Damon Ieremia Salesa. Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 320 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-960415-9.
Reviewed by Michelle Tusan (History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
Published on H-Empire (February, 2012)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)
Racial Crossings is a study of Victorian race systems through the story of the first major colony acquired during Queen Victoria’s reign. Imagined as a “Britain of the South,” New Zealand, according to Damon Ieremia Salesa, offers an important example of what he calls “racial crossings” during the early to mid-Victorian period. This intimate study of imperial race systems reveals how empire makers and indigenous peoples negotiated race in the experience and practice of colonial rule.
The book begins with an exploration of the concept of “racial amalgamation,” a concept that guided the early colonial project in New Zealand and understood by historians as a project of assimilation that targeted indigenous peoples. Salesa complicates this formulation by demonstrating the different contexts and purposes in which this notion took root. In this reading, racial amalgamation appears as a system of rule through new land distribution programs and regulations. The “language of race was surprisingly promiscuous” in New Zealand, Salesa argues, as the idea came to be used for different purposes depending on the institution (p. 37). By the end of the book, racial amalgamation looks like a systematic attempt to erase indigenous identity through what one British official ominously called the “Euthanasia of savage communities” (p. 95).
Chapter 2 examines emerging ideas about race through the story of interracial liaisons in precolonial New Zealand. According to Salesa, the widespread acceptance of sexual relationships between indigenous peoples and early settlers, traders, and sailors had already disrupted the divide between “natives and Europeans” by the time of annexation in the early 1840s. While one contemporary observer cast this as “pandemonium on earth,” interracial sexual encounters reconfigured the social order in a way that was not always apparent to those on the outside (p. 88). The acceptance of half-caste children in indigenous society and the toleration for interracial marriage further demonstrated the fluidity of racial categories that by the 1840s had already begun to transform cultural practices.
Salesa deals with the question of indigenous power during the subsequent decades with much sensitivity through the stories of people who talked back to the imperial system. At the same time, there is an acknowledgement of the impossibility of “resurrect[ing] indigenous agency” in debates over race that happened back in Britain. The discussion of Victorian racial scholarship and science in chapter 4 outlines the porous boundaries of racialized discourse that continued in and around the 1850s and 1860s, a period many historians have cast as a moment when racial categories began to ossify. What Salesa calls a “discursive silence” in the historical record when it comes to indigenous participation in these debates “reflects an absence in place and power” (p. 168).
The problem of power as read through the lens of racial discourse gets more complicated on the ground, particularly in the consideration of colonial officials who enforced new race-based policies. Here, Salesa argues that resistance largely happened in the interior spaces of self and family where colonial practices were disrupted by small refusals and the presence of “half-caste” people who challenged the project of racial amalgamation. The possibility that people like Governor George Grey, described as the “Great Amalgamator” in chapter 3, understood or even recognized these acts as resistance to the colonial state is doubtful (p. 107). These protests seem much more powerful as a psychological defense against colonial rule than as means of addressing questions of governance and reconstituting prejudicial laws and regulations.
War further tested the boundaries of Victorian racial systems. Salesa reads the wars of the 1860s for predominance in New Zealand in chapter 5 as race wars that disrupted the colonial project. Dubbed “the first great conflict of the races” in 1863 by the Times, the protracted conflicts of these years were, according to Salesa, a “workshop for colonial activities and ... race making” (p. 228). The so-called Paper War, for example, pitted indigenous interests against colonial ones in the press in a discursive battle over authority. Wars of the pen as well as the sword, these conflicts blurred the lines between settler and indigenous interests. The acceptance of “half-castes” in colonial New Zealand in subtle and not so subtle ways undermined settler authority by making it hard to draw stark lines between sides. Tensions brought out by the wars revealed the ways in which this system could be undermined by its subjects through further complicating an already unevenly applied set of racial categories.
In the end, Racial Crossings demonstrates the dynamic way in which British imperial history can transform itself from an island story to a global one and then back again. The story of New Zealand as told by Salesa is a history of rulers and the ruled offering details of the lives of the people and practices that make this local story part of, rather than subordinate to, the British story. Salesa’s choice not to use the colonial term “Maori” to describe indigenous peoples and using the term “Pa~keha~,” translated as "Ship People" to refer to Europeans for example, renders opaque what was once read as a tightly controlled racialized order that defined the colonial relationship. Such positioning by historians has the possibility to disrupt traditional narratives while opening up new ways of interrogating imperial systems of rule.
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Michelle Tusan. Review of Salesa, Damon Ieremia, Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire.
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