The Samoan archipelago, located in the southwest of the Pacific Ocean, is comprised of six main islands and several smaller ones. Prior to World War I, Germany and the United States occupied most of the Samoan Islands. During WWI, New Zealand, upon a request by Britain, captured German Samoa and established the British Military Occupation of Samoa. An influenza pandemic in November 1918 killed about 22% of the Samoan population. The administration’s lack of response to the disaster became the foundation for Samoans grievances against the New Zealand administration.
By 1920, New Zealand had instituted a colonial administration in Samoa. New Zealand appointed administrators from military backgrounds that tended to take autocratic approaches to government. They lacked experience of Pacific Island cultures and were unsympathetic toward Samoan customs. Samoans initially had no role in government and did not secure legal representation until years after. By 1926, anti-New Zealand sentiment was strong throughout Samoa.
In 1926, Olaf Nelson, a prominent ‘half-caste’ (multiracial person with European and Samoan heritage) and Samoa’s most wealthy person, visited New Zealand to lobby on the issue of increased Samoan self-rule. During his visit, the Minister for External Affairs promised to visit Samoa to investigate. When the Minister failed to fulfill his promise, Nelson organized two public meetings in Apia that resulted in the formation of the League of Samoa.
In March 1927, the League of Samoa was officially established. It became known as O le Mau a Samoa (The Firm Opinion of Samoa), or the Mau. Their slogan, Samoa Mo Samoa (Samoa for Samoans) dreamed of a Samoa without New Zealand occupation. Support for the Mau grew quickly. The Samoan Guardian was established to promote direct opposition to pro-government newspapers. Mau leadership came under the country’s chiefly elite. A woman’s branch formed to support the national organization through leadership as well as taking part in marches. Mau supporters wore a traditional uniform colored navy blue with a white stripe to show solidarity.
Later in 1927, Major-General George Richardson issued a proclamation ordering the Mau to disband and threatening to deport non-Samoans who supported the Mau. Ethnic Samoans assumed a greater role in the Mau movement, as Europeans were less willing to hold public roles.
The Mau then began a multifaceted resistance campaign. District councils, village committees, and women’s welfare committees established by the administration halted their regular meetings and formed their own Mau ‘police force’. Villages ignored visiting officials and withdrew children from government schools. Workers engaged in acts of noncooperation in coconut and banana plantations. Instead of paying taxes, Samoans contributed money to the Mau.
In September 1927, New Zealand appointed a Royal Commission to hear grievances against its colonial administration. After hearing hundreds of witnesses, the Commission reported in support of the administration’s actions and policies. Early the next year, important European and ‘half-caste’ Mau supporters were deported to New Zealand, including Olaf Nelson. Nelson continued resistance in New Zealand, petitioning the New Zealand government and later receiving support from the New Zealand Labour Party. In 1928, he published ‘The Truth About Samoa.’ The Samoa Guardian newspaper, banned in Samoa at this point, was re-established as the New Zealand Samoa Guardian.
The same year, Nelson presented a petition with 8,000 Samoan signatures to the League of Nations in Geneva outlining Samoan grievances. The Permanent Mandates Commission denied Nelson a hearing.
Meanwhile in Samoa, the Mau were intensifying their campaign. In January 1928, Mau ‘policemen’ helped enforce a boycott of European stores in the city of Apia. The Mau ‘policemen’ were congenial and were known to fraternize with the police of the administration. In response the administration requested for New Zealand based Royal Navy warships to be sent to Samoa. Marines from the ships enforced laws prohibiting Mau activities and made arrests.
The Mau continued their resistance. After the arrest of 400 Mau filled jails to their maximum capacity, hundreds more turned themselves in voluntarily. Richardson was forced to release the prisoners. Humiliated by the experience, Administrator Richardson left Samoa in April 1928.
The new Administrator, Colonel Stephen Allen, believed the Mau could be crushed through strong police force and he began targeting Mau leaders. There were two violent confrontations between the Police and the Mau in 1928. One resulted in the arrest and six-month detention of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, a high chief of Samoa and a leader of the Mau.
On the morning of December 28, 1929, Mau supporters, led by High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi, held a uniformed march into Apia from their villages. They were gathering to welcome two Mau members who were returning from exile. As the march neared the courthouse, New Zealand police attempted to arrest the Mau secretary. Mau marchers resisted the arrest, beating the police and forcing them to retreat to the police station. During the retreat, a New Zealand Constable was overtaken and beaten to death by Mau supporters. As the marchers approached the station, police fired a Lewis machine gun over their heads. Three policemen on the ground panicked and fired rifles into the crowd. Up to 30 Samoans were wounded and up to 11 died, including Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. As he lay dying, Lealofi’s last words were, “My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.” The day is known as ‘Black Saturday.’
Chief Justice John Luxford later ruled that the police’s use of firearms was justified, which outraged many Samoans. After ‘Black Saturday’, the New Zealand administration adopted aggressive measures to ensure the collapse of the Mau. On January 13, 1930, the Mau refused to surrender its headquarters. Administrator Stephen Allen declared the organization ‘seditious’ and the wearing of the Mau uniform illegal.
Up to 1,500 Mau men fled the cities to escape repression. They were followed by marines and military police. Samoans continued to support the Mau, especially women, by supplying food and shelter, and providing reports on New Zealand’s administrative operations. Marines attempted to repress such activities by raiding villages in search of Mau supporters, often at night with fixed bayonets.
The Mau evaded marines and police for two months, but soon started showing signs of fatigue. In March 1930, after the second murder of a Samoan child by the marines, the Mau met with New Zealand’s Minister of Defence and agreed on a truce, on the condition that they be allowed to continue acts of noncooperation.
The following year, Brigadier-General Herbert Hart replaced Allan as Administrator. Men were still being arrested for supporting the Mau, so women continued rallying supporters and staging demonstrations. Support increased after Olaf Nelson returned from exile in 1933, but was quickly repressed with his re-arrest and deportation the following year. Mau support was in decline.
Only after a Labour Party victory in New Zealand’s 1935 election did the Mau become recognized as a legitimate political organization. In June 1936, The Samoan Offenders Ordinance was repealed and Olaf Nelson was allowed to return to Samoa. The Mau immediately held majorities in the legislative assembly.
It would be decades before Samoa would win self-government. ‘Western’ Samoa achieved independence on January 1, 1962. It was the first Pacific Island country to gain its independence. Tupua Tamasese Maeole, son of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, became joint head of state with Malietoa Tanumafili II, the son of New Zealand Administrator George Richardson’s adviser, Malietoa Tanumafili I.