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James Wightman (Jim) Davidson (1915–1973)

Representatives of many Pacific nations, the Australian and New Zealand governments and friends and colleagues of the late Professor Jim Davidson gathered at ANU on 18 April for a memorial service to commemorate his life and work. The speakers and messages sent many various governments and friends revealed multi-faceted man who was greatly respected and widely loved. Professor Davidson died in New Guinea on 8 April, aged 57.

Sir John Crawford, former Vice-Chancellor and Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies in which Professor Davidson held the Foundation Chair and was a Professor for twenty-three years, said 'Jim Davidson was first and foremost a scholar'. Father John Momis, Chairman of the Papua-New Guinea Constitutional Planning Committee to which Professor Davidson was adviser at the time of his death, said, 'Professor Davidson did not only know the problems we face in Papua-New Guinea — he felt them'. Mr K. Clodumwar, MP representing the Government of Nauru stated that, 'Professor Davidson's character, his lifestyle and his openness of mind endeared him to those of us who live the casual and leisurely life of the islands. He was an islander'.

The three principal speakers at the meeting, chaired by Professor D. A. Low, Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies, were Sir John Crawford, Mr Harry Maude, formerly of the Research School of Pacific Studies, now retired, and Father Momis.

Australia's Minister for Science and External Territories, Mr W. L. Morrison, spoke briefly on behalf of the Australian Government; Mr B. M. Brown, Acting High Commissioner for New Zealand, read a message from his government; and Mr Clodumwar brought message from the people and the President of the Republic of Nauru. Other messages, including one from the government of Samoa, came from all parts of the world.

Sir John Crawford recalled Professor Davidson's personal help when he had taken over as Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies in 1960, saying that he had been both a fine colleague and scholar. 'He was an insistent upholder of the highest standards possible in ANU — standards which marked his own scholarship. His influence in this respect was of critical importance in the early days of staff recruitment and selection of graduate students', Sir John said.

'His great contribution to ANU was made not only through his formal position as Head of the School prior to 1960 but through his serious contributions to discussion on this or that committee or academic board. He honoured the University by his work and I look forward to strong support for is memorial fund'.

Father Momis, who most recently had come to know Professor Davidson through his position as adviser to the Papua-New Guinea Constitutional Planning Committee, referred to him as a 'man of integrity, intellectual modesty and honesty'.

'At this crucial period in Papua-New Guinea, when our leaders and people are striving to find their own footing, we do not only need people of knowledge but people of understanding. Professor Davidson was this type of man'.

In Port Moresby a few days earlier, another memorial service had been held for Professor Davidson, it was attended by about 300 Papua-New Guineans. The attendance was remarkable in that a large proportion comprised young, radical men who saw in Professor Davidson the character of a real fighter for self determination', Father Momis said.

Also highlighting this side of his character was a tribute from his former colleagues at the University of Victoria, Wellington, who recalled that Professor Davidson in his time as a student there, had mastered not only the techniques of a scholar but also inherited the prevailing spirit of free discussion on social and political questions.

'He rebelled against the emphasis at that time placed on the tradition-centred history curriculum which looked at imperial history and especially the British origins of New Zealand society, and plunged into a study of its non-British origins of elements and its race relations. It was out of this that his life-long interest and work in Pacific history and constitution-making grew'.

The lengthiest tribute offered at the service was prepared and read by Mr Maude, who for many years was a colleague of Professor Davidson and first met him in New Zealand when, at the age of 24 and an MA graduate from the University of Victoria, Jim Davidson was working on publications for the Dominion Department of Internal Affairs.

Mr Maude said, 'I was on my way to Pitcairn Island to formulate a new constitution for its 200 inhabitants and little thought that the stress which Jim laid on the necessity of basing it on their wishes rather than those of the administering power, was coming from one who was destined to advise on constitutions affecting nearly two-thirds of the region's entire population'.

He said Jim Davidson had established his reputation as an authority on the Pacific Islands at an early age, which his appointment as a Fellow of St John's College and a Lecturer in History at Cambridge had served to reinforce.

'In 1947, on behalf of the New Zealand Prime Minister (Mr Peter Fraser), Jim Davidson was invited to go to Western, Samoa and this was the start of his practical involvement in Samoan affairs. By the time Western Samoa became an independent state in 1962, Jim Davidson had long passed with honours his apprenticeship in the subtle nuances of island life and had acquired a sensitive perception of the ethos of the islander which so many Europeans have sought and so few have gained', Mr Maude said.

Doubly equipped — by virtue of his scholastic record and his practical experience — Professor Davidson came to ANU in the late 1940s to develop lines of research for the new Research School of Pacific Studies.

'It must be the lot of few men to found a new sub-discipline of knowledge, and yet, this is in fact what Professor Davidson created at ANU upon his appointment to the only chair of Pacific Studies at the early age of 34', Mr Maude said. It was the first school of its kind but Professor Davidson lived to see Pacific history being taught at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in most universities in Australia, New Zealand, the US and elsewhere, either by his own ex-students or others who have acknowledged their indebtedness to his ideas, he added.

Professor Davidson's interests in the Pacific, both scholastic and practical, had continued to develop side by side and had played a leading role in the achievement of self-government for the Cook Islands in 1963, Nauru in 1967 and as adviser to the Congress of Micronesia and most recently to Papua-New Guinea.

'This almost universal recognition of his unique value as constitutional midwife to nascent island communities was based not only on the expertise which he accumulated with experience but more importantly on the whole-hearted trust which the island leaders could place on the integrity of the advice he gave them', Mr Maude said.

Professor Davidson also found time to continue his own research and writing. 'He is the author of Samoa mo Samoa, co-editor with Deryck Scarr, of Pacific Island Portraits, and author of a succession of articles, reviews, seminar papers, lectures and reports which would have taxed the energies of a less gifted man with nothing else to do', Mr Maude said.

In addition he founded and made time to edit the Journal of Pacific History (to which he contributed all fees he received for his services to various governments); acted as literary adviser to the Pacific History and Pacific Monograph Series of books and worked on his biography of Peter Dillon, now advanced to the stage where hopefully it can be completed for publication by another hand.

The Jim Davidson Memorial Fund being established at ANU for students from Pacific nations to pursue their studies in Australia was launched at the memorial meeting. It will be administered by a committee established by the Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies in consultation with the Faculty Board of the School, which will consider Jim Davidson's particular interest in recent years for the provision of funds for study at MA level.

Tributes at the meeting showed that these scholarships will not be the only memorial to Jim Davidson. Mr Somare, Chief Minister for Papua-New Guinea, in his message said, 'He lives for the people of the Pacific. He came to help us at a time of our awakened consciousness and he leaves us his strength to fulfil a task already fulfilled elsewhere'.

The New Zealand Government said, 'His expert hand guided governments and people through the delicate task of nation building. He was the architect of constitutions throughout the regions of the Pacific, which he loved. His monument is there'.

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Citation details

'Davidson, James Wightman (Jim) (1915–1973)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 October, 1915
Wellington, New Zealand


8 April, 1973 (aged 57)
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.