Damon Salesa

Associated Professor of Pacific Studies - Damon Salesa
Damon Salesa

Associate Professor of Pacific Studies and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Pacific), Damon Salesa was the first person of Pacific Island descent to become a Rhodes scholar to Oxford. Earlier in 2012, his book Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire won the coveted international Ernest Scott prize. Here he talks about the things that have shaped his approach to history.

I grew up in Glen Innes, the 4th of five children. My father came to New Zealand from Samoa. He was a factory worker at Fisher and Paykel in East Tamaki. He was that company’s longest serving worker when he retired. My mother is from up north at a place 20 minutes north of Kaitaia. It’s called Waipapakauri, and is one of those towns which is basically just a rugby club and a pub.

It was a struggle for my parents to get by, but they always set our sights on the future. My mother was an enrolled nurse at Middlemore, and always worked nights. I had summer jobs at Fisher Paykel, and those jobs and student loans, paid for my education.

I went to Glen Innes Primary, Glen Innes Intermediate (which the government closed down after I left) and then Selwyn College. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at 13 … I didn’t really know. My father comes up with these stories about me. He tells people he turned up at Glen Innes Primary school - it was a pretty hard bitten school - at the parent/teacher interviews and all the kids had put posters up saying what they wanted to be when they grew up. Other kids had put ‘I want to be a fireman’ or ‘I want to be a policeman’. My dad reckons I’d written ‘when I grow up I want to be a university lecturer’.

My grandparents on both sides wanted me to go to university. They were all about education. My sister and I started here at the same time, and my younger sister also did a master’s degree here. Both Fialogo and Leilani are teachers now. My eldest brother, Shane, died when I was 9, and my older brother Jordan became a physiotherapist, working with the Manu Samoa and now the New Zealand Olympic team. My father wanted me to be an engineer, I think, and my mother wanted me to be a lawyer, which is probably pretty typical for first generation university families.

When I arrived at Auckland, Albert Wendt the Samoan novelist was here. I already knew all about him. In my first year he was teaching and I was in his tutorial. He had a Pacific Island tutorial where 25 Pacific Islanders sat there terrified of Albert Wendt. I was probably less terrified than most. It was inspiring to be that close. I took other courses with Albert and came to know him really well. I loved literature, but history seemed to me so much more powerful. All Samoans know how much history matters. When Samoans argue about politics, they are usually arguing about history, about chiefly titles and claims over land. But unlike most New Zealanders Samoans generally have very precise knowledge. Families take care of their own oral histories, their genealogies and the stories they hand down.

I was very fortunate to go on to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. I was even more fortunate I ended up under the wing of a strong and innovative historian: Megan Vaughan. She holds the Rhodes Chair in Imperial History at Cambridge now, and inspired me a new and very different way.

Oxford is wonderful, and a place of scholarship and privilege, but can sometimes be a hostile environment. I wasn’t as sheltered as many who arrive there. I was lucky I grew up in New Zealand where you often have to have a thick skin if it’s brown.

I knew that if I wanted to understand the experience of Polynesia then I needed to understand empire. Empires helped transform Polynesia, but Polynesians also had profound effects on those same empires. To be at an imperial centre such as Oxford and study empire brought these realities home to me: it was fantastic.

After Oxford I came back to New Zealand for a year and was a fellow at the National Library in Wellington, where I met my gorgeous wife Jenny, and then I took a job at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor is a wonderful place to live). Our daughters Mahalia and Esmae were born there. I was teaching courses and publishing about empire and the Pacific, as well as some New Zealand stuff.

My book Racial Crossings which I was working on at Michigan came out of my doctoral thesis. It begins with the 1830s, which I argue is a pivotal moment in history. It’s the opening of an age of liberalism, capitalism, the rule of law, the age of enfranchisement. It was the decade of the Great Reform Act and the ending of slavery in the British Empire. At the same time Britain expanded its colonies in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa. It appeared to be a new age of the individual and equality, and yet it was at exactly these moments that race became more and more important. That’s the problem at the heart of my book: why at the exact moment when people are saying all the things we think of as good things: liberty, equality, freedom, commerce – why are they also starting to use race in this much more measured and potent way?

