As Sāmoa marks six decades of self-rule, Samson Samasoni looks at how New Zealand’s lamentable tenure as colonial overseer – and its dubious attempts at building bridges – cast an enduring shadow over the two countries’ relationship.
Instead of observing six decades of self-sovereignty, if not for New Zealand’s ineptitude as a colonial overseer, Sāmoa might have had electorate seats in our parliament.
Today the idea of MPs from Sāmoa, sitting alongside their Māori brethren, in parliament and potentially the Beehive, seems preposterous. In the 1920s it was a very real proposition.
Beacon of pride
As a New Zealander of Sāmoan and Tokelauan descent, over many years I’ve progressively become aware of the tortuous relations and history between Sāmoa and New Zealand. The colonial missteps of New Zealand weren’t taught in school and my loving but speak-when-you’re-spoken-to upbringing wasn’t the most conducive environment for open family communications about our past.
However, the backdrop of the immigration dawn raids and our lower socioeconomic standing made it clear we lived on the margins of society and at the whim of the Pākehā powers of the day.
In the 1950s and 60s, first generation New Zealand-born “Islanders” like myself navigated a difficult path, culturally and linguistically trying to straddle two worlds – our Sāmoan heritage and our British-centric adopted home – many of us not proficient in either.
Knowing we had an independent Pacific homeland that had withstood the might of the German and British empires to forge its own sovereignty was both a beacon of pride and a bedrock of embarrassment because we weren’t considered “real Sāmoans”. The Sāmoan Language Week being celebrated now is in part an attempt for some redress.
Nevertheless, many of us found our footing and came to terms with the historical context that enticed our parents and grandparents to relocate to the supposedly “milk-and-honeyed”, colder climes of New Zealand.
The lamentable shared history of Sāmoa and New Zealand is too vast and complex to fully canvas in this story, but a few events in 1924 are illustrative of attitudes of the time that may have undone, or possibly delayed, Sāmoa’s ambitions for independence.
In December 1924, the Wellington City Council announced in the local paper that a civic reception would be held for a group of visiting Sāmoan chiefs. The public notice was under another about a school for “backward children”.
The event was to be the last formal function of a three-week tour by nine Sāmoan faipule (state councillors), organised by the then New Zealand administrator to Sāmoa, Major-General George Spafford Richardson. At the time, New Zealand administered Sāmoa under a League of Nations mandate.
Undoubtedly, the trip was an attempt to deflect and mask ongoing tensions over New Zealand’s administration of Sāmoa.
While there are many examples of New Zealand’s failings as overseers, the most catastrophic was during the Spanish influenza pandemic six years earlier. Infected passengers were allowed to disembark from a ship in Apia, Sāmoa’s capital city. The disease quickly spread, killing 22% of the population.
The loss was so great there was no time to observe traditional ceremonies for deceased loved ones. Grieving families hastily swathed bodies in mats for burial in mass graves. I often wonder what my departed Sāmoan grandmother thought of the death and despair that was unfolding around her. She was 10 years old at the time.
Sāmoans blamed the then New Zealand administrator Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan for not quarantining the ship and for rejecting medical support from American Sāmoa. Later a royal commission found evidence of administrative neglect and poor judgment.
Successive administrators were faced with immense grief and ongoing resentment. Colonel Robert Tate, who was the administrator before General Richardson, observed that the name of New Zealand truly stank in Sāmoa. So much so that Sāmoans petitioned for the islands to be transferred to the United States or, failing that, Britain. The Sāmoan pleas went unheeded.
According to historian Patricia O’Brien, New Zealand’s rule in Sāmoa suffered irreparable damage over this tragic event and “cast an enduring shadow over the New Zealand-Sāmoa relationship”.
So, in 1924, General Richardson’s touring party was partly an attempt at bridge building. For Richardson personally it worked – he was knighted the following year.
A photo in the Auckland Weekly News of the delegation of faipule shows an assembly of distinguished men under the caption “Wise men of Sāmoa who are on a visit to New Zealand to learn the white man’s ways”.
The white man’s ways were evidently appealing. The Otago Daily Times reported on December 29, 1924, at the end of the tour, that everywhere the delegation visited they saw “happiness, prosperity and brotherhood of mankind – things that ensured the future prosperity and greatness of the land”. As an exercise in marketing the benefits of being associated with New Zealand to Sāmoan dignitaries, it appeared to have succeeded.
