Humans of Sogi: Likou

By Malama Meleisea 11 September 2016, 12:00AM


Likou comes from the village of Matong on the southwestern coast of East New Britain. His ethic group is described by Panoff (1969) as the Maenge. Panoff conducted interviews with elderly Maenge in the mid 1960s to discover details of their early contact history. There were no survivors of the early German period. 

“Prior to 1915 some people were recruited for Samoa but either they never returned or they died twenty years ago, so that no direct information could be collected about their experiences in a Polynesian setting and little is known of the impact on the native population of any blackbirders who may have raided in the 1870s and the 1880s. “(Panoff, 1969: 111)

By Likou’s estimation, recruiting at Matong had been conducted on a fairly regular basis for many years before he signed on in about 1910. This date is inferred by his memory of the Savaii volcanic eruption in Samoa; he remembers seeing he was carried anchored in Apia harbor. 

Likou estimates that he was about fourteen years old when he signed on. His father was dead and his mother did not want him to go. However along with a number of boys from his village, he was determined to go. They wanted the experience of a sea voyage, of seeing new places and of returning home as seasoned men of the world with a box of trade goods which would make them big men in their clans. 

When the ship was sighted, Likou and his friends waited on the beach for the ship’s dinghy to come ashore. In the dinghy were a number of men from Matong who had completed their contract in Samoa. Likou recalls that they assisted the recruiters by escorting some of the Melanesian crew members to inland villages to look for new recruits. 

The ship sailed with about fifteen men and boys from Matong and neighboruing villages. It called at a number of other coastal villages and when it had recruited a total of about one hundred men and boys, it were to Rabaul where all the recruits were examined by a doctor before they set sail for Samoa. 

Likou enjoyed the voyage and said that the food they were given was good. He ate rice and drank tea with sugar for the first time and thought these were particularly delicious. He said he got a bit scared when the crew told them that one of the recruits on the last trip had died up at sea and that he was dropped overboard in a weighted copra sack. He remembers the name of the ship was the “Samoa”.

The voyage, was ‘long’ but he could not estimate how many weeks. 

On arrival in Samoa he was sent to Vaielel plantation. His job was to collect fallen coconuts and weed new plants. He remembers that quite a few Melanesia women were working on the plantation, cutting copra for the drier. All of them lived as wives of male labourers. Likou does not think that any women were recruited from his area. 

The labourers lived in big open tin-roofed barracks, one for married couples and one for single men. After two years he was transferred to the Vaivase plantation. This was newly developed and the main task was to clear think bush for planting. When the war broke out in 1914 he was due for repatriation but the recruits were told that there were no ships to carry them so he kept on working at Vaivase. After the way, Likou remembers that many Melanesians were repatriated. Likou expected to be included in the next group when the ship returned but he said “we were told that the government in our country had sent a telegram to the government in Samoa telling them not to send any more boys there, so we kept on working this time for the New Zealanders. When New Zealand manages took over the plantations, the Melanesian labour began to receive their first cash wages which was initially three shillings a day. 

Some years later Likou was shifted to work at Mulifanua plantation. He remembers that the May rebellion began shortly after his transfer, so this places it at about 1926. At Mulifanua he became close friends with the two other men whose stories are told in this book, Mala and Tui. 

Likou remembers life under German administration as having good and bad points. The good side was the food and rations. In addition to fresh beef and vegetables grown on the plantation, each worker received plentiful supplies of tinned meat and fish, tea, sugar, rice and tobacco. They were supplied with lavalavas and belts to work in and shirts and trousers to wear in their leisure time. Likou said that the workers had no knowledge of weekly, monthly or annual wages but understood that when their contract was up they would go to the company store, select whatever goods they wanted while the manager watched, until they had filled up the large wooden chest which was given to each time expired labourer. Since Likou was not sent home at the end of his contract, he was given his cargo to use in Samoa. 

The dark side of like under German rule was the harshness of the European overseas. These men rode horses and carried cattle whips or sticks which they used to flog or beat lazy, slow or disobedient workers. Likou remarked that the overseers did not usually punish without reason and that some were kind and fair. Such men did not beat the labourers, unless several warnings had been disregarded. 

Others were violent and did things like punching labourers in the face. Likou remembered the 1918 epidemic as a time of great fear. It broke out while he was at Vaivase plantation; people died very suddenly without treatment and were immediately buried in mass graves along with the dead from Vailele plantation at a place called Avuga behind the village of Fagalii. Likou’s description of the epidemic applies to the Samoan and European community too, since there were few doctors available and no emergency preparations had been made by the administration to deal with the crisis, in fact an offer of a medical relief team from the naval administration in American Samoa was refused due to some misunderstandings by New Zealand authorities. It was estimated that one fifth of the population died as a result of the epidemic. 

Likou says that few workers knew anything about European medical treatment and there was no dispensary or doctor at any of the plantations in German times. There was however a sick bay for the labourers near the company’s main office at Sogi near Apia. This was staffed by a German doctor and Samoan assistants. Likou recalls spending two days there while suffering from severe diarrhea. On the plantations the workers used various traditional Samoan and Melanesian remedies for minor ailments such as headaches and sores. The principal types of treatment were massage and herbal preparations. 

Life under German rule was very boring for the Melanesians. Likou said Association with Samoan in nearby villages was strictly forbidden and since there were no churches’ on the plantations, they could not attend services. Life consisted of working, eating, talking to one another and sleeping. Likou said that the Melanesias from different areas got on well together in his day but that he heard stories about earlier times of fighting between Malaita men (Solomon Islands) and men from other areas. The Malaita men had a reputation on the plantations for being very savage. 

The highlights of the year in Germany times was the Christmas and New Year holiday when the labourers were given extra rations and got together to eat, dance and sing. When New Zealand took over, conditions improved as Samoan workers were employed on the plantations enabling the Melanesians to make friends outside the plantation. They were also allowed to attend village churches. Likou said this made life happier so the Melanesians worried less about why they had not been repatriated. 

Samoans seemed to have been attracted to the Melanesians for material reasons, Melanesians having access to much desired goods such as biscuits, tea, sugar, rice, tinned food and tobacco. The Melanesians learned from the Samoans how to gamble their rations in a popular Samoan card game called “sauipi”. Likou thought that the Samoans in general were racially prejudiced towards the Melanesians. He remembers that when labourers took strolls along the roads adjoining the plantations in the evening, the Samoans would call out rudely to them. He said:

“The girls were the worst, they used to take out their handkerchieves and covered their noses when we passed them, saying that we smelled. Sometimes they would call out when they saw us, that it was going to rain because they could see black clouds approaching meaning us black boys. Sometimes our boys would get so angry that they would hit Samoans who teased them especially the young boys. This would make the Samoans angry and some would complain to our boss on the plantation, but he would defend us.”

Like Tapusini, Likou began going to church in 1920 when New Zealand permitted Melanesians to associate with Samoans. The first churches to be attended by Melanesians were the Catholic Church at Vailele and the L.M.S church at Fagalii. Likou became a member of the L.M.S congregation. When he transferred to Mulifanua, he found that the nearest church was over two miles away so he started campaigning for a Samoan pastor to come to the plantation to conduct services each Sunday. He says he persuaded some other Melanesians to support his campaign by telling them that sickness and accidents on the plantation were due to the lack of Christian influence. The L.M.S mission eventually agreed to send Theological College students or ministers from nearby parishes to take turns to conduct services on the plantation. Likou hoped that eventually the church would appoint a permanent pastor to the plantation. 

This ambition was delayed due to Melanesian support for the Mau. The May Rebellion began in about 1924 and was supported by nearly all Samoans by 1926. The Mau was a nationalist movement which sought Samoan independence or at least self-government under British protection. The New Zealand administration was very unpopular with the Samoans and the Mau leaders were encouraging Samoans to defy New Zealand authority by establishing their own institutions of government. 

In 1929 New Zealand tried to crush the movement by shooting down a number of its leaders including a paramount chief. 





