Professor’s Marsden Fund to reveal two-hundred years of Samoan history

22 November 2013
our-stories_damon-salesa
Associate Professor Damon Salesa

Samoa has a vast history and yet many aspects of its past have surprisingly little written about them.

Now Associate Professor Damon Salesa of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Pacific Studies will use his recent grant from the Marsden Fund to embark on a project to research two-hundred years of Samoan history.

The project will result in two volumes of work. "The Transformation of Everyday Life in Samoa (1800-2000)" will research and reconstruct a Samoan history ‘from below’, a history not just of chiefs, elites and extraordinary characters, but of what Samoans held in common, their shared experiences of ‘everyday life’.

Damon says that for Samoa, like other countries that were colonised, history tends to be written about the colonisers from their perspective, not of the local people.

“This is a way to put stories about Samoans right at the front," he explains

“The history has been very fixated on the political history of Samoa. Because there are not a large number of Samoan historians, it means we actually know less than we thought we knew about many really important things about Samoa,” Damon says.

“This research is about totally unfamiliar stories, really exploring how the foundations of Samoa changed, and also finding the kind of stories in which Samoans can recognise themselves, whether they be the extraordinary Samoan uptake of literacy (1820s-1860s); the changes that took Samoan warfare from slingshots to battleships (1830s-1880s); the arrival of enormous single crop plantations with foreign workers (1890s-1910s); the remarkable but little studied Samoan experiences of World War Two (1941-5) -when as many Americans as Samoans landed (and then left); the mass uptake of radio and television (1950s-1980s); or the networked internet electronic age that highly transnational Samoans use in very distinctive ways (1990s-the present).

“In the 200 years I am looking at, Samoa undergoes a transformation that we have yet to fully comprehend.

"In the 1820s no one had yet attempted to write down the Samoan language, yet only 30 years later most Samoans can actually read and now there are more cellphones than people in Samoa.”

What people eat and how this connected with their lives will also be examined.

"What people ate in 1800 is not what they'd eat in 1900 or 2000," Damon notes.

"Goats, horses and cattle all came to Samoa and changed the way Samoans lived. Pineapples, mangoes, cocoa and rhinoceros beetles also changed Samoan landscapes and diets. And that is leaving aside pisupo (corned beef)! Samoa has a globalised diet quite early."

Even something as simple as the disposable razor was a huge impact on the Samoan people, as before their arrival the men used to shave with sharpened shells.

Damon will outline the remarkable changes to the experience of being a child in Samoa at this time, including the change from being educated in the home in a family setting, to the arrival of the church schools where teaching was by trained teachers.

The impact of disease will also be analysed. Damon plans to chart an epidemic history of Samoa, something that has never been done fully before; despite the devastating impact diseases like influenza have had on the country’s population.

The influence of mass popular culture, including radio, newspapers, and particular items such as movies will also be covered.

Along with the two volumes of work, the grant will make several other projects possible. The research grant will sponsor the digitization of a group of Samoan archives in Wellington, the production of a new Samoan history website, and the holding of an international conference on Samoa. It will also provide for graduate scholarships for students to study Samoan history with Damon, as well as provide opportunities for research in New Zealand, the United States, Germany, Britain and Australia.

A second volume of work, “New Samoan Histories” will be a joint volume by a group of Samoan historians, scholarship students and academics from Samoa, New Zealand and the United States.

“This is about producing the sort of history in which Samoans can recognise themselves.”