Field notes, Gerald McGhie

Black Saturday: New Zealand’s Tragic Blunders in Samoa
Michael Field
Reed, $34.99,
ISBN 0790011034

Samoa-New Zealand relations are nothing if not complex. Michael Field in Black Saturday, while presenting an overview of Samoan history, focuses on a not only complex but also highly sensitive subject: the killing of 12 people (11 Samoans and one New Zealander) during a march by the Samoan Mau movement in Apia on 28 December 1929. The Samoans, including one of the highest chiefs (Tupua Tamasese Leolofi III) were shot by New Zealand police. The New Zealander, a police constable, was killed by Samoans.

What led to this tragedy? There is no one answer but the burden of evidence demonstrates a catalogue of confusion and bureaucratic ineptitude on New Zealand’s part as successive administrators failed to come to grips with the subtlety and multidimensional nature of Samoan culture. For their part Samoans, a proud people who saw themselves as autochthonous, believed they were being unfairly treated by an obdurate and self-seeking administration. Criticisms became grievances which morphed into a movement (the Mau) led by prominent Samoans (including Tamasese, Tuimaleali’ifano, Faumuina), afikasi (Samoans of mixed birth¸ but particularly the prominent businessman O F Nelson) and Europeans.

Was New Zealand’s performance overall as bad as its critics say? Regrettably, pretty much so. The 1918 influenza outbreak was the result of an egregious administrative blunder which led to the deaths of some 8500 Samoans or 22 per cent of the population. The military background of successive New Zealand administrators provided inadequate preparation for the task of governing Samoa. Punishments for Samoans seen as uncooperative included banishment and removal of titles. Attempts were made to change traditional village layouts, and government interference in the marketing of copra caused intense criticism in some parts of the community. Samoans, bridling at paying taxes while having no effective representation, centred their grievances on G S Richardson – the administrator from 1923 to 1928. As O F Nelson saw it, the Mau was the result of Richardson’s arbitrary policies.

It was never as simple as that. Rebellions, title stripping and deportations happened under the earlier German rule. In spite of the general tenor of Black Saturday – and particularly in terms of the perceptions prevailing at the time – it was never the intention of the New Zealand Government and administration to act in a dishonourable way. The blunders that occurred are generally attributed to inexperience and preoccupation. New Zealand from 1919 was recovering from traumatic WWI losses, while being burdened with promoting its own economic and social development.

Further, voices of criticism were raised in New Zealand, particularly from Labour leader Harry Holland who, as early as 1918, was advocating self-government for Samoa. Field quotes a poignant comment from the Anglican chaplain of Mt Eden jail who, after visiting Tamasese during his New Zealand imprisonment (December 1928 to June 1929) said that “by persecuting a movement [the Mau] we help it grow, hence Tamasese is on the winning side.”

Field acknowledges that before Black Saturday the officially commissioned VBP Report (so named for the initials of its authors) of 1929 stated that  “[We] are entirely satisfied that the Samoan Service is by no means creditable to New Zealand and urgent and drastic action is necessary to improve the position.”

Field provides graphic reportage of the events of Black Saturday but readers might also want to look at J W Davidson (Samoa mo Samoa, 1967), Mary Boyd (in Angus Ross, New Zealand’s Record in the Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century, 1969) and Malama Meleisea – not Meleisa as in Field (The Making of Modern Samoa, 1987) for other comments on the reasons for what happened on that tragic day. Davidson, for instance, discusses how New Zealand’s administration of Samoa might have benefited from the insights contained in J E Gorst’s 1862 report to the New Zealand Government on the Maori King movement. (New Zealand’s current Pacific policy could still consider these insights, as well as the government’s latter day Waitangi Tribunal experience.)

The repressive measures that followed Black Saturday demonstrated that the New Zealand administration seemingly learned little from the deaths. In 2002, however, 40 years after Samoa’s independence, New Zealand attempted to lay to rest the ghost of Black Saturday. Helen Clark, as Prime Minister of New Zealand, visited Samoa and made a formal apology for New Zealand’s part in the 1918 influenza outbreak, the December 1929 shootings and the taking of titles from prominent Samoans. No mention was made of the killing of the New Zealand policeman.

Field covers the apology but strikes a rather churlish note by questioning its sincerity. Curiously, he draws his inspiration from an entry on Arthur Downes, a senior police official in Samoa at the time of the killings, which appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. The author, Ian McGibbon, is one of New Zealand’s foremost historians. Readers will be able to make up their own minds on the credibility of Field’s comments.

Black Saturday marks another chapter in the literature on the Mau and New Zealand’s record in Samoa. This latest volume is a condensed version of Field’s earlier work – Mau: Samoa’s Struggle for Freedom, 1991 (which is itself a revised reprinting of Mau: Samoa’s Struggle against New Zealand Oppression, 1984). Black Saturday represents considerable reordering but only infrequent rewriting. Casualties of the condensation include endnote references found in the 1991 book (an unfortunate loss), and some explanatory information whose omission, at times, makes the material more difficult to understand. The last two (of 21) chapters are mainly new and bring the story up to date. An inflating of the emotional tone in the new book adds little to what is already acknowledged to be a series of tragic blunders.

Be that as it may, Black Saturday is a readable book, providing a good short history of Samoa. Those looking for a useful background on this fascinating Pacific state could well start here.


Gerald McGhie is a retired diplomat whose postings included Samoa.


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