A review of Tautai Samoa, World History and the Life of Ta’isi O.F. Nelson
Dr. Rachel Buchanan
Speech at the launch of Tautai Sāmoa, World
History and the
Life of Ta’isi O.F. Nelson,
by Dr Patricia O’Brien
19 August 2017, T.A.T.T.E Convention Centre, Apia, Sāmoa
I am not Samoan. I am not a historian of Samoa. I do not speak Samoan. I have not been to Samoa before and yet I am not a stranger here.
Samoa is at the centre of my whanau or aiga and these ties are very close and important to me. Likewise, I have professional ties with Samoa through my friend Dr Patricia O’Brien, the author of this important book, Tautai, that we are gathering to celebrate, bless and launch today.
I am honoured to be standing here and want to offer my sincerest thanks and respect to Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi for inviting me to come and speak for this book.
I also pay my respects to your beautiful country, to its sacred places and to the sea that surrounds you and binds us all together in the Pacific.
My name is Rachel Buchanan and I am the author of The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget and that book is one of the reasons I’ve been asked to speak today.
I will explain my relationships with Samoa, briefly, now to let you know who I am and to give a context to my talk and then I will say a few words about Patricia’s work.
Who am I to you? From what position do I speak?
I look like a palagi but I am connected with you in ways that are not immediately obvious. My beloved niece is Tusiata Falema’a Buchanan.
Tusiata’s grandmother is Mele Cowley, from Vaigaga on Upolo. Her grandfather is from Faga Samilu, on Savaii. He is Salimu Falema’a and Tusiata’s father is named Lisale Salimu Falema’a after this village.
The Falema’a family is closely linked with the Scanlans and the Pritchards and I am bound to the Scanlons in another way via my six cousins, the children of Dr
Mary English (nee Scanlon) and my uncle Bill English, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand. Uncle Bill and Aunty Mary recently visited Samoa and Bill received a matai title from the village of Faleula, the place that Mary’s family comes from. I apologise, Uncle Bill, for not giving you your title today. I don’t think I could pronounce it correctly!
My mother Mary English is the first born of 12 English children and her brother Bill, Mary’s husband, is number 10. Brother number 11, Dermot, is also married to a Samoan woman.
So, two of mum’s English brothers families are actually half Samoan! I am the first born of eight children.
As you can see, I have a big family but if I look to the past it is bigger still.
At the start of Lagaga, historian Malama Meleisea writes that: “For Samoans, knowledge is power, and the most powerful knowledge is historical knowledge.”
The same is true for me. I have spent much of my adult life seeking historical knowledge via my family, especially my father’s side of the family.
Through my paternal grandmother, Rawinia Queenie Agnes Buchanan, I whakapapa to Taranaki and Te Ati Awa and so, on a deeper level, to Hawaikinui and the ancient empire and peoples of the Pacific.
The desire to understand whakapapa is a quest I share with my cousin, Mike Walsh, who is the New Zealand deputy High Commissioner here in Apia. Nga mihi nui ki a koe, Mike. We are both uri of Taranaki.
Mike and I both come down from people who were living at Parihaka in Taranaki, the place of mass non-violent resistance to colonization of New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Our direct, shared tupuna (ancestor) is Taare Warahi (also known as Charles Wallace). Taare was at Parihaka in 1881 when the village was invaded and ransacked by New Zealand government soldiers and military police.
Many of our other ancestors were also living there. Some of them were exiled, without trial, to prisons in the South Island. One boy, who took part in the fencing protests, was only 14.
Also at Parihaka on that terrible day in November 1881, was the child Māui Pomare. He was nine years younger than our tupuna Awhi. Māui was one of the children sent out to welcome the soldiers with songs and games.
Behind the children, women carried loaves of bread, still warm.
Imagine what it was like for those kids. All they could see was the legs of the horses that carried the soldiers.
Through the legs, they could see the sabers of the soldiers. Up on the hill, an Armstrong canon, pointing down at them and their families, ready to blast them away.
The soldiers pushed the children aside. They scorned the welcoming offer of food.
They arrested Te Whiti and Tohu. They evicted people from their place of refuge at Parihaka and sent them back to the villages they had fled. They tore down sacred buildings. They raped women. They stole food and treasures.
The people who were forced to leave returned to kainga that had been burned by soldiers. Their crops had been ripped up. People were starving and sick.
Māui Pomare was only five. The horror, the terror and the shame of that day were imprinted on his body and his mind.
Forty-five years later, Pomare exercised his right to utu. This word is sometimes understood as revenge but it is more accurately understood as a reciprocation, compensation or evening things up.
The child gave courage to the man and on 26 July 1927 Pomare was able to stand up in the New Zealand Parliament and defy his leader, the Prime Minister Gordon Coates, during the debate on changes to the Samoa Act.
