Story: Pacific Islands and New Zealand

Page 4. Samoa

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German colonisation and withdrawal

In the late 19th century, control of Samoa prompted particular anxiety in New Zealand. In 1889 Britain agreed to share control with Germany and the US. A decade later, in 1899, Samoa was partitioned. Germany took most of the territory, while the US retained the small islands of Manu’a and Tutuila and a deep-water port at Pago Pago. Britain traded off Samoa for concessions in Tonga, Solomon Islands, Niue and Africa, including Zanzibar. These arrangements were vigorously opposed in New Zealand as a sell-out of colonial interests.

On the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, New Zealand sent a military expedition to take control of German Samoa. New Zealand’s authority was initially as a technically British military administration and then, after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, as the holder of a League of Nations Class C mandate.

Hopeful empire-builder

John Lundon, a man with a sharp eye for the main chance and an interest in Pacific empire-building, arrived in Samoa in the early 1880s. He wanted to buy land for the Auckland South Sea Island Produce Company. Faced with competition from powerful British and German businesses, Lundon persuaded the Samoan Parliament to seek annexation by New Zealand (an opportunity New Zealand declined). A few years later, the British consul described Lundon as so ‘ingeniously’ building on ‘the smallest remark or circumstance … to produce the wished-for effect, as to make the original intention or fact quite unrecognisable'.1

Flu epidemic

Failure to quarantine the SS Talune, which arrived from Auckland in November 1918, allowed the global influenza epidemic to spread to Western Samoa. As a result, 8,500 Samoans, more than a fifth of the population, died. The epidemic did not spread to neighbouring American Samoa, where effective quarantine rules were observed.

Mau movement

The Mau movement, which began in 1927, was a peaceful campaign for self-government or ‘Samoa mo Samoa’ (Samoa for the Samoans). Supporters wore a distinctive violet lavalava (wrap-around skirt) and published a newspaper, the Samoa Guardian. New Zealand responded forcefully to demonstrations, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience, arresting 400 Mau supporters. On Saturday 28 December 1929, New Zealand military police fired on a peaceful Mau demonstration, killing at least nine Samoans, including high chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. The arrival of the New Zealand warship Dunedin in January 1930 was aimed at crushing what remained of the Mau movement. Its leaders were exiled and the movement suppressed.

Historians have variously identified the causes of the Mau movement as the failure to protect the island from influenza, disquiet among customary chiefs about the reshaping of the traditional order, disgruntled merchants angered by colonial constraints, and the dictatorial rule of New Zealand administrators.

Moving towards independence

Although relations between New Zealand and Western Samoa improved after the 1935 election of a Labour government in New Zealand, Samoans came to treat the island's administration with disdain. Samoan desire for independence remained strong, and was to benefit from the setting up of the United Nations and the New Zealand government’s concern for its international reputation.

Plain speaking

When New Zealand Governor-General Cyril Newall visited Western Samoa in 1944, he was told by Mata'utia Ioane Brown, the leader of the Fono of Faipule (a council of district representatives), ‘We have lost confidence in the trusteeship of New Zealand which has shown a lack of interest in the territory and treated its people as stepchildren. Our wish is that the Samoans be granted a larger measure of self-government.’2 Such blunt speaking prompted a visit from New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, and the beginning of moves towards independence.

The UN trusteeship system, under which New Zealand governed Western Samoa, required governing countries to pay heed to the wishes of the indigenous people. The Samoans pushed for independence based on the Tongan model of indigenous control of internal matters, with foreign relations handled by a friendly colonial power. Believing that Western Samoa would not be satisfied with the Tongan solution in practice, the New Zealand government offered full independence with continuing support. This approach, unusual at the time, enabled relatively rapid movement toward self-government. New Zealand would subsequently follow variations on this approach in the Cook Islands and Niue.

Samoan independence

In 1962, Western Samoa became the first Pacific island state to regain its independence. A new constitution was accompanied by a Treaty of Friendship that guaranteed New Zealand assistance in areas such as foreign affairs and defence. On 9 May 1961, 83% of voters had backed the constitution in a referendum supervised by the United Nations.

In 1997 'Western' was dropped from the nation's name, and it became known as Samoa.

  1. Quoted in David Routledge, ‘John Lundon – biography.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 26 March 2012). Back
  2. Quoted in Mary Boyd, ‘The decolonisation of Western Samoa.’ In The feel of truth: essays in New Zealand and Pacific history, edited by Peter Munz. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed for Victoria University of Wellington, 1969, pp. 63–64. Back
How to cite this page:

Jon Fraenkel, 'Pacific Islands and New Zealand - Samoa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Jon Fraenkel, published 20 Jun 2012