By Iain Murray
Moved by love, never driven by intimidation
The Mau movement was the name given to the popular nonviolent movement for Samoan independence from colonial rule. Mau means “opinion” or “testimony” in Samoan.
The Mau had its origins, in 1908, in a dispute between the German colonial administration and the Maloa o Samoa, or Samoan Council of Chiefs, over the establishment of a copra business owned and controlled by native Samoans.
The dispute led to the formation of a resistance movement on the island of Savai’i by Mamoe, one of the chiefs deposed by the German Governor of Samoa, Wilhelm Solf. As well as deposing members of the Maloa o Samoa, Solf called in two German warships as a show of strength. Faced with this demonstration of military force, and with the movement divided, Mamoe surrendered, and resistance faded.
The Samoan independence movement would not gain strength again until after New Zealand forces, unopposed by the German rulers, annexed Western Samoa in 1914, at the beginning of World War I. Military rule continued after the war ended, and in 1919, some 8,500 Samoans around 22 per cent of the population died during an influenza epidemic. Many Samoans blamed the New Zealand controlled administration, which had allowed a ship carrying the influenza virus to dock at Apia, for the epidemic.
This catastrophic event was to lay a new foundation for discontent with an administration already perceived as incompetent and dishonest by many Samoans. The clumsy handling of Samoa’s governance, the slow and deliberate erosion of traditional Samoan social structures by successive administrators and a general failure to understand and respect Samoan culture also sowed the seeds for a revitalised resistance to colonial rule.
Samoans of mixed parentage, facing discrimination from both cultures but with the advantage of cross-cultural knowledge, would play a key role in the new movement.
Olaf Frederick Nelson, one of the leaders of the new Mau movement, was a successful merchant of mixed Swedish and Samoan heritage. Wealthy and well-travelled, Nelson was frustrated by the colonial administration’s exclusion of native and part-Samoans from governance. Notably, he was one of many who had lost a child to the influenza epidemic of 1919.
In 1926, Nelson visited Wellington to lobby the New Zealand government on the issue of increased self-rule. During his visit, the Minister for External Affairs, William Nosworthy, promised to visit Samoa to investigate. When Nosworthy postponed his trip, Nelson organised two public meetings in Apia, which were attended by hundreds, and The Samoan League, or O le Mau, was formed.
O le Mau published a newspaper, the Samoa Guardian, as a mouthpiece for the movement. To demonstrate the extent of popular support for the Mau Nelson organised a sports meeting for movement members on the King’s Birthday, in parallel with the official event, and held a well attended ball at his home on the same night. Movement members had also begun to engage in acts of noncooperation, neglecting the compulsory weekly search for the rhinosaurus beetle, enemy of the coconut palm, thereby threatening the lucrative copra industry.
In 1927, alarmed at the growing strength of the Mau, George Richardson, the administrator of Samoa, changed the law to allow the deportation of Europeans or part-Europeans charged with fomenting unrest. This action was presumably taken on the assumption that the growing movement was merely a product of self-interested Europeans agitating the native Samoans.
In reality, however, the Mau was built upon the traditional forms of Samoan political organisation. In each village that joined the movement, a committee was formed, consisting of the chiefs and “talking men”. These committees formed the basic element of an alternative system of governance, and the tendency of Samoans to unite under traditional leadership meant that by the mid to late 1920s, around eight-five per cent of the Samoan population was involved in open resistance.
Following another visit to New Zealand to petition the Government, Nelson was exiled from Samoa along with two other part-European Mau leaders. The petition, which lead to the formation of a joint select committee to investigate the situation in Samoa, quoted an ancient Samoan proverb: “We are moved by love, but never driven by intimidation.”
The Mau remained true to this sentiment, and despite the exile of Nelson, continued to use civil disobedience to oppose the New Zealand administration. They boycotted imported products, refused to pay taxes and formed their own “police force”, picketing stores in Apia to prevent the payment of customs to the authorities. Village committees established by the administration ceased to meet and government officials were ignored when they went on tour. Births and deaths went unregistered. Coconuts went unharvested, and the banana plantations were neglected.
As the select committee was forced to admit, “a very substantial proportion of Samoans had joined the Mau, a number quite sufficient, if they determined to resist and thwart the activities of the Administration, to paralyse the functions of government.”
Richardson sent a warship and a 70-strong force of marines to quell the largely nonviolent resistance. 400 Mau members were arrested, but others responded by giving themselves up in such numbers that there were insufficient jail cells to detain them all, and the prisoners came and went as they pleased. One group of prisoners found themselves in a three-sided “cell” which faced the ocean, and were able to swim away to tend to their gardens and visit their families.
With his attempt at repression turning to ridicule, Richard offered pardons to all those arrested; however, arrestees demanded to be dealt with by the court, and then refused to enter pleas to demonstrate their rejection of the courts jurisdiction.
The new administrator, Stephen Allen, replaced the marines with a special force of New Zealand police, and began to target the leaders of the movement. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, who had lead the movement following the exile of Nelson, was arrested for non-payment of taxes and imprisoned for six months. On 28 December, 1929 – which would be know thereafter as “Black Sunday” – Tamasese III and ten other Samoan Mau leaders were killed when the police force fired upon a peaceful demonstration which had assembled to welcome home A.G. Smyth, a European movement leader returning to Samoa after a two year exile
As he lay dying, Tamesese III made this statement to his followers: “My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.”
Following the massacre, male Mau members fled to the mountains, the traditional retreat of those defeated in war. The resistance continued by other means, with the emergence of a women’s Mau to continue the councils, parades and symbolic protests that the men now could not. For the women’s movement, even the game of cricket represented an act of defiance inviting official harassment.
A truce was declared in 1930, and the male Mau members returned to their homes, on the condition that they retain their right to engage in noncooperation. Meanwhile, Nelson and other exiled leaders continued to lobby the New Zealand Government and communicate their progress to the Mau. In 1931, news of the growing resistance to the British rule of India reached many Samoan villages.
The Mau movement had not gone unnoticed by the population of New Zealand, and the treatment of Samoans at the hands of the administration had become a contentious issue in some New Zealand electorates during the 1929 election. 1936 marked a turning point for Samoa, with the election of a Labour Government in New Zealand and the subsequent relaxation of repression by the Samoan administration. Under the new Government, there was slow movement towards greater involvement of Samoans in the administration of their own country.
When Western Samoa finally gained its independence in 1962, Tupua Tamasese Meaole, son of the Mau movement leader, became its first co-head of state with Malietoa Tanumafili II.