Even though General Richardson felt the faipule would be comfortably accommodated at the YMCA, everywhere else they were fêted by Pākehā and Māori alike. In Masterton the Wairarapa Times Age said they were welcomed with a downpour of rain and “a downpour of affection”. And why not? Sāmoa was key to New Zealand’s colonial expansionist ambitions. However, Māori had other reasons for embracing the Sāmoans.
One of the most moving occasions during the trip was in Rotorua, in what newspapers described as a historic meeting – “when representatives of two great branches of the Polynesian race, Māori and Sāmoan, met after a separation of over a thousand years”.
The New Zealand Herald reported that at the welcome ceremony, Te Rangi Hīroa (Dr Peter Buck) described it as one of the epoch-making events in Pacific history. In an emotive speech, he told those present that Māori had recently left their dead on the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Belgium during the Great War but had wondered “what were the fruits of that sacrifice?”
Te Rangi Hīroa said that in helping to remove the German flag that had flown over the Sāmoan islands, Māori and Sāmoans were now tied together under the same flag, allowing the faipule to come to the house of Tamatekapuna, the ancestral captain of the Arawa canoe of the great migration.
Te Rangi Hīroa pointed towards the visiting Sāmoans and exclaimed: “Kua ea, kua ea, kua ea. Now has the blood sacrifice been justified and those of our people whom death took away have been returned to us in our kinsmen that we see before us.”
Unfortunately, it seems, not many at this historic event fully appreciated how Sāmoans 3,000 kilometres away truly viewed New Zealand’s oversight of Sāmoa.
The civic event in Wellington one week later didn’t have the same historic sensibility but was nevertheless a respectful affair. The Evening Post – a newspaper I would later work for as a journalist – reported that seven o’clock was not a good time for the public to attend but “there was a large attendance, and the Faipule received a very flattering reception”.
Mayor Robin Alexander Wright told guests that now Sāmoa was associated with New Zealand and not Germany, their troubles would end and he looked forward to a “glorious future” for Sāmoa.
He said Sāmoans should enjoy the “same good feeling that existed between the Māoris and the people of New Zealand”.
“There were four Māoris in the New Zealand parliament, and would not the day come when Sāmoa would send representatives to the New Zealand parliament? It was the desire of the New Zealand people to help the Sāmoans, to allow them to work out their own destiny,” Wright told the gathering. Few in the room would have disagreed. But he was unaware just how ironically prophetic his words would become.
Mayor Wright may have been prone to the dramatic. Two months earlier, in October 1924, he’d opened the de Lux Theatre in Wellington, which then became the Embassy Theatre. But he was exceptionally well versed in national politics, with a 26-year parliamentary career that began in 1908. He was a minister of education for two years and a minister of labour for two weeks. He knew Sāmoan participation in parliament was realistic.
According to historian O’Brien, such representative measures for Sāmoans seemed a “logical step for one of the world’s leading democracies to take, though it was not taken”.
While mainstream New Zealand understood there had been “troubles”, what was not fully appreciated was Sāmoa’s depth of feeling against their supervision. The faipule had been controversially hand-picked by General Richardson and were malleable to his directions. Perhaps some of them privately harboured thoughts of Sāmoa’s hope for sovereignty and independence, but their public statements gave no such hint.
Faipule spokesman Toelupe – whose occupation in the ship Tofua’s passenger manifest is simply “Samoan” – told the Wellington reception that the love and sympathy of the people of New Zealand had touched them deeply. They wished the British flag would continue to fly over Sāmoa because it represented freedom, justice and truth. He said they were grateful to have in General Richardson an administrator who so quickly understood them and wished that his time be prolonged, as he was putting right many of the things that had hindered Sāmoa in the past.
Toelupe got his wish. Richardson’s term was extended, reluctantly on the general’s part. But his stewardship only further intensified tensions in Sāmoa.
Almost exactly five years to the day after the “happiness and prosperity” article was published, under new administrator Colonel Sir Stephen Allen, members of Sāmoa’s non-violent independence movement the Mau were gunned down by New Zealand police during a peaceful protest march. Twelve people were killed, including a New Zealand policeman, and 30 others wounded. Saturday, December 28, 1929 is a day now infamously etched in Sāmoan history as “Black Saturday”. The same year my father was born.
While many appeared to have fallen under the spell of the visiting faipule, New Zealanders were deluded, perhaps arrogant, to think that Sāmoa would aspire to parliamentary representation. The trip was essentially a diplomatic sham.
