Damon Salesa’s new book, Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays, offers new perspectives on Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, the vast Pacific Ocean, and the histories that have shaped the complex contemporary relationships between New Zealand and its island neighbours. In this edited extract, Damon looks at how these relationships have defined and redefined New Zealand.
The Second World War imposed millions of outsiders on Pacific people, and five years of war brought more foreigners to some parts of the Pacific than there had been in centuries prior. The Pacific War was the most maritime of conflicts and ushered in a new era of shipping in the Pacific, while ushering out the golden age of the passenger ship. It also brought New Zealand into a much more intimate relationship with its Pacific neighbours.
The war catalysed new connections between New Zealand and the other Pacific islands, and remade old ones. The conflict established a new network of seaways, with new high-volume ports constructed on many Pacific islands.
Much more significantly, the war added to these seaways a new network of oceanic airways. War led to the upgrade of Nadi Airport, which is still Fiji’s main airport, and more generally, wartime urgency led to a remarkable period of airport construction, much of which happened in 1942–43. It included the building of airfields in key parts of New Zealand’s Pacific (Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Tongareva in the Cooks, as well as Sāmoa and Tonga); what is now Honiara International Airport (then known as “Henderson Field”); and the airports in Bora Bora, Tarawa, Funafuti, Port Vila and the original airport in Port Moresby.
So much was accomplished so quickly because in peacetime it was far more difficult to purchase or take Indigenous land, to find the budget and motivation to build, and the human resource and equipment to do so quickly. Of course, the Pacific had seen planes before, but the war brought these islands, with startling rapidity, into the era of mass aviation.
But it was not just about airfields; wartime aviation also spurred the development of seaplane bases. For many of the islands that were smaller, or that Allied strategy had not prioritised (such as Niue and Tahiti), such bases were to be a critical bridge between passenger ships and air travel.
The seaplane bases at Satapuala in Sāmoa and Laucala Bay near Suva in Fiji were critical sites for post-war New Zealand aviation. Seaplanes were at the forefront of commercial aviation in New Zealand, both to Australia and especially to the Pacific. The Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) “Coral Route” (1951–60) went Auckland–Laucala Bay–Sāmoa–Aitutaki–Pape‘ete. A fortnightly service, it was the only air route to Tahiti until the airport there was completed, and was one of the last long-distance seaplane routes.
The seaplane gave Tongans and Sāmoans words for aircraft — va‘alele and vakapuna — that literally meant “flying boat”. This neatly conveyed the transformation of Indigenous mobility. But the changes kept coming, and as the Pacific was filled with runways, and as land-based planes became faster, larger, less dependent on conditions and with fewer maintenance issues, the seaplanes no longer came, and air travel became (from the 1970s) more affordable.
The shift of Pacific mass transportation from boats to planes in this period heralded another fundamental change to the native seas. Whereas ships followed routes, usually stopping along the way, in the new era of mass aviation, travel was point to point. Physical proximity mattered less than the route map, which was increasingly of a “hub and spokes” kind.
Instead of being the medium of travel, the governor of the experience of travel, the ocean was increasingly distant from experience: it had become merely an interval — and an increasingly short one — between destinations. Cultural and political ties mattered most in this new sea of connections, as geography, waters and reefs gave way to journeys in the air. This reshaped routes, so that often, to get from one Pacific nation to another, even if it was a neighbour, required a trip to Fiji or New Zealand.
The remaking of New Zealand’s relationship to the Pacific was taking place as the ocean itself was undergoing two other epochal changes: decolonisation, and a period of mass Pacific migration. Both of these were transformational, reorganising people’s lives and opportunities on a massive scale, and altering relationships within the Pacific.
New Zealand, along with Hawai‘i and the United States, was the major destination for post-war Pacific migration. While in 1945 there were around 2,200 Pacific people in New Zealand, this nearly quadrupled in the next decade and, by 1966, there were 26,271. Pacific numbers doubled again in the 10 years to 1976, and again by 1986. By 2002, there were over 200,000 Pacific people in New Zealand, and by 2015 there were over 300,000.
The origin of these Pacific peoples was not diverse, and showed the deep connections created by New Zealand’s previous colonial relationships. Most of these people came from just a few nations, all of which were within what I have called New Zealand’s Pacific: Sāmoa, Niue, Tokelau, the Cooks and Tonga. And, by the 1980s, most had come either by plane, or via New Zealand’s maternity wards.
The process of decolonisation was central in the way that New Zealand’s Pacific migration unfolded. Colonialism had done little to develop or educate those people it ruled, so for many Pacific — especially Polynesian — people, leaving their homelands was often seen as one of the few routes to economic and social advancement.
But decolonisation, for New Zealand as for other empires such as the United States, Britain and France, was partly about regulating this movement of peoples. Much as the independence of Algeria, Papua New Guinea or Pakistan led to restrictions on access to the metropole for their people, the formal decolonisation of Sāmoa in 1962 empowered New Zealand to put in place restrictions on Sāmoans. These began with the economic downturn in the 1970s.
The different conditions of decolonisation for the smaller islands — the Cook Islands (1965) and Niue (1974) — kept them as part of the Realm of New Zealand, giving New Zealand some powers over those nations; Niueans and Cook Islanders kept New Zealand citizenship.
