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James Wightman (Jim) Davidson (1915–1973)

by Donald Denoon

This article was published:

James Wightman (Jim) Davidson (1915-1973), historian, was born on 1 October 1915 in Wellington, New Zealand, son of George Wightman Davidson, an Australian-born commercial traveller, and his wife Edith Mabel, née Brown, a New Zealander. Educated at Waitaki Boys' High School and Victoria University College (B.A., 1936; M.A., 1938), Jim proceeded to St John's College, University of Cambridge, in 1938 where he was Holland Rose student and Bartle Frere exhibitioner in 1940. His doctoral thesis, 'European penetration of the South Pacific, 1779-1842', was accepted in 1942. During the next two years Davidson worked for the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, contributing historical sections to the four-volume geographical handbook, Pacific Islands (London, 1943-45). Returning to Cambridge as a fellow of St John's in 1944, he was university lecturer in colonial studies from 1947.

He was in Western Samoa in 1949, reporting to the New Zealand government and advising the high chiefs on independence negotiations, when he accepted the foundation chair of Pacific history in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University; his tenure began next year. Having assisted in a survey of administration in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Davidson settled permanently in Canberra in December 1951. Commitment to political advancement for all Pacific Islanders shaped the rest of his career.

Championing indigenous history, Davidson placed Pacific societies at the centre of the scholarly stage. On accepting the chair, he had cautioned the vice-chancellor (Sir) Douglas Copland against allocating Pacific politics to any other department: 'I could not study the past satisfactorily without an interest in the structure of contemporary society, nor would I feel happy about studying contemporary politics divorced from their historical setting'. By example and precept, he encouraged participants to write history and historians to participate.

Spending much of a decade advising Samoans on constitutional matters, Davidson provoked the vice-chancellor Sir Leslie Melville to regret his frequent absences and the paucity of his publications: 'While he is certainly taking part in the making of history, such activities are perhaps marginal as academic activities of a History Professor'. Davidson's own priorities were clear from his subsequent involvement in drafting constitutions for the Cook Islands (from 1963), Nauru (from 1967), Micronesia (from 1969) and Papua New Guinea, whose constitutional planning committee he joined shortly before he died of a coronary artery occlusion on 8 April 1973 in Port Moresby. His body was returned to Canberra and cremated.

Davidson was extrovert but enigmatic, gregarious but unmarried. Wealthy, and 'even patrician' in style, he enjoyed literature and music, laughter and informality. He was a social democrat, best remembered for advising Western Samoan matai title-holders who restricted the franchise, Nauruans who became idly rich through nitrate royalties and Cook Islanders who accepted incomplete independence from New Zealand. He wrote more words in newspapers than in books, producing only one—the perceptive classic Samoa mo Samoa (Melbourne, 1967)—in twenty-three years as professor. Preferring field-work and political action to contemplation, he was nonetheless an effective dean until the school appointed a full-time director. Davidson supported the creation of the Journal of Pacific History (1966) and other research tools (which he endowed with his outside earnings), but he had not altered his will since 1947 when he named his old Cambridge college his residual legatee, once his surviving sister's needs had been met.

Select Bibliography

  • New Zealand Journal of History, 7 no 2, 1973, p 211
  • Journal of Pacific History, 8 1973, p 5
  • Historical Studies, 16, no 62, Apr 1974, p 157
  • archives of Department of Pacific and South East Asian History, and of the Registrar, Australian National University.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Donald Denoon, 'Davidson, James Wightman (Jim) (1915–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

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.