Historian O’Brien says the visit was in part a way for Richardson to legitimise these administration-selected faipule, who were the only indigenous leaders the New Zealand government recognised. However, this stance disturbed traditional systems of village authority back in Sāmoa.
Richardson’s “vesting” of unprecedented powers in these faipule – allowing them to apply new laws and punishments permitted under the Samoan Offenders Ordinance – would become one of the leading grievances against the administration.
There were many actors and events that led to Sāmoa’s independence in 1962 – most critically by Sāmoans themselves. But this article is a reflection on New Zealand’s attitude, so it would be remiss not to mention the Australian-born Labour politician who was highly influential over Sāmoa’s aspirations for independence.
Avowed socialist Harry Holland led the Labour Party from 1919 and was opposition leader from 1926. He was renowned for his oratory. His loyal caucus supporters included Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Bob Semple and later Walter Nash. All became the most influential members of the first Labour government following Holland’s sudden death in 1933 – the year my mother was born.
According to historian Nicholas Hoare, Holland stood apart from the rest of the House of Representatives due to his pronounced interest in Sāmoan affairs. This interest was so acute that one of his Labour colleagues, John A Lee, remarked that he possessed a “Sāmoan complex”.
Hoare says although Holland had little direct impact on the Mau independence movement itself, his critical views were widely publicised in New Zealand and around the globe. Holland ultimately intended shaming the government into a drastic policy reversal over Sāmoa, and even though this goal was not realised in his lifetime, his legacy made sure that Sāmoa was not forgotten when Labour swept into power in 1935, led by Michael Joseph Savage.
Labour’s win broke the political stalemate in Sāmoa. A “goodwill mission” to Apia in June 1936 recognised the Mau as a legitimate political organisation and the Samoan Offenders Ordinance was repealed. The Mau won 31 of the 39 seats in the newly elected Fono of Faipule, the Sāmoan legislature made up of elected chiefs from the districts. While it would take another 26 years, Sāmoa was on a pathway towards independence.
In November 1961, the Western Samoa Act was passed by the New Zealand parliament and came into effect on January 1, 1962 – the same year my parents met in New Zealand and were wed.
In 2002, it was another Labour prime minister, Helen Clark, who formally apologised to Sāmoa for the wrongs committed by the colonial administration. The following year, I relocated to work in Tokelau and Sāmoa.
In writing this piece, I won’t pretend to have the academic chops of notable scholars and writers such as Damon Salesa, Malama Meleasia, Albert Wendt, Michael Field or the historians referenced here. But as a New Zealand-born Sāmoan-Tokelauan, this is one reflection on and interpretation of a sliver of history I have come to know.
While it was never a serious consideration from Sāmoa’s perspective, it’s fascinating to think what might have happened if Sāmoa had been gifted electorate seats in parliament. How would New Zealand-Sāmoan relations have played out, or indeed the progress of Sāmoans born and living in New Zealand? Importantly, how would relations with mana whenua have evolved? And imagine the conniptions the Hobson’s Pledge folk would be experiencing.
Ultimately, 1920s New Zealand got part of its wish – there is a now a record number of MPs of Pacific heritage in parliament. Fittingly, it’s a Labour government that has the most. Following the recent resignation of Louisa Wall, Lemauga Lydia Sosene, who is of Sāmoan heritage, became the 11th Pacific MP in the Labour caucus this term, the 12th Pacific MP in parliament.
The National Film Unit was in Sāmoa for the first Independence Day celebrations, to film the raising of the country’s new flag and to hear the new national anthem. The event was a poignant culmination of the sacrifice and suffering Sāmoans endured, but also affirmation of the confidence and steadfast belief that self-rule would one day come. Cue the celebrations for 60 years of Sāmoa independence.
As New Zealand-born Sāmoans, we acknowledge and reconcile the legacy and impact our adopted country has had on Sāmoa. The families of many New Zealanders voluntarily came from elsewhere, but it must be appreciated that Sāmoa’s indelible connection with New Zealand was not sought, it was imposed.
So, as part of the Sāmoan diaspora, we can be both proud New Zealanders and honour our heritage when the first line of the Sāmoan national anthem rings out: Sāmoa, tula’i ma sisi ia lau fu’a, lou pale lea – Sāmoa, arise and raise your banner, that is your crown.