Olive Nelson, a pioneering Samoan woman

By Romeo Tevaga 27 July 2018, 12:00AM

The University of Auckland* celebrates Olive Virginia Malienafau Nelson, who was not just the first Samoan graduate of the University, but its first Pacific graduate, and one of its first women graduates. 

An exceptionally bright student, Olive passed her Law Entrance exams with distinction in 1931 and was awarded the Buttersworth Prize for the highest marks in her jurisprudence class. 

She graduated in April 1936 with a Bachelor of Laws and was later admitted to the Supreme Court of New Zealand as a barrister and solicitor.

Born in Samoa, Olive was the second daughter of prominent Swedish Samoan businessman Ta’isi Olaf Nelson and Rosabel Moors. Olive and her five sisters had a privileged upbringing, and lived in the famous family estate in Tuaefu, which is now the residence of Olive’s nephew and former Head of State, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi.  

However their father’s political leadership, particularly his work with the Mau came at a great personal cost to their family life and business. Ta’isi was targeted by the New Zealand Colonial administration in Samoa and forced into exile in New Zealand. Much of Olive’s early life was spent accompanying her father to Sydney and eventually Auckland where she and her siblings attended school, while her mother remained in Samoa. 

New Zealand’s rule in Samoa was marked by many costly blunders including its failure to prevent the 1918 Influenza outbreak which killed a fifth of Samoans.

During her years in university, Olive visited her father while he was in prison in Auckland and assisted her father’s lawyer in preparing the legal documents. When he was released on bail he lived in Remuera and later Takapuna with he, his girls and other family members. 

Ta’isi’s exile was later ended after the Labour Party won a landslide victory in the 1935 Elections, bringing more positive relations with the Mau. Around that time, Olive had successfully completed her studies and went with her father to return to Samoa in 1936, becoming Samoa’s first female barrister and solicitor. In 1938, Olive accompanied her father to Wellington but this time alongside a delegation that included the future co-Head of State, Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole, and acted as their legal adviser on the special mission, preparing documents to present to the New Zealand Prime Minister.

A remarkable pioneer, Olive was only the second woman to ever be admitted as a barrister in New Zealand. She was consequently not only a Samoan, and Pacific pioneer, but a pioneering woman:  excelling in a world predominantly monocultural and male.

Upon the death of her father, Olive wrote to the New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, Peter Fraser, asking for the forgiveness of her father’s tax debts and death duties. Her arguments succeeded in getting a more favourable re-evaluation of her father’s estate.

Like her father, Olive was a great servant of Samoa and justice.  She was the last of the daughters to be married and in 1942 she married a Samoan parliamentarian, Frederick Betham, who later became Samoa’s Minister of Finance following Samoan independence in 1962. Together they had two children, Barry and Leone. She was also a well-known hostess in Apia. She passed away in 1970 and is buried in Magiagi Cemetery.


*This article is one of a series marking the relationship between the University of Auckland and Samoa. The University of Auckland is hosting a special function for University of Auckland graduates next week. For further details please see eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.nz/e/samoa-alumni-and-friends-reception-2018-tickets-47200245204

By Romeo Tevaga 27 July 2018, 12:00AM

Trending Stories

Samoa Observer

Upgrade to Premium

Subscribe to
Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy unlimited access to all our articles on any device + free trial to e-Edition. You can cancel anytime.