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An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays
by Damon Salesa

A 'profound' and insightful book that traverses the 'biggest thing on earth'.

By December 15, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

Damon Salesa – the first Pacific vice-chancellor of a New Zealand university – is synonymous with Pacific Studies and Pacific History. An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays collates some of his most celebrated essays into a single anthology, which will undoubtedly excite both emerging and established Pacific scholars. Of the twelve essays here, only chapter four (and the book’s introduction) are wholly new, their topics ranging from navigation and ancient knowledge to wars, trade, geopolitics and spirituality.

The creation of tapa cloth – central, Salesa notes in the book’s introduction, to most Pacific cultures – is his metaphorical model for the process of writing:

Three sides for pounding, one side smooth for the finish: that may be about the right ration for writing, too. Apply, and reapply, using the pounding to draw out the fibres and the texture that was already present in the material with which you began. Perhaps that understates the agency of a writer, who can conjure things out of the air but it is in keeping with the intentions of a scholar.

The book title, and Salesa’s concept of ‘native seas’, suggests the way he aims ‘to draw together the diverse Indigenous groups of the Pacific, their expansive horizons spread over more than a quarter of the world’. This is no easy task, he concludes, in a vast region of over 1400 languages, where the words ‘Oceania’, ‘Moana’, ‘Pacific’ and ‘Pasifika’ may impose a false uniformity.

Some may wish for an Indigenous word that allows us to pretend that there were Indigenous ways of seeing and thinking that are coterminous with ‘the Pacific’ as it appears on modern maps, but this is not the case and we should not pretend that it is …. There is no easy way, as we should expect in a world of change, difference, and cultural and linguistic complexity.

Words are central to Salesa’s wide-ranging investigations. To him, ‘stories and histories, analysis and critique of the Pacific’ are ‘powerful’. He is critically engaged with the real worlds of regional politics and international diplomacy, of social and economic inequalities, and the tensions between researchers, writers, policy makers, government departments, development agencies and powerful interest groups – as well as the names and narratives they devise, from the ‘Blue Pacific’ to ‘The Indo-Pacific’.

[A] central struggle of the Pacific in the future will be, as it has been in the past and is today, the contest over names and the stories they hold. Indigenous communities have shown that while sovereignty and political control may be wrested from local peoples (though typically not for long), their ability to control language, culture, names, stories and histories has made for ongoing and deep reservoirs of contest.

The book is organised into four sections. The first, ‘The Pacific World’, offers a cohesive set of essays that will be useful for trying to understand the Pacific place in broader historical narratives. In ‘The Pacific in Indigenous Time’ Salesa traces interwoven Pacific histories, cosmogonies, and genealogies, using the infamous 2011 ‘rescue’ of Lieutenant-Colonel Tevita Mara to demonstrate how we ‘cannot understand the intricacies of Sāmoan, Tongan and Fijian contemporary politics without a firm understanding of the great lineages of these different lands’.

Salesa makes compelling arguments about the marginalisation of Pacific histories – which are ‘not just smaller sections of larger histories, but dimensions of their own’ – and the fixation on what outsiders have done to the Pacific instead of investigating how the Pacific and Pacific peoples have impacted the world. ‘In world histories,’ he notes in the essay ‘The World from Oceania’, ‘as even in world maps, the biggest thing on earth manages to be omitted or divided or occluded’. In ‘Opposite Footers’, he observes that the ‘Pacific is to Antipodean histories what Africa is to the Atlantic ones; at once central but marginalised.’

In the book’s all-new ‘Finding and Forgetting the Way: Navigation and Knowledge in Sāmoa and Polynesia,’ Salesa moves from the historiographic critiques in the earlier chapters and focuses specifically on the ‘dazzling human accomplishment’ of Pacific navigation. ‘Why would a developed, effective, functional and apparently key knowledge disappear?’ he asks. The answers that emerge include not only colonisation, but also civil wars and both the means and ‘politics of the transmission of knowledge’.

The book’s second section, ‘New Zealand and the Pacific’, challenges contemporary misconceptions of New Zealand as simply a British colony. The first two essays, ‘A Pacific Destiny: New Zealand’s Overseas Empire 1840-1945’ and ‘New Zealand’s Pacific,’ have significant overlap.  In both, Salesa demonstrates how, from New Zealand’s inception, the nation has demonstrated imperial zeal in the wider Pacific:

New Zealand colonists, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, believed themselves especially well suited to the sacred task of civilising Polynesians. Even though they had long been mired in costly and only partly successful wars against Māori, many New Zealand settlers saw in the colonisation of Pacific Islands a continuation of a project they understood as benevolent rule.

Salesa suggests framing New Zealand as an ‘empire-state’ to better reflect its consistently colonial goals: at the empire’s height it included Sāmoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Nauru, and Tokelau. How different might central features of New Zealand colonialism appear,’ he writes, ‘if historical analysis recognised its actual dimensions. The New Zealand Wars, for example, might no longer be held to end in 1872 or 1918, but in 1930, when the HMS Dunedin, aircraft, soldiers and police began demobilising from their attempted subjugation of the Mau independence movement in Sāmoa.’

