Humans of Sogi: Mala Pasi Tavita

By Meleisea Leasiolagi 18 September 2016, 12:00AM

The following is a Chapter from the work of Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea in 1976 when he carried out research of the dissertation on labour recruiting for Samoa’s German plantations while he was a student at the Australian National University (A.N.U) in Canberra. In light of the ongoing debate about Sogi. Today, we are featuring the the story of Mala Pasi Tavita:


Mala comes from the Nakanai area of West New Britain but does not remember the name of his village. In 1956 Valentine collected a number of accounts from people in West Nakanai villages regarding early European contacts and labour recruiting. In these accounts there is general agreement that while many ships had been sighted, the first ship to anchor in their area was “a ship with three masts from Samoa”. The ship was seeking recruits to work on the plantations, and some information said that recruits were forced to sign on. The visit of this recruiting ship must have been in the very early part of this century or even in the late nineteenth century since it preceded official German contact in the area. However, I have no way of establishing a precise chronology. 

Charles A Valentine collected the testimony of one man who had actually been to Samoa, Bubu of Valoka village West Nakanai. Valentine says he was the only surviving person in the area who had been to Samoa. Bubu claims that the ship which recruited him was the only one to come to his area. He does not explain how he was repatriated. If his account is accurate then Mala must come from a different part of Nakanai since I estimate the year of his recruitment to have been 1911. Mala says the New Zealand expeditionary forces arrived in Samoa at about the time his contract was due to terminate. He also claims to have seen people from Sale’aula village being resettled at Leauva’a village on Upolu after their homes had been destroyed by the Savaii volcano which lasted from 1905 to 1911. Mala says that the Germans used plantation workers to distribute emergency food supplies to the refugees. It is possible then that Mala arrived earlier in Samoa, sometimes between 1905 and 1911.

Mala says he joined the recruiting boat because he thought it would be an adventure. He had heard of other men who had been to Samoa and returned with boxes of valuables and he said that his area had had little contact with the outside world and that he was very curious to learn more about it. He thinks he was about fifteen or sixteen years old when he left. He did not ask his parents’ or elders’ permission, but went down to meet the recruiters with a friend and asked one of the Buka ship hands to hide him and his friend on board while the recruiting negotiations were being held ashore. Mala said that he heard from later recruits from his village that his parents just shook their heads when they discovered his absence. 

Mala enjoyed the trip to Samoa. He remembers they were served rice and tinned meat which he liked very much as well as familiar foods such as yams, bananas and sweet potato. “We thought that at any moment he would take one of us on his lap and stroke him the way we do to piglets”.

Communications created problems between the recruits themselves and also between them and the white officers of the ship. The recruits tended only to talk with those of the same language as themselves and Mala says when the captain tried to talk to them the recruits would laugh loudly even though they could not understand him. The captain was Danish and he had a Samoan wife. Mala recalls Mala made his contract by the simple means of telling the captain his name, who then wrote it in a book. An explanation of terms was not made. Mala said this was not necessary since they knew what to expect from the returned recruits at least as far as the duration of their stay in Samoa and the box of cargo at the end was concerned. Each recruit was then issued with a cup, plate, spoon and a waist cloth for the voyage. 

The first stop was at Mioko where medical inspections were carried out by German authorities and supplies were taken on board for the voyage to Samoa. Mala recalls several recruits were left behind because they were declared unfit. He does not know whether these boys stayed at Mioko or were sent home again. Mala engaged in a rambling discussion about the relative speed of a ship powered by an engine as against one powered by sail but it was still not clear how long he thought the voyage took. The voyage was a fine holiday, but he says the work began immediately after arriving in Apia harbor. 

“We were lined up on the wharf and after the routine check we were divided into groups and sent off to work. My group went to Mulifanua, the biggest plantation and the furthest from Apia. On our way we saw many Samoan houses and villages but once we had arrived at the plantation we saw very little of Samoa. We were not allowed to befriend any Samoans and they were forbidden to visit the plantations.”

