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‘Guardians and Wards’ : (A study of the origins, causes, and the first two years of the Mau in Western Samoa.)


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O. F. Nelson was born at Safune on 24 February, 1883, the son of A. Nelson, a Swedish immigrant who had led an extremely colourful and adventurous life since the age of fifteen. A. Nelson had left home to be a sailor for seven years before taking up goldmining in New Zealand. After participating in the Hokitika gold-rush (and not striking it rich,) he went digging in Australia. Again with little luck. So he decided to make his fortune in copra.

Early in 1868, he left Sydney for Samoa, arriving in the islands in March. He soon entered into a trading partnership with a Mr F. Cornwall at Falelatai and Gagaemalae (Savaii). The two men built two schooners, but these were wrecked soon after. Cornwall began speculating in Samoan land, while Nelson continued to trade in Savaii on the southern coast. In 1878, he shifted to Safune on the northern coast. Here, he married a woman of that village. He remained in Safune until 1903 when he retired to Apia where he died on 29 May, 1909.

At the age of thirteen, O.F. Nelson served a four-year apprenticeship in the office and store of D.H. & P.G. in Apia. In 1900, at the age of seventeen, he entered his father's service at Safune, Savaii, finding that the business was limited to a store at Safune, property at Matafele (Apia) and some money tied up with the Australian Joint Stock Bank.

At first, his father, - a highly stubborn and independent man, - did not place much confidence in him. But, when O.F. Nelson succeeded in page 99 collecting old debts, he won his father's confidence.

In 1902, O.F. Nelson began introducing modern trading methods into the business. In 1904, he purchased a cutter, named the ‘Lily’, and used it to ship copra to Apia to be sold to the highest bidder, and not to the D.H. & P.G. Firm as was the previous practice. The firm made its first independent and direct shipment of copra to Australia in April 1906, when O.F. Nelson went to Sydney with 23 tons.

When his father retired in 1903, O.F. Nelson was free to expand the business as much as he could. This he did energetically, successfully, and with a natural flare for business. Trading stations were opened, one after another, along the west coast of Savaii. In 1906, a store was opened in Apia; this was enlarged in 1909, and became the headquarters of the firm. In 1907, O.F. Nelson became a full partner of the firm.

By 1909 and his father's death, the small store at Safune had been converted into a large distributing centre supplying five trading stations. On the southern coast of Savaii, a new branch, supplying two trading stations, had been established. A trading station had also been opened at Aleipata, eastern Upolu.

O.F. Nelson and Co. Ltd., by 1918, controlled and owned, besides the main premises in Apia, two distributing branches in Savaii and twenty trading stations throughout Western Samoa.85 By 1928, the Company owned over forty trading stations representing, according to Nelson, an investment of between £50,000 and £60,000. The whole trading business had a laid up capital of £150,000.86

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Hence by the age of about thirty-five, O.F. Nelson had become one of the richest and most influential members of the Apia community. Largely self-taught, self-made, imaginative, daring, and, at times, tenaciously stubborn, he had, - through his own natural ability, - forged a secure position within the European community. At the same time, with his matai title, Taisi, and his Samoan connections on his mother's side, he was influential in Samoan affairs. He spoke and wrote fluent English and Samoan. He was highly conversant with Samoan history, family geneologies, legends, customs and traditions. He was reputed to have had the best private library in the South Seas, collecting books as other wealthy men would collect paintings.

He married one of the daughters of H.J. Moors, an adventurous American who had participated in the political turmoil of the pre-partition days, and had settled in Samoa as a trader and planter.

Shortly after the First World War, Nelson built, at Tuaefu, what one correspondent called, ‘a palace’.87 The building, in shear size alone, rivalled the Administrator's Vailima residence. Enormous gardens, driveways, a tennis court, merry-go-rounds and swings, and a private chapel. All neatly laid out like the country home of some wealthy member of the English gentry: this was the style of life, the atmosphere of Tuaefu. Spacious wealth and courtly existence. ‘Here he gave parties to Europeans, halfcastes, ……, and full-blooded Samoans’.88 Lavish entertainment. Fullscale hospitality which did not discriminate between races.

Nelson's climb to wealth and power seemed to prove, to many, that the American dream of ‘rags to riches’, from log-house to mansion, could come page 101 true in a tiny group of islands. It also led others to claim that Nelson's wealth had been acquired through unfair dealings and exploitation.

Nelson was a staunch Methodist. A man, who had had little formal education, he wanted his children to have the best education money could buy. He sent all his daughters to a strict Methodist boarding school in Australia. Each girl had to acquire the European social graces as well as a western-type education.

