sandwiched between Mexico and Chile, and between North Korea and New Guinea, exist on diets of fewer than 2,250 calories a day, and thus go to bed each night hungry.    

And herein, of course, lies one of the ruder ironies of the Pacific: that among all this economic vibrancy and dynamism there are still the familiar evils we currently associate only with Africa, or with countries that are at war: illiteracy, hunger, a vertiginous growth of population, disease, overcrowding, slums. Beside the glitter of all the Pacific wealth there are still pockets - becoming ever smaller, the governments and their statisticians insist - where the unhappiness and squalor of the inhabitants remain an insult, a disfiguring blot on the Ocean's otherwise gleaming escutcheon. As their national borders are currently defined, and as this Web site has decided to define the Pacific, thirty-three countries lie around the margins of the Ocean. Twenty-three more lie within it. They can be grouped, more or less efficiently, according to the usual geographical rules. The peripheral Pacific, for instance, can be divided into six. Australia and New Zealand, originally settled by white Europeans and still following a generally Protestant tradition, are usually regarded together - though it is worth noting that if their native Aborigines and Maoris still dominated their populations, both countries would be regarded as South-East Asian, joined ethnically and culturally across the Arafura Sea. But in fact the Sea does divide this new Antipodean culture from the ancient traditions of South-East Asia, and so renders the countries separate and distinct from their neighbors.  

The South-East Asian Pacific nations comprise, among others, the world's largest Islamic country, Indonesia; the only Asian Christian country, the Philippines; the world's richest country, Brunei; what is probably the world's poorest country, Kampuchea; the busiest port-city, Singapore; as well as Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. The Gulf of Tonkin and the Vietnamese frontier is the arbitrary point at which South-East gives way to North-East Asia - the industrial powerhouse of the Pacific, the region that most economists and businessmen mean when they idly refer these days to 'Asia'. In terms of its population, China dominates, of course; but there is also the old Portuguese colony of Macau; the thoroughly modern British colony - though soon to be 'retroceded' - of Hong Kong; the Republic of China on Formosa, now known as Taiwan; Japan; the two implacably hostile Koreas, North and South; and the Soviet Union.

The range of ideologies, climates, ethnic varieties, economic standing and future apparent in this spread, between the islands of Hainan and Sakhalin, invariably defies imagination. And then the Date Line is passed, and we are into a segment of the Pacific best known for its unrivalled prosperity and good fortune: here is the United States, sharing with Japan the suzerain's role; and, sandwiches between its two continental divisions, the dominion of Canada. Next, pushing further south, we enter what seems to be a perpetually troubled and impoverished region, between Tijuana and the Darien Gap - Mexico, distinguished in global terms these days solely by being the site of the planet's largest city* - and a succession of Isthmian countries. We tend to think of most Central American countries as somehow linked by the Caribbean Sea to the Caribbean islands and cultures; but all the republics have Pacific coastlines - and so Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras (with a scant 45 miles of Pacific shoreline along the Gulf of Fonseca), Nicaragua, Costa Rica and of course Panama can rightly (if pedantically) be thought of as Pacific nations.  

Finally, the sixth Pacific segment contains those countries that, until lately, have been utterly excluded from consideration - those of South America. Colombia, it is true, still seems to regard herself as an Atlantic nation - her trade goes principally through the Caribbean port of Cartagena rather than through the dire and crime-ridden wharves of the Pacific port of Buenaventura; but Ecuador (which has island possessions in the Ocean) and Peru seem to be becoming further and further entwined in Pacific matters; and Chile - ah, Chile! She, the 'bootlace' of Latin America, has the longest coastline of any country on the Pacific - 3,317 miles, longer by far than the entire Pacific coastline of Australia, which is a mere 2,450 miles from Cape York to Tasmania. although she is very much a latecomer, Chile is now furiously building her Pacific interests and ambitions. The links she is forming - trade with China and Korea, New Zealand and Australia - are deliberately aimed at ensuring that Chile in particular, and South America in general, is becoming vey much a legitimate partner in the Pacific of the future, no matter that the local cultures and traditions, combined with the sheer distance from the Pacific's economic heartland, have always hitherto militated against the continent's inclusion.

