by Philip Ferguson
Illusions in New Zealand imperialism run very deep. Indeed, most people in this country, even on the left, probably don’t accept the idea that New Zealand is even imperialist at all. From the right to the liberal-left there is also widespread support for armed intervention abroad, as long as it takes the guise of ‘peace-keeping’ and especially if it has the imprimatur of the United Nations.
New Zealand is also seen, especially in this country itself, as ‘different’ from the old colonial powers of Western Europe and the great twentieth century imperialist power, the United States.
The role of NZ rule in Samoa, which lasted almost fifty years, indicates, however, that our ruling class and their colonial administrators were every bit as bad as those of the old European powers.
NZ’s ruling elite had wanted to get hold of a Pacific empire right from the beginning of the establishment of this country. As early as the 1860s, while still involved in land-robbing wars against Maori, the ruling class here cast a greedy and ambitious eye over the South Pacific. In the end the more powerful nature of the European empires meant that NZ got the left-overs such as the Cooks. Word War 1, however, provided NZ with the opportunity to finally get its hands on Western Samoa, which had been grabbed by Germany in the earlier carve up. (The US had nabbed Eastern Samoa.)
NZ troops invaded (Western) Samoa shortly after the war began and quickly took it over. After WW1, in December 1920, the League of Nations gave NZ the mandate to continue administering Samoa until it was ‘fit’ for self-rule. Several leading Maori MPs noted the hypocrisy of this. Maui Pomare pointed out that the League of Nations contained at least one nation which still had slavery, one with only 2 percent literacy, others with only 10-20 percent literacy, some with polygamy and child marriage. Yet, he said, Samoa with 100 percent literacy, an entirely Christian population, a monogamous, orderly, self-supporting people, were not considered suitable for self-government. James Ngata suggested the Samoans should be left to rule themselves as well. It might also be noted that the League was run by powerful countries whose idea of ‘civilisation’ had just been indicated in the mass slaughter of the ‘’Great War’.
Early NZ officials exhibited the stock upper class racial attitudes of the time. Commodore Blake, in charge of the marines, described the Samoan of the time as being “in the position of a sulky and insubordinate child who has deliberately disobeyed his father, as the administrator is generally termed, and no peaceful persuasion will induce him to submit. There is no alternative, therefore, but to treat him roughly. . .” Colonel Tate, the second administrator or governor, did not like “this idea of equal rights for white and browns”, seeing it as “responsible for much of the unrest”. His successor, General George Richardson, held similar views and thought “the placing of a modern democratic machine in the hands of a people so recently living in the Stone Age is fraught with danger to themselves.” Mrs Richardson saw the Samoans as ungrateful, saying of Samoan independence leader Faumina, “Yes, and to think how often I have invited that man and his wife to Government House to teach them tennis.” Richardson’s successor, Colonel “Silent Steve” Allen, thought Samoans were “destitute of reasoning power”, “incapable of connecting cause and effect”, while “With those who do show quickness and receptivity in learning, it is the quickness of that great imitator the ape that is being developed, and not that of the human species. . .” NZ United Party (formerly the Liberal Party) prime minister Coates viewed the Samoans as “lazy beggars”.
Trouble began even before NZ got the mandate. Colonel Robert Logan, the first NZ administrator, was obsessive about the local Chinese population. NZ itself had stringent anti-Chinese immigration restrictions and other forms of discrimination against the Chinese, and now began extending these to Samoa. In August 1916 police were told to prevent Chinese men entering Samoan houses. A special proclamation was issued not only preventing Chinese-Samoan personal relations but attempting to break-up existing inter-ethnic marriages and relationships. This was done in the name of maintaining the Samoans as “a pure race”, although white-Samoan relationships were left free.
In November 1918, the NZ authorities allowed an influenza-ridden ship, the United Steam Ship Company’s Talune to dock in the Samoan capital, Apia. Although influenza had become a notifiable disease in NZ itself, as an epidemic swept much of the world, Apia was not informed of the prevalence of the sickness on the ship. The ship’s commanding officers and doctor pretended the disease was not present on board. Within a couple of days, most of Apia was sick. People began dying in droves.
Colonel Robert Logan, the NZ administrator, issued orders preventing the movement of food to relief kitchens in places where people were sick and dying. In Logan’s view the Samoans were a fatalistic people and this was why the death rate was so high. On one occasion he declared, “I do not care if they are going to die. Let them die and go to hell.” Logan even ignored an offer of medical help from the US authorities in American Samoa. The Samoan chiefs, meanwhile, got up a petition calling for control over Western Samoa to be passed from NZ to the United States.
About 19 percent of the population of Western Samoa died, but only two percent of the resident whites. As writer Michael J. Field has noted, “in human terms the suffering was quite beyond comprehension. Not only was every fourth or fifth person dying a painful and lonely death, but everybody else was so sick that they could do nothing to help.” In NZ and the United States, the epidemic killed about 0.5 percent of the population.
