Half-castes between the Wars: Colonial Categories in New Zealand and Samoa

Half-castes between the Wars: Colonial Categories in New Zealand and Samoa

New Zealand Journal of History
Volume 34, Number 1 (2000)
pages 98-116

Tocolcsulusulu D. Salesa
Oriel College, University of Oxford

BY THE 1930s ‘half-castes‘ seemed a near-universal product of colonialism. They were a natural outcome of the human activity of procreation, and not a colony in the world was without them. In New Zealand and Samoa, half-castes had risen to prominence, not always with admiration, and occupied a territory somehow between natives and Europeans. They were a kind of human borderland, markers of the differences between the two populations. Half-castes were born of a ‘queer magic’, as Noel Coward called it, children of natural human desires, yet often treated as unnatural; left in a position which could attract both envy and disdain. In the years between the World Wars, the well- known figure of the half-caste gained a new kind of relevance as, among others, eugenicists, racial biologists, colonial experts and governments found newer ways of considering them. The prevailing contemporary view did not seem a kind one. The anti-racist scientist Cedric Dover lamented in 1937 that the half-caste was depicted as ‘an undersized, scheming and entirely degenerate bastard. His father is a blackguard, his mother a whore. His sister and daughter . . . follow the maternal vocation.’

Colonial authority was built on the assumptions that European society in the colonies was an obvious and discrete social and biological whole—a ‘natural’ community—and that the boundaries which separated colonizer from the colonized were easily drawn and unmistakable. Half-castes were living proof that these assumptions were false, and daily they had to deal with the trauma their existence exposed. Unintentionally they had the capacity to traverse categories, or be cast from one to another, and this often attracted distrust and suspicion. Their variability meant that although the term ‘half-caste’ was in use from the mid-nineteenth century in both New Zealand and Samoa, the substance it enclosed continually changed. Moreover, each reconfiguration of what half-caste meant potentially reconfigured the limits of ‘Native’ or ‘European’, and how distant or different these categories were. This changing nature of the half-caste reveals the creative and plastic nature of colonialism and its terms of government. But it does much more than this, as such terms were part of a vocabulary commonly used by colonizers, and government was implicated in a broader discussion where varied definitions and understandings of half-castes might inform each other, and where definitions remained mercurial and contested. In Samoa and New Zealand half-castes attracted not only political and social interest, but also scientific and scholarly concern. The years on which this article focuses, the 1920s and 1930s, were a highpoint for this.

At this time both New Zealand and Samoa were under the same colonial power—New Zealand—yet in the two countries the half-caste category was not the same. The many differences make comparison intriguing. Samoa was a tropical, plantation colony, with a small population of Europeans; New Zealand was a temperate, settler colony, with an increasing white population. Their histories, however, are entangled, and in several ways the fortunes of half-castes in Samoa and New Zealand shaped each other. Margery Perham, a colonial ‘expert’ and Oxford don, passed through both New Zealand and Samoa in 1929 on a worldwide tour of British colonies. She realized the degree of entanglement between New Zealand and Samoa when she observed that ‘every event in the [Samoan] islands found immediate echo in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s response re-echoed back in the islands’ .Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler have written that ‘metropole and colony, colonizer and colonized, need to be brought into one analytic field’. Half-castes in Samoa and New Zealand offer an opportunity to do just that…

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