Racial Crossings: Race, intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire by Damon Ieremia Salesa (review)

Racial Crossings: Race, intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire by Damon Ieremia Salesa (review)

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2013
DOI: 10.1353/cch.2013.0015

Sarah Carter, Professor of History
University of Alberta

Damon Ieremia Salesa, Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

With a focus on New Zealand to 1872 but with attention to other British colonies, Damon Ieremia Salesa finds that “€œthe “€žcrossing”€ of races: different races associating, liaising, reproducing, marrying or consorting,”€ (1) was everywhere. Racial crossings both fascinated and concerned the British of the Victorian era in the colonies and the metropole, yet rarely were they punished, or legislated against. One of the major insights of this study is that racial crossing (properly managed and administered) was seen as a strategy of colonialism, not a challenge to it, and was a “€œcornerstone of the colonial management of races”€ (13), although there were dissenting voices and intense debates. But while the book deals with intermarriage and more informal crossings, there is greater focus on the concept and pervasiveness of “€œracial amalgamation,”€ as opposed to separation or segregation, as a strategy for dealing with and solution to the “€œproblem”€ of different races. Racial amalgamation was a method of erasure, of obliterating difference peacefully. A central argument of this book is that race was constitutive and elemental, that New Zealand was “€œa “€žracialized state,”€ one associated and with a nineteenth-century British Empire increasingly organized and ruled through discourses and practices of race”€ (17).

Advocates of the “€œsystematic”€ colonization of New Zealand including Edward Gibbon Wakefield proposed policies that included variants of racial amalgamation, which was a foundation of the land policy of the New Zealand Company, the focus of the first chapter. There were to be no vast tracts of land set aside as reserves in New Zealand, no separation of the races. Instead the Tangata Whenua would be interspersed and sprinkled among the colonizers. This would permit an expansive, intensive colonization and at the same time speed the “€œcivilization”€ of the Tangata Whenua who, it was assumed, would naturally desire to acquire the habits and comforts of their new neighbours. The second chapter traces the development of “€œtender ties”€ between Tangata Whenua and foreigners, the emergence of the term “€œhalf caste“€ by the 1820s and the growing perception of New Zealand as a place of disorder and pandemonium in need of intervention. Yet no steps were taken to obstruct or abolish intermarriage by colonial government; it was actively supported by authorities as long as it was “€œlegitimate”€ according to British law. At the Colonial Office at mid-century, Herman Merivale was the “€œphilosopher”€ of the amalgamation of colonists with Indigenous people, which he saw a “€œsensible, humane and practical course”€ (95), compared to the other two alternatives: extermination, or segregation on reservations. Merivale imagined a peaceful “€œeuthanasia of savage races”€ (157). The goal of peaceful disappearance of Indigenous people through amalgamation, however, had the effect of sharpening racial categories and hierarchies. A racialized colonial regime based on strategies of amalgamation was etched onto the land in New Zealand and entrenched in related legislation and policy.

An important chapter is devoted to debates about racial crossing in science and scholarship. Those who saw race crossing in a positive light drew on views of the Britons as a mixed race people who had grown in strength and superiority as a result. Organizations such as the Aborigines Protection Society, and the Ethnological Society of London, promoted the benefits of race crossing, while others, most notably the Anthropological Society of London, sharply disagreed. Influential authors in the colonies, such as A.S. Thomson, writing about New Zealand, saw amalgamation as the hope for the future, arguing that by the third generation “€œthe features of the Maori race will disappear from among the half-castes”€ (157). While Salesa notes that Indigenous voices and actors were absent from science and scholarly circles, throughout the book there is an important thread of Tangata Whenua discourses of racial crossings. A major point of the book is that Indigenous understandings contrasted fundamentally with colonial taxonomic practices. “€œHalf castes”€ found an accepted place; they were born members of a hapū or clan through their mothers and were not fractionalized into “€œhalves.”€…

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