Logan’s successor, Tate, imposed total prohibition in May 1920. At the same time, the NZ parliament passed legislation establishing a civil government in Samoa with executive power in the hands of the administrator. Around the administrator was a ‘legislative council’ drawn mainly from the administration’s own staff. This replaced military rule, but the Samoans themselves were given no voice in the running of their own country. Not even one member of the legislative council was Samoan. A kind of council of chiefs, the Fono a Faipule, was to be an advisory body, but without any legal powers. Import duties, which hit Samoans hardest, were also increased, leading to boycotts.
NZ administrative staff continued to wear military-type uniforms, sometimes even with ceremonial swords. Fifty extra military police were sent into the colony. New measures began to be taken against the Chinese, who formed a class of “coolie” labourers on the big plantations and who were treated as sub-human. Plantation owners could exploit and assault Chinese labourers at will. In 1921 NZ imposed the Samoa Act which, among other things, forbade marriages between Chinese and Samoans and declared any such marriages to be null and void. More generally, as Field has noted, the Act “covered almost everything a state like Samoa could need – except democratic representation for the Samoans.”
That year a number of Samoan leaders petitioned Britain for self-government. Needless to say, the petition was ignored. Discontent grew. Then in 1922 a Samoan Offenders Ordinance was passed, allowing for banishment of any ‘trouble-makers’. It was drafted by Tate and gave him total power on the issue. There were no proceedings or appeals allowed once a banishment had been declared. Tate stated that the democratic attitude to Samoans shown by ordinary NZ soldiers had given the Samoans “a false perspective. . . that they were as good as the white man.” It was time to reassert white supremacy and use the methods which had been imposed by the Germans before 1914.
Under the next administrator, Richardson, NZ began to impose land reforms to set up individual title, ensuring a deepening of Samoan opposition. By 1926 he had also used the Samoan Offenders Ordinance as a sanction against over 40 chiefs.
The result of NZ’s autocratic rule was the development of the Samoan movement called the Mau. The Mau united Samoan chief and commoner, mixed race figures such as businessman O.F. Nelson – the most well-known figure -and some whites. The major Samoan leader was High Chief Tupua Tamasese Leolofi III. As support grew, Mau leaders were threatened with deportation and the organization was ordered to disband. The Mau replied with a campaign of non-cooperation, strikes and boycotts. The NZ government responded with more police, armed sailors and marines and naval cruisers. Meetings and demonstrations were banned and Mau leaders were deported.
Tamasese was arrested in 1928 and taken to Mt Eden prison in Auckland. The deported Nelson founded the NZ Samoa Defence League and large public meetings were organised, including one of 1200 people in Auckland. NZ seamen refused to work ships carrying NZ military police to Samoa and denounced these as NZ’s ‘Black and Tans’ (the name of a particularly brutal section of the British Army then running amok in Ireland).
Back in Samoa resistance continued to expand, with the Mau becoming a virtual alternative government. On December 1929, two white Mau supporters – Alfred Smyth, a trader returning to Samoa, and Alfred Hall Skelton, an Auckland lawyer and Irish republican activist – landed in Apia to be greeted by thousands of Mau supporters, including Tamasese, who had already been released from prison in NZ. Police moved in to arrest one of the Mau and in a resulting scuffle the police opened fire. Pistols, rifles and a Lewis machine-gun were used, leaving eleven Samoans dead and 30 wounded. Tamasese, who had been wounded, died shortly afterwards.
Repression was stepped up and, in 1930, the Mau was outlawed. More marines and military police were sent in. Mau activists took to the bush, while a Women’s Mau continued the struggle in the towns and villages. Eventually a stalemate situation was reached. NZ colonial rule was not really stabilised until Labour swept into government in 1935. Labour improved some public services and gave Samoans some small say in the administration, while refusing self-government, or even to dismiss particularly hated officials, let alone grant independence.
It was not until 1962, under a National Party government led by Keith Holyoake, that Samoa finally became independent. The mistreatment of Samoans, however, would continue. The 1972-75 Labour government began dawn raids on Samoan ‘overstayers’ in NZ and the following Muldoon National government began the notorious practice of wholesale lifting of Polynesian-looking people off the streets and mass deportations. Thousands of Samoans were also stripped of NZ citizenship by Muldoon, with the full support of Labour leader David Lange (and various leading Maori sovereignty figures like Donna Awatere) in the early 1980s.
Today, Samoa remains an underdeveloped and poor island nation. Western Samoa is a neo-colony of NZ, and Samoans are treated as second-class citizens here. Eastern Samoa remains under US rule.
The New Zealand government’s treatment of Samoa and Samoans fits the classic colonial model. It shows that there is no fundamental difference between NZ imperialism and other imperialists, except scale. Secondly it shows how little difference there is between Labour and National. Imperial rule, raids and deportations – they went on regardless of which of the sibling parties of the NZ ruling class are in power.