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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



Early in 1920, Western Samoa was visited by a Parliamentary Delegation from New Zealand. This is supposed not to have made a favourable first impression upon the natives, since certain of the Parliamentarians had borrowed stewards' jackets before coming ashore for the occasion, round the necks of which they tied black bow-ties, and in view of the heat of the climate others of the gentlemen had dispensed with their socks. "If these," complained the Samoans, "are the legislators of New Zealand, what must the common people be like?" The citizens, however, who it is to be presumed were above being influenced by these eccentricities, presented the reports which they had drawn up and addressed to the "Honourable Sir James Allen, Minister of Defence, and the Honourable Members of the New Zealand Parliamentary Party."

The citizens stated that with the exception, perhaps, of the most rabid prohibitionist, anyone who had lived in the tropics for more than two or three years would admit that a certain amount of alcohol was necessary for the system. This would be endorsed by almost any member of the medical fraternity.

They ventured to say that during the epidemic of 1918 thousands of lives were saved by alcohol. No one who was not page 99there at the time could have any conception of the helpless state of the native population, nor of the splendid work done by the small band of military and civilians who volunteered to work, relieving the sick and burying the dead, and but for whom thousands of natives, unable to shift for themselves, would have died from starvation. Many of those engaged in this terrible work themselves had high temperatures and racking coughs, and only managed to keep going through the stimulating effects of alcohol. Without whisky it would have been a matter of physical impossibility for any white man to have handled the putrid corpses, some of which had been lying in their houses for three, four, and even five days. Strong men with hearty constitutions and stomachs like iron had, after handling some of these bodies, sat on the roadside and vomited and declared that it was impossible for them to continue, and it was a matter of common knowledge that it was only through the stimulating effects of whisky that the work was carried on. Had there been no whisky to carry them through, the bodies would have remained unburied for weeks and there would have been little, if any, relief work amongst the natives, and as a consequence the death-rate would have been fully fifty per cent. higher than it actually was. Should they, at some time in the future, have another such visitation, with no supplies of stimulants to help along the good work of relief, the result was likely to be appalling.

Either, continued the citizens, they had been misinformed, or the terms of the Mandate did not call for total Prohibition for Samoa. As interpreted to them the Mandate stated that liquor must not be allowed to natives. To say that liquor could not be kept from the natives except by instituting Prohibition was, to say the least of it, absurd. If they were asked to believe that, then they must also believe that New Zealand was unable to control the country as well as Germany could, and did. Under German law, supplying liquor to natives had been punishable by heavy penalty, and the native found with liquor in his possession was also punished. With only two white police officers, the Germans were able to so control the liquor traffic that drinking among the natives was practically unknown. During military occupation the natives were unquestionably page 100supplied with liquor, but since the departure of the forces there had been little sign of drink among the natives, with the exception of a few boys who appropriated the alcohol provided for use in the Harbour lights.

They were informed that one of the arguments in favour of Prohibition was that Prohibition was in force in American Samoa. There was no parallel between the two places, as American Samoa was a naval station and automatically dry in accordance with American legislation, and that island was being administered by a country that was itself dry, and not by a country that had rejected Prohibition in fair and open referendum.

They were assured that Proclamation No. 65 was not a military measure, and yet they had received no notification that they were not still a German colony under military occupation and subject to German laws. They were also unaware that the Constitution had yet come into force and they still maintained that the powerful machinery of military law was used to force this measure upon the public.

From the beginning, the majority of residents were not in favour of Samoa being placed under the control of New Zealand, and this measure, and the fact of it having been forced upon them without any consultation of their wishes in the matter, had almost completely alienated the sympathies of the public. If it were persisted with, New Zealand would commence her administration of Samoa bitterly opposed by almost the whole of the settlers. New Zealand might consider that she was taking control of Samoa solely for the benefit of the natives, and that the settlers were to be considered as passengers or strangers and that their wishes were of little or no importance, but she would find the difficulties of her task considerably enhanced if she attempted to control the country without the sympathy and co-operation of the public.

The high-handed and autocratic action of the New Zealand Government in forcing Prohibition on Samoa without consulting the residents had caused a feeling of grave mistrust, and was considered by almost the whole community there as unworthy of the democratic pretensions of that country, and they could scarcely bring themselves to believe that such page 101a thing could happen to people living under the traditional liberty of the British flag.

