New Zealand needs to get real about the harm it’s caused in the Pacific, writes Tulia Thompson in this edited extract from Coral Consciousness: Aotearoa’s Relationship with the Moana — a chapter in a new title in the BWB Texts Series, Beyond These Shores: Aotearoa and the World.
The last time I went home — that painful, impossible word — to Viti was my first return since my father died in 2009. My trips to Viti were usually bookended by visiting Lautoka, on the western side of Viti Levu, the “Sugar City” where Dad grew up and both grandparents worked in the sugar mill.
Lautoka made things that were crazy about my father make sense. Dad always had eight teaspoons of sugar in big mugs of milky, strong tea, which seemed larger than life compared to the reserved fathers of my Pākehā friends. In Lautoka, I learned that’s how tea is drunk.
Sitting cross-legged on woven mats around a tanoa of “grog” on porches or the corrugated iron lean-to, Dad would talanoa in a mix of na vosa vakaviti, old-fashioned-sounding English words, and local Viti slang. Green and brown fields of dense, upright sugar cane met bright, blue sky. Dad was always laughing.
On my last trip, unanchored by my solo travel, I didn’t go to Lautoka as usual. Instead, I travelled to Beqa, the tiny island that our family descends from, 36 square kilometres, and 10 kilometres to the south of Viti Levu. We come from Rukua, the oldest village.
I travelled to Beqa on a small, open boat. It was drizzly, warm but grey. I chatted to local women. One said she would ask around at our village, to see if there was anyone with our name.
I wished I had made the journey when Dad was still alive. I felt like a tourist, and felt the loss and shame of being a tourist. I felt ashamed of not turning up with the bound roots of yaqona, kerosene, and bright bolts of cloth of traditional returns.
I was surrounded by the kind of knockout, incredible nature that lifts you out of your own pain. There were bright red hibiscus, kingfishers, swaying green palms. I swam in the ocean and felt my heart healing. I spoke out loud to my bubu about her vanua.
Beqa is surrounded by coral reef. I snorkelled and looked at the coral, the almost familiar and alien architecture of its branching forms: intense pinks and bright oranges like underwater fireworks. Tiny, neon fishes.
Coral is a vital part of reef systems, providing an ecosystem for fish and other sea life. To understand the significance of coral reef is to realise Pacific Island states are made up of hundreds of tiny islands and coral atolls surrounded by reef systems.
On Beqa, nine villages are sustained through subsistence fishing, although fish is also sold to onsellers to make cash for other supplies. Viti itself is an archipelago made up of over 330 islands, and over 500 islets. Coral is vital to everyday existence.
I loved the coral and I felt the weight of love and belonging. I pondered what it meant to come from Beqa, when my everyday life is so far removed — in large part because of colonisation and global capitalism, and the trauma produced when people follow capital to survive. When Indigenous Peoples and cultural systems are first devalued through colonisation, then forced to measure their worth in the labour potential of their bodies.
So, mostly, I felt outrageously happy, countered by residual despair.
In places, the bright colours gave way to bleached white coral, beautiful but ghostly. There were few fish. Coral is currently fairly healthy in Beqa, but it faces complex and interconnected threats: local overfishing, nitrous pollution, the coral and rare fish trade.
The biggest threat is a rise in ocean temperature from climate change. Coral reef is expected to decline by 70–90 per cent at a global temperature increase of 1.5°C according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Coral researcher David Obura says:
Coral reefs cannot survive, unchanged, under climate change . . . reef protection requires action on an unprecedented scale.
Coral loss leads to the loss of fish, increased food insecurity and increased storm damage. Coral reef shields the seafront from wave impact, protecting against climate-related storms. Climate change is likely to raise the temperature of the oceans for centuries.
When I think about coral, I feel love and loss in equal measure — a familiar emotional landscape — perhaps the hallmark of being a second-generation migrant.
The clearest feeling though: I have to be part of the fight against climate change. I can’t sit with the discomfort and privilege of living cushioned in a western nation, knowing that Viti and other Moana nations are bearing the brunt of western excess and facing unendurable loss.
New Zealand needs to recognise the harm it has caused
When my grandparents were labouring in the sugar mill in Lautoka, it was owned by an Australian company, Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). The sugar was shipped to refineries in Melbourne and Auckland. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company became Chelsea Sugar Refining Company. Maybe “Colonial” left a bitter taste.
Colonisation in the Moana wasn’t the settler colonisation Pākehā might imagine: the expansion of one people into the territory of the other, but with some fairly relatable settler life-goals like having a yard.
This is a whitewashed, colonisation-lite version. The lack of white settlers in the Moana doesn’t mean that colonisation didn’t happen. Instead, corporate colonisation meant that corporates extracted natural resources and labour. Colonial administrators — like Aotearoa — made sure that colonial powers were able to get their business needs met.
This feels difficult to write — evidence perhaps of how persuasive and prevalent Pākehā mythmaking about the Moana is. I can see the look of hurt, the drawing in of pink-lipsticked lips, the fumbling with your glass.
