Sogi Village and the descendants of Tama Uli in Samoa

By Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea - Centre for Samoan Studies National University of Samoa 18 August 2016, 12:00AM

The eviction of Sogi villagers referred to in recent issues of the Samoa Observer raises some moral issues for the government’s consideration. 

The village was founded by workers imported from the islands region of Papua New Guinea under German rule, who were never repatriated or compensated and who lived most of their lives in servitude without rights to land or economic security. 

They deserve to be allowed to stay at Sogi, or at least to be compensated with grants of land without payment. 

The late Reverend Leuatea Sio used to live at Sogi when he went to school at Malifa. He told me in a recorded interview in 1996 in Auckland that the German firm allocated the swamp for the so-called ‘Tama Uli’ to make their homes. 

The land had no value at the time. He commented that the men worked very hard to reclaim the swamp at Sogi. That the land is valuable now is mainly due to the work of the Melanesians and their descendants.  

 In 1976 I carried out research for my B.A. Honors dissertation on labour recruiting for Samoa’s German plantations while I was a student at the Australian National University (A.N.U.) in Canberra.  At that time in Pacific Historical studies there was an interest in the Pacific Islands   Labor Trade in the years 1860-1914. 

The trade has also been referred to as ‘black birding’ because in some cases men and women were captured illegally from islands that are now part of the nation states of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. They were taken to work in the Queensland and Fiji sugar cane plantations, and between 1960 and 1914 seven thousand were taken to work on the German plantations in Samoa on contracts of three or five years.

My research included a comprehensive archival search for the written records of the activities of people and officials who were involved in these trading activities as well as what other researchers (D. Shineberg, S. Firth, P. Hempenstall, P. Corris, C. Moore, D. Scarr, C.A Valentine, and others) had written about it. It resulted in my book O Tama Uli: Melanesians in Samoa (1980, Institute of Pacific Studies, Suva) and my article, “The Last Days of the Melanesian Labour Trade in Western Samoa” (1976, The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 126-132).

By the 1970s some of the men who had been recruited by the Germans when they were only boys of 15 or 16 years were still living in Samoa. I interviewed four of them, probably the last still alive, who had been recruited from their islands in the period 1905-1912. In their old age they were living with their families on government land. Three had Samoan wives and had children from these unions and lived with their families. The forth was living with his adopted Samoan family and he slept in a shed which was once used as a pig pen. 

They were Ti’a Likou (Likou), Mala Pasi Tavita (Mala), Tapusini Peni Maluana (Tapusini) and Tui Sakila (Tui).  Despite their being called “Tama Solomona” these men were all from islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, now part of Papua New Guinea. 

Mala was recruited from Nakanai in West New Britain province, Papua New Guinea and lived with his family in Sogi. They had a couple of small fale ‘apa built on stilts to avoid the water from the mangrove when it was very high tide, and a small cooking house.  He worked originally at the Mulifanua plantation before he was transferred to Vailele plantation where he worked until he retired. Like other Melanesian residents of Sogi he and his family spent a lot of their time and limited resources to build up the piece of land they occupied to avoid the sea water at high tide.

Ti’a Likou was recruited from Matong, on the south-western coast of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Likou was conferred the honorary tile Ti’a from a village in Savai’i. The village had a contract to work on the plantation to raise money for a village church. At the end of the contract the village conferred the title on Likou to thank him and his family for their hospitality during their stay on the plantation. Likou told of how he experienced harsh treatment under the German employers and, like others from Papua New Guinea and Solomon islands, also suffered discrimination from Samoans working on the plantations and from Samoans generally. 

Tui Sakila was recruited from Mussau Island in the Saint Mathias group of islands in Papua New Guinea. He was probably recruited in 1911 or 1912. He said he really wanted to go home at the end of his contract but when he was told to stay ‘you didn’t argue with the white man’. His situation was the saddest of the four men I interviewed, and he was obviously very lonely. His adopted family provided him with basics – food and some clothes but did not offer him much chance to socialize with other Samoans. 

Tapusini Peni Maluana was recruited from Nissan Island in Bougainville province, Papua New Guinea. He lived with his family on his wife’s family land at Fagali’i. Because of his small size he was spared from doing the hard menial work which others had to do. He was a messenger – taking messages between plantation officials.  He also started a string band which was very popular with other Melanesians and Samoans and through it he met his Samoan wife. He was the best settled of the four men and was obviously respected and loved by his Samoan family.

Recruiting ceased in 1914 when Germany was forced out of Samoa by a New Zealand Military expedition at the onset of the First World War.  In 1921 Samoa was placed under New Zealand administration and German New Guinea was given to Australia, under League of Nations Mandates. In 1914 there were 877 Melanesian labourers on German Plantations but in 1918 only 201 remained and all contracts had expired. Some of these were repatriated but many had died in the 1918 epidemic and are buried in mass graves on the plantations where they worked.  In 1930 there were still 154 Melanesians living and working on the New Zealand Reparation Estates. 

It is unclear why they were not all repatriated after 1914. There is some evidence, as I recount in my article in the Journal of Pacific History, that the racist Australian administration did not want the remaining workers still in Samoa to come back. 

Others had returned wearing “European clothes” and it was feared that they might have picked up ideas about their rights from the Samoans, ideas upsetting to the Administration. Another reason is also likely; they were needed by the New Zealand administration to work on the plantations. 

Whatever the reasons, most of these un-repatriated men lived out their lives in landless semi-slavery; their fortunes depended on the few Samoan families that were kind to them. The least our government can do to honor their lifetime service to the economic development of Samoa is to provide security to their descendants at Sogi.

By Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea - Centre for Samoan Studies National University of Samoa 18 August 2016, 12:00AM
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