6 Aug 2017

Oscar Kightley: 'The Polynesian-Melanesian divide is ridiculous'

From Sunday Morning, 10:40 am on 6 August 2017
Oscar Kightley

Oscar Kightley Photo: RNZ

In the 19th and early 20th century thousands of people were shipped from the Solomon Islands to Samoa to work as indentured labourers.

The story of slavery in the South Pacific often includes the "blackbirding" (as it was known) of Solomon Islanders to the sugar plantations of northern Australia, but it's little known that many were taken to Samoa.

In the short documentary, Tama Uli, actor and writer Oscar Kightley explores his Solomon Island ancestry and the experiences of those who came to Samoa against their will over 100 years ago.

Growing up in 1970s New Zealand, Kightley and his family encountered prejudice from other Samoans about their darker skin.

"It was like 'What the hell is this? It's not bad enough that we're in this new country with this new language and new colour. Then our own kind are kind of being a bit stink. It was never spoken about, but you were always aware of it."

As a child Kightley was introduced to the concept of black skin's association with slavery via television, such as the 1977 miniseries about the American slave trade Roots.

"That prejudice is embedded, I think, throughout all cultures."

Many descendants of early Solomon Island people made their homes in the village of Sogi near Apia, yet they are now being moved on to make way for development. Tama Uli includes the story of one family who are refusing to move.

The film also explores the roots of prejudice against Samoan-Solomon Islanders, who have lived in Samoa for over a century only recently gained equal voting rights.

"It's weird, the whole ‘Polynesians are noble savages” and Melanesians were seen as slave labour. It's strange.

"I hate terms like 'Melanesian' and all that stuff. They were kind of foisted on the Pacific by colonial scientists when they were grouping everybody into sub-species, and I just hate that. The whole Polynesian - Melanesian divide, it's ridiculous. We're all from the same group of islands. Yeah, some are darker and some are brown."

Kightley says he wasn't ready to tell this story until now.

Making the film, he had a growing realisation that his own story is inseparable from the history of Tama Uli, he says.

"It's a side of your ancestry you don't own as much because it's associated with painful memories of prejudice.

"It’s not just something that happened in the past, it’s something that affects generations still.”

Watch Tame Uli: