Story: Davidson, James Wightman

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Davidson, James Wightman

1915–1973

Historian, constitutional adviser, university professor

This biography was written by Doug Munro and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

James Wightman Davidson was born in Wellington on 1 October 1915, the son of George Wightman Davidson, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Edith Mabel Brown. Jim attended Waitaki Boys’ High School and Victoria University College, graduating MA in 1938. After working for a brief time on the centennial atlas staff in the Department of Internal Affairs, he took up a Strathcona studentship at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Arriving there in October 1938, he embarked on a PhD thesis on European penetration of the South Pacific. On short periods of leave from this work he wrote the first draft of a book on the Northern Rhodesian Legislative Council, which was published in 1948. His thesis was accepted in 1942 and was later described by a fellow historian as being of ‘seminal importance in initiating new ways in Pacific history’.

Davidson then joined the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty and co-edited and contributed some 600 pages to the four-volume geographic handbook series, Pacific Islands (1943–45). His election as fellow of St John’s College in 1944 was followed in 1945 by a brief spell in the Colonial Office, and in 1947 he took up a three-year appointment as lecturer in colonial studies at the University of Cambridge.

Davidson seemed set for a career in British academe, but on a visit to New Zealand in 1947 he was appointed by the prime minister, Peter Fraser, to advise on the political situation in Western Samoa. This was the beginning of a continuing commitment to that country and a practical involvement in the cause of decolonisation generally. Davidson returned to Western Samoa in 1949–50 as a member of the public service and the Legislative Assembly of Western Samoa, and in 1954 to carry out field work. Between 1959 and 1961 the Samoan leaders engaged him as their constitutional adviser in the final transition to independence, which occurred on 1 January 1962.

Describing himself as a ‘passionate partisan’ in his support of Samoan self-determination, Davidson attributed his effectiveness to having developed close ties with a wide cross-section of Samoan society. This, coupled with an egalitarian approach, gave him ‘admission into the private worlds of thought of the Samoan leaders’. His ability to explain constitutional points to the leaders and to prevail upon them to accept necessary compromises was universally acknowledged.

In 1949 Davidson was appointed to the chair of Pacific history at the recently created Australian National University, his tenure beginning in 1950. He proceeded to redefine Pacific history as a specialisation in its own right. Responding to the post-war winds of change, he shifted the focus from imperial rivalries to an island-oriented view that stressed the proactive role of Pacific islanders in the shaping of events and outcomes. Equally, Davidson developed a tradition of participant history – the notion that one’s research benefits from relevant background, experience and ongoing involvement. Firmly following this precept, he built up a heterogeneous and multidisciplinary department that became renowned for its ‘vision and élan’.

But the concrete results of his leadership were slow in coming, not least because Davidson’s involvement in university politics and contemporary Pacific affairs resulted in a slight record of scholarly publications. His academic reputation suffered and his employer expressed serious concern when he spent lengthy periods between 1959 and 1961 as the Samoans’ constitutional adviser. His earnings from this work were poured into the Journal of Pacific History , which was established in 1966, giving his department the means by which to control the academic agenda.

Davidson justified his outside activities when he published Samoa mo Samoa (1967), a passionate endorsement both of indigenous self-determination and his view of participant history. He wanted to be remembered for his work in Samoa and he wrote a book to ensure it. True to his priorities, he was successively involved in constitution-making in the Cook Islands and Nauru, and as consultant to the Congress of Micronesia and the constitutional planning committee of Papua New Guinea. On his last such assignment he died of a heart attack in Port Moresby on 8 April 1973. He had never married.

Davidson was remembered by a student as a ‘tall sunburned figure in small shorts and a shirt’. Informality was his hallmark. His complex personality was one in which dualities were strangely mixed: he was a man of action, despite physical frailty and poor health, and although he seemed gregarious and outgoing, was essentially shy. He could be markedly irreverent towards constituted authority in his own society, but genuinely respectful to the norms of a culture as conservative and hierarchical as Samoa’s. Patrician in outlook, he was able to relate to diverse individuals.

Davidson held firmly to his New Zealand identity despite spending almost his entire adult life abroad. He influenced New Zealand life in three ways. He helped set the tone and content of New Zealand’s enlightened approach to decolonising its island territories. His constitution-making contributed to a wider awareness within New Zealand of the country’s role and responsibilities in the South Pacific. Lastly, he established Pacific history as a discipline in its own right. The subject is taught in most New Zealand universities by people who were trained in his department or influenced by his approach.