For New Zealand, the process of decolonisation proceeded without the deep unrest and violence seen elsewhere. This should not be taken for granted, as New Zealand’s colonial rule was characterised by unease and often hostility, punctuated with moments of violence.
But the frame of decolonisation in the Pacific had also been designed to secure New Zealand both benefits and leadership. Regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the South Pacific Commission (now the Secretariat for the Pacific Community) were inclusive and responsive to New Zealand (and Australian) priorities, though this would not continue unchanged or uncontested. Nor was involvement simply pragmatic: New Zealand remained a generous donor, and connections persisted partly because of a common recognition based — in some sense — on a shared ocean.
Between New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours, deep inequalities continued, and this was apparent in the vessels that ran between them. People were now mostly travelling on planes, but things were still mostly on ships. Very rarely did any of the other Pacific nations retain a positive trade balance with New Zealand.
New Zealand has continued to make substantial profit in the Pacific across a range of services and products; indeed, some years it is only its Pacific trading partners that create profits for New Zealand. As they did in the 1920s, ships leave New Zealand full and come back with less; or filled with things of far less value.
A step towards decolonising the sea, quite literally, came with the change in the international law around the Pacific Ocean. The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which opened for signature in 1982 and came into force in 1994, established, amongst other things, the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) 200 nautical miles out from nations’ coastlines.
This development was not an Indigenous construct, and severely disadvantaged some Pacific nations. Sāmoa, for instance, has neighbours on each side, meaning that in no direction does its maritime EEZ boundary reach out to the maximum 200 miles. But UNCLOS also gave some certainty to Pacific nations, limiting many rights, but affirming some key ones. This also ensured that Pacific nations could be recognised as they truly are, not just as collections of small islands, but as “large Ocean nations”.
International boundaries, like the concept of airways, have an ethereal quality. But in both cases this disappears when ships make port, or aircraft land. Quickly, matters become quite concrete. In our modern age, few things are controlled quite as tightly as ports and airports, where duties and passports, taxes and visas are much in evidence. In these spaces, perhaps more than any others, the power of states and governments is observable.
Yet here, too, there continue elements of the native sea: the airport, too, has been indigenised, and not only in Sāmoa and Tonga, but in New Zealand. Seventy-five percent of international arrivals into New Zealand come through the doors of Auckland Airport which is in Māngere. This profoundly Pacific suburb of Auckland, where a majority of the population is Pasifika, is “the gateway to the nation”.
It should interest us that this economic powerhouse — one of the most secure, productive and surveilled public spaces in the country — has in small and important ways remade itself as a Pacific place, accommodating Pacific practices and rituals of hospitality and travel. All, though, within bounds: automatic doors and security are a heartbeat away, and yellow lines on the floor declare where people can and can’t walk, where they should stop and where they should stand. In some way, it might be imagined, those yellow lines are policing where the Pacific and New Zealand meet, while those who kiss and hug and sing and pray despite the signs and yellow lines remind us that it is all really not so simple.
Arriving at Auckland International Airport can be unlike arriving at any other New Zealand airport. Depending on when you arrive, or where you arrive from, you may walk out of the customs hall into an empty barn-like area, or into a thronging arrival hall. Scores of seats placed in front can be mostly empty, or not just full, but surrounded by people standing.
The key determinant is apparent to most Aucklanders: the arrivals hall overflows when flights arrive from Tonga or Sāmoa. Disembarking from tourist source nations, people quietly walk out towards their transport; arriving from the Pacific, people have family to meet them.
At such times, what Auckland Airport most looks like — most feels like — is not the other big airports that it ranks alongside, whether Christchurch or Wellington, or Sydney or Brisbane or even San Francisco. Rather, in those moments the airports that Auckland is most like are much smaller, but no less bustling: Faleolo in Sāmoa, or Fua‘amotu in Tonga.
At those times, there is what seems to be a small sea of bodies, relatives and friends, with quiet rituals and objects that mark not only the connection that New Zealand has with the Pacific, but how New Zealand itself has been transformed as a result. Perhaps the most powerful example is a humble cardboard box, produced by Air New Zealand for people to bring cooked food from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand. On the side, its name is printed: as every Pacific person knows, it is an “umu pack”. And it is a proof that, even in this age, Pacific people don’t travel like everyone else, even when their va‘a — their vessel — is a va‘alele.
At airports, we can still experience Indigenous mobilities, redolent with the fragrance of ancient native seas. These should remind us that many dimensions of New Zealand have been constituted through similar acts of moving, and that these were never displaced by colonial or commercial forms of travel.
Too often, we see past the other Pacific islands, rather than see them, which isolates New Zealand’s ocean home. A genealogy of New Zealand and the Pacific can help us here, because through it we can comprehend not just New Zealand’s relationships with the other Pacific islands, but how these relationships have defined and redefined New Zealand itself.
When we reflect on New Zealand and the sea, we might then remember that this “sea” is part of the Moana: a cultured ocean of stories and history.
This extract by Damon Salesa is from an essay in An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays published by Bridget Williams Books (RRP $49.99). It has been lightly edited for length.
Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa is an interdisciplinary scholar focused on Oceania. He is deeply influenced by Indigenous Pacific cultures, particularly his own Sāmoan genealogy. Damon was born and raised in Auckland, and is a graduate of the University of Auckland (MA) and Oxford where he earned his PhD. He is now the vice-chancellor of the Auckland University of Technology. He is an award-winning author, whose publications include Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire and Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.