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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XXII. — The League of Nations and Samoa

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Chapter XXII.
The League of Nations and Samoa.

The Mandate—Bell at League of Nations—Later developments—Samoan policy.


Although from time to time the administration of Samoa has proved thorny and difficult, Bell was never in any doubt as to our duty to undertake the task. At the time when the Mandate was conferred, some critics alleged that New Zealand was unfit to assume the burden, that it would prove too costly and that we should refuse the Mandate.

"Well, Sir," said Bell, "the Government have no doubt as to what is the duty of this country in response to so great an invitation, and I trust that we shall never be so craven and cowardly as to refuse to take up the burden on the ground that we are not fit for it.

"I can understand—and I have a contempt for it—the argument relating to money. But I cannot understand a nation of Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Irishmen refusing to undertake a duty which must be undertaken by some civilized body in the Pacific, and thereby declaring that we have no interest or function page 213in the Pacific beyond the boundaries of the Dominion of New Zealand,"

The subsequent turmoil and strife in Samoa may appear to have proved the critics right and Bell wrong. But his views were no doubt based on our experience of governing the Maori race and the natives of the scattered Cook Islands. As to our success in those cases one may quote the opinion of Sir Apirana Ngata, who congratulated the Samoan race on coming under New Zealand rule.

"There is no better representative," he said, "of the British conscience and administration in a just way of the Native races than the Government of this country."

Many books and studies have been published in various countries dealing with the history of our administration of the Samoan Mandate. The chief basis of criticism has been that New Zealand has not set herself to train specialists in island administration, or been willing to borrow, at least for a time, skilled administrators from the experienced British Colonial Service.


Bell attended the Assembly of the League of Nations in 1922, when the first report of our administration of Western Samoa was considered and commended. But some criticism was made by the Mandates Commission of the position in Nauru Island, where New Zealand holds a joint Mandate with Britain and Australia. Bell created a sensation by challenging the right of the Mandates Commission to offer public criticism of our page 214administration. He pointed out that the responsibility of control is conferred on the Council of the League, not on its Committees, and that the Council alone has the authority to say whether in the public interest any public comment should be allowed.

"The right of a mandatory power to appeal from adverse comment, and invite a discussion in the Assembly, should be definitely affirmed and established. The mere right of audience is wholly insufficient."

This protest aroused widespread interest. In some quarters Bell was violently criticized, but in others he was warmly supported. Those who suggest that his attitude was merely a legalistic one fail to realize what he sought to guard against. He knew that, wherever a mandate is in operation, there are likely to be hostile groups seeking to discredit and trip up the mandatory power. He was therefore resolved that no public criticism should issue except from the proper authority after full inquiry.


His prophecy that the time must come speedily when the existing procedure would give offence was justified in 1926 when the Mandates Commission proposed to administer each year a large number of interrogatories to each mandatory of the B and C classes. Bell considered some of these interrogatories dangerous. He quoted Sir Austen Chamberlain and Briand as having expressed themselves in much more forcible language than himself; in fact, Chamberlain complained that there was a tendency on the part of the Mandates Commission to extend its authority to a point where the page 215government would no longer be vested in the mandatory power but in the Mandates Commission. Similar protests were made by France, Japan, and Belgium. Sir Francis Bell said that Chamberlain had exactly expressed the views of New Zealand, and that while we had always received the commendation of the Mandates Commission and of the Council, we were becoming impatient at the minute investigation by the Commission of administrative details.


Bell returned from Geneva at the end of 1922. At the General Election which took place about the time of his return the Minister in charge of Samoa (External Affairs), Mr. Lee, lost his seat. His portfolio was taken over by Bell early in 1923 and was retained by him until 1926. He took a deep personal interest in the administration of Samoa, and although the conflict which arose some years later temporarily obscured the merits of Bell's work, the Samoans are still deriving sound and permanent benefits from his policy. The main features of this policy were laid down by Bell for the guidance of the Administrator, Major-General Sir George Richardson, and may be briefly stated as follows:

1.The New Zealand Government desired that the territory should be administered solely in the interests of its inhabitants.
2.New Zealand wished to derive no financial gain whatever from the territory.
3.Money had already been provided by New Zealand to improve conditions for the Natives page 216and to develop the country so that eventually it might be self-supporting, and if more money was needed New Zealand would provide it.
4.The welfare of the Native race was to be the Administrator's first care, and if cases arose where European and Native interests were difficult to reconcile, primary consideration was to be given to the needs and true welfare of the Natives.

"I had not been long in the territory," says Sir George Richardson, "before I realized how wise and far-sighted was the policy of Sir Francis Bell. I appealed to him for financial assistance to eradicate the serious tropical diseases from which the Natives were suffering. We agreed that if the Samoans were made healthy they could be more easily induced to promote their own material welfare by more actively working their own lands."

Bell accordingly provided money for a three-year plan. His first concern was to improve the health of the Samoans, and a campaign was undertaken to eradicate hook-worm with the assistance of the Rockefeller Institute. Supplies of drinking-water were extended to every district. A large number of young Samoans were trained to act as Native doctors and girls as district nurses. The Samoan women were taught child welfare, and remarkable results were achieved in reducing the infantile death rate.

"The natural increase of the population, which had previously been so low that the race was looked on as a diminishing one, reacted to this progressive policy page 217and has gone rapidly forward ever since, until to-day the Natives of Western Samoa number nearly 60,000, a tribute to the health administration of the territory which Sir Francis Bell did so much to promote and foster."

The next work to engage attention was the education of the Samoans. Bell's ambition was to train them to help to govern their own country. He therefore provided funds to establish second-grade schools in every district. This plan was welcomed by the various missions, which thereafter confined their efforts to the education of infants in the mission schools and the training of Native pastors.