They strongly submitted that the liquor question of Samoa could easily and safely be handled under strict and capable Government control, and they believed that such Government control would meet all the requirements of the Mandate.

Besides Prohibition, there were—hingeing on the change over to civil administration—a number of other burning questions on the tapis. The citizens had heard of a proposed expenditure of £20,000 for ships' moorings for Apia Harbour, and £85,000 for roads, these being only a part of the Public Works proposed vote; and a very heavy expenditure for buildings and salaries under the head of Education, and further heavy expenditure in connection with the "long talked of water supply" for Apia. A police force from New Zealand had just been dumped into the country as "the first act in civil administration," and was estimated likely to cost £30,000 per annum. All this, apparently, was to come out of a revenue which now amounted to some £88,000—with an existing expenditure of £89,000—at the very time when Prohibition was due shortly to reduce that revenue annually by about £5,000. It can scarcely be wondered that the citizens were perturbed.

What actually was taking place in this direction was that a misconceived, ambitious, and bureaucratic system of departmental government was being set up—quite unsuited to the needs of the country or within the range of its finances. This, of course, entailed excessive staffing by white officials.

The citizens finished up by protesting, rather pathetically, that they were not, after all, as popularly depicted by the visiting novelist, dissolute beachcombers and degenerates; but keen agricultural, pastoral, and commercial people, mostly with every stake they had in the world firmly planted in Samoa, and whom New Zealand could very easily hold to herself by open fair-minded rule and dealings, and whose good will was every whit as essential to a successful Administration as the good will of the native race which so greatly outnumbered them.

The testimonial of the citizens as regards themselves was perhaps well founded. Stevenson, writing in 1892, had said:

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"Within the memory of man, the white people of Apia lay in the worst squalor of degradation. They are now unspeakably improved, both men and women. To-day they must be called a more than fairly respectable population, and a much more than fairly intelligent. The whole would probably not fill the ranks even of an English half-battalion, yet there are a surprising number above the average in sense, knowledge, and manners. The trouble (for Samoa) is that they are all here after a livelihood." This pronouncement still held good—twenty-eight years after.

Sir James Allen's counterblast was to have a meeting with the Samoan Faipule—or Native Advisory Council—and get them to agree that the Europeans should be under Prohibition the same as themselves, "as laid down by the treaty."

And at a meeting of the Citizens and Parliamentarians held in the Market Hall, Apia, when the question of Prohibition was brought up, Sir James Allen is reported to have said that everybody had suffered in the Great War, and the white residents of Samoa "ought to do something," so he had decided, for the sake of the natives, that they should be under Prohibition. That in this matter the white should be as the native and the native as the white man.

Almost the last of the good liquor in Samoa—other than medicinal—is alleged to have been drunk by the Parliamentary Delegation from New Zealand. (The new measure did not come into force until shortly after their departure.) If so, it was tendered, perhaps, in a spirit of conciliation: a mistaken policy, for the delegates would appear to have gone away convinced that Prohibition in the tropics was perfectly to be supported.

Before Prohibition finally came into force Samoa was visited by the Prince of Wales, then on his world-tour in the battle-cruiser Renown. Together with a number of officers from the warship the members of the Apia British Club awaited his promised visit. There were several bottles of champagne on the ice. I have drawn this account from a local newspaper:

"The Prince's steward blew into the bar and informed us that probably His Royal Highness would prefer a cocktail, and he there and then commenced to make cocktails, many of page 103which he consumed himself for fear they would grow stale. In the course of conversation it was mentioned that New Zealand was placing Samoa under Prohibition, and naturally our club without the 'cheerful' would, as soon as our stocks of liquor were consumed, die out. A visitor wanted to know what crime we had committed and was told that the only crime we could think of was being white men under New Zealand control. A member of the London Press, who was travelling with the Renown, took out his note-book and commenced to write. His remarks appeared in the English Press later on in support of our contention that Prohibition on the whites was not likely to be conducive to a good feeling between those that govern and the governed…. When it came to toasting and drinking, the Prince stuck to whisky-and-sodas, which he said was his favourite drink. This made everybody feel more at home. When he was informed by one of the officers that Samoa was to be under Prohibition, he looked surprised and wanted to know what for."