Aotearoa’s mythology about the Moana is that “we” have done so much to help the Pacific. This myth fuelled the on-air tirade of journalist Heather du Plessis-Allan in 2018, when she said:
The Pacific Islands don’t matter. They are nothing but leeches on us.
But there is also a more benevolent version of this myth, which is perhaps more insidious. You might sip your Marlborough pinot gris and try to talk to me about labour schemes.
That’s not how Moana people feel about it. Nope. None of us.
If you are from the Moana, even those of us living and raised in Aotearoa, you know that New Zealand is a regional heavyweight with a history of meddling for its own interests — or worse, for those of Australia or of our more powerful historical allies. You know that Aotearoa comes with its own values and norms connected to western culture.
I believe that the blind spot Pākehā New Zealanders have about the Moana results from colonial erasure, and our failure to hold Pākehā and the Crown to account for the harm of colonisation in Aotearoa.
In an essay on the pervasive myth that New Zealand was “settled peacefully”, Morgan Godfery writes that New Zealanders perpetuate historical revisionism to imagine that settlers provided “skills” and “capital” — and this sustains unjust political and social relations between Māori and Pākehā.
Likewise, Pākehā New Zealand imagines we provide “skills” and “capital” for the good of Moana countries, while erasing the way New Zealand has used Moana countries as a source of natural resources and wealth creation.
So what role did Aotearoa play in the Moana? New Zealand’s relationship with the Moana was about resource extraction. Phosphate was mined from Banaba and Nauru and was shipped to New Zealand and Australia. We took cheap phosphate for decades, which fed the grass to become meat and wool.
Aotearoa’s territories were Western Samoa (now Sāmoa), the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. While Sāmoa now has full independence, the Cook Islands and Niue are self-governed in “free association” with New Zealand, and Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory.
The impact of Aotearoa’s colonial administration was profound. Malama Meleisea says New Zealand’s administration of Western Samoa from 1914 to 1961 sought to create “an individualist, modern, ‘rational-legal’ system of government and administration”.
New Zealand established the principle that ‘āiga (descent groups) should have more weight than fono (the village council of chiefs) in matai title disputes, and centralised dispute resolution to a Land and Titles Court. This meant that fono lost their power and traditional role in resolving disputes.
Racism was implicit in these political acts. The Handbook of Western Samoa published in 1925 by the New Zealand administration described the Sāmoan character as
mild, friendly, and easily led by those who have earned his respect . . . he has all the faults natural to his imperfect development.
Moana people within Aotearoa
My dad was a bright kid who came to Aotearoa on a teaching scholarship. He wore navy flares, and his hair was Brylcreemed, a bit like Elvis. At some point, he went home, and when he returned to Auckland Airport, he was deported back to Nadi.
Maybe Dad was glimpsing an elusive, brighter future. He crewed on a yacht back into Auckland Harbour. He swam ashore — into the cooler waters of Takapuna beach.
My dad was here illegally throughout my childhood, in a sort of no-visa no-man’s land. Mum and Dad got married, she in a dress my grandmother made with white handstitched daisies and blue velvet ribbon — it was the ‘70s. So, presumably, Dad could have got residency through her, but since he was already here illegally, he avoided immigration officials.
Eventually, he got residency after having been here for over 30 years. When I was a kid, the term “overstayers” was used regularly, along with “Islanders”. I can remember as a teenager, in my baggy ‘90s jeans, awkwardly explaining, “Ah, my dad’s an overstayer”, making it sound sarcastic and hilarious. I hoped my audience would think Dad sounded reckless or forgetful — and not criminal.
The impact of Dad being an “overstayer”, aside from how it weighed on him, was that when I was a kid we never went back to Viti. The first time I went “home” I was 23. It’s hard to describe how isolating it was for my family, or how my dad was afflicted by a state of permanent homesickness. The dad I saw, always laughing, in Lautoka, was not the same man I had grown up with.
When my Pākehā Mum married my dad, her parents opposed their wedding. They eventually came around, to varying degrees, but throughout my childhood I can remember how pervasively her family spoke down to Dad. Not just in one conversation, but subtly, through every conversation, for years. It was unnamed and unrecognised, but completely obvious to me.
As a kid, I thought my mum’s family must somehow be VIPs — to explain how they talked like Dad was beneath them. And my dad was so incredibly polite and deferential to them.
But no. They were just average middle-class Pākehā condescending to someone brown with an accent.
Mum and Dad had a painting of my twin and me on the wall, next to a large tapa cloth and above their ’70s gold couch. I was wearing a red woven hat and holding geraniums. The painting was on the wall, and then it disappeared for years, and eventually I found it at Mum’s house stashed behind the washing machine.
“What happened to this?” I asked Mum. Mum keeps every embarrassing photo of the six of us in plain sight — even teenage photos with frizzy hair and matching fluffy jumpers — so I knew there was a reason it was hidden.
“Your father liked it,” said Mum evasively. “You were . . . prettier than that.”
I went home and canvassed my five siblings for the full story. It turned out that my grandfather had objected to the painting, saying, “It looks like they have a touch of the tar brush.”
Mum took the painting down.
