Scholar returns to his Pacific roots

Last updated 08:56 01/08/2012
History CLD
ESTHER LAUAKI
HIS STORY: Auckland University associate professor Damon Salesa completed his PhD at Oxford University as the first Rhodes Scholar of Pacific descent.

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Esther Lauaki sat down for coffee with a Samoan professor who's making history as well as teaching it.

Auckland University associate professor Damon Salesa believes part of being good at his job is knowing that he doesn't know everything.

The 38-year-old has spent the best part of 20 years studying or working at various universities.

Dr Salesa completed his bachelor and masters degrees in history at Auckland University. He was the first Rhodes Scholar of Pacific descent and went on to Oxford University to complete his doctorate in 2001.

"I didn't come from a really academic family. My dad worked in a factory and my mum was a registered nurse. As I finished my masters, opportunities all opened up from there. I've been given so many opportunities.

"I realised how much I love research and writing and it's taken me a lot of places."

He made history again when he was awarded a $45,000 National Library research fellowship - the first for Pacific studies.

More doors opened when Dr Salesa was offered a position at Michigan University as associate professor of history. Ivy league school Harvard University also offered him a spot but he turned it down.

His book Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire grew out of his doctoral research. It took longer to write than he expected but was commended by critics for his depth of research into the Victorian empire.

"It's been a long time in the making. It's a culmination of seven years' work. Much of what is written about the history of colonialism is that the British were pretty racist and were trying to keep the races apart.

"In actual fact that wasn't so much the case, it was the complete opposite."

Dr Salesa's theory is that colonists encouraged intermarriage to create future generations of mixed race and weaken ancestral ties to land.

Racial Crossings was awarded the prestigious Ernest Scott Prize last month.

The prize is awarded annually to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation.

"I feel honoured to have returned to New Zealand and to Auckland University after being at the University of Michigan for the past 10 years. I am very humbled that my work has been held in such high esteem.

"This has been an amazing year already, returning to New Zealand and the South Pacific after a decade abroad has been important for me, my wife Jenny and daughters Mahalia and Esmae, and now winning this award has made it even more special."

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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