Rebel or Patriot?
This first biography of Ta’isi Olaf Fredrick Nelson (also known as Feleti Nelsoni) is a powerful story which explores the personal life of one man but is also the history of Sãmoa and its place in the world. The biography outlines the long road on Sãmoa’s journey to nationhood.
Patricia O’Brien is a researcher in the School of History at the Australian National University. She has looked at material in archives throughout New Zealand, Australia and Europe, as well as the USA, creating a clear picture of the development and global influences impacting on the islands in the Pacific over several troubled decades. The Sãmoan Mau movement attracted world-wide attention when indigenous peoples demanded independence and Ta’isi Nelson’s family were drawn into campaigning for these causes.
From the early nineteenth century the port of Apia suffered from the influences of foreign missionaries, sailors, whalers, guns and alcohol – all the flotsam of the Pacific were present in the early years of settlement. The impact of nearby convict settlements under Australian control, as well as the news from wars in New Zealand did not help the intertribal unrest in Sãmoa. Pressure was building through German, Anglo, French and American designs on the islands of the area. Foreign influences increased as the islands were caught up in the expanding network of commercial trade from these countries. As the whale oil trade declined the value of coconut oil increased. Copra became an important commodity as early as 1842 with German traders producing schooners to carry the copra to factories in Europe. Foreign immigrants came in large numbers to capitalise on the profits. These foreign planters acquired land and business thrived.
Ta’isi (Matai Title) Olaf Fredrick Nelson is a central figure in twentieth century Sãmoan history. His grandfather came from Sweden to establish a business in the production of coconut oil and he became embedded in Sãmoan society through intermarriage. Ta’isi’s all-encompassing causes were his love of family and his great love of his indigenous country Sãmoa. From this mixed descent, he was classed as “white” in the divisions of the German administration whose planter politics took over his life. The divisions in colonial society were outlined by race: being born of the white race as opposed to the ranks of non-European colonised peoples. Discrimination occurred as the German jurisdiction completely ignored indigenous law and customs.
TAUTAI (the Navigator) tells of one man’s fight for justice and universal democracy against colonial mantras which held the view that indigenous peoples were in-capable of self-government. Ta’isi was a popular, very rich business man who had stature across all Sãmoan communities. His linguistic skills (both English and Sãmoan) were elegant. His letter writing was a constant thorn for international authorities as he raised matters reflecting injustice within Sãmoa itself. The authorities eventually sent him into exile and destroyed his business.
Unlike Hawai’ian society, there was no single dominant leader in Sãmoan society: instead two rival groups created a triangle of power with foreign administration. There was an uneasy peace but small uprisings occurred until 1899 and a Convention was signed in Washington D.C. to partition Sãmoa for Germany and the United States. Germany eventually annexed the western islands in 1900.
This new German Colonial administration created hardship and tension for the native Sãmoans. The authorities gave preference to racially pure “white” families and resulting discontent gave rise to activists when the ruling class of planter’s benevolence was rejected. Mixed race men like Ta’isi became activists as a result of the discrimination they experienced, and the injustices they witnessed. It was the practise to banish these activists and although he was far from the first to be sent away Ta’isi was eventually banished by first the German and then later by the New Zealand administrations, accused of sedition. When New Zealand took control of the islands in 1914 (annexed in World War I) it was hoped that the new administration would be more sympathetic to indigenous rights, but this proved to be a false hope. It gradually became clear that New Zealand was not going to give a more progressive form of rule to Sãmoa. Faced with a lack of democratic future a non-violent organisation called Mau developed to protest against those in power. The British Empire was under pressure in many of its colonies because they enforced a form of apartheid in their territories at this time.
O’Brien profiles Ta’isi Nelson from family documents, letters, and researched papers. It seems he had no aim other than to do his best for indigenous Sãmoans under foreign regimes, but he upset the racial ordering of the British Empire and was severely punished for this stance.
Sãmoa gained independence on January 1st 1962, eighteen years after Nelson’s death. Forty years later, in 2002 New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clarke made an apology to the Sãmoan people for the treatment they had suffered under New Zealand’s colonial rule.
I enjoyed reading about the progress to independence of another Pacific Nation through the life of one if its patriots.