The Multi-talented Sir Tom Davies
In his autobiography, Island Boy, Sir Thomas Davies provides insight on Polynesian life and culture whilst recounting his own remarkable career.
Sir Tom Davis’ autobiography Island Boy
(1992) provides insight into the fascinating life of a multi-talented
man. Born in Rarotonga in 1917, some of Davis’ many achievements include
being the first Cook Islander to have graduated from a university, the
first Cook Islands doctor and the first Cook Islander to have had a
novel published internationally. In his lifetime, he published four
books and co-authored over 25 scientific reports and articles and
regularly contributed to his local daily newspaper. He also briefly
served as Prime Minister to the Cook Islands between 1978-1986,
introducing economic reforms that contributed to significant economic
growth on the island.
Island Boy begins by giving readers a glimpse of Davis’ idyllic childhood on the islands, writing, ‘We were unique in . . . our ability to dance anyone off their feet. It was a good way to grow up.’ This was then truncated by a move to boarding school in New Zealand, during which Davis discusses his feelings of displacement in unfamiliar surroundings - for example, the difficulty he experiences at the fact that it was no longer appropriate to greet people he did not know when walking in the street.
The autobiography then takes the reader through Davis’ various posts as Medical Officer of the Cook Islands Government Medical Service, Harvard University academic and eventually Prime Minister to Cook Islands, at each post showing his inexhaustible skill and intellect.
In addition to learning about Davis’ incredible career, one of the most fascinating aspects of Island Boy is Davis’ insight into Polynesian culture and his criticisms of foreign anthropologists. Davis notes that, in collecting evidence, anthropologists ignored what they had been told by the Polynesians and chose instead to follow their own fixed notions of Polynesian culture, which in turn has led to misunderstanding and inaccuracy. He provides some examples of key cultural differences between Polynesians and the western world that may have contributed to this; for example, Davis cites the Polynesian practice of changing names of people, islands, places, canoes as a source of difficulty for non-Polynesians wanting to study their culture. He also discusses the Polynesians’ reluctance in discussing their culture due to negative experiences with foreign missionaries who diminished the importance of indigenous culture, as another factor.
Island Boy is an autobiography written by perhaps one of the most formidable characters in Cook Island’s history. Davis’ perspective, formed through having grown up in the Cook Islands but also with the added depth of having lived abroad extensively, provides a refreshing and insightful portrayal of Polynesian culture and practices.
By Harriet Hu