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November 2014: Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the British Empire

41GDB9Ka+9LReviewed by: Lachy Paterson, University of Otago

Damon Ieremia Salesa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 308 pp. $US 45 (paperback)

Race has always been an important preoccupation in New Zealand society. In the country’s popular imagination, its past is predicated on national myths that it had the best race relations in the world, and that its Māori citizens were the best treated of all indigenous peoples.   Intermarriage between Māori and the Pākehā settlers, a practice encouraged even prior to formal colonisation, was often given as evidence for such claims. Damon Salesa’s Racial Crossings is an exciting investigation of the theories, discourses and policies that underpinned intermarriage, and the broader colonial project of racial amalgamation.

The volume’s subtitle, Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire, is a little misleading. The book is not a social history of intermarriage: indeed the story concerns itself more with the discourses of racial crossing, than the lives of the actual people doing the crossing. Its focus is on roughly four decades of New Zealand history, one preceding the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) and the three following. A reader will find little detail on the policies and practice of intermarriage of colonial India, Canada, Australia or South Africa, or even of New Zealand in the last three decades of Victoria’s reign.   As Salesa notes, power was generally devolved to colonial governors, whose actions and policies were shaped by local conditions.   Although conditions may have been localised, ideas flowed more freely around the Empire. New Zealand’s pertinence to “imperial” studies is that it was colonised when humanitarianism was flourishing. After earlier examples of destructive colonisation, Britain sought to protect New Zealand’s promising “aborigines” through civilisation and amalgamation. Although missionaries, officials both in Britain and New Zealand, intellectuals and settler politicians may have had differing (and sometimes competing) agenda, a general consensus prevailed that intermarriage would benefit both Māori and colonisation.

While nineteenth-century race relations is a well-ploughed field within New Zealand historiography, Racial Crossings brings new insights. In particular, it is prepared to take seriously the racial ideology of New Zealand Company, which saw the country as eminently ideal for systematic British emigration, with its fertile soils, suitable climate and superior natives. The latter were expected to sell their lands cheaply in order to gain civilisation through close proximity with the settlers, and eventually the two races would become one. Although the Company failed in nearly all its aims except bringing the first rush of settlers to five of New Zealand’s six initial “colonies” including women (which lessened the prospect of intermarriage) Salesa argues that its discourses continued well past its dissolution. In many ways, Racial Crossings complements the seminal volume on racial amalgamation, A Show of Justice (1974), in which Alan Ward methodically investigates the incorporation of Māori into the politics and machinery of the state.   Many New Zealand historians lose sight of the imperial network of ideas that informed New Zealand’s colonisation, but Salesa effectively explicates the ideas and ideology behind government actions, and why “race” and racial mixing was so important to amalgamation.   Of particular interest are the fruits of racial mixing, the so-called “half-castes”. Theorists argued over whether the world’s races all evolved from a common source, or sprang up independently in different parts of the globe, and the nature of any progeny that might arise from racial mixing. Would they be sterile or fecund, degenerate or vigorous, the possessors of the perceived defects or strengths of their parents’ make up, and were some mixes better than others?

The prevailing views, that intermarriage was not degenerative and that Māori were promising candidates for civilisation, shaped the nature of New Zealand’s colonisation. In 1840 the new British administration was not in a position to impose amalgamation on Māori who remained effectively politically independent of governmental control. Persuasion, rather than coercion, was the only viable policy in the first two decades, although intermarriage might well aid the government’s gradual appropriation of power. Half-castes were already a feature of contact zones, and although it was initially thought that Māori and Pākehā might merge into a new race, the high rate of immigration saw the possibilities of gradual absorption of Māori into the Pākehā population, with a diminution of Māori power, and their eventual disappearance as a separate race.   As Salesa points out, Victorian sensibilities precluded the extermination of Māori, their extinction by more “tender” means was seen as good for all concerned.   Half-castes are thus central to Racial Crossings, as they were to New Zealand government policy, during both gubernatorial and settler control.   The control of half-castes, and their incorporation into European society and polity was thus a central concern of race policy in New Zealand. Much effort was expended in the attempt to shape half-castes so that they would become a force for colonial progress, and to legislatively draw half-castes away from their Māori kin.   Salesa posits that half-castes, in general, were not successfully absorbed within Pākehā society. Enduring genealogical bonds meant they remained well integrated within Māori communities, and emotional reactions could draw half-castes away from Pākehā life even after years of education and removal. However, he shies away from other factors: for example, while government policy may have promoted racial crossings, white society itself was not always as inclusive in the nineteenth century, particularly of white women marrying brown men, and half-castes may have felt more comfortable and accepted amongst their Māori kin.

Racial Crossings is not an introductory text, and indeed some prior knowledge of New Zealand history, although not obligatory, would benefit readers. What it does very well is engage with the big ideas that underlay racial thinking and discourses in the British Empire, and demonstrate how these informed British colonisation in New Zealand.


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