Plantation life and routine was not exactly what Mala had been led to expect by the recruits returned to Nakanai before he left. That Mala was disillusioned is hardly surprising, if we refer to the account given to Valentine by Bubu of Valoka who claimed that labourers were given liquor and were allowed to mix with Samoans. Mala said philosophically “once we were here we had to put up with it”.

The men were housed in long tin roofed dormitories with concrete floors and timber walls, each partitioned into small rooms big enough for two or three people. Mala shared a room with one of his wantoks (a man who spoke the same language as himself) which helped a lot during the period of loneliness so common among the new arrivals to the plantation. Communication with others increased as the new recruits learnt to speak pidgin. This was the main language of communication on the plantations and it was used by the Germans to give orders and to talk to the workers. 

Mala found difficulty in adapting to the highly regimented life. Work was supposed to start at seven in the morning and continued until five in the afternoon, with an hour’s break at mid-day. Mala wonders if it was really seven o’clock that they started. Towards the end of the year in Samoa, the sun rises earlier, and he thought it was possible that at this time of the year they started work earlier before the sun grew hot. If this was the case, Mala said, he does not think that they finished earlier to compensate for overtime. 

A “boss boy” was in charge of every work gang. His job was to make sure that there was no unnecessary loafing during working hours. 

As well, a white overseer checked their work every hour or so. Discipline was very harsh. To quote Mala, “Disobedient boys were flogged with a horse or cattle whip. If a boy was very difficult the manager locked him up in one of the small houses on the plantation built especially for this purpose. 

The offender would be sent to work during the day and after his evening meal he would be locked up by himself in one of these little houses all night without a light”. Mala recalls that one man was brought to Mulifanua from another plantation to undergo this punishment. 

“The idea was to separate him from his friends but his did not work because he started making friends the first day he joined one of our working groups”. Mala accepted that it was necessary to punish disobedience and force labourers to work hard, from the German point of view but he thought these punishments were too severe. 

Cooking was done by details of men who were given time off from plantation work for the task. The food was very good. Mala remembers, especially the abundant supply of fresh and tinned meat. At Mulifanua plantation, taro, yams and bananas were bought by the company from Samoan growers. Mala said nostalgically, “there was a lot of wasted food”. Generally the boys were not great eaters and when we sat down for an evening meal we drank a lot of tea but ate only a small amount of food. Leftovers were given to the pigs. We used to dress up like Europeans in trousers, shoes and socks. Nowadays food is scarce and I only throw away a lavalava when it is too torn to be mended even with a sewing machine. 

Generally, Mala says that he enjoyed his highest material standard of living under the Germans and the first decade of New Zealand administration. 

Like Likou, Mala says that his repatriation was delayed by a ban on German shipping after the outbreak of the European war in 1914. When the war ended and most of the Melanesians were repatriated, Mala claimed that he wanted to go. But he was told that he had to stay and look after the plantation until more workers were recruited. He received his cargo from the Germans then continued to work for three shillings a day plus rations for a New Zealand management. He continued to hope for repatriation but said it was never mentioned again. Meanwhile life on the plantations became more relaxed and interesting under more benign New Zealand control and with opportunities for outside contacts opening up as Samoan workers began to be employed on the plantations. 

The New Zealanders allowed the tama uli more freedom of movement, enabling social visits between plantations. Each plantation took it in turn to host a big feast on public holidays. On these occasion each Melanesian ethnic group put on dances from their home areas. (Churchward (1887) noted that the Melanesians performed dances on the plantations for European audiences in the 1880s). Of these the Buka boys were the most popular, according to Mala, because “everybody laughed when they danced and their costume, a red lavalava white beads and thoroughly oiled skin, was very highly admired.” For these occasions, the plantation workers raised their own pigs, planted taros, yams and bananas and pooled their money to buy tinned meat and fish and bags of rice and sugar. Large groups of the labourers’ Samoan friends together with their families were invited on these occasions. He said, “this improved our relationship with Samoans because they always took home baskets of food”.

