The biography of Samoa’s freedom fighter, protagonist, patriot and successful entrepreneur, Ta’isi O.F. Nelson, is without a doubt a work of dedication and love.
Titled Tautai, Samoa, World History and the Life of Ta’isi O.F. Nelson, it was researched and written by Patrician O’Brien, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of History, at the Australian National University.
The book’s reach is both use and educational. It tells the story of Samoa’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, and in the middle of it all was one man’s unrelenting determination, to achieve that very goal everyone was aiming for.
And that man was Ta’isi O.F. Nelson, whose father was a white man, and whose mother was a Samoan, who lived with their family in Safune, Savai’i.
The book is clearly a work of dedication and love which, according to its author, had taken several years to complete.
To be sure therefore, this is a remarkable achievement to be proud of, and a rare historical document to learn from; indeed, it is one of those historical documents we’ve all been waiting for.
The book was launched in Apia on Friday. Going through it though, it is clear that Ta’isi O.F. Nelson’s life achievements and the challenges he’d faced along the way, are given the prominence they deserve.
At thirteen, he served a four-year apprenticeship in the office of D.H. & P.G., in Apia. Four years later, he entered his father’s service at Safune, Savaii; he found that the business was limited to a store at Safune, a property at Matafele in 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 collecting old debts, he won his father’s confidence, so that in 1902, O.F. Nelson began introducing modern trading methods into the business.
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 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 it had been previously.
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.
Also in 1906, a store was opened in Apia; in 1907, O.F. Nelson became a full partner of the firm, and in 1909 the Apia store was enlarged, and became the firm’s headquarters.
By his father’s death in the same year, 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.
By 1928, the company owned over forty trading stations representing an investment of between £50,000 and £60,000, the whole trading business had a laid up capital of £150,000.86, and O.F. Nelson was a rich man.
Indeed, at age thirty-five, he 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.
At that point, he was highly conversant with Samoan history, family genealogies, 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.
O.F. Nelson 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’. The building, in sheer 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 members 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, half castes, and full-blooded Samoans’. There were lavish entertainment, and 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 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, he was a strict disciplinarian, but a just and fair employer. A genius at organisation, he was farsighted; a man with the morals of a Victorian, 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 that he wanted, as Nixon Westwood has put it so crudely, ‘to become kingpin of the Samoans’. Others said he wanted to keep the Administration out of the copra trade.
Still others said all he wanted was to make money off the Samoans. The Administration accused him of starting the unrest to suit his own commercial interest.
In response, Nelson argued before the Commission in 1927 that “unrest is opposed to my own ordinary interests. Dissatisfaction amongst the Samoans must be detrimental to the interests of the traders and merchants.”
At the time, Samoa was a German colony. Its name had also been changed to German Samoa. In response, Samoan leaders rose in protest.
They did not want their country to be ruled by any foreign government, so they formed the protest movement, Mau a Pule, to oppose the German occupation of Samoa.
In response, the Germans exiled the movement’s leaders to islands in the Northern Pacific; many of them did not return home.
And so for four years from 1900 Germany had been ruling Samoa, and now as if they were sensing that the end of their reign in the Pacific was drawing near, the German administration in Apia was showing considerable restraint.
That became apparent when Ta’isi O.F. Nelson, who had perennially been a staunch opponent of colonialism in Samoa, was now being treated by the German administrators “as an equal.”
And yet, as one of the wealthiest members of the Apian community, Ta’isi Nelson was so influential among the Samoan and European communities, that he did not care what those colonial rulers thought of him.
All he cared about was his dream that one day Samoa would be totally free of being a victim of colonialism.
And then in 1914 when New Zealand seized control of Samoa from Germany, once again Samoan leaders rose in protest; they made their refusal to be ruled by any foreign government manifestly clear.
What Ta’isi O.F. Nelson might have not expected though was that this time, as the country’s name had been returned to Western Samoa, he would be excluded and alienated by his new colonial masters, the government of New Zealand.
This time Ta’isi Olaf Nelson decided to reactivate the Mau Movement - a nationalist protest group - which aim was to demand Samoan independence from colonial rule, and he himself became its leader.
They made their protest known directly to the New Zealand government in Wellington.
The Mau Movement’s aim was to demand Samoan independence from colonial rule, and he, Ta’isi Olaf Nelson, would be the movement’s leader.
And then on 4 November 1918, problems started.
The steamship Talune arrived from Auckland and docked at the Apia Harbour.
The acting port officer at Apia was unaware that there was a severe epidemic at the ship’s departure point, Auckland. As a result, he allowed passengers ashore, ‘including six seriously ill influenza cases’.
Within a week, influenza had spread throughout the main island of Upolu and to the neighbouring island of Savai’i. Some 8500 people – a staggering one-fifth of the population – died.
Responsibility for the pandemic has been laid firmly at the feet of New Zealand.
At the time, Western Samoa was still occupied by New Zealand forces, that had seized the German colony at the beginning of the First World War.
In addition to not placing the Talune under quarantine, the New Zealand Administrator, Colonel Robert Logan, did not accept from the Governor of American Samoa an offer of assistance, that may have reduced the heavy death toll.
What happened was that the New Zealand officials had failed to quarantine the ship that carried ill passengers into Samoa.
And now that the Mau Movement had been reactivated, Ta’isi Olaf Nelson, as their leader, made their protest known directly to the New Zealand government in Wellington.
That was in 1926. Ta’isi Olaf Nelson petitioned the New Zealand government to allow Samoans freedom to self-govern, and he then published the newspaper, the ‘Samoa Guardian’, to support the movement’s cause.
He was not left alone. In retaliation the New Zealand administration in 1928 punished him by exiling him from Samoa, along with two other Mau leaders.
He would not give up though. He used his time away from home to take his protests all the way to the League of Nations in Geneva, while back in Samoa, the Mau Movement was continuing with its peaceful protests, against the New Zealand administration.
Now led by Samoa’s Head of State, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, they were adopting the method of civil disobedience such as refusing to pay taxes, to get their message across.
And then came “Black Saturday.” It was 28 December 1929.
Tupua Tamasese was leading a peaceful protest march, down Beach Road in Apia to welcome home members of the Mau Movement who had just returned from deportation to Auckland, when violence erupted.
The New Zealand military police had opened fire on the marchers, and when Tupua rushed to the front of the crowd urging his people to remain peaceful, a bullet hit him and he fell. Men who rushed to help him were also shot. Eight were killed and 50 were injured.
Later, as he was dying, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, pleaded for peace to be maintained, saying: “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.”
Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless.
Note: This editorial was written with help from the Internet.