The final essay in part two, ‘Native Seas and Native Seaways: The Pacific Ocean and New Zealand,’ is its most unique, moving from pre-colonial narratives to emerging seaways and technologies through the rise of trans-Pacific whaling and agricultural trade to the mobility enabled by air travel. Steamships, Salesa notes, made ‘social and cultural links’ possible as well as the transportation of food and goods. But one, the Talune, was ‘a ship of death’, bringing the 1918 influenza epidemic to Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji: within weeks of its visit, over 20 per cent of Samoans had died.

Section three, ‘Race and Colonisation,’ is true to its blunt title, and ranges from an analysis of the relationship between discourses of race and empire around the world to two essays on ‘half-castes’, a ‘near-universal product of colonialism’, both in New Zealand and in Sāmoa – where the only word for half-caste is the transliteration ‘afakasi. The Polynesian emphasis on genealogy – ‘better thought of as a network of relations than as a personal history’ – permitted ‘a fundamental duality’ disrupted by missionaries and colonial powers.

The last essay in this section offers an exceptional glimpse into women’s history. ‘Emma and Phebe: “Weavers of the Border”’ is a microhistory of two ‘afakasi women, the Coe sisters, born in Sāmoa in the mid-nineteenth century, who became wealthy entrepreneurs in New Guinea. Their family was privileged: Emma attended schools in both Parramatta and San Francisco. Salesa argues that Emma and Phebe ‘were effectively colonists,’ buying up land for plantations and enjoying wealth and business success. By the time Emma decided to sell up and move to Australia, in 1909, ‘she was perhaps the largest and wealthiest planter in New Guinea’. Yet they were both still vulnerable to ‘colonial prejudices’ because they were women and had Samoan ancestry. Phebe, who married a German colonist, did not leave with Emma, and found herself financially devastated after World War I; she died in a Japanese internment camp in 1944. Both sisters have been written about – including by Margaret Mead in her 1960 essay ‘Weaver of the Border’ – but Salesa argues there are ‘too few’ accounts that ‘entertain their complexity and capture their contradictions’.

The book’s final section is titled ‘Sāmoa’s Colonial Encounters,’ with a focus on Samoan agency during transformative moments in the nineteenth century. ‘Remembering Samoan History’ is in conversation with the historical works of Tui Ātua Tupua Tamasese – ‘former Prime Minister, head of state, scholar and chief’ – on the power dynamics and changes of that century. Although this time is often characterised and discussed as the period of missionisation, Salesa instead examines the role and impact of Indigenous politics, warfare and agency, and the barriers to sharing and recording history. ‘Historical knowledge is particularly fraught in Sāmoa,’ he writes, ‘where history is not only subject to tapu and other restrictions, but is profoundly adversarial … [It[ was, and remains, common to mobilise and deploy history as a weapon.’ But the task – ‘to rigorously investigate their past’ – is a vital one, Salesa believes, quoting the ‘familiar’ refrain of Albert Wendt: ‘We are what we remember’.

Wendt appears again in the final essay in An Indigenous Ocean.  ‘Cowboys in the House of Polynesia’ is in many ways an ode him, beginning with quotes from his poems ‘Me, Adam’ and ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid’. The essay opens with a fascinating incident in 1914 incident when four rogue fitafita (‘native’ police) had a shoot-out with German colonists, influenced by the ‘cowboy pictures’ they’d seen in the local town hall. The ‘deadly day’ and its consequences didn’t diminish the power of the cowboy archetype, or the popularity of the western film genre, in Sāmoa. As in Ghana and the Congo, ‘in the streets of Apia, and Hāwera in New Zealand, the cowboy was at once a faraway and a local figure of special resonance … ripped from the movie screen into the ordinary dimensions of colonised lives’. Wendt, Salesa believes, grew up under the influence to embody the cowboy and to write about that renegade figure and its subversive history, in some way, in all his work. There is even ‘something a little cowboy around Albert’s first and only foray into “straight” academic history’, his 1965 master’s thesis on the Mau independence movement.

An Indigenous Ocean is a welcome addition to the Pacific Studies and Pacific History canon, finally coalescing many of Salesa’s profound works into one text. ‘This is a precarious moment to write in, and about, the Indigenous Ocean,’ Salesa writes, ‘though one would be hard pressed to think of a time that wasn’t. The Ocean, through its scale and global significance, convenes a multitude of local, regional and global challenges’. This confluence, he notes, ‘cannot be distilled into a few pages’. The title An Indigenous Ocean suggests the book is pan-Pacific, but the majority of the essays are largely concerned with Sāmoa and New Zealand. Some readers may wish for more discussions on colourism, intersectionality, and capitalism in section three, ‘Race and Colonisation’. Others may find Salesa’s focus on liminal and grey areas in colonial histories as not critical enough of white colonial actors. This is the narrow line Indigenous historians must walk between decolonial emphasis and Indigenous nuance and agency.

But this book should be celebrated for its robust intelligence, the confluence it embraces and investigates, the powerful way it pushes back again the ongoing ‘active marginalisation’ of a place ‘considered by outsiders somehow both too big and too small’, the Pacific, and for the ‘seaways’ it offers readers, so we can hear the ‘range of harmonies playing across the waves of their Native Seas, within an Indigenous Ocean’.

An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays

by Damon Salesa


ISBN: 9781991033604

Published: November 2023

Format: Hardcover, 338 pages

Amanda Sullivan Lee

Amanda Sullivan Lee holds an MA in Pacific History from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is currently a PhD Candidate in te Wānanga o Waipapa at the University of Auckland.