His very drive for wealth and acceptance as a cultured European aroused the envy of his pure-blooded counterparts, especially the officials, who, because Nelson was of mixed-blood, were quick to brand him as an upstart ‘half-caste’. Nelson had achieved their dreams of wealth and culture, had disproved their view of the part-Europeans as being ‘the dregs of civilisation’.

The Germans had accepted him as an equal. The New Zealanders, by carrying out a policy of discrimination against the part-Europeans, alienated the support of this proud and powerful man. Insulted at every turn even by minor expatriate officials, Nelson turned against the Administration. Branded as an intriguer and exploiter, he drifted towards his Samoan connections, becoming the acknowledged patron both of the discontented elements within the Samoan group and the European community. He had the wealth, the status, and the knowledge of European and Samoan politics. His patronage rivalled even that of the Administrator's.

He was used to the reigns of command. Aloof yet approachable even to his minor employees. A strict disciplinarian, but a just and fair employer.89 A genius at organisation. Farsighted. A man with the morals of a Victorian, page 102 practising a strict yet not over-severe type of Methodism. Would take personal insult perhaps too far. A believer in the virtues of hard-work and the right of every man to make his own.

Did Nelson use the Samoans for his own ends? as New Zealand, Richardson and some historians have argued. If so, what were Nelson's ends? Some argued (some still do) that he wanted, as Nixon Westwood has put it so crudely, ‘to become kingpin of the Samoans’. Others, that he wanted to keep the Administration out of the copra trade. Others, that he wanted to make money off the Samoans.90 The Administration accused him of starting the unrest to suit his own commercial interest. Unrest, so Nelson argued before the Commission, in 1927, ‘is opposed to my own ordinary interests. Dissatisfaction amongst the Samoans must be detrimental to the interests of the traders and merchants.’

According to his lawyer, Nelson spent £200,000 of his own money on the Mau. His business, near the end of the Mau, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had to sell his overseas-agencies in order to save the firm. Was this all to make money off the Samoans; was he serving his own commercial ends? No, it will not do to claim that Nelson ‘used the Samoans’.

Nelson had considerable status in Samoan affairs not only because he was a leading business-man and the first elected Member of the Legislative Council, but because he was connected to the Satupua family and had the title, Taisi. The main cause of his actions can be found in the Administration's continued refusal to allow local Europeans to consider Samoan affairs in, the Administration's policy of racial discrimination.

Another cause, which has not been mentioned by any historian perhaps page 103 because it might have seemed irrelevant, was the 1918 Epidemic. Nelson's anti-administration attitudes may have been deeply affected by fact that he lost his mother, his only brother, one sister, and other relatives in the Epidemic. His only son died of colitis nine months after suffering the effects of the epidemic.

Did Nelson plan the whole Mau? as many have argued. Definitely, no. The Mau grew out of the discontent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nelson made Samoan grievances vocal, gave them constitutional outlets and legal dress; in fact, the Europeans interpreted these grievances for the Samoans. Nelson was not an ‘evil genius’. After the Mau began, it grew bigger and more powerful each time the New Zealand government refused its demands. Nelson became a victim of the Mau, partly. Even if he had wanted to put an end to the movement, he would have found it impossible. The Citizens' Committee triggered off a series of events and circumstances out of which Nelson could not have escaped even if he had desired to do so. The initiative and impetus of the Mau now lay with the Samoans, and, being their leader, he had to pursue their goals. Leaders, after all, are made by their supporters.

Every time Richardson and the New Zealand government branded him, in front of the world, as an unscrupulous intriguer, Nelson became more adamant in his attempts to clear his name. This accounts partly for the almost fanatical way with which he participated in the Mau even when the other Europeans had faded from the scene, partly explains why he endured exile and imprisonment, without advocating violent, means of attaining Mau objectives; accounts for the numerous and costly appearances he made in front of organisations, such as the League of Nations and the New Zealand parliament. page 104 He had never failed in any sphere of endeavour, he could not fail now. His name, his honour, all that he believed he stood for, were at stake. He had to win. Such is the nature of proud men.

Nelson was sincere and genuine in his leadership of and participation in the Mau. The achievement of self-government became, for him, almost a crusade, and partly a personal battle to clear his name. He had chosen a course of action out of which he could not have freed himself, even if his conscience had permitted him to do so.

As a man he had flaws, as all men have flaws; as a leader he had faults, as all leaders have faults. Time and people make myths out of the dead (and the living), whether they be heroic myths or degrading ones. Men cannot do without heroes and villains. In the final analysis, however, a man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. And we will never know what Nelson may have kept to himself. The best we can do is examine. And guess.