For me, this is a very powerful moment in Patricia’s book – the sketch of Pomare, often derided even by other Maori as conservative and too much of a friend of the Pakeha (or Europeans), standing up and urging New Zealand to let Samoans stand on their own two feet.
Ta’isi Nelson was sitting in the gallery and heard his friend Sir Maui note that “the history of one country may be repeated in another”. (p137)
Pomare mentioned the criminal neglect demonstrated by the New Zealand government in 1918 when it let the Talune dock in Samoa with infected passengers on board and so spread influenza through your islands, killing up to 8500 people. The boat was quarantined in Suva but not Apia.
Sir Māui also challenged his government’s policies to restrict Samoan self-government structures.
Friendship as a revolutionary force
My connection with Patricia O’Brien began in 2012 when Patty was the Stout Research Fellow at Victoria University in Wellington and I was also working there at the centre.
I was a bit suspicious of Patty. Privately, I asked myself: what was a white Australian woman doing researching Samoan history?
Why not a Samoan person? What was this all about?
Then one day Patty asked me if I knew anything about Te Whiti and Parihaka so our conversation began.
Patty had found documents in which the Mau were described as “the Te Whitis of Samoa”. I was astonished to learn that it was the friendship between Pomare and Ta’isi Nelson that had likely inspired the non-violent resistance that was a feature of the Samoan independence movement, just as it had been a feature of the Taranaki independence movement forty years earlier. It was not Gandhi, it was my relatives!
I went to hear Patty give a lecture at the university in Wellington. Her talk formed the basis of her absolutely brilliant article, ‘Ta’isi O.F. Nelson and Sir Maui Pomare Samoans and Māori Reunited’ – the most read article ever, I think, in the Journal of Pacific History.
What stood out for me was the audience. Most of them were Samoan.
I have been to many academic talks where a white person is talking about brown people or black people and the audience is all white. It’s strange. But when Patty talked, Samoan people wanted to listen.
I could see her work had real meaning and purpose for Samoans. The peer review panel was giving Patty a big tick.
As Patty demonstrated in her talk, her article and her book, friendship can be a revolutionary force.
The friendship between Ta’isi Nelson and Maui Pomare inspired both men to be more radical and adventurous than they could be on their own. They bought out the best in each other and their exchanges are the poetic heart of this book. Maui reminded Ta’isi to listen to the guidance of his ancestors while Ta’isi told Maui that his title was not prophetic, it did not mean to break something up. Rather, Ta’isi “meant a parcel, implying always something in the cupboard for a friend signifying the very height of Samoan hospitality”. (118).
Likewise, my friendship with Patricia has brought me here! It has improved and expanded my worldview and helped me to understand that Māori people are Pacific people and that we Pacific Islanders can be very proud of the way these two men supported each other and acted in a Pacific way.
As my cousin, the scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville has observed, Māori once were Pacific, a phrase that conjures genetic and geographic kinship but also “pacific in the original sense of being calm” of being peaceable rather than warlike, of being at peace.
Patty is warm, open and empathetic, determined but also very scholarly.
I started to read Tautai from back to front – every historian loves to see what sources other historians have used – but I soon became overwhelmed by just how much archival work Patty has done.
Her paper research is meticulous and comprehensive. More important, though, is her relationship research. It was obvious in 2012 why chiefly Samoan people had chosen to work with Patty and it is even clearer today.
Sometimes an outsider is able to step back and see things more clearly than an insider. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a Samoan or a Māori person to write about a relative in a “warts and all” fashion, to see any sort of objective truth.
For Māori, history is about enhancing your whakapapa, playing up the good things in
your lineage and playing down the bad stuff.
Malama Meleisea quotes Ta’isi Nelson on this point in the introduction to Lagaga.
Even the way well known legends are told can be controversial. As Nelson observed “the teller’s version will usually, in some detail or other, enhance the dignity of the ancestors, family or village of the teller”.
My people, Taranaki iwi, say our ancestors were already living in Taranaki when the first waka arrived from Hawaikinui. There were already fires burning on our mountain. But I think every iwi in New Zealand says the same thing! Before the first people, we were here. In a similar fashion, many Māori people tell stories about their relatives seeing Captain Cook’s boat first. Cook’s boat was everywhere!
A big man who loved women and luxury
Who is the man described in Patty’s book? What might Patty mean by the last line in her book: “It is time to bring Ta’isi’s story into the light of the present?”
Like Pomare, Ta’isi Nelson does not fit the stereotype of a leader of an independence movement. Gandhi, for example, was small and quiet. He lived without any possessions. He ate little. He spun the cotton that made his clothes.
He lived in the most humble rooms.
Nelson was a big man. He demanded to be heard. He was very rich. He had his suits made by the best tailors in England. He owned race-horses, he gambled, he played tennis and billiards, he adored whiskey. His home, Tuaefu, was a mansion, built in part to compete with Vailima but also to satisfy his demanding wife.