"To staff all these schools with Europeans would have been not only unwise but very costly, and it would have delayed the training of Samoans to become their own teachers. Hence a training establishment was instituted for specially selected young Natives who after a qualifying examination were sent out to the outlying districts as teachers. The result of Bell's policy has been that every year an increasing number of these young Samoans fill positions in the Administration."

The third matter to which Bell gave his attention was land development. He arranged for one group of Faipules (members of the Native Assembly) to visit Tonga, where individual cultivation and holdings have produced a greater output per capita than anywhere else in the South Seas. At the same time he brought another group of Faipules to New Zealand. This visit did much to promote friendly relations, and the sight of prosperous farms created on land formerly as page 218densely clad with forest as the lands of Samoa deeply impressed the visitors. They were all entertained by Bell at his own home and through an interpreter he held several useful conferences with them.

One delightful incident relieved the gravity of these conferences. The Samoan chiefs were unaware of the fact that Bell was an eminent lawyer and they said, "We want you to send all the lawyers away from Samoa because they teach our people to tell lies." After some probing, Bell was amused to discover that the request arose from the fact that the Samoans were puzzled when in a court of law they were advised by counsel to plead "Not guilty," whereas the missionaries had taught them always to tell the truth.

"They returned to their home with a broadened vision and a deeper insight, and a real desire to encourage their people to cultivate their lands."

At this time the Samoans' only source of revenue was copra. On Bell's advice the Government acquired the ship Maui Pomare to enable the Natives to market their bananas by regular shipments to New Zealand. This new development helped to save Samoa financially during the depression at a time when it did not pay to produce copra. The chiefs of Western Samoa also asked Bell to get the Government to purchase and market their copra on the system adopted by the administration in American Samoa. The scheme resembles that at present in force for marketing New Zealand butter for dairy farmers. Bell foresaw that the traders would oppose the scheme but also that it would benefit the Samoans, and with his consent the administration boldly began operations.

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"This effort to help the Samoan people," says Sir George Richardson, "and this only, was the cause of subsequent political agitation in the territory, a movement cleverly manoeuvred by persons interested in the copra trade."

He adds:

"Bell's record as Minister responsible for carrying out the mandate in Samoa is an outstandingly successful one, and the fact that Western Samoa today is financially self-supporting and the Natives are taking a fuller part in the administration of their own country, is largely due to the good foundations laid by Sir Francis during his term of office.

"I find the portfolio of External Affairs a hornet's nest," Bell wrote to Sir James Allen in November, 1923. "The Crown estates are now losing at the rate of £40,000 a year, principally by attempting to grow cocoa instead of limiting our efforts to copra, and the whole of the accumulated fund will have disappeared before March—a miserable result."

To cope with this problem Bell arranged for the Administrator to visit New Zealand for a conference. They made various changes in the control of the German plantations, which by the Treaty of Versailles had become the property of the New Zealand Government. The value of these plantations was, however, to be accounted for against New Zealand's share of reparation payments. Every year since the War they had been worked at a loss, but as a result of the new control this was now changed into a profit.

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The Mau agitation or rebellion began just about the time Bell gave up the portfolio. He was of opinion that the rebellion was due to Nelson's disgruntlement owing to the efforts of the Government to assist the Natives to market their copra. He thought also that the action of Sir James Allen in stopping the supply of liquor to the inhabitants had been a factor in arousing discontent.

It is possible that part of the trouble was due to the fact that, in carrying out so many reforms in education, sanitation, and health, Bell moved faster than Samoan opinion was prepared to follow.

Some years later, when a commission of civil servants was sent to Samoa to investigate and report on the administration, Bell protested strongly against many of their proposals for economy, and urged that the welfare of the Natives was more important than a balanced budget.

With his usual chivalry, he took all the blame for the troubles which fell on his successor.

"I would never have gone to London and Geneva in 1926 if I had had any idea as to what was going to happen in Samoa, but I admit I was the cause of the trouble … By one act we created dissent and rebellion. I accept the responsibility for that action. I never will believe that that action was wrong or that it was ill-judged."

The control of a distant mandate is the severest test a democracy can be subjected to, unless like Britain it has had long centuries of experience and tradition in the art of governing Native races. It is perhaps in-page 221evitable that complaints (whether genuine or springing from vested interests) give rise to party disputes in the Parliament of the mandatory power, and that the repercussions produce a magnified echo in the minds of the Natives.


It has already been stated that after attending the Geneva Conference and the League of Nations Bell returned to New Zealand at the end of 1922. The citizens of Wellington tendered him a complimentary lunch to mark their appreciation of his services to New Zealand, and eulogistic speeches were made by Mr. Massey, the Chief Justice (Sir Robert Stout), and Sir John Findlay. In his reply Bell emphasized the opinion he was often to reiterate in later years—namely, that New Zealand being a small country could not with propriety speak with a great voice at International Conferences except where her interests were directly at stake.

It was natural that at this stage in the League's history he spoke of it with enthusiasm as "one of the greatest forces that the nations have ever managed to constitute," and he described some of its successful achievements in settling disputes between various nations.

At a later date he became President of the League of Nations Union in New Zealand. But he never succeeded in persuading Mr. Massey to share his ardent belief in the future of the League.

Bell wrote to a colleague in December, 1922:

"Mr. Massey does not agree with me a little bit about it: he still thinks that the League is utterly page 222useless and our expenditure in relation to it wasted. With Mr. Massey I have only taken the argument that we cannot help the expenditure so long as we are a mandatory, and he has seen the force of that."

Some further impressions of Bell's experiences at the meeting of the League in 1926 will be found in a later chapter.