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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 15


Influenza first invaded Samoan shores in the early eighteen thirties, and, from that time on, influenza epidemics became almost an annual curse of the Group. The eighteen thirties also saw the blazing introduction of the papalagi Jehovah. Perhaps, to the new Samoan converts, the epidemics were the fearful expression of the wrath of their new God. However, as the century progressed and the people suffered, their accusing attention shifted from Jehovah (as the cause) to the men, who had brought Him. Epidemics were no longer the just punishment meted out by Jehovah for sins committed, but scourges introduced by other men, by foreigners.

The missionary Turner reported an ‘unusually severe and fatal attack’ of influenza in 1837. Another severe outbreak occurred in 1847. Other foreign diseases, such as whooping cough and mumps, first made their presence felt in the late eighteen forties. In 1849, Erskine reported an epidemic of whooping cough, which did not discriminate between men, women and children. A serious mumps epidemic erupted in 1851. These epidemics, coupled with the civil wars between 1848 and 1855, resulted in a marked decrease in population. Existing evidence reveals that no severe epidemics occurred between 1857 and 1890; the civil wars were also less severe during this period. In 1891, however, a ‘great epidemic of Fiva’14 ravaged the Group. Two years later the first measles epidemic struck Samoa. Also, from 1893 to 1899, the rivalry between the Great Powers, and the clashes between the Samoan political page 16 factions decimated the population further.

More epidemics occurred during the German Regime. In 1907, there was a dysentery epidemic; there were also outbreaks of whooping cough and fever among the children in Savaii. The situation in Savaii deteriorated markedly, in 1907, when a violent volcanic eruption destroyed large areas, and forced several villages to migrate to Upolu. In 1911 measles and dysentery claimed 657 lives.15

This whole history of epidemic deseases, introduced into Samoa by the papalagi, culminated in the disastrous Influenza Epidemic of 1918, which destroyed one-fifth of the total population, and utterly confirmed the Samoan belief that the papalagi was the cause of these epidemics.

In the early nineteenth century when the Samoans were not familiar with the papalagi and the scientific causes of epidemics, Jehovah was cited as the cause of such epidemics. However, as the people, and more important the chiefly elite, became familiar with their real causes, the discontent caused by epidemics (amongst other things) drastically altered the way they viewed the papalagi. After the 1918 Epidemic, the Samoans, especially the more europeanised ones, did not hesitate from blaming the papalagi for causing the epidemics. The fear of epidemics was widespread, and any rumours about them quickly fanned anti-papalagi feeling amongst the population.

There was considerable unrest among the people during the Military Period and the early part of Tate's Administration. One of the main causes of this unrest was the 1918 Epidemic. In 1919 The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Epidemic concluded that there had been no epidemic of pneumonic influenza in Western Samoa before the arrival of the ‘Tahune’ page 17 from Auckland on the 7th November, 1918; that within seven days of this ship's arrival pneumonic influenza had become epidemic in Upolu and had then spread rapidly throughout the rest of the territory.16 Articulate Samoans and influential Europeans (such as Nelson, whose mother and sister died because of the epidemic) circulated the findings of the Commission amongst the population. Strictly-enforced, precautionary regulations in American Samoa had saved that territory from this Epidemic.

When General Robin, the Acting Administrator, arrived in 1920, he found a discontented people, especially in and around Apia, and particularly among the European residents. Robin did not cite the Epidemic as one of the causes of this discontent.17 Tate, however, did so in his correspondence with the New Zealand Government. In January 1921, an orator of Faleapuna in a speech to Tate, said: ‘the native population was depleted on account of epidemics through the fault of the New Zealand Governors and yet no respect is shown for the Samoans’. This discontent was not confined to and around Apia.18 A report to Tate from the Resident Commissioner at Aleipata (Eastern Upolu) revealed that discontent, relating to the 1918 Epidemic, had been widespread there since 1918.19

The unrest during Tate's term, however, was not caused solely by the Epidemic. But it was one of the root causes of this unrest.

page 18

‘When I arrived in 1919, the Natives had just suffered severe losses from the Influenza Epidemic and they were deeply incensed with what they believed was the mismanagement and carelessness of New Zealand in not protecting them from such a visitation’.20

The deeprooted, historical discontent - associated with foreign-introduced diseases - was truly one of the origins of the Mau of the nineteen twenties.