Samoa for the Samoans

Samoa won independence from New Zealand through a concerted campaign of non-violent resistance. The Mau movement used a wide range of clever tactics, including boycotts, beetle-breeding, and surrendering en masse – and it worked.

Women's Mau leaders
Alfred John Tattersall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After the end of World War I, Samoa was under civil administration from New Zealand. The Mau movement had begun under German rule some years before, but it was galvanised by the 1918 Influenza epidemic.

Western Samoa had been one of only a few places to be unaffected by the disease, mainly because of a strict quarantine system. In November 1918 though, New Zealand administrators allowed the SS Talune to dock without going through quarantine. The flu followed, and fully one fifth of the population of Samoa died as a result.

The Mau movement took off, drawing much of its strength from the existing family and chiefly connections on the islands, and began pushing back against the colonial administrators.

Copra was big business at the time, and all Samoans were required to capture the rhinocerous beetle pest that threatened the crops. There was even a quota to that effect. So Samoans began to breed the beetle to fulfil the quota. They also boycotted imports and didn’t pay taxes.

My favourite event was this: the colonial administrator sent in the troops to quell the unrest. They arrested four hundred Samoans… but then hundreds more turned themselves in, too many for the jails to hold. The administrator tried to pardon them, but they insisted that they have their day in court. Samoans were jailed in cells with only three walls (I guess, trusting them not to leave given that they had surrendered). It was a complete debacle.

Violence did eventually arrive: the colonial forces turned a machine-gun on a peaceful protest, killing the leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III and others. He was shot in the back while calling for peace, and many of the men retreated for the hills. The women of Samoa took up the cause as well, with parades and protests and more non-violent resistance. As a result of all these efforts Samoa gained independence in 1962.

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