Empires and Migrations in the Pacific World

Trinity College Dublin, 2020-2021

Nagakubo Sekisui, Chikyū bankoku sankai yochi zen zusetsu (地球萬國山海輿地全圖說),  “Revised and Complete World Map,” 1785.


This module examines how Asian, European, and American empires have channelled, categorised, and regulated human movement in the Pacific since the 1500s. The Mediterranean and Indian Oceans hosted dense networks of mobility before recorded history, while a single Atlantic World coalesced in the seventeenth century. Yet, the Pacific resisted such integration. Only the Polynesians traversed its vast expanses over centuries of migration. Chinese and Japanese merchants and later European empires were able to build segmented corridors during the early modern era, but mass migration awaited the California Gold Rush. Yet, then the prospect of mass Chinese migration elicited racialized hysteria throughout the Pacific basin’s white settler nations. Their imposition of barriers against ordinary Chinese and later all Asian migrants engendered contemporary systems of policing state boundaries and re-divided the Pacific into contending spheres of state power, economic penetration, and racial imagining.

As a result, historians have largely written fragmented histories of the Pacific. By dividing East Asian, Southeast Asian, North American, and Latin American histories, scholars broke the Pacific into more manageable but bounded pieces. Their approach marginalized transpacific movement and the state systems that transected this region from global history. By contrast, this course reframes the Pacific as the central fulcrum in the making of the modern world. Together, we will explore and develop conceptual frameworks for thinking through a Pacific World. In that ambitious undertaking, we will read from traditionally disconnected historiographies, as well as the emerging field of Pacific World history. Our weekly endeavour will be to think holistically about different imperial and national formations and consider how shifting flows of state power have moulded human geographies. As a result, we will also tackle a diverse set of analytical approaches toward the study of mobility. From migration and labour histories to environmental history, this spread will point us toward additional avenues to refine this Pacific World framework.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, students will be able to:

  • Identify and critically discuss histories of transpacific mobility across shifting imperial and nation-state formations.
  • Analyse and re-interpret global history narratives through the concept of the Pacific World.
  • Identify relevant English-language primary source materials available in libraries and online archives.
  • Synthesise research findings and formulate well-supported arguments in presentations and written work. 


Assessment for this module consists of two 5,000-word essays, one each term. The first essay is 40 percent of the overall mark, while the second is worth 60 percent. These essays may take either a historiographical or research-based approach, based on both individual interests and project feasibility. Students should discuss their ideas and interests with the course instructor early in Michaelmas term in order to map out possibilities and additional readings.


This is the outline of the topics for each week of the term. Please note that the programme is subject to change as the module evolves.

Michaelmas term:

  1. What is the Pacific?
  2. Spanish Imperial Systems: Manila-Acapulco
  3. European Empires and China’s Maritime Hinterland
  4. “Exploration” and the World Market
  5. Gold Rushes: Emerging Transpacific Circuits

Hilary term:

  • Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Dispossession
  • Exclusion: Imperial and National Boundaries
  • Exclusion: Mapping the Marginalized
  • Japanese Imperial Systems
  • US Imperial Systems: Cold War Refugees and Brain Drains
  • Neoliberal Systems and Privileged Mobilities

If you would like a full copy of this handbook/syllabus (including readings), please contact me here or through my Trinity e-mail: pehamilt@tcd.ie.