Within this great encircling babel of tongues and cultures, aspirations and rivalries, lie the Pacific island, regarded from afar as idyllic and palm-fringed and all more or less the same. But they are not at all the same, being invariably grouped into three - Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia - on the basis of complicated formulae relating to the race of the islanders, their languages and their geography. But in contrast to the sturdy independence of the encircling nations, many of the island-groups within have still to shake off the mastery of foreign powers, and remain in subjugation. European colonizers have left their marks all over the central Pacific - in the name of protecting sea-lanes, submarine cable routes, or the native peoples themselves. These marks have proved almost indelible. For although the tide of imperialism has ebbed considerably in most of the remainder of the world, some of the Pacific islands are still too small and their governments too feeble to stand alone as independent states. The consequence - and most would regard it as regrettable - is that old empires, or their sub-imperial nominees, look after them even now. Not one of the three island groups escapes.

In Polynesia, the largest of the groups - an immense, tilted isosceles triangle of islands with its apex in New Zealand and its other angles in Hawaii and Easter Island respectively - only Western Samoa and Tonga are now nominally independent. France has huge possessions - the Tahiti group, the Marquesas, the Tubuais and the Tuamotus, as well as those of Wallis and Futuna well to the west. The New Zealand government looks after the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau; the Americans have Samoa (Western Samoa), and the British look after the four islands of the Pitcairn group, selling stamps for the islanders to help them keep up their revenues. The Melanesian group, stretching in a broken line to the east of the immense and mountainous island of Papua New Guinea, includes the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji, each an independent, free-standing state; but the Australians look after Norfolk Island, and there are French possessions too, in New Caledonia and the Loyalty islands, with gendarmes, soldiers from Lyons and Marseilles, and offices of that wondrously-named bureaucracy, the DOM-TOM, which concerns itself with the Departements Outres-Mer et Territoires Outres-Mer. And finally the Micronesian, up in the north-west of the ocean - here Kiribati* and Nauru are independent, Guam is a self-governing American territory, and the others - Yap, Ponape (Pohnpei), Truk (Chuuk), Kosrae, the Marianas, the Marshall Islands and Palau - are part of the old post-war US Trust Territory, now doing their best to keep afloat. It would be idle to pretend that any of the Pacific islands have the kind of economic importance possessed by, say, Korea, or Malaysia, but in addition to potentially immense political importance and no small amount of charm, they have a symbolic significance - for they are what the world still thinks of when confronted with the single word, Pacific.

The countries of the Pacific are now inhabited by half the world's people - 2,400 million of them. The figure is slightly spurious, though. Some countries - New Zealand, say, and Japan - are obviously wholly Pacific; but Australia, the United States and Canada are shred by the two oceans that lap their eastern and western shores; and Russia, at least in the years prior to the Gorbachev speech at Vladivostok, was a country whose traditions and ethnic roots were quite obviously Atlantic and Baltic. To count the soviet Union's 275 millions as 'Pacific' people is stretching the point a little, and it might be more appropriate to count only those living east of the Urals. Similarly it might be proper to consider as 'Pacific' only those Americans who live west of De Soto, Missouri (the median point of the population, moving slowly ever-westward as the people do the same), or, in Australia, those east of Alice Springs. But the complication of such an operation would be considerable; and it is reasonable to say that the  entire population of the Pacific nations, even if they inhabit the Atlantic seaboard, can make use of the goods that are carried across the Pacific Ocean. So, while noting that single world's people, like one third of her surface area, is by this reckoning Pacific.  

These Pacific peoples speak 1,200 of the world's languages. Most of them, in number if not necessarily in influence, speak Mandarin Chinese. A sizeable proportion - the Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders - have as their first language the most supranational of all tongues, English. (And an even more sizeable fraction, nearly all Filipinos, for instance - have English as a back-up) those living between Tijuana and Puerto Williams speak Spanish. Some languages are peculiar to one region, yet intimately related not only link speakers in Vietnam and Cambodia with those in Fiji, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sulawesi and Borneo, but also reach out to the inland mountains of Taiwan, the North Island of New Zealand, and to the speakers of Dobu in the d'Entrecasteaux islands and of Trukese on Truk (Chuuk). There are important languages only spoken in their country of origin - Japanese, for instance, and Korean; some Pacific languages unrelated to each other or to any other linguistic group on earth: Ainu, for example, which is not spoken outside Hokkaido Island in Japan and has no relationship at all to Japanese and Gilyak, which is used only by a very few people on Sakhalin Island - a place known only as being the birthplace of the actor Yul Brynner.* and near where the Korean airliner KE 007 was shot down in 1983.

