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



page 98


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.

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“No,” says the conqueror, “don't assume that because I love action I have had to forget how to think. On the contrary, I can thoroughly define what I believe. For I believe it firmly and I see it surely and clearly”.

(Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

G.S. Richardson was born in England, of an undistinguished family, in 1869. After entering the commercial life and disliking it, he enlisted in the artillery at Woolwich in 1887, at the age of eighteen. He served as a gunner for four years, and was promoted to the rank of Master Gunner in 1891. After a gunnery course in Shoe buryness, he was loaned to New Zealand forces as a gunnery instructor. His initial term was for three years, but, because he was outstanding in his work, he was retained.

In 1907, he retired from the Imperial Forces, and was gazetted as a Captain in the New Zealand Defence Force, with the title, Director of Artillery. In 1912, while still Director of Artillery, he attended Camberle Staff College, England, where he graduated with distinction, acquiring the rank of major.

Just before the beginning of the First World War, he was appointed New Zealand representative at the War Office. And, shortly after the start of the War, he helped to organise a force of 25,000 men for the defence of Antwerp. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. As quarter-master general of the Naval Division, he served in Gallipoli; and in, 1916, was made Brigadier General. Shortly after, in 1917, he was put in command of the New Zealand forces in England. As commanding officer, his duties were mainly administrative. He proved a brilliant organiser, winning the praise both of New Zealand and England. Even when holding this high military post, page 106 he was reputed to have never lost touch with the rank and file, the individual soldier.

After the War, he was made General Officer in Charge of Administration at the New Zealand Army Headquarters, Wellington. Where he was a prominent member of the Returned Servicemen's Association.92

Like Nelson, therefore, Richardson was a self-made man. Successful, energetic, and confident. Whereas Nelson had made his mark in the business world, Richardson had reached the peak of the military ladder. Both were extremely proud men. Would take personal affrontery and insult perhaps too far.

Nelson had amassed a fortune; Richardson had collected military honours and decorations.93

Unlike Nelson, Richardson was not a widely-read man; his correspondence does not reveal any depth of learning. He also lacked insight into individual people. But he possessed a pleasing personality; he was friendly, kind, and well-meaning. New Zealand appointed this man as its second Civil Administrator to Western Samoa. The dangers of appointing such a man escaped the notice of the government. Success, with Richardson, had tended to breed intolerance, arrogance, and self-satisfaction. Nearly all his life had been spent in the army; and, as a military commander, he had become used to expecting unquestioning obedience from his subordinates, and prompt responses to page 107 his commands. In the army, he had ruled alone, whereas as an administrator he would have to rule with others. These characteristics were hardly ideal for an administrator of Samoans. Yet he was transferred, without special training, from the Army to control and administer a territory well-known for the intricacy of its affairs.

In the army, Richardson had lived in a world of order and discipline; a world where each man knew his place, where order was a supreme virtue; a machine with its various parts fitting exactly into each other. He tended, therefore, to look upon any semblance of disorder as a waste, a crime, a sin, if you like. Any individual, who dared to disturb the smooth functioning of the machine, was promptly dealt with. As an administrator, therefore, he was prone to the habit of viewing any society as a systemmatic whole with its parts neatly dovetailed into each other. If such a society was a model of order, he thought it healthy, wholesome, pleasant to behold. But a society, we must remember, does not exist for the benefit of an administrator. It exists to bring a tolerable if not happy life to the people who compose it.

Richardson was also influenced, to a marked degree, by the prevailing attitudes and ideas regarding colonies and colonial peoples. Developed nations, so the League dictated, existed to help unenlightened peoples achieve social and economic fulfilment. The Mandatory Power knew best; it must guide its childlike wards toward self-government, gradually. Such attitudes inferred that the Mandatory power was superior to its wards. And, immediately, attitudes of benevolent paternalism became the basis of the policies of the mandatory power. There can be no doubt that Richardson, as an administrator, was a paternalist. But, unlike experienced adminis- page 108 trators such as Lord Lugard of Nigeria, Richardson sadly lacked the knowledge of Samoans and the finesse and sophistication vital to the implementation of New Zealand's paternalistic policy. Richardson was well-meaning but naive; he attempted to govern the Samoans according to his own ideas of what was right and desirable. This was one of his major weaknesses as an administrator.