During the May rebellion of the 1920s, Mala found himself in an awkward position. On one hand he secretly sympathized with and contributed money to the Mau while on the other he was among the “black boys” ordered by the New Zealand authorities to hunt down Samoan Mau leaders hiding in the bush. Mala said, “I went along even though we boys supported the Mau, but the New Zealanders did not know this. We found some Samoans but most knew their way around in the bush better than we did”.

Mala began living with his Samoan common-law wife sometime in the 1920s. She, Fualaau had four children from an earlier relationship with a Melanesia who had died of illness. Mala adopted these children by registering them in his own name. Of these adopted children, the oldest girl married a Samoan and lives with him at Vaiusu with their five children. Their second eldest, a son, works as a truck driver for a brick factory. He is married to a Samoan and has eleven children and three grandchildren. Mala’s third adopted son married a Samoan girl and lives in her village of Tuana’i. Her family has given him a matai title, they have nine children. His youngest adopted daughter is married to a Samoan and has seven children and two grandchildren. 

Mala himself had two children with Fuala’au, a son who is living with his Samoan wife and eight children in New Zealand, and a daughter, who is also married but lives at home with Mala and Fualaau and takes care of them. She supports the household which consists of her parents, her seven children and various other relatives on a wage (in 1974) of one dollar and fifty cents a day as a plantation employees. This daughter also receives gifts of food and money from people who consult her as a traditional healer. 

Her skills are thought to be greater because people believe she has knowledge of Melanesian cures and magic not known to other Samoan traditional healers. In addition she has Mala’s pension of ten dollars a month and some help from her Samoan husband who operates a store at his village on Savaii. Mala’s descendants consists of six children, forty seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He considers his large family to be “a blessing from God”.

Mala worked at Mulifanua until the early 1940s at which time he was transferred to the Vailele plantation about three miles from Apia. It was not until he made this move that he became an active member of the church. Mala explains that at Vailele it was clear that Samoans and Melanesians had a different attitude to the way Sunday should be observed. In a Samoan village preparations for Sunday meals are made before dawn so that everyone can go to church and perform no work during the day. But on the plantation, things were different. Those interested in religion such as Mala attended church but the others split into two groups, one preparing vegetables for the Sunday umu (oven) while the others went fishing in the lagoon. The sight of happy laughing and singing tama uli fishing on the reef and of smoke rising from the plantation umu deeply offended the Samoans and according to Mala confirmed the Samoan opinion that Melanesians were uncivilized. 

Some years later Mala changed his place of work again, this time to the Reparation Estates main store at Sogi in Apia. In this job he spent some time working on a copra boat but most of it as a storeman. He and some other Melanesians working at the store were allowed the use of small pieces of the estate land (about an eighth of an acre each) on which to build Samoan-style houses. This land adjoins Sogi village and in order to have good relations with his Samoan neighbours who were predominantly members of the L.M.S church, he joined their congregation at Vailele he had been a Catholic. 

In the mid 1960s Mala, retired. He depends on his children particularly his youngest daughter for care and support since his pension of ten dollars a month is not enough to buy food for his wife and himself. His son in New Zealand sends him money and like many Samoans he listens eagerly to the radio awaiting news of cash remittances to be collected by the families of people working in New Zealand. 

He and his wife live in a small community of part, Melanesians, Mala being the oldest and only original Melanesian. They are separated from the main part of Sogi village by a large oil depot. Like the Sogi villagers, this little community of tama uli descendants has no land available to grow food and is entirely dependant on market or store bought provisions or on the generosity of their connections in better-off Samoan villages. 

Nevertheless at the time of my second interview with Mala, he and his family were preparing a large contribution of food for the Sogi village pastor to take to a church conference. It could be said then that Mala’s main means of integration to the Samoan community has been through the church. 

For his years, Mala is still an active man. He visits his children occasionally and he, Likou, Tapusini and Tui used to visit each other. He helps around the house like most elderly Samoan men and jokes about the way men in Samoa do the cooking. “In our society”, he said, “women did most of the plantation work and all the cooking. After I married Fualaau I had to learn to do all the work that Samoan men do”.

By Meleisea Leasiolagi 18 September 2016, 12:00AM

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