Nelson was a marvellous host. He exemplified the warmth of fa’asamoa.
He drove sports cars. He even wanted to import Aston Martins into Samoa.
He had holidays in Monte Carlo, he was a Methodist, he was a newspaper founder and editor (and this was something he shared with Gandhi, who also founded a newspaper, Indian Opinion, to publish pro independence and pro passive resistance articles).
He was a jet setter, a sophisticate, a contradiction. He was self-deprecating but, as Patricia writes “He also believed his body’s traits revealed his highborn lineage.
His long fingers and elegant hands, which he tended with care, he took as a definitive sign he was descended from aristocrats.” ([66) I adore all this detail that Patty has captured via archival work and interviews with family members.
Nelson’s library contained 400 volumes. Among the serious works on political history were books about dancing and how to play whist. He loved women but he was unlucky in love. Rosabel, his wife, was a source of joy – she gave birth to five of his six children – but also a cause of suffering.
She was indulged, trying and imperious. Patricia finds many marvellous words to describe these difficult people. Neither Rosabel nor Ta’isi ever got over the death of their son, Ta’isi.
The little boy was one of the thousands of Samoans who died after the New Zealand government let the Tulane dock in Apia with influenza on board.
He lost many other family members in the terrible time, including a brother, a sister and a sister in a law.
Patricia draws out all these qualities in her book. I enjoyed all the glimpses into his private world and the life of his family.
She shows the flaws. Ta’isi did not hide who he was. He loved luxury and did not apologise for that. He was wealthy, proud and outspoken. He made money when others suffered. He took the best from the world of Samoa and the world of Europe. He did not apologise for that.
Ta’isi’s softer, quieter side was expressed in the tender, loving care he gave to his daughters, including his troubled first-born girl, Viopapa, from his first marriage.
He was, effectively, a single dad. His radical qualities have been slower to emerge and often obscured by the showmanship. Like Pomare, Ta’isi was misunderstood by some of his own people and by Europeans. He was accused of being too rich or too schooled in European culture and ways to be Polynesian but he was also too Polynesian as well – his parties were too generous, he was somehow wasteful and excessive. His family was too big.
His obligations too many and too deep.
Patty has revealed here how the New Zealand government responded to Ta’isi and the Mau in ways that were remarkably similar to how the government responded to challenges from Māori. They exiled leaders. They restricted people’s ability to move within their own country. They described Samoans as childlike, unable to cope with ruling themselves. The same was said about Māori people.
The white man’s burden, NZ govt officials called it, mimicking the racism of the British empire. Patty quotes Brigadier-General George Richardson as saying he would hold white people and natives to the “very highest ideals”. He would show “the natives of Samoa what the people of this Dominion had done for their blood brothers, the Maoris of New Zealand, and to convince them that it was NZ’s aim to do as much and more … for the people of Samoa.” (70). [15 minutes] New Zealand did do more for the people of Samoa.
Their troops fired on unarmed men, peaceful protestors. They exiled Ta’isi Nelson, not for a year or two, but for eight years. They used laws to attempt to decimate the ancient system of chiefly titles.
They introduced prohibition, refused Samoans representation on the
legislative council. They used propaganda to discredit Nelson and turn people against him.
In 1927, when Pomare stood up in the New Zealand Parliament to speak against his own leader and to speak for Samoa, he was acting in the interests of an empire much older than the British one. He was speaking for the Pacific.
As he wrote to Nelson: “It is yet my sincere hope in life to maintain and restore to my Polynesian kinsmen what has been lost for all time to Māori, governing themselves in Māoriland.”
It is painful to read these words aloud now and know that what he said is true.
Māori will never achieve self government but – 55 years ago – Samoa did.
Neither Nelson nor Pomare lived to see this day but I think they imagined it.
They believed in Samoa mo Samoa. They were staunch enough and flexible enough to see what was possible and what was not.
Only two months ago, the New Zealand government went to Parihaka to apologise, formally, for what it did in November 1881 and for all the pain and suffering that followed.
It was not quite an ifoga, but perhaps the closest the New Zealand government could get. Minister Chris Finlayson acknowledged that in 1881, the government had met non-violence with violence.
They met hospitality with hostility. They crushed and burned and raped and stole. Their horses trampled on children, including a little boy called Māui Pomare but those soldiers did not win.
As this fine mat that Patricia O’Brien has woven shows, Pomare spoke for Samoa and Samoa spoke back for Parihaka through the many ‘Te Whitis’ who joined the Mau.
Ta’isi Nelson was the navigator who joined past and present and anticipated the future that we are now enjoying today.
This handsome portrait allows us to witness his journey, a circling out and a returning back, a big life well lived and now very well told.