His other major weakness was connected to his devout belief in exacting order. When he looked at Samoan society, he saw great human and economic waste. And disorder. Nothing seemed to fit into place. Very little coincided with his preconceived ideas of what an orderly society should be. However, he believed that all that Samoan society needed to put it right was reform, radical reform if necessary. With very little knowledge of Samoan society, how was he to know that perhaps behind this outward display of disorder, the people, in their own way, were contented; that the Samoans did not want to be hurried into the twentieth century. But, being the dynamic reformer that he was, Richardson saw no major obstacles, or when he recognised obstacles, he believed that they could be overcome, given time, given more concerted effort and persuasion. Like Nelson, Richardson had never failed in anything he had attempted.

Richardson was also a victim of the racialist myths concerning the Samoans and European residents.94 He was also directly responsible for perpetuating these myths at the official level. With his thinking, - in relation to these recial groups, - dominated and motivated by these prejudices, he remained blind to the true nature of the Mau.

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At the beginning of his Administration, he held Nelson in high regard. But when the Mau agitation began, Richardson reverted to the argument that Nelson, being a ‘half-caste’, was responsible for the growing sedition; Europeans had been responsible, in the past, for the political troubles in Samoa, now it could only be them inciting trouble again. Richardson insisted, that once the Samoans were freed, - by New Zealand government, - of their ‘evil’ European ringleaders, the Samoans would again pursue the objectives of the Mandate. ‘It is an old game in Samoa to stir up the Natives but I have taken up a strong stand and consequently must stand the fire and slander fired against me by liars and unscrupulous persons’… ‘Natives here will not cause trouble but a percentage of them have been influenced by Nelson to give him their support in his bid for Power and Prestige in their eyes.’95

In relation to the Samoans, Richardson never really knew what their real aspirations were because he tended to treat them as children, as a ‘backward race’. For instance, his favourite punishment of minor political offenders (even high ranking matai) was to summon them to his office, where he castigated them, verbally; after which he exacted a promise of good behaviour in the future. Even the members of the Fono of Faipule, in whom he put so much faith, could never really discuss matters with Richardson, as equals. To Richardson, the Fono was, above all else, the training ground for future Samoan leaders. He did not trust the intelligence and judgement of the Fono members. He claimed that the official members of the Legislative Council were promoting and safeguarding Samoan interests; there was no need for Samoan representation on the Council, therefore. So, viewing page 110 the Samoans as children, he concluded that they were being led astray by unscrupulous men.

Given his instructions by his superiors, namely the New Zealand government, Richardson interpreted them in his own way, and implemented them to the best of his ability. He achieved a great degree of success in the spheres of health, education and economic development. He displayed tremendous drive, initiative and forceful leadership. Yet he remained blind to the true aspirations of the people he was trying to reform. The system of civil administration, established by New Zealand, allowed him too much power, too much freedom of action. The system, so the Mau argued, permitted Richardson to become the ‘military martinet’96 he had been in the army. The paternalistic policies he was expected, by his government, to implement also emphasised and encouraged his weaknesses; turned his very strengths, as a man, into glaring faults in the eyes of his critics. The subordinate officials, in Richardson's Administration, did not help his popularity in any way. In fact, they were responsible for a large measure of the unpopularity attached to the Administration.

When the Mau cast him as the villain in the drama, Richardson took it as a personal insult. And, like Nelson, he fought, - till his death in 1938, - to clear his name and reputation. He held Nelson personally responsible for the attack on his character. Two men so alike yet so far apart.

In 1926, Richardson wrote: ‘Here [Samoa] pebbles on the beach are magnified into Mt. Everests but distance will reduce them to their natural dimensions’.97 Time has reduced the Mau and the troubles associated with it to their ‘natural dimensions’. And historians are left with the pebbles out of which to create ‘scholarly’ Everests.