Superimposed upon this immense bewilderment is an equally confused gallimaufry of religions. The Marind of New Guinea believe that fire has its origins in sex, and so indulge in a rite whereby a girl has to be raped in order to keep that fire alight. Some Melanesians worship the memory of President Lyndon Johnson.* Trobriand islanders use the tug-of-war, cricket, the collection of yams and great and freely expressed sexual enthusiasm as the planks of their complicated beliefs. Anyone in Hong Kong with a problem - be it so trivial as to know which horse to place a bet on, or so crucial as to know whom to marry - can ask the god Won Tai Sin, whose temple is to be found in the middle of a vast housing estate in north Kowloon, and who came to fame by turning boulders into sheep. Queensland Aborigines believe they can sing a man to death, and indeed recently managed to sing the state's premier - a white man, a New Zealand migrant who cared little for 'black fellows' - out of office. Every Easter, a number of brave Filipino men allow themselves to be crucified - with teal nails driven through their palms - in an attestation of their faith.

Basically, though, the line of 150 deg.W longitude divides the Pacific into the religious groups that really matter, in terms of the Ocean's success. To the east of that line the dominant religions belong to the Christian-Hebraic schools; to its west the societies have their roots in Confucian-Buddhist beliefs. To the east are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Mormonism and Judaism, Jimmy Swaggart,+ Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. To the west are Mahayana Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and, in a strangely aberrant appearance, the Islam of Indonesia (and even more odd, Hinduism on the island of Bali). Above all - though only formally practised by large numbers of zealots in South Korea - is Confucianism, a philosophical system now 2,500 years old, but which underpins the entire belief system of almost everyone who (whether under Communist rule or not) lives between the Yalu River and Cape York. 

And, as the Canadian writer Eric Downton put it in 1986, 'societies with Confucian-Buddhist roots are proving more effective in coping with the industrial and technological challenges on the eve of the twenty-first century than (are those countries with a) predominantly Christian-Hebraic heritage.' Confucianism, in other words, is central to the coming triumph of the region: we shall examine it in more detail later, and perhaps will come to recognize its new strength, its new status on the world's political and economic stage. For the teachings of the Sage, suddenly, have established themselves as an almost indestructible Oriental adhesive, helping to bind so many of the region's member-societies together.

The Pacific, as is surely now evident, is an Ocean which, while long trying to assume some kind of unity, is plagued by a grossly inconvenient diversity. It after all, an entity which gives house room to people as different as Chilean gaucho and Japanese silk farmer, Californian software writer and Australian brewer, Tongan noble and Panamanian politician; it encompasses men and ideas more disparate and discordant than any to be found within the borders of any other physical entity on the planet. By now - listeners insist - some distant harmonies are being heard. Some trans-Pacific resonances are being detected, some symmetries noticed; there is some recognition of a sense of common purpose and design. A few Atlanticists, as one might term the doubters, decline to recognize or admit that such things exist. But in those for whom such patterns are becoming real, and for whom some rational explanation of the shift is required, then it can fairly be argued that the spreading ethic of Confucianism - exported in the last hundred years or so to every nation on and within the Pacific coastline by the tens of millions of overseas Chinese who have acted as its accidental evangelists - is crucial. It can be argued that it has played  significant - one might even say the most significant - role in producing all those patterns and distant harmonies that are being recognized as signalling the onset of the Pacific Age. 

*Or if prepared, at least ill-able to cope.

*Unless there is some drastic and improbable happenstance there will be 35 million people living - and living very poorly - in Ciudad Mexico, DF, by the end of the century.

*Pronounced Kiribas, that being the closest thing the islanders could manage to their old colonial name, the Gilbert Islands, after Captain Gilbert of HMS Charlotte, who landed there in 1788. His colleague of HMS Scarborough, Captain Marshall went on to land on islands now administered by the USA.

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