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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods


page xi


For ten years Dr. Solf was administrator of Samoa while it was under the German flag. From this post he was promoted to be Minister of Colonial Affairs, one of the most important Cabinet positions in the former German Imperial Government. Shortly after his appointment he had to defend himself in the Reichstag from an impassioned charge that while in Samoa he had worn flowers in his hair.

What a glorious accusation!

Glorious, I mean, in the sense that there was positively nothing else that could be alleged against his fen years' administration. Nobody could say that he had overloaded the group with officials; that he had taxed and harassed it beyond human forbearance; that he had imported Chinese coolies to the debasement of the native population; that through an inexcusable lack of quarantine precautions he had been thought responsible for one-fifth of the population dying of influenza; that he had antagonized the white residents to such a degree that their richest and most important merchant had been actually deported and the remainder roused to an intolerable exasperation; that in five years he had driven the Samoans beyond all the limits of their endurance; that he had shot down one of their greatest chiefs, together with a number of others, in circumstances that have led to the ugliest of charges.

No; the worst that could be brought against Dr. Solf was that he had worn flowers in his hair at Samoan revels.

Dr. Solf bent his head and revealed a perfectly bald scalp.

"I have no hair to put flowers in," he said. "Look for yourselves, gentlemen."

The Reichstag could almost see themselves reflected in his shiny pate, and the ensuing roar of laughter shook the chamber.

That ended the only criticism of Dr. Solf's ten years' administration of Western Samoa.

A friend of mine who had had several long conversations with Dr. Solf while visiting Samoa many years ago returned page xiito New York full of enthusiasm for him. The German administration at that time had scarcely more than begun, and people like myself, who had lived for years in Samoa, were none too hopeful about it. To be frank, we disliked the idea intensely and foreboded the worst. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my friend told me that Dr. Solf had stated his policy in practically these terms: "Samoa is so small and so remote that it has fortunately no commercial future; we German officials do not have to see—and to help—our so-called progress destroy one of the most attractive races in the world. If every acre in Western Samoa were put under cultivation the result would still be utterly negligible as far as the German Empire were concerned. My congenial duty, therefore, is merely to guard it as what it is—a little paradise—and to do my best to keep any passing serpent out of our Garden of Eden."

Golden words, and well did Dr. Solf put them into action.

You could count his white staff on the fingers of one hand; he was always approachable; any incipient trouble was discussed over the kava-bowl. He was just, kind, firm, and wise, and earned the affection as well as the respect of everyone. Like all primitive people, Samoans have a strong sense of justice; they like, too, if they have a grievance, an enormous time in which to discuss it. Dr. Solf accorded them that time, and with it courtesy and patience. He observed, besides, all the little niceties of Samoan etiquette. As the saying goes, he soon held them in the hollow of his hand.

Then the war came; the seizure of Samoa by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; the Mandate; bureaucrats; heel-clicking A.D.C.s; curt commands in the military manner; a grinding interference with the lives of both natives and whites—everything, in fact, that one thought the Germans might do—and didn't. The labels had somehow become mixed. The Prussians came from Auckland, and alas! they are still there, though somewhat chastened by the world's opprobrium.

I am thankful that Mr. Rowe has written this book; thankful, too, that Messrs. Putnam's Sons should have been so courageous as to publish it. The whole painful story of the New Zealand administration of Samoa is now laid bare to the world, documented, temperately stated—and appalling. Such a mixture of page xiistupidity and despotic power (the two seem always to go hand in hand) has probably never been seen before under the British flag. Not only are the natives at the whim of any swollen little satrap but the British residents as well. Mr. Nelson, one of the most highly respected merchants in Western Samoa, is not alone in being permanently exiled, and threats of deportation fall like rain on the others. To criticize the New Zealand administration is lese-majesty; it is "sedition," and thus becomes a crime with savage penalties.

I cannot bring myself to comment on the killing of the High Chief Tamasese and ten others on December 28, 1929. The implications attending it are so terrible that I cannot write of them with the necessary restraint. Through the ensuing pages the reader will mark the hostility shown to the High Chief Tamasese from the very first, when the fact of his planting a hedge on his own land and ignoring an order to remove it was made the occasion to exile him for life from the country he and his forefathers had ruled over for centuries. One can read how this great chief was pricked and goaded, humiliated and insulted, till he was finally shot down—while apparently begging his people to keep the peace. The sardonic comedy of the New Zealand administration, with its privies on the beaches, its ridiculous "town planning," its counting of the cups and saucers in the native houses, here turns to tragedy. But I shall leave the narration to Mr. Rowe. Let it be read in Mr. Rowe's own cool, deadly sentences.

This book will fail in all its purpose if it be regarded merely as an appeal for an ill-used and misgoverned population. The very word "appeal" has a desolate sound. It suggests Armenians in Turkey, heartbroken Servians, or expatriated Greeks. Very deserving people of course, and dreadfully unfortunate, but the mass of them malodorous peasants whose women are hardly more than beasts of burden. The effort of this book is not only to try to save a people, but an exquisite form of living; a little paradise, where, unique in the world, natural beauty has a human counterpart worthy of it.

The native life of Samoa is more similar to that of the ancient Greeks than any other we have ever known on this planet; there is the same love of physical perfection, of beauty, page xivof pageantry. The Samoans are extraordinarily good-looking, with gracious manners and an innate love of what for lack of a better term I will call "good form." To fail in any of the little courtesies of life is to write oneself down a boor. Every public event—no matter how trivial—takes place with singing, with flowers, with processions, with an immemorial art in which beauty and grouping has been as much studied as in any performance of the Russian ballet, though less self-consciously.

Samoans, both men and women, all go bareheaded and half-naked; and the feeling that you are in ancient Greece thus becomes intensified as you gaze at those bronze Apollos, those lovely, slender girls with their breasts scarcely concealed by garlands, those superb old men, noble foils to all this glowing youth, leaning on their staves and booming out their orations. It is a poetic life; the appeal to your sense of beauty is incessant, and the language, soft and melodious, is in harmony with such a people. Ulysses could land here to-morrow and feel at home.

The fate of Samoa really turns on the decision of British public opinion; if it should sustain the New Zealand administration, Samoa will sink in time to the level of a dreary little colony inhabited largely by a bastard Chinese race. Its only salvation lies in the transfer of the Mandate from New Zealand to Great Britain herself.

Lloyd Osbourne September 17, 1930