Racial Crossings is a story about how race becomes the way that you can preserve inequality as you speak about equality. And at that moment important people in Britain started saying not that races should be kept separate, but that the empire should try to intermarry some people of different races. It’s not what we expect of Victorian imperialists! But it was an approach that only looked humane. The idea was that you could then bring other races into a single colonial jurisdiction, subject them to a key colonial institution—marriage—and then both politically and racially overwhelm them. Destroy the community from within. One famous imperial official used to call racial intermarriage ‘the euthanasia of savage communities’.

Some of these ways of thinking have survived. When someone says for example: “there’s no pure-blood Māori left” it’s often coupled with a political claim (usually unstated): “so what right do they have to make any kind of claims”. It’s the logical end point of these policies. That’s what these imperial officials were originally after, removing the political identity of a people. But in all sorts of ways they got it wrong, because people still get to decide who they are. And people won’t necessarily decide to be who you want them to be.

I have an example in my book of a nasty colonial official in New Zealand who has Māori children. He spends a lot effort trying to turn them into proper young English girls. He sends one to Tasmania where she’s taught French and the piano. He leaves her there for 15 years and on return she’s supposed to be marriage-able to a Pakeha but she meets her Māori family and starts learning Māori and composing waiata and talks about her father in very unfavourable terms. These plans often fail.

My book tries to re-conceive what race means. Scientific racial theories mattered much less than historians have said. Hardly anyone reads scientist’s work, just as hardly anyone reads (or understands) the work of geneticists today. Racism has its own rationality, and doesn’t need lab work for sustenance. Race became ubiquitous through more popular forms: back then things like the bible, law, celebrations of empire, English history, and penny pamphlets. Through these people came to see the world in racial terms. By the 20th century race was on both sides of the divide. There’s the racists and the anti-racists and both can only talk using the terms of race.

I think historians help us understand our own genealogies. How did we become who we are? Race was one of the ways we were integrated into large societies – empires. We were brought in without being equal despite people professing equality.

Sadly, a Pacific Islander still needs a thick skin in New Zealand. I always thought, like most New Zealanders, that this would get better over time. But now I’m not so sure. We’re producing an increasingly unequal society. There used to be a time when rich and poor kids went to the same schools. Show me where those schools are now? There’s not many left. What is worse is this inequality increasingly coincides with the colour of a person’s skin. We’re producing a hinterland to Auckland where most Polynesian Aucklanders live, and where there is not only inequality today, but inequalities of opportunity, which will ensure an unequal future.

Nowadays, if my father was looking to buy a house as a factory worker, which is still the dream of most Pacific Islanders, where could he buy one? Could he even afford a house? For many Aucklanders the house they were raised in is one they could never afford to buy now for themselves. For Pacific people it is painfully obvious as suburbs once full of Islanders are now being emptied of them: Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, and Onehunga for example, as well as where I grew up, Glen Innes. I arrived back to see the government evicting hundreds of Glen Innes state house tenants and trucking away their houses.

I have a strong commitment to my father’s villages in Samoa, those of my grandfather, Neiafu and Falealupo, and that of my grandmother, Satapuala, where my title “Toeolesulululu” comes from. Historically Satapuala has been treated very poorly by the New Zealand Government, and subsequently by the Samoan Government, which took most of the village lands for the airport during World War II. The land was taken against the villagers’ will, and now much of that land has the national airport on it.

As a historian one of my contributions was to help with research for the cases we brought against the Samoan and New Zealand Governments. The elders of the village remember how people were removed to make way for the airport runway. In written records I’ve found descriptions of how New Zealanders had to physically lift people out of their houses and then burnt their houses down—which is one of the worst things you can do in Samoa.

One of my next book projects is a history of Samoa but in a way that is attentive to how Samoans tell their own histories. It’s a history from the ‘bottom up’ and a project that makes sense to me. Most Samoan histories focus on the chiefs, but in the time I’ve spent in the archives, so many of the stories I find moving and engaging are not necessarily about the chiefs. If you want a surefire way to get 60-year-old, or older, Samoans to talk about their childhoods you ask them about watching old-style Westerns! These are the kinds of stories I mean, the ones that we tell ourselves.