Stranded on a Strange Shore: Moments in the Formation of Racial Subjectivity in the Pacific

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Miranda Johnson, University of Sydney
Late-nineteenth century settlers in New Zealand imagined two alternatives for the tribal peoples they had recently conquered: racial amalgamation or extinction. Choosing neither future, a new cohort of young Māori leaders in the early twentieth century carved out a new space for themselves and their people. Participating in the political structures of the settler state and contributing to anthropological debates about the origins and genealogies of Polynesian people, leaders of the “Young Māori Party” made compelling arguments for modernity inclusive of Māori people. Here I examine the intellectual and social formation of members of this cohort, through the early writings of Āpirana Ngata, the first Māori law graduate of a New Zealand university, Peter Buck/Te Rangi Hiroa, the first New Zealand-trained Māori doctor who went on to become a noted anthropologist (and Yale professor), and Māui Pomare, who undertook his medical studies in the United States. Caught between nostalgic and eliminatory narratives of settler society on the one hand, and the expectations of their own leaders on the other, these young men wrestled with how “primitives,” modernity’s other, might become future-makers. Their enterprise was riddled with self-doubt, professional uncertainty, and cultural ambivalence. Could they leap over time and space in order to create a new racial subject? Or were they, rather, abandoned, “stranded on a strange shore, with the waves of civilization rolling in dull monotony behind us, and the towering unscalable precipice of the Maori past locking us in before and on either side,” as Ngata wrote in an 1892 essay. I explore how these sentiments and metaphors in fact formed the foundation for new political and historical imaginings, as these young men, selected as leaders by their kin, began to alienate themselves from aspects of their tribal pasts in order to make themselves modern.