Just not cricket: how kirikiti became a uniquely Samoan symbol that could never be stamped out

A new book exploring the complex relationship between Samoa and its colonial past through the lens of kirikiti has been published by historian Dr. Benjamin Sacks this week.

Mr. Sacks has outlined how cricket, and later its Samoan iteration kirikiti, was a contested activity, used as a means to political ends by Samoans and Europeans.

Dr. Sacks, who is an honourary research fellow at the University of Western Australia, found himself researching the evolution of cricket into kirikiti and its place in Samoan history as a tribute to his cricket-mad late grandfather.

He that found from the point the game was introduced to Samoa, by the British in 1879, each group of colonisers, missionaries and administrations made their own efforts to control the game, in an effort to control the Samoan people.

“Every single administration passed laws to try and stop kirikiti being played to some degree,” Dr. Sacks said.

“There wasn’t this one Empire or colonialism, there were lots of different groups within that context, and how they thought about and reacted to cricket or kirikiti in Samoa is very different depending on those groups.

“If you look at colonial officials, they hated the game because it stopped people from going and doing work. Villages would be playing cricket rather than working on plantations, and producing copra for export.”

Missionaries found the game of kirikiti “distinctly heathenish,” Dr. Sacks found, joining colonial officials in trying to limit the game but for their own purposes: keeping Samoans in church and behaving with “their expectations of discipline, order and decorum,” he writes.

Dr. Sacks dedicates a chapter to each of these contesting parties and their relationship to the Samoan game. His chapter on the missionaries was especially fun to write, he said, because of how strongly the missionaries held their views.

“Missionaries are great to write about because they speak in this language that can be quite humorous,” he said.

“There is a lot that has been written about the influence of Christianity on Samoa and the Pacific, but also the influence of the Pacific on Christianity. 

I think this was a kind of take on that debate, and to see how those forms of Christianity and Samoan culture have come together and created these really interesting cultural forms or practices.”

Eventually, like most groups, the church found a way to embrace kirikiti and sport more generally, and to put itself at the centre of games rather than in opposition to it. 

“Missionaries tried to initially control Samoan ways of having fun and then eventually came to a part where they tried to build themselves into the process of communal fun having,” Dr. Sacks said.

The evolution of cricket to kirikiti happened quickly. While the book covers a 60 year period, kirikiti as a uniquely Samoan game emerged just two to five years after cricket was introduced by the British. 

But while administrations were trying to regulate the games of both English cricket and Samoan kirikiti, Samoan matai and ‘afakasi were using it for their own political ends. 

This is described in two chapters towards the end of the book, exploring how cricket “assumed a political importance” for high ranking matai and government officials to form relationships and conduct business.

“In Apia, Samoans regularly played ‘English’ cricket to establish relationships with officials, while kirikiti served to entertain soldiers and ‘perform’ loyalty,” Dr. Sacks writes.

“Under civilian rule, Samoans gradually developed different strategies to navigate New Zealand colonialism—including on the cricket pitch.

“While controlling and policing kirikiti remained a fruitful means of ‘performing’ accommodation, adherents of the Mau protest movement used the game as a form of anti-colonial protest.”

This was not always well noticed by New Zealand. A reporter who arrived in Samoa during the Mau protests saw the ongoing games and remarked that Samoans more “more interested in playing cricket than in Samoan politics.”

Dr. Sacks said that claim was “silly.

“Cricket and Samoan politics were really closely linked. The fact that they were playing cricket was against the law, so they were opening breaking the law in protest, or to at least demonstrate that New Zealand didn’t have control.”

The story of Toleafoa Afamasaga Lagolago shows how much cricket was being used intelligently.

Dr. Sacks describes Toleafoa, who was a high ranking Samoan chief but also a prominent New Zealand government official, as one of his favourite characters in the story of cricket.

“I think he found it really easy to move between the different worlds of being a Samoan chief of reasonably high rank and also a senior official and trusted member of the colonial administration as well. He was very obviously political,” he said.

“The New Zealanders came here to fight Germany but of course they didn’t. They were incredibly bored so they just ended up playing cricket and drinking the whole time. 

“I found that story of Toleafoa particularly interesting and how he had used cricket as a means of building these relationships he could then use in turn to pursue aims for himself but also for other Samoan people to do things they wouldn’t have been able to do usually under the colonial administration.”

Dr. Sacks’ book has been published online as part of the Palgrave Studies in Sport and Politics, and will be published in hard copy within a few weeks. 

His work on Samoan cricket and kirikiti has also been published in the International Journal of the History of Sport and the Journal of Pacific History. 

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