Tamasese Lealofi, European and part European supporters of the Mau were deported to New Zealand and a ship load of marines was sent from New Zealand to round up Mau supporters and punish them. Likou said that the Melanesian labourers sided with the Samoans and joined all the other plantation workers in making cash donations to the Mau. After Tamasese was killed hundreds of Samoan leaders went into hiding in the bush and Likou says that police and marines were everywhere, trying to arrest Mau supporters. Some of the Melanesians were ordered in join, the search parties but Likou was not among these. 

The New Zealand manager of Mulifanua plantation was terrified of the fugitive May leaders, he ordered his labourers to scatter broken glass around his house to keep Samoans from approaching it in the dark. Likou and some of his fellow workers told the visiting Samoan pastor about the manager’s order. The pastor told them to disobey the order but to go on with their usual daily tasks. The following day, the pastor went to see the manager. When the Melanesians finished work that day they discovered that the manager had fled to Apia in panic, still believing that Samoans would attack him even though there were no physical attacks by Samoans on Europeans during the whole era of the Mau. 

They heard that the manager was angry with them for reporting his orders to the pastor and with the pastor for telling them to disobey. When things settled down and the manager returned he forbade the church to send any pastors to the plantation. A year or so later a new manager was appointed who allowed Sunday services once more. The resident plantation labourers, mostly Melanesians, raised money amongst themselves and built a pastor’s house and later a church. 

Plantation parishes seemed to have had low status in the eyes of the pastors and Likou said it was difficult to keep any pastor for more than three years. The first permanent pastor they had was lured away by leaders of a village on Savaii who were working temporarily on the plantation to raise church funds. This happened with other pastors appointed to their parish. 

Once the plantation had its own pastor, the labourers and their children were able to learn to read and write in the pastor’s school. Likou did not go to school and never became literate but he was still able to become a L.M.S deacon in the Congregational Church in his later years because even though he could not read the Bible, he was very good at leading prayers. Before he could be appointed as a deacon. Likou had to get married in church to the woman with whom he had lived for many years and who had born him three children. The marriage took place in 1952 by which time all his children were grown up. 

Likou’s wife was from Tiavea village which was a long way from the plantation. She had come to work on the plantation when she was a young woman in the early 1920s and had started living with a Melanesian labourer from New Ireland. After the birth of her daughter, her husband died.  She then became Likou’s common law wife and Likou adopted her child. Likou and his wife have seen grandchildren. 

All their descendants are living with them on the plantation. Likou has never met his wife’s family or been invited to her village although his children and grandchildren have been there occasionally. 

Likou has an honorary Samoan title “Ti’a”. In the mid 1950s the men of a village on Savaii, Sa’asa’ai, contracted to work on the plantation for six months to raise funds to build a church. They were housed by the permanent plantation workers who treated them very hospitality. When their contract was up, the chiefs from Sa’asa’ai rewarded their hospitality by giving them honorary matai or chiefly titles. 

The highest title was given to Likou, the oldest man, and the only original Melanesian still living on the plantation, the others being half Melanesians, half Samoan. An honorary title gives its holder the right to be addressed as a chief, to participate in kava ceremonies and to be treated with respect by everybody, but it does not give any legal rights to vote or control land. 

The plantation residents prepared a large feast and girls of food for their guests who were giving them the titles. In one way Likou and his people were the losers since they provided the food on top of the six months hospitality and lost their pastor to their visitors. However they seemed proud of the honour and Likou is still addressed by his title. None of them have visited Sa’asa’ai with the exception of one of Likou’s daughters. 

Likou says that he was better off economically in the 1920s and 1930s when prices were low. Now he and his family find it hard to make ends meet even though many of them have jobs on the plantation still. In 1975 Likou received a ten dollar (WS) monthly pension and lived with his wife in a small rickety Samoan house behind an equally small iron-roofed, fibro-cement cabin occupied by some of his married children. He has been retired since the early 1960s and keeps himself busy weeding around the house, feeding his family’s pigs and chickens or just sitting around smoking his home-made pipe, listening to the radio and watching the workers on the plantation where he spent over fifty years of his working life.

By Malama Meleisea 11 September 2016, 12:00AM

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