That my mum responded to her father’s racism by taking the painting down still gets to me. Mum probably had to swallow daily compromises to stay on good terms with her parents, so in a sense I don’t blame her.
But I grew up close to people who showed me that Pākehā lives were routinely more valuable, and, in a sinister and shadowy way, that acting white was a condition of my acceptance and belonging.
And I learned — inevitably — that you have to be polite to racists, and never show your discomfort or pain. My grandfather’s racism acted like a technology for keeping the world white, by removing evidence of us being mixed-race, or kailoma, which we were.
I hope that Mum took the painting down strategically, removing the offending object to keep the peace while keeping the kids and husband. I am afraid that she might have been shamed into thinking we didn’t look pretty when we looked brown.
I took the painting home to my flat, and hung it on my bedroom wall, surrounded by a lei of tiny, perfect white shells.
We all need to do the work of reframing, of valuing people differently. I don’t believe the racism of my Pākehā family members was unusual.
The dawn raids occurred in the mid 1970s when police entered the homes of alleged Pacific “overstayers” by force in the early morning. Simone Kaho writes that the racism experienced by her Tongan dad has lingered for her. During the dawn raids, he watched police with dogs drag women from their homes. She writes:
So when my dad died, in a way, I blamed racism in New Zealand, for the pain of it, the unfinished feeling.
The racism isn’t over in Aotearoa either. Damon Salesa has written about how New Zealand is racially segregated, with Pacific people in certain neighbourhoods. Simone Kaho’s writing about her experiences of racism has been met with online trolling.
Is New Zealand resetting its relationship with the Moana?
So our current Labour-led government has definitely had the Pacific in mind with the so-called “Pacific Reset”.
But I want to remind you that New Zealand’s relationship with the Moana is still underpinned by the economic value the Pacific holds for us. We could consider our overseas development assistance (ODA) in relation to trade in the Pacific region.
In 2013, New Zealand had exports to the Pacific worth $1,368 million. Imports from the Pacific were the comparatively tiny $103 million — that is, trade is unequal, with Aotearoa making 13 times as much as the Pacific. Exports from Aotearoa include iron, machinery, meat and dairy.
The self-interested aspect of our aid contribution is highlighted in a cabinet paper, which refers to New Zealand’s waning influence in the Pacific region because of new aid partners seeking influence. The Pacific Reset is likely a response to China’s commitment of aid this year, which will supersede Australia’s aid to make China the biggest contributor in the region.
It’s important how the money is spent. We need to recognise the priorities of Moana countries instead of being influenced by our own interests, and neoliberal market values.
Coral Consciousness: Doing what needs to be done
The change I want to see in Aotearoa’s relationship with the Moana is to give up the neoliberal fixation on always needing economic gain, but instead to harness reciprocity and respect and love. And I’m wanting to explain that what has always been at stake is how you see us, and how your way of seeing us has to change.
Coral consciousness would be truly seeing the strength, resilience and insight of the Moana region. It would mean apologising for the harm done and making amends. It would be making conscious the understanding that the ecological threat faced by coral, is a threat to archipelagos, islands, people and the world.
And it’s also about taking action.
Coral consciousness means climate-change mitigation in Aotearoa, respectful and non-patronising aid to countries in the Moana, and using our voice to support the Moana within global diplomacy.
I would want to see Aotearoa addressing climate change with Australia. We often say that Australia is our most important partner, but it is also our closest major polluter.
We need to be frank about the scale of environmental damage. Coral consciousness, as I see it, is political. It is not buying into tired, colonial or neocolonial narratives of the Moana.
A relationship that’s based on love and deep reciprocity is ultimately a relationship that transforms you. From Viti, we have a form of request based on family relationships that is a request you can’t refuse.
So if someone says: “Kerekere . . .”, you know they are effectively summoning the longstanding relationship between you. And so I guess what I’m saying — at least in my head — is Kerekere.
Kerekere, please act now to protect our coral.
Beqa has changed my behaviour. I want to find ways to be a climate activist. I haven’t done as much as I’d like, but the journey is ahead of me.
Last year, I became vegan. I get asked, almost daily: “For health reasons? Or for animals?” I say: “Because of climate change.”
It does feel challenging for someone so conflict-averse.
We are all facing the same climate crisis. In Lautoka, my aunty would serve fish and cassava on my plate, saying: “Kana, yalewa, kana.” Food was generosity and love. Eating was respect. Even in Aotearoa, I often feel my heart beat with habitual anxiety if I turn down food, because I’m afraid — at an instinctual level — of being interpreted as ungrateful.
Then I tell myself, it doesn’t matter.
I am doing this for our seas.
Tulia Thompson is a New Zealand-born Fijian/ Tongan/Pākehā queer feminist writer, living in Aotearoa. She has a PhD in sociology from the University of Auckland. Her doctoral thesis was titled “Queer Lives in Fiji” and was about the marginalisation of sexual minorities in Fiji. After completing her PhD, she worked briefly for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Tulia first studied creative writing under Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt in 1998. She has written a children’s novel, Josefa and the Vu, published by Huia in 2